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Moral Foundations - the universal and the arbitrary

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  • Moral Foundations - the universal and the arbitrary

    I think that just as in physics there are lots of different good models of the laws of nature (e.g. Newton's laws, Relativity, Quantum Physics etc), so to with the topic of morality there are many different ways of modelling it and looking at it that have merit.

    One such way is Moral Foundations Theory which was developed from cross-cultural anthropological study. Researchers in non-Western cultures when they came across a moral prohibitions would ask why it was immoral, and they found the answers typically pointed to one of 5 or so underlying moral ideas or 'moral foundations'. Doing studies and surveys around the world has revealed these 5 reasons for things being immoral or moral are common across all societies and cultures.

    The five widely-shared 'moral foundations' are:
    1. Care / Harm
    2. Fairness or Proportionality or Justice / Cheating or Injustice
    3. Loyalty or Ingroup / Betrayal
    4. Authority or Respect / Subversion
    5. Sanctity or Purity / Degradation
    The exact words used for them are not important, but rather it's the concepts they refer to.

    Often on specific issues, these foundations come into conflict. e.g. "Would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?" is a common Western trope, which puts helping your family in tension with hurting the person stolen from and breaking the law. Similarly "justice or mercy?" something every judge has to weigh in a criminal sentence and puts harming the convict in tension with fairness for society. So this is a list of moral concepts people seem to use in reasoning, not a way of reaching a unique decision on every single moral question.

    Note again that this list was empirically determined. These are the kinds of explanations people tend to give when asked to explain why something is immoral, and in surveys it's the things they point to. The researchers have suggested this list isn't exhaustive, and noted that some people used other ideas, e.g. liberty / oppression was a common concept given by US libertarians, and other possible foundations include Efficiency/waste, Ownership/theft, Honesty/deception, and Equity/undeservingness. But the 5 listed above seem to have the most widespread and cross-cultural appeal.

    So are these then the 5 universal moral principles? No. The first 2, yes. But the last 3 seem to be implemented a different way in every society.

    For Loyalty to one's group, it is cultural and arbitrary who one's "group" is understood to be. Is it immediate family, wider family, friend group, age group, village, race, culture, cast, province, country, religion, or sports team? How much loyalty should be given to any given one of these when it is conflict with any other one of these? Obviously that is all arbitrary and varies hugely from culture to culture.

    For Authority and Respect, it is cultural and arbitrary who that respect is paid to and how much. Is it to elders, the chief, the leader, or to males, or to warriors, or to the priests, or to the king, or to managers? Is it to everyone above you in your workplace, or local authorities in your village? And how much? Each culture varies hugely from each other in who the targets of this respect are and how much is to be paid to them.

    Sanctity - what things are considered 'sacred', and what things are considered 'disgusting' - is again hugely variable. One culture eats something that another culture finds 'disgusting'. One culture thinks some kind of act or ritual is sacred whilst another culture sees no merit in it. What is considered sacred is hugely variable from one culture to the next as is what is considered disgusting.

    The Care and Fairness principles are, however, pretty non-variable from culture to culture. Everyone can agree that doing injury to another person is harming them. Everyone can agree that two people being treated differently for doing the same thing is inequality. Neither of these varies much from culture to culture.

    The researchers found something interesting when they studied Western culture: There was a big difference between liberals and conservatives. Conservatives used all 5 of those moral foundations. Liberals only used the 2 non-arbitrary ones. Of all the cultures they looked at, Western liberals were unique in using so few moral foundations.

    As I discussed in my other thread, Pluralistic societies bumble toward universal moral principles, as multiple cultures interact in a pluralistic society, each will bring its own arbitrary ideas and be unable to convince the others to adopt them. By this interaction process each will scrape away the arbitrary ideas of the others, leaving only the universal core common among all the cultures. This seems to have been what has happened in Western culture - the arbitrary ideas about who to pay respect to or give loyalty to or what to consider sacred have been shed by liberals and only the core universal principles remain among their moral ideas. Whereas conservatives continue to clutch to the arbitrary ideas they happen to have inherited. But a Muslim conservative does not agree much with a Christian conservative, nor either with a Hindu conservative etc, reflecting the arbitrariness present among conservatives' moral principles.

    As our pluralistic cultures continue, we can expect the ongoing interactions to continue to scrape away the arbitrary principles, and more and more people to end up holding only to the 2 universal principles of Care and Fairness. There's been some discussion about whether theses two principles are fundamentally the same underlying principle or not, but as I said to start with, I think this is a helpful model that has a lot of validity, not necessarily the only true way of looking at the subject. However, it's helpful because it's (a) empirically-based, not based on armchair philosophy, and (b) can point us to the moral concepts that are universally shared.

  • #2
    TLDR:
    Cross-cultural research has identified two moral ideas that appear to be found in all human societies. These moral universals are:
    1. Caring for others / not harming others
    2. Fairness, treating everyone equally and proportionately.

    The only subculture yet identified as holding only to those two moral universals is Western liberals. Other cultures (and Western conservatives) add various other arbitrary and cultural ideas to their moral codes in addition to those core moral universals.

    It could thus be said that Western liberals have a universal moral code in a way no-one else does.

    Comment


    • #3
      Scripture Verse: Romans 2

      For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them in that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

      © Copyright Original Source

      Some may call me foolish, and some may call me odd
      But I'd rather be a fool in the eyes of man
      Than a fool in the eyes of God


      From "Fools Gold" by Petra

      Comment


      • #4
        Indeed, the Christian tradition is not anti the concept of a universal moral code known to all nations and all people apart from any specific revelation. Seer seems to object to this concept though, and seems to object to non-religious people having such a moral code.

        It's worth noting that its liberal Christianity, not conservative Christianity whose moral code matches to the universal one. Conservative Christians tend to add a variety of arbitrary ideas to the universal morality. Historically in the West liberals have spent the last couple of centuries cutting away those additional and arbitrary ideas and getting back to the more universal underlying concepts.

        Comment


        • #5
          Originally posted by Starlight View Post
          Indeed, the Christian tradition is not anti the concept of a universal moral code known to all nations and all people apart from any specific revelation. Seer seems to object to this concept though, and seems to object to non-religious people having such a moral code.
          It is not that unbelievers can't grasp God given moral truths, but why call them universal? If I follow your logic, selfishness, greed and cruelty are also universal. Since these behaviors too are cross cultural.
          Atheism is the cult of death, the death of hope. The universe is doomed, you are doomed, the only thing that remains is to await your execution...

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jbnueb2OI4o&t=3s

          Comment


          • #6
            Originally posted by seer View Post
            If I follow your logic, selfishness, greed and cruelty are also universal.
            Please get the basics right. This is about what people in all cultures agree is moral, not about common behaviors in general.

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by Starlight View Post
              Please get the basics right. This is about what people in all cultures agree is moral, not about common behaviors in general.
              Morality is generally about behavior. How we interact. Some may call selfishness, greed, cruelty, etc... immoral, others may not. They would still be just as universal. And even if a majority agreed on specific moral goods through out cultures that does not necessarily make them universal since there would always be contrary opinions.
              Atheism is the cult of death, the death of hope. The universe is doomed, you are doomed, the only thing that remains is to await your execution...

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jbnueb2OI4o&t=3s

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by Dimbulb View Post
                Seer seems to object to this concept though, and seems to object to non-religious people having such a moral code.
                It's not that non-religious people can't have a moral code, because whether or not you accept God's grace, you are still bound by your God given conscience which provides some limiting influence on human behavior. An analogy would be that even if a person refuses to accept that the laws of physics are true, he is nevertheless bound by them. So an atheist agreeing with the Bible that "the work of the law is written on their hearts" does nothing to to support or affirm their worldview.
                Some may call me foolish, and some may call me odd
                But I'd rather be a fool in the eyes of man
                Than a fool in the eyes of God


                From "Fools Gold" by Petra

                Comment


                • #9
                  Originally posted by Mountain Man View Post
                  Scripture Verse: Romans 2

                  For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them in that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

                  © Copyright Original Source

                  But Christians do not all keep the laws.

                  The best way (imo) of judging a group is to discover what standards they have set, and then to observe whether they keep to these, or not. (Don't judge others by one's own standards but by theirs.)
                  Christians have not done so well. No gold star for them.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Originally posted by eider View Post

                    But Christians do not all keep the laws.

                    The best way (imo) of judging a group is to discover what standards they have set, and then to observe whether they keep to these, or not. (Don't judge others by one's own standards but by theirs.)
                    Christians have not done so well. No gold star for them.
                    It's not the judgement of other humans we should be concerned about but the judgment of God.
                    Some may call me foolish, and some may call me odd
                    But I'd rather be a fool in the eyes of man
                    Than a fool in the eyes of God


                    From "Fools Gold" by Petra

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Originally posted by Mountain Man View Post

                      It's not the judgement of other humans we should be concerned about but the judgment of God.
                      And so I'll never ever read any of your posts which judge any other person or group...... have I got that right?

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Originally posted by eider View Post

                        But Christians do not all keep the laws.

                        The best way (imo) of judging a group is to discover what standards they have set, and then to observe whether they keep to these, or not. (Don't judge others by one's own standards but by theirs.)
                        Christians have not done so well. No gold star for them.
                        as Paul said, Romans seven:

                        14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

                        21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
                        Atheism is the cult of death, the death of hope. The universe is doomed, you are doomed, the only thing that remains is to await your execution...

                        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jbnueb2OI4o&t=3s

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Originally posted by eider View Post

                          And so I'll never ever read any of your posts which judge any other person or group...... have I got that right?
                          I do my best not to judge someone of my own accord, but as a Christian, I am obligated to speak out when someone is acting contrary to scripture; however, in that case, it is not my own judgement but that of God as expressed in the Bible.
                          Some may call me foolish, and some may call me odd
                          But I'd rather be a fool in the eyes of man
                          Than a fool in the eyes of God


                          From "Fools Gold" by Petra

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Mountain Man View Post

                            I do my best not to judge someone of my own accord, but as a Christian, I am obligated to speak out when someone is acting contrary to scripture; however, in that case, it is not my own judgement but that of God as expressed in the Bible.
                            So, what part of scripture would be used to justify you constantly changing Starlight's username to an insult when you respond to him?
                            “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

                            -Ghandi (Disputed)

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Originally posted by Mountain Man View Post

                              I do my best not to judge someone of my own accord, but as a Christian, I am obligated to speak out when someone is acting contrary to scripture; however, in that case, it is not my own judgement but that of God as expressed in the Bible.
                              But which scripture would you quote?
                              Some Christians quote some scripture, yet others quote different scripture.

                              Comment

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