Beyond WEIRD Morality

It's time to expand our view of right and wrong

Before we continue with this week’s edition of Synapse, I want to apologize for missing your inbox last Sunday. I needed a break and gave myself permission to take a Sunday off. It’s been a tough year for a lot of us and I encourage each of you to cut yourself some slack. I’ve got some interesting content planned for the next few weeks. Thanks in advance for your support!

In Toward a Quest of Understanding, I discussed the virtue of using neuroscience and to better understand human nature in an effort to become more compassionate and understanding human beings. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is a book helps me work toward that end and this week I want to share another important tidbit I’ve learned: that even though WEIRD people (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic) are statistical outliers in the global population, they are often the subject of research in the social sciences. The result of this is a tempting erroneous conclusion that WEIRD morality is the “correct” morality.

For example, many psychological studies are conducted on college students because they are located at the same place that these studies are being conducted and are easy to find/recruit. One moral tenant emphasized on many college campuses—especially secular ones—is the harm principle which was popularized by John Stuart Mill and others and states that the only reason anyone should exercise power in a society is to prevent harm.

In other words, moral judgements shouldn’t be extended as long as there isn’t harm done to any person.

Yet, when we venture out into non-WEIRD societies, we find that there is more to morality than harm and fairness. For example, most people would claim that incest is immoral without appealing to any claim of harm. “Incest is just wrong. Period.”

Decades of social science research summarized by Haidt have actually found three types of ethics across WEIRD and non-WEIRD societies:

  1. Ethic of Autonomy: The concept that people have their own unique wants and needs and that people have a right to pursue those wants and needs given that they aren’t harming others. This is the foundational ethic of secular, western societies.

  2. Ethic of Community: The concept that individuals are first part of a group—family, city, nation, etc—and then an individual. Concepts such as duty and hierarchy are more pronounced in this ethic. Many non-western societies value the ethic of community more than autonomy. If the U.S. were a community-first society and not an autonomy society, the conversation around the COVID-19 vaccine would look a lot different, for example.

  3. Ethic of Divinity: The concept that human beings are vessels of a divine soul. In this ethic, honoring God is more important than an autonomy and community-centric ethic. Foundations such as purity, degradation, pollution, and sanctity are important in the divinity ethic.

Haidt criticizes the modern western attempt to build a moral fabric on just the principle of autonomy, claiming that such a morality is “unsatisfying and potentially harmful.”

Learning about WEIRD morality has helped me understand how people can come to different moral conclusions. For example, I cringe at the thought of a mandated COVID-19 vaccine in the U.S.—but maybe that’s just my WEIRD reliance on the autonomy ethic showing. I can see how a community-focused ethic could come to a different conclusion.

I continue to believe that a huge step toward decreased political/religious polarization—and therefore true human progress toward a better society—is understanding each other. Next week, we’ll take a look at a more nuanced topography of human morality, what Haidt calls are our “moral taste receptors.”

Thanks for reading.

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📚 P.S.S. I having forgotten about our Free Will book discussion that I announced here. I am working through the book now (it is admittedly more dense than I thought it would be) and will have more info on this in the coming weeks.