A. Explain the difference between morality and convention. Is there a hard link between moral rules and the concept of harm? In what ways does morality vary across cultures? Are there any universal elements?
There is a long tradition of work in moral psychology – and particularly in research on moral development in children – that draws a distinction between moral rules (such as proscriptions against physical violence) and conventional rules (such as norms of politeness). Recently there has been a growing consensus that this dichotomy is a result of certain actions provoking a strong affective (emotional) response. At first, attention centred on the idea that humans have an innate emotional aversion to inflicting harm on other group members; but more recent formulations have emphasised the multidimensional nature of the affective component of morality.
This multidimensional idea of morality leaves considerable room for cross-cultural variation in aspects of morality, in terms of which particular elements of morality are accentuated or downplayed in various cultures. This does raise interesting questions, I think, about how the concept of human universals deals with individual differences. The cultural differences which seem to cause differences in moral outlook can be quite small; for example, social class has a big influence on whether participants think it is immoral, or merely unconventional, to clean a toilet with the national flag. If such small cultural differences have such an effect then presumably personality differences have a big effect as well; in which case, are all the components of morality equally universal? Maybe aversion to harm is still different – it may be more like a true universal, since only a few damaged or deficient individuals (notably psychopaths) truly seem to lack it.
One potential trap that people can fall into when thinking about moral universals is to assume that moral rules apply naturally to all fellow humans. But in most small-scale societies only members of one’s in-group are considered fully human. Actions, such as murder, which are completely unacceptable against in-group members may be tolerated or even encouraged against out-group members (and vice versa, as with marriage rules). However, this is a more complex issue than it is sometimes portrayed, since the very ability of anthropologists to do ethnography demonstrates that even quite an alien individual has the potential to be treated as a being worthy of moral treatment, once they are accepted into an influential person’s social network. There is an obvious parallel between the geographical broadening of social networks (as discussed this week) and the widening scope of morality in recent centuries, which has led to universal declarations of human rights and so on.
B. What are the relationships between morality and theory of mind / metacognition? Are concepts like responsibility, blameworthiness, and negligence universal? Is our understanding of action always coloured by evaluation?
When considering the nature of moral judgements, it is natural to assume that people use their theory of mind to analyse the actions that they observe in terms of the beliefs, desires and intentions of the people who carry them out, and then come to a separate conclusion concerning the moral worth of these actions. Recent experiments by the experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe suggest that this may not be the case. When his participants were asked to evaluate the intentionality of particular side-effects of people’s actions, they were much more likely to label negative side-effects as intentional than positive side-effects. Although other possible explanations for this result have been put forward, on the surface it seems to suggest that people’s moral understanding is intimately linked to their theory of mind, so that their perceptions about others’ ultimate goals and motives tend to colour whether they interpret their actions as intentional or accidental.
However, concepts like intentionality and responsibility are quite technical terms in English folk psychology, and there is no guarantee that this effect would apply in other languages and cultures. So in answering this question I would like you to get out there and try to find some literature on whether a similar effect has been reported in other cultural contexts.