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Seven Universal Moral Rules?

 
Poldano
 
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Poldano
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12 March 2019 00:37
 

I figured its about time for me too throw more jet fuel on the fire. The following are references to (1) and article from Quartz that some algorithm evidently figured I would click on, and (2) the academic article that furnished its impetus.

https://qz.com/1562585/the-seven-moral-rules-that-supposedly-unite-humanity/

https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/701478

The seven rules that the authors of the academic article found in their study to be nearly universal are:

  1. Help your family
  2. Help your group
  3. Return favors
  4. Be brave
  5. Defer to superiors
  6. Divide resources fairly
  7. Respect others’ property

In order to call these rules universal, and valid in 99.9% of observed cases, the authors seem to have fudged their interpretations when one rule took precedence over one or more others.

Curry is careful to note that people around the world differ hugely in how they prioritize different cooperative behaviors. But he said the evidence was overwhelming in widespread adherence to those moral values.

For example, among the Chuuk, the largest ethnic group in the Federated States of Micronesia, “to steal openly from others is admirable in that it shows a person’s dominance and demonstrates that he is not intimidated by the aggressive powers of others.”

One feature I see as different in this list from the more traditional lists is that there are obvious conflicts among the rules, most obviously in the case of the dominance vs. deference dimension. Another major feature is the lack of any sort of egalitarianism apart from “fairness”; this arguably flies in the face of most modern Western moral principles. A third feature is the explicit absence of any rule regarding out-groups, which may or may not be subsumed in priority to the rules without specific objects (e.g., return favors).

The Quartz article includes some statements critical of the academic article:

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, says that we are far from consensus on a definition of morality. Is it about fairness and justice, or about “maximizing the welfare of sentient beings?” Is it about delaying gratification for long-term gain, otherwise known as intertemporal choice—or maybe altruism?

Bloom also says that the authors of the Current Anthropology study do not sufficiently explain the way we come to moral judgements—that is, the roles that reason, emotions, brain structures, social forces, and development may play in shaping our ideas of morality. While the paper claims that moral judgments are universal because of “collection of instincts, intuitions, inventions, and institutions,” Bloom writes, the authors make “no specific claims about what’s innate, what’s learned, and what arises from personal choice.”

Personally, I think that the academic study is an attempt toward framing a definition of morality that is testable, and that attempting to explain the whole process of moral decision making down to the neurons and genes is entirely premature at a global level. The critical comments may thus be seen as pointing out what the limits of interpretation of the research are, which I believe to be entirely justified.

 

 
 
Antisocialdarwinist
 
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Antisocialdarwinist
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13 March 2019 10:03
 

I would say that a good definition of morality is this:

Morality is a mechanism of control that reconciles self interest with the well-being of others.

I’m not sure why “claims about what’s innate, what’s learned” even matter. And “what arises from personal choice” applies to ethics, but not morality. Morality operates on an emotional level: certain behaviors “feel” wrong. It doesn’t matter whether one understands the whys and wherefores of their wrongness. It feels wrong because the wrongness of it is programmed into one’s “conscience,” either innately or through indoctrination.

Cooperation that leads to an increase in both parties’ well-being isn’t morally “right,” it’s just an example of self interest. You and I could cooperate to steal someone else’s car, for example. Provided we didn’t get caught, we’d both benefit. On the other hand, refraining from stealing someone else’s car even when you know there’s no chance of getting caught—because if “feels” wrong—is morality in action. The feeling that comes from doing wrong (shame or remorse) and which outweighs the tangible benefits reaped by the doing of it is the mechanism of control.

From that standpoint, most of the seven universal rules should come with a caveat. “Help your family” or “help your group,” for example, are only moral rules if helping them comes at personal expense.

 
 
burt
 
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13 March 2019 11:59
 

The interesting thing in the article for me was the use of cooperative situations to single out the seven rules. The other thing was that they seemed light on rules like “don’t kill the stranger in town and serve him for dinner” (violated in the Odyssey by the Cyclops).

 
Jefe
 
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13 March 2019 12:19
 

For authoritarians, and others who may be uncomfortable with vagueness, it looks like there is too much prescription and not enough proscription.

Sometimes we benefit from rules and guidances that specifically outline forbidden behaviours.

How much better would the 10 C’s - and western history be if, instead of referencing mythical dieties the first four were more real-worldly - if they contained proscriptive instructions not to buy and sell people, not to sexualize children, not to rape people, not to be too trusting of clergy hiding behind church beauracracy…

 
 
EN
 
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13 March 2019 13:22
 

Defer to superiors?  America wouldn’t exist if we had followed that rule.

 
proximacentauri
 
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13 March 2019 14:33
 

Simplified into one rule…

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” - 14th Dalai Lama

 
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13 March 2019 15:08
 
proximacentauri - 13 March 2019 02:33 PM

Simplified into one rule…

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” - 14th Dalai Lama

“Don’t be a dick.” - Wil Wheaton

 
 
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13 March 2019 17:47
 
Jefe - 13 March 2019 03:08 PM
proximacentauri - 13 March 2019 02:33 PM

Simplified into one rule…

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” - 14th Dalai Lama

“Don’t be a dick.” - Wil Wheaton

Succinct

 
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13 March 2019 22:23
 
proximacentauri - 13 March 2019 02:33 PM

Simplified into one rule…

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” - 14th Dalai Lama

That simplification doesn’t take into account that be brave is neutral with respect to helping or hurting others. The authors note an instance where be brave is an interpretation for an activity that I would describe as thumbing one’s nose at the powerful, and actually involved blatant theft.

One of the reasons I’m intrigued by the list is because it does seem to allow for a degree of self-interest, even if only obliquely. A feature of the usual Golden Rule formulations is that no explicit support of self-interest is present. I have come to see morality (or ethics if that is your terminology preference) as a matter of resolving the dynamic tension between self-interest and the interest of others (interest here being synonymous with well-being). I speculate that the reason for the omission of self-interest in moral rule sets is that it is presumed to be present and highly prioritized by default.

 

 
 
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13 March 2019 23:12
 

It could be argued that the examples in the following quotes are either too culturally-specific, too detailed, or not focused on in-group interactions.

The other thing was that they seemed light on rules like “don’t kill the stranger in town and serve him for dinner” (violated in the Odyssey by the Cyclops).

How much better would the 10 C’s - and western history be if, instead of referencing mythical dieties the first four were more real-worldly - if they contained proscriptive instructions not to buy and sell people, not to sexualize children, not to rape people, not to be too trusting of clergy hiding behind church beauracracy…

 

 
 
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13 March 2019 23:25
 
Antisocialdarwinist - 13 March 2019 10:03 AM

I would say that a good definition of morality is this:

Morality is a mechanism of control that reconciles self interest with the well-being of others.

Me too.

Antisocialdarwinist - 13 March 2019 10:03 AM

I’m not sure why “claims about what’s innate, what’s learned” even matter. And “what arises from personal choice” applies to ethics, but not morality. Morality operates on an emotional level: certain behaviors “feel” wrong. It doesn’t matter whether one understands the whys and wherefores of their wrongness. It feels wrong because the wrongness of it is programmed into one’s “conscience,” either innately or through indoctrination.

I don’t see a fundamental difference between morality and ethics. We may be able to split those hairs, but I think in the process we leave a lot of related phenomena unclassified, or needing a force fit into one or the other.

Antisocialdarwinist - 13 March 2019 10:03 AM

Cooperation that leads to an increase in both parties’ well-being isn’t morally “right,” it’s just an example of self interest. You and I could cooperate to steal someone else’s car, for example. Provided we didn’t get caught, we’d both benefit. On the other hand, refraining from stealing someone else’s car even when you know there’s no chance of getting caught—because if “feels” wrong—is morality in action. The feeling that comes from doing wrong (shame or remorse) and which outweighs the tangible benefits reaped by the doing of it is the mechanism of control.

From that standpoint, most of the seven universal rules should come with a caveat. “Help your family” or “help your group,” for example, are only moral rules if helping them comes at personal expense.

I would not set the bar so far in the direction of self-sacrifice. As I’ve said before, one of the features of an effective moral rule set is its teachability, and one aspect of its teachability is its demonstrable benefit to the one being taught. An acceptable rule need not get you everything you want, but it should make sure you are treated on a par with those you consider your peers. Indoctrination only goes so far, say no farther than early adolescence in most cases. So I would say that win-win situations are moral, or at the very least not immoral. I would also say that there is quantification beyond zero and one on the scale of both mutual benefit and degree of goodness. That is where the rule divide resources fairly applies.

 

 
 
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13 March 2019 23:27
 
EN - 13 March 2019 01:22 PM

Defer to superiors?  America wouldn’t exist if we had followed that rule.

It is true that we Americans don’t tend to prioritized that rule as highly as some of the others, and are rather proud of not doing so.

 
 
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13 March 2019 23:57
 

These are great rules if one is spiritually evolved enough to see all humankind as one’s tribe, one’s family. But the bloody history of mankind, tells me at least, that this gentle, altruistic morality frequently ends at the boundaries of one’s village, ethnic tribe, city state or nation. Once one sees those outside “our group” as “the others,” with resources to be taken, (women, livestock, territory, plunder), then that’s where the moral rules listed above end, or at least, become dramatically perverted. They mutate into a set of similar, but very different rules in spirit; rules that in a myopic, parochial way, have their own twisted morality and inner “logic.”

1. Help your family — by killing those considered foreigners and taking their resources.
2. Help your group — by showing the power of force and violence, because others will think twice before attacking us.
3. Returning favors — as in “an eye for an eye,” and a tit-for-tat reciprocity.
4. Be brave — kill, rape and pillage for the love and glory of your village, ethnic tribe, city state or nation.
5. Defer to superiors — one needs generals and other authorities to command the troops and discipline must be kept.
6. Divide resources fairly — the spoils of war must be divided for the benefit of all.
7. Respect others property — but only within your own tribe; we cannot tolerate inner strife and division.

[ Edited: 14 March 2019 00:02 by Cheshire Cat]
 
 
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14 March 2019 00:42
 
Cheshire Cat - 13 March 2019 11:57 PM

These are great rules if one is spiritually evolved enough to see all humankind as one’s tribe, one’s family. But the bloody history of mankind, tells me at least, that this gentle, altruistic morality frequently ends at the boundaries of one’s village, ethnic tribe, city state or nation. Once one sees those outside “our group” as “the others,” with resources to be taken, (women, livestock, territory, plunder), then that’s where the moral rules listed above end, or at least, become dramatically perverted. They mutate into a set of similar, but very different rules in spirit; rules that in a myopic, parochial way, have their own twisted morality and inner “logic.”

1. Help your family — by killing those considered foreigners and taking their resources.
2. Help your group — by showing the power of force and violence, because others will think twice before attacking us.
3. Returning favors — as in “an eye for an eye,” and a tit-for-tat reciprocity.
4. Be brave — kill, rape and pillage for the love and glory of your village, ethnic tribe, city state or nation.
5. Defer to superiors — one needs generals and other authorities to command the troops and discipline must be kept.
6. Divide resources fairly — the spoils of war must be divided for the benefit of all.
7. Respect others property — but only within your own tribe; we cannot tolerate inner strife and division.

One viewpoint on the subject is that the progression of moral theory runs in the direction of extending our treatment of those closest to us to those of us who are less and less directly related to us, indefinitely. The current edge of coverage according to prevailing opinions in Western philosophy seems to be Conscious Creatures, unless it has moved even farther since I last look. Some religious traditions extend the coverage to all animals. I’m curious whether extension of coverage to all living organisms is feasible for humans, and to what extent such a belief system might exclude some life so as to allow human survival.

 
 
GAD
 
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14 March 2019 00:55
 
Cheshire Cat - 13 March 2019 11:57 PM

These are great rules if one is spiritually evolved enough to see all humankind as one’s tribe, one’s family. But the bloody history of mankind, tells me at least, that this gentle, altruistic morality frequently ends at the boundaries of one’s village, ethnic tribe, city state or nation. Once one sees those outside “our group” as “the others,” with resources to be taken, (women, livestock, territory, plunder), then that’s where the moral rules listed above end, or at least, become dramatically perverted. They mutate into a set of similar, but very different rules in spirit; rules that in a myopic, parochial way, have their own twisted morality and inner “logic.”

1. Help your family — by killing those considered foreigners and taking their resources.
2. Help your group — by showing the power of force and violence, because others will think twice before attacking us.
3. Returning favors — as in “an eye for an eye,” and a tit-for-tat reciprocity.
4. Be brave — kill, rape and pillage for the love and glory of your village, ethnic tribe, city state or nation.
5. Defer to superiors — one needs generals and other authorities to command the troops and discipline must be kept.
6. Divide resources fairly — the spoils of war must be divided for the benefit of all.
7. Respect others property — but only within your own tribe; we cannot tolerate inner strife and division.

That seems more closer to the empirical evidence.

 
 
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14 March 2019 07:17
 
Poldano - 13 March 2019 10:23 PM
proximacentauri - 13 March 2019 02:33 PM

Simplified into one rule…

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.” - 14th Dalai Lama

That simplification doesn’t take into account that be brave is neutral with respect to helping or hurting others. The authors note an instance where be brave is an interpretation for an activity that I would describe as thumbing one’s nose at the powerful, and actually involved blatant theft.

One of the reasons I’m intrigued by the list is because it does seem to allow for a degree of self-interest, even if only obliquely. A feature of the usual Golden Rule formulations is that no explicit support of self-interest is present. I have come to see morality (or ethics if that is your terminology preference) as a matter of resolving the dynamic tension between self-interest and the interest of others (interest here being synonymous with well-being). I speculate that the reason for the omission of self-interest in moral rule sets is that it is presumed to be present and highly prioritized by default.

I don’t disagree that standing up to authority when necessary (“be brave), is moral, preferably in a peaceful non-violent manner. I would also agree that self-interest has to be part of any moral code, which incidentally I think Buddhism does allow for.

There’s obviously a fine line between self-interest and selfishness in questions of morality and ethics. Unfortunately, the distinction between a virtuous self-interest and selfishness seems to be lost in cultures where selfishness is dominant - like America.

 
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