Moral Rules vs. Social Conventions

Written over two days, finished at Starbucks now (2/25/16) before work, with a blonde roast and no music because I forgot my dang ear buds at home. This essay was inspired by the studies published by Elliot Turiel, Richard Shweder, Daniel Kelly, Steven Stich, Jonathan Haidt, and Joshua Greene.


untitledrferf32Most people are likely to agree that it is okay to wear your pajamas to the symphony if everyone else does. While this kind of behavior may seem odd, wearing pajamas at the symphony is not beyond the realm of plausibility. Most people are also likely to agree that after you have entered the symphony hall, it is never okay to throw a rock at the bassoonist just because his pacing sounded forced, even if everyone else is doing this. These cases appear to lie along a spectrum (which may include more ambiguous cases such as eating the neighbor’s dead dog with their permission or using someone else’s toothbrush). Oscar Wilde said that morality is like art, you have to draw the line somewhere. So where do we draw the line between moral issues and social convention?

Commonsense intuition seems to recognize a distinction between two quite different sorts of rules governing behavior, namely moral rules and conventional rules. Prototypical examples of moral rules include those prohibiting killing or injuring other people, stealing their property, or breaking promises.  Prototypical examples of conventional rules include those prohibiting wearing gender-inappropriate clothing (e.g. men wearing dresses), licking one’s plate at the dinner table, and talking in a classroom when one has not been called on by the teacher. While this field of moral psychology is nuanced and complex, when we reflect upon the differences of morality and social conventions, we gain a better understanding of other cultures.

The importance of this topic is justified by the fact that every culture is unique in its values and virtues. Unfortunately, this “uniqueness” makes it difficult to understand how some cultures can promulgate certain moral rules – which may seem like simply social conventions to Western eyes. The benefit of reflection of moral rules and social conventions affords one the opportunity to expand our moral domain so that we can see morality less parochially (narrow) and more compassionately.

Moral Rules

ljkhb;kMoral rules can be understood as applying universally and to derive a normative force from principles that hold independently of the dictates of political or social authorities. Going back to the symphony case above, the act of throwing a rock at the bassoonist carries an element of harm that is different than wearing your pajamas in a formal environment. Moral rules have more of an objective and prescriptive force and are not dependent on the authority of any individual or institution. Therefore, torturing babies or killing all blonds is wrong no matter what institution or even geographic domain condones the actions. Typically, violations of moral rules will involve a victim who has been harmed, or whose rights have been violated, or who has been subject to an injustice.

Social Conventions

By contrast, social conventions are contingent, local, and facilitate social coordination through shared understandings of etiquette and legal codes. Elliot Turiel proposed a set of features that sharply distinguished moral from conventional transgressions. Moral transgressions are (1) more wrong, (2) more punishable, (3) independent of structures of authority and (4) universally applicable. Social conventions however, are likely to lie along a continuum, stretching from transgressions of norms that are little more than matters of personal preference (e.g., getting tattoos or wearing black shoes with a brown belt) to normative transgressions that are more likely to be matters for legitimate social sanction (e.g., violating traffic laws or not paying your taxes).

Moral Foundation Theory

Moral Foundation Theory, derived from Jonathan Haidt, is the best model to capture the universal cognitive modules upon which cultures construct moral matrices. Haidt identified five adaptive challenges that stood out most clearly: caring for vulnerable children, forming partnerships with non-kin to reap the benefits of reciprocity, forming coalitions to compete with other coalitions, negotiating status hierarchies, and keeping oneself and one’s kin from parasites and pathogens, which spread quickly when people live in close proximity. Thus, the five foundations include: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation – and a sixth one that Haidt later identified as liberty/oppression.

Each of these foundations elicit emotions in individuals ranging from compassion, anger, group pride, respect and disgust. Once again going back to the symphony illustration, throwing a rock at the bassoonist will violate the care/harm foundation. Likewise, re-distribution of wealth taps into the fairness/cheating sentiment, while promiscuous sex evokes the foundation of sanctity/degradation.

Morality is like taste receptors

What moral foundation theory helps us understand is that morality is similar to our taste receptors. All humans have five taste receptors, but we don’t all like the same food. Morality really is like a cuisine: it’s a cultural construction, influenced by accidents of environment and history, but it’s not so flexible that anything goes. You can’t have a cuisine based on tree bark, nor can you have one based on primarily bitter tastes. Cuisines, vary, but they all must please tongues equipped with the same five taste receptors. I can’t explain why one person prefers Mexican food to Italian, or how someone can drink tea without lots of sugar in it. As Haidt explains, moral matrices vary, but they all must please the righteous minds equipped with the same six social receptors. Recently I had a friend who sat down with a Muslim family in their living room. As my American friend sat, he crossed his leg such that the bottom of his left shoe was exposed to the family. The father mentioned that in his culture, this is offensive because the bottom of the show represents filthiness. This cultural and localized social convention was part of the family’s moral taste receptors.

Morality and Culture

kdfnvVirtues are social constructions. The aversion I have to Indian curry is analogous to the repulsion I have for people not being on-time. I have a past experience with curry that left me sick so my immediate evaluative force is colored by that negative experience. Same with tardiness, growing up with my dad always late for any event has structured my personal matrix, such that I judge tardiness with disgust. This also carries forth to the difference of children growing up in warrior cultures compared with children taught in a modern industrialized culture.

While virtues are indeed constructions, moral rules and social conventions vary from culture to culture. Richard Shweder, a psychological anthropologist, did one of the first studies that compared morality between cultures. Shweder lived in worked in Orissa, a state on the east coast of India, and found large differences in how Americans and Oriyans (residents of Orissa) thought about personality and individuality. Shweder offered a simple idea to explain why the self differs so much across cultures: all societies must resolve a small set of questions about how to order society, the most important being how to balance the needs of individuals and groups. These two primary functions have manifested in history as either sociocentric or individualistic. The sociocentric model dominated most of the ancient world, but the individualistic answer became a powerful rival during the Enlightenment. To see the contrasting moral complexion between Americans and Orissa, Shweder gathered up a team, came up with 39 short stories that touched upon moral rules that were presented to 180 children and 60 adults in Orissa, and then a matched sample in a park near Chicago.

Shweder’s results found that in Orissa the social order was the moral order. Indian practices related to sex, food, clothing, and gender relations were almost always judged to be moral issues, not social conventions. Morality was much broader and thicker in Orissa – compared to Chicago – and almost any practice could be loaded up with moral force. For instance, actions that Americans said were wrong but Indians said were acceptable was: “a man had a married son and a married daughter. After his death his son claimed most of the property. His daughter got little.” And actions that Indians said were wrong but Americans said were acceptable was: “in a family, a 25-year-old son addresses his father by his first name.”

There is a deeper difference with Shweder’s findings. The American (or Western) individualistic foundations of harm and liberty are the strongest indicators in judging morality, whereas in Orissa it was sociocentric model revolving around the foundations of sanctity and authority. Even in the United States, the social order is the moral order, but it’s an individualistic order built up around the protection of individuals and freedom. As Jonathan Haidt explains, the difference between morals and mere conventions is not a tool that children everywhere use to self-construct their moral knowledge. Rather, the distinction turns out to be a cultural artifact, a necessary by-product of the individualistic answer to the question of how individuals and groups relate. When you put individuals first, before society, then any rule or social practice that limits personal freedom can be questioned. If it doesn’t protect somebody from harm, then it can’t be morally justified. It’s just a social convention.

A Newer More In-depth Study on Morality and Culture

lkjnbThe major weakness of Shweder’s study is that he did not ask his subjects about harm. Rather, he focused more on rules of clothing, food, etc. Jonathan Haidt recognized this deficiency and created a new study that would give adults and children stories that pitted gut feelings about important cultural norms against reasoning about harmlessness, and see which force was stronger. Haidt’s quest was also to test Elliot Turiel’s findings that rationalism predicted that reasoning about harm is the basis for moral judgment. Contra Turiel, there was growing hypothesis as cognitive-developmental work progressed, to look at moral emotions in subjects.

Jonathan Haidt began his study by developing a series of short stories of “harmless taboo violations” that tested contrasted subjects in Philadelphia with subjects in Brazil. The subjects in Brazil consisted up people in northeastern Brazil, in Recife, where the population is much more socioeconomically poor compared with subjects in Porto Alegre, which is more European section in southern Brazil.

Haidt’s results were clear as could in support of Shweder. First, the result was confirmed that Americans mage a big distinction between moral and conventional violations. The upper class Brazilians looked just like the Americans in the stories. For instance, two stories used included a girl who pushes a boy off of the swing (a clear moral violation) and a boy who refuses to wear a school uniform (a conventional violation). In the working-class Recife, the subjects judged BOTH stories to be moral violations; contrasted with the Americans and upper-class Brazilians who judged only the swing-pusher to be in violation.

Second, Haidt’s findings found that Recife subjects said that the harmless-taboo violations were universally wrong even though they harmed nobody. The conclusion is that the moral domain varied across nations and social classes. For most of the people in the study, the moral domain extended well beyond issues of harm and fairness.

It is hard to see how a rationalist would explain these results. How could children self-construct their moral knowledge about disgust and disrespect from their private analysis of harm? There must be other sources or moral knowledge, including cultural learning or innate moral intuitions about disgust and disrespect.

Moral Triggers as Modularity

Dan Sperber and Dan Hirschfeld coined the term “modularity” to refer to the little switches in the brains of all animals. They are switched on by patterns that were important for survival in a particular ecological niche. For example, many animals react with fear the very first time they see a snake because their brains include neural circuits that function as snake detectors. As Sperber and Hirschfeld put it:

An evolved cognitive module – for instance a snake detector, a face-recognition device … is an adaptation to a range of phenomena that presented problems or opportunities in the ancestral environment of the species. Its function is to process a given type of stimuli or inputs – for instance snakes [or] human faces.

This is a good description of what universal moral “taste receptors” would look like. As Haidt states, they would be adaptations of long-standing threats and opportunities in social life. They would draw people’s attention to certain types of events (such as cruelty or disrespect), and trigger instant intuitive reactions, perhaps even specific emotions like disgust or anger.

This can help us understand the cultural variations between, say, the people tested in Recife compared to Philadelphians. Sperber and Hirschfeld distinguished between original triggers of a module and its current triggers. The original triggers are the set of objects fir which the module was designed (that is, the set of all snakes is the original trigger for a snake-detector module). The current triggers are all the things in the world that happen to trigger it (including real snakes, as well as toy snakes, curved sticks, and thick ropes). Haidt explains that modules can make mistakes, and many animals have evolved tricks to exploit the mistakes of other animals. For example, the hover fly has evolved yellow and black stripes, making it look like a wasp, which triggers the wasp-avoidance module in some birds that would otherwise enjoy eating hover flies.

Quick Thought On Innateness

Our morality has been organized in advance of experience. Original triggers (noted above) is an indispensable part of our nature. It used to be risky to claim anything about innate behavior. Fortunately, we have advanced a lot since the 1970s in our understanding of the brain, and now we know that traits can be innate without being hardwired or universal. As the neuroscientist Gary Marcus explains, “Nature bestows upon the newborn a considerably complex brain, but one that is best seen as prewired – flexible and subject to change – rather than hardwired, fixed, and immutable.”

To replace wiring diagrams, Marcus suggests a better analogy: The brain is like a book, the first draft of which is written by the genes during fetal development. No chapters are complete at birth, and some are just rough outlines waiting to be filled in during childhood. But not a single chapter consists of blank pages on which a society can inscribe any conceivable set of words. Marcus’s analogy leads to the best definition of innateness I have ever seen:

Nature provides a first draft, which experience then revises … “Built-in” does not mean unmalleable; it means “organized in advance of experience.”


What we can agree on is that both nature and nurture is integral to moral development. The constellation of cultural milieus provides the architecture for morality to have any force at all. A nation at war will modulate the ethic of freedom/liberty to a moral rule – or absolute. A country ravaged by oppression and exploitation may modulate the ethic of care/harm to high levels. Likewise, a society who has escaped fascist rule will modulate the role of authority to low levels and see democracy has a moral need. But the deeper question I have tried to address is the moral psychology of putting a moral rule and social convention in context. I believe it is when we transcend are own social context to understand other social contexts that we can expand our moral domain. I cannot help but view the world through WEIRD lenses. I am speaking of a (WEIRD) Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic perspective. Thus, when we understand moral foundations throughout different cultures, we begin to see less in black and white (or WEIRD) lenses and shift to seeing the world through a kaleidoscope of experiences. If a culture in the East views going to the symphony in one’s pajamas as a moral violation, then there is an opportunity for me, in my WEIRD mind, to increase my compassionate understanding through the process of trying to see the moral rule through another’s eyes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s