Is there a basis for universal morality among humans?

Mikhail moral mapImage

While some have their doubts, John Mikhail thinks the evidence points to yes. Today’s post is an interview with Mikhail in which he summarizes his case that, beneath all the surface differences we see on moral issues, a common moral sense is as much a part of the human makeup as is Chomsky’s universal grammar.



Sunday’s Sermon: Stuurman


historyRemembering Stuurman

“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy: they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” – Marcel Proust

RUSSELL: Douwe Stuurman?

HARDIN: Well, he’s one of a kind. He was one of the spearheads of the movement to keep this [UCSB] a small liberal arts campus. He was, as you know, at Oxford–a Rhodes Scholar–and very much a lover of humanities in a traditional sense. I don’t know how one could summarize him. You know plenty about him anyway. He’s quite unusual.

It is appropriate at this time of year to think back on the year and all of the years that have slipped by so quickly, and it is appropriate to begin with a Proust quote, for the subject of this remembrance was a great Proust student: Douwe Stuurman. University of California Professor Stuurman. My MA advisor for my degree in English. A man who influenced generations of students in his long teaching career. A mentor, teacher, friend.

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The moral sense in young infants

Good morning, everyone. My apologies for not posting anything yesterday: I have a new Thursday class to prepare for each week and I spend the rest of the day in other activities. I’ve decided to switch to a Friday/Monday sequence for these posts.

So far in the series, I’ve posted on the ways our moral views seem to be shaped by environmental factors. Haidt’s experiments show that we tend to retain our moral views despite losing our reasons for holding them, and suggest that we often tend to rationalize the moral views we have (and believe the rationalizations) rather than arrive at our moral views on the basis of reasons. So we are open to many morally irrelevant influences in our moral views. I’ve also shown evidence that seems to imply that our views on the moral acceptability of violent responses to insults can be conditioned by whether our culture is descended from herders or farmers; that our views on slavery can be conditioned by whether we’re living in a climate that’s good for agriculture; and that our views on cannibalism and slavery may have their roots in details about the caloric intake of various food sources. It’s been shown that many of these factors exert influence over us whether or not we are educated, intelligent, non-religious, and so on. I’ve also explored the possibility that those who disagree with us over fundamental moral issues really have the same moral views as we do, but are just understandably ignorant of some non-moral facts. I argued there that it’s unclear what non-moral facts others could be mistaken about in the cases of Hopi animal torture, Roman gladiatorial practices, and Chinese foot-binding (it can’t be the non-moral fact that not binding one’s daughters’ feet will worsen her marriage prospects, since that is a non-moral fact that people would be correct in believing).

As Frank pointed out last time, this may give the impression that morality is just a matter of training: our culture, party in response to environmental factors, develops a moral view and then inculcates it on the ‘blank slates’ its young are born with. In fact, though, there is a growing body of research that shows the opposite: while some of our moral dispositions are supplied by society, some is innate.

I’d like to turn to that research now. Here’s a good way into the material:

If that link doesn’t work where you’re reading this, you can read a transcript of the broadcast here:

Culture of Honour


I’ll get to the above graph in a moment, but first I want to tell a little story.

A man sits in a bar with a bunch of his friends one evening. The group is having a pleasant night out until a stranger walks up to the table and speaks insultingly to the man. He sneeringly claims to have been having sex with the man’s fiancée on an ongoing basis, and states that he and the man’s fiancée have had many jokes about the man’s diminished sexual attributes and abilities. Hey lays it on pretty thick for another minute and then says, “I’m heading out to the parking lot now, and if you’re any man at all — which we all know you’re not already — you’ll follow me out and prove it.” What should the man do? When asked about cases like this, men and women from the southern US were much more likely to think that the man should go and punch it out, however bad the fight may be. While northerners, on reflection, tended to think that the moral course of action would be to ignore the provocation and laugh off the stranger’s insults, southerners tended to think that one wouldn’t be ‘much of a man’ if he didn’t respond with violence.

This and many similar cases are discussed by Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen in Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. To further explore the different ways northerners and southerners think of fighting to defend one’s honour, they sent off job applications to businesses in Michigan and Tennessee with bogus resumes and cover letters. These letters were all the same except for one crucial difference. Half the letters sent to employers in each state ended by admitting that the writer had served time for a felony — beating another man to death outside of a bar in a fight that got out of hand after the other man had insulted the first man’s wife. The other half also confessed to a felony, but this time it was stealing expensive cars from a car lot when the writer had no other way to support his family. The results were curious. The applications that confessed to stealing the cars were rejected by all employers, and the northern employers similarly wanted nothing to do with the man who had beaten someone to death outside the bar. But the southern employers tended to feel quite differently about the man who stood up for his wife’s honour. One wrote to applaud him for his honesty in admitting his criminal history up front, and said that it sounded like one of those understandable but unfortunate things “that could happen to anyone”. Another southern employer expressed regret that he didn’t have a job opening at present. And so on. Continue reading