Monday, January 14, 2008

Moral Balance

The New York Times had a fascinating article on Sunday titled "The Moral Instinct." You can read it here.

The article written by Dr. Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, is lengthy and spends a good deal of time discussing the historical and genetic predisposition to morality.

I became very interested when the subject of moral themes came up below:

When anthropologists like Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske survey moral concerns across the globe, they find that a few themes keep popping up from amid the diversity. People everywhere, at least in some circumstances and with certain other folks in mind, think it’s bad to harm others and good to help them. They have a sense of fairness: that one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors and punish cheaters. They value loyalty to a group, sharing and solidarity among its members and conformity to its norms. They believe that it is right to defer to legitimate authorities and to respect people with high status. And they exalt purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality.

The exact number of themes depends on whether you’re a lumper or a splitter, but Haidt counts five — harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity — and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture.

Pinker suggests that, while the five moral spheres are universal, each culture ranks the spheres according to its own individual value system.

Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

So, too, do individuals rank the moral spheres according to which they hold most dear.

I never realized until I read this article that my personal value system is skewed heavily in favor of harm and fairness, and that I hold community and authority as much less important.

I imagine a balance scale with purity at the dead center of the platform, and with harm and fairness weighing down one side while authority and community hang in the air on the other side.

It's not that I don't value community. I do. However, my need for fairness and to do no harm far outweighs my concern for either community or authority.

I recalled an argument some years back with a loved one. I said, "You see the world only in shades of black-and-white."

He responded, "And you see it only in gray."

Thinking of that now, I realize my value of fairness (seeing all sides) was competing with his value of authority (rules were broken).

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could acknowledge another's value system and explain our own without demanding that they accept our values or that we surrender to theirs?

When I was a child, the U.S. was known for tolerance and freedom. Today we talk about imposing our democracy on other nations. What happened?


Stephen Parrish said...

Wonderful post! I eat this stuff up---as you can well guess.

Mike Keyton said...

I read that article too. I thought it, and your post wonderful material/things to think upon, when world building in sci fi or similar fields.

Maya Reynolds said...

Stephen: I thought of you as I read the article. It's lengthy--like most academicians, Pinker writes as though he were being paid by the word. But it's well worth the investment.

Maya Reynolds said...

Mike: YOU'RE SINGING MY SONG. I had exactly the same reaction. A wonderful way to develop characters as well as cultures.

Schuyler Thorpe said...

What happened, Maya, is that the US has lost its way in the way it has conducted itself.

We are now trying an impossible mission to get everyone to see things our way--or the highway.

It's not working because these same nations do not view us very favorably--nor do they approve of our actions.

And until this is corrected, we will continue to falter and stumble.

Schuyler Thorpe said...

I ran across something in my Starchild novel last night (while nursing more kidney stones again), and one of the things that Keron found out is that the moral and belief system which was previously in place before the world (as we know it today) *ended* abruptly--no longer EXISTED in the thousands of years hence; following the complete collapse of civilization.

As a product of another world and another life, Keron couldn't understand how their society could've survived in the state it was in *without* religion in play.

One of the other characters said simply: "We have nothing to base our individual faiths upon, seeing how religion was portrayed in the past as being wholly destructive upon society itself."

Keron wante to know what they based their beliefs on. And quite simply--it's something that I believe to be truth: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

You can't have that if you're chained to an inflexible belief system.

While I may question religion's underpinnings and stoic beliefs, I know that there are people out there who need it in order to both have faith in and survive.

Because they can't live without something to look up to.