Monday, February 15, 2016

New Views on Moral Relativity

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Objectively speaking, human morality does appear to be relative and not an absolute fixture of human behavior. Despite what we are taught in Sunday school, there is no single set of rules or commandments, in the Bible or anywhere else, that universally applies to every situation in life. Laws, whether religious or civil, are not infallible absolutes. Laws are language based translations of more durable, underlying principles of good behavior. They are more like guide posts expressing a clear moral intent with respect to right and wrong behavior. They are important reference points by which we may judge and enforce the outward behavior of others to reward good deeds and punish bad behaviors. If the relativity of morality weren't true there would never be any need for the faithful to prey for guidance, no need for legal consultations or clerical counseling or even religious training. If morality was absolute there would be no need to pursue justice or show mercy. 

What does comes close to being universally accepted is our personal obligation to do what is right when we have the training, experience, wisdom, insight or grace to see the right choice. But here again, our motives are not always pure. We often choose behavior we know to be wrong for the sake of personal gain or some act of vengeance. It still proves we do know right from wrong, but we can always chose misbehavior. We are fallible and finite beings at best.

In the field of Sociology, morality is considered a social construct subject to cultural developments. And clearly there are strong cultural and religious components to morality. But the emerging fields of evolutionary biology and sociobiology have begun to glimpse complex social behaviors differently. Recent scientific research in these fields suggests that our sense of right and wrong social behaviors seem to have a genetic component. We see evidence of moral social behavior in other advanced primates as well, which suggests a genetic component. Like people who misbehave, we can also observe individual primates engage in socially unacceptable behavior only to endure socual punishments from the group when caught. We are finding cross-cultural similarities in how we solve moral questions in certain controlled experimental studies where subjects are asked to solve moral conundrums. Some neuro-scientists have now identified areas in the human brain that become active when subjects as asked to solve moral conflicts. Some scientists, such as psychologist Matt J. Rossano, speculate that an innate sense of social morality in humans might be foundational to world religions. This could explain why most religions have many commonalities in their sense of what is right or wrong behavior.

Research suggests that natural morality, or the sense of right and wrong behavior baked into our DNA, But if morality is innate and present in each of us, how can moral behavior also be relative, rather than fixed and certain? 

The answer may be that morality is relative according to our emotional affinity or physical proximity to others. In fact, it is extremely sensitive to affinity and proximity. Our moral actions are strongest when it involves people we love, people we identify with in our social circle or people who occupy our physical space . As social intimacy or physical proximity shrinks, so does our sense of moral obligation. Our moral relativity therefore stems from the fact that our moral obligations to “them” is always weaker than our moral obligation to “us” no matter how we define those terms.

This way of understanding moral relativity has far reaching implications. For example, it suggest that one of the roles of all religions is to broaden how we define as “us” and "them," and how to translate our moral sense so that we can apply it to larger social groups. Translating our internal sense of right and wrong behavior is always necessary in large groups because our social genetics certainly evolved well before we gathered in such large numbers.

Once we understand this dimension of moral relativity, much of how the world behaves falls into place. We can begin to understand those famous Stanley Milgram's experimental findings, for instance. It becomes clear why an authority figure in a lab coat standing next to the subjects can command them to apply painful shocks to a stranger in another room from behind a two-way mirror. We can understand why there is still so much conflict between religions, or even sub-sects of the same religion. Sunni and Shia come to mind here. We can see that differences in how conservatives and progressives define who is in or out of their group shapes their political priorities. It explains why military training involves dehumanizing "the enemy" in order to train solders for combat. It explains why members of cliques in school can be so mean sometimes.

More generally, the "proximal relativity" of our moral instincts explains how we use language, with its shades of meaning, to alter social dynamics. In other words, by how we communicate (our body language, word choices, contextual framing , display of passion, etc.) we either shift or reinforce our allegiances and alliances with others.

To give a very simple example, let's suppose you are visiting with a friend who happens to bring up in the conversation another family for whom you harbor some negative feelings. It could be about anything. You might respond by saying something like, "Oh, them." The word "them" can be a strong distancing word, especially depending on how you emphasize it or add accompanying body language. In this case your friend is physically with you, so calling the other family "them" draws this friend closer to you while driving that "other" family further away. This use of language by you is an attempt to shift allegiances and weaken their sense of moral obligation towards that other family. It may not work, and It could backfire, depending on the circumstances, but the calculus was there behind your choice of words. We use language in this way all the time, to the point we may not notice we are doing it, and may not notice it in others.

There is much more to be said on this topic, but I leave it here with this final thought. A presidential debate is an excellent opportunity to somewhat objectively analyze how language is being used to shift or strengthen alliances and allegiances. Public policy and moral behavior are often closely related as policy choice often have disproportional impact on different voting segments. A policy can often be expressed in terms socially good or bad. This makes the debates a particularly good opportunity to contrast how language is being used to promote policy choices and the differential impacts policies may have. Keep a pad and pencil handy at the next debate. Write down the word choices candidates use to discuss various constituent groups. Note especially word choices that either distance people from a group or draw others in towards the candidates supporters. You may be surprised at what you discover.

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