Morality in Western and Eastern Societies Research Paper

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1. Comparison Of Three Methodologies

There are three main approaches in the social and behavioral sciences to the comparative study of moral reasoning and conduct in Western and Eastern societies: developmental psychology, anthropological ethnography, and cultural psychology. These three approaches result in different understandings of morality in the West and the East. A comparison of the methodologies of these three approaches is offered before turning to a more detailed examination of research on Western and Eastern moral systems.

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1.1 Developmental Psychology

Kohlberg’s (1981) theory of moral development and research methods were widely adopted by child psychologists in the 1970s and 1980s to study the cognitive development of moral reasoning and moral judgment in children of varying ages in different cultures. Based on the assumption of cross-cultural universality in moral development, Kohlberg claimed that ‘All individuals in all cultures use the same basic moral categories, concepts, and principles, and all individuals in all cultures go through the same order on sequence of gross stage development, though they vary in rate and terminal point of development’ (Kohlberg 1971, p. 175). His theory consists of six universal stages of cognitive development in moral judgment.

Kohlberg’s theory adopts the perspective of evolutionism, which is based on a normative model and classifies a great diversity of moral discourse from a multitude of cultures into several categories arranged in a formal sequence. According to his theory, the development of moral reasoning follows a universal invariant sequence towards the goal of thinking with universal ethical principles.

A series of empirical studies have been conducted using Kohlberg’s standardized moral dilemmas and scoring manuals. After careful examination of the literature, Snarey (1985) found that because stage skipping and stage regressions were rare, progress from Stage 1 to Stage 3 or 4 was virtually universal, but that the presence of Stage 4 5 or 5 was extremely rare in all populations. Nearly all samples from Western middle-class groups and 91 percent of Eastern urban populations exhibited some Stage 6 principled reasoning. However, no tribal or folk cultural groups of the non-Western world showed any post-conventional thinking. Post-conventional thinking upholds individual rights or universal ethical principles.

In addition, many of the moral reasoning data collected in collectivist or communalistic societies of the non-Western world either could not be scored according to the standardized manual, or could not be explained in the context of Kohlberg’s theory. Such anomalistic facts have been used to challenge Kohlberg’s theory. Critics charge that the theory was formulated from the perspective of Western ideologies of rationalism, individualism, and liberalism, and that it therefore assigns the values of male, white, American intellectuals as the end point of moral maturation. The theory’s ethical objectivism ignores the moral discourse prevailing in many non-Western societies, and fails to recognize their substantial ethical philosophies (Weinreich-Haste and Locke 1983). Imposing Kohlberg’s theory as well as his scoring system on the moral reasoning of non-Western peoples may result in systematic bias originating from Western ethnocentrism.

Gibbs (1979) tried to revise Kohlberg’s theory in terms of Piaget’s phylogenetic perspective. According to Piaget, human intelligence is a holistic phenomenon encompassing social, moral, and logico-physical aspects. Its development follows a standard sequence that is predetermined by epigenetic factors like those of other species. Along with completion of physical maturation and the singular achievement of intellectual development over the course of the adolescent years, there is a progressive ability for people at the highest stage of standard development to reflect on the very conditions of their existence in the world. Reflection on one’s own existence may motivate one to define a moral theory to justify one’s basic moral principles from a particular standpoint that is either inside or outside the society.

Cultures show wide variety in their philosophies of morality. These normative philosophies may provide material for second-order thinking or meta-ethical reflection when individuals try to define their own moral theories. It is impossible for individuals to eliminate cultural influences from the contents of their own moral reasoning. Considering this fact, a better way to conduct cross-cultural research on morality would be to use ethnographic analysis to describe the patterns of moral conduct and moral thinking that consistently emerge in the daily social life of people in a particular culture.

1.2 Anthropological Ethnography

Researchers who are interested in studying the ethnography of morality usually adopt the viewpoint of interpretative anthropology, which assumes that culture is an organized collection of symbols with the major function of maintaining social order for normal operation. As derivatives of the cosmology of a given culture, the concepts of morality and personhood, as well as other symbolic systems, can best be understood in the holistic context of that culture.

Many anthropologists have used the ethnographic approach to study indigenous religions, cosmology, personhood, and concepts of morality in non-Western societies (e.g., Edel and Edel 1959, Howell 1997). They tend to adopt the native’s point of view to interpret the moral ideas, moral discourse, and moral practices in a particular society. Instead of relying solely on philosophical analysis and anthropological records, they pay special attention to the dynamic interplay between abstract moral principles and empirical facts.

Researchers following this approach tend to adopt the viewpoint of relativism for depicting the uniqueness of each culture. Paradoxically, members of a cultural community tend to insist on the viewpoint of absolutism: They may believe that their moral standard is superior to that of other cultural groups, and use it as a criterion for defining what is meant by person or for differentiating their own group from outsiders. Those who violate their moral standards might be condemned as not a person. The process of dehumanization may lead to severe interpersonal or even intergroup conflict in extreme cases.

1.3 Cultural Psychology

Cultural psychologists investigate the cultural foundation of psychological diversity in self-organization, cognitive process, emotional function, and moral reasoning among people living in different cultures. In order to understand native peoples’ symbolic and behavioral inheritance in terms of their shared framework of interpretation, cultural psychologists also adopt an ethnographic approach, but with the perspective of pluralism. Pluralism assumes that people all over the world are similar in their psychological structure and function, although aspects of their knowledge, thinking, feeling, values, needs, and behavior are activated by the experience of living in a particular cultural community. Cultural psychologists advocate the slogan: ‘one mind, many mentalities; universalism without uniformity’ (Shweder et al. 1998, p. 871). They work to develop universal theoretical frameworks for interpreting the thinking and behavior of people in different cultures. Although it would be impossible to depict all moral systems in the world, it is possible to describe the sharp contrasts between moral systems of the East and West with the conceptual schemes provided by cultural psychologists.

2. Morality

Cultural psychologists suggest that three main domains of moral discourse exist in human society: the ethics of autonomy, the ethics of community, and the ethics of divinity (Shweder et al. 1997). Because the moral experiences of human beings are so complicated and the recognition of reality so restricted, even though all moral systems contain elements of all three of these domains, any particular moral system will tend to emphasize a particular domain of moral discourse.

2.1 Morality Of The West

The contemporary Western moral system is characterized by the ethics of autonomy, which can be traced to the Christian religious tradition. Christianity assumes that the world was created by God, who also created humankind in accordance with His own image. Since all humans were created in God’s image, all humans are equal. Every person has the essence of humanity and should obey the divine commandments declared by God.

This concept of person and its underlying discourse of divinity changed drastically after the Renaissance in Europe. The Cartesian philosophy of dualism detached individuals from the outer world where they find themselves. Rationalism emphasized an individual’s free will and subjective reasoning. The expansion of modern capitalism also made significant contributions to the rise of individualism.

The Western concept of self-formed in the cultural milieu of individualism requires a dualistic view of the world. It draws sharp distinctions between mind and matter, cognition and affection, self and society, nature and culture, and so on. Self is conceptualized as ‘a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against its social and natural background’ (Geertz 1974, p. 225). The inner life of the self, with its spontaneity, privacy, uniqueness, genuine feeling, and constancy, has a clear-cut boundary that separates it from the outer social world constituted by mask, role, rule, or context.

In the Western view of personhood, the individual is conceived of as prior to and more fundamental than society, which is treated as an artificial construction designed mainly to satisfy human needs. When a social order can no longer serve the function of realizing this end, it should be redesigned and reconstructed to restore its function. Based on this premise, Western morality is characterized by an emphasis on the rights of individuals. According to Dworkin (1977), all moral codes encompass personal rights, personal duties, and social goals, but they may differ in the priority given to these three categories. Western morality is premised on the concept of natural rights, rather than on natural duties or social goals.

Because individuals are construed as quasi-sacred and absolute, their legitimate demands should be carefully respected. The individual is a monad, and every human group is made up of monads with the same human nature. Individuals’ free will and right to liberty are natural, fundamental, and inescapable. By the same token, the duty to respect others’ rights is equally natural and inescapable. One’s rights are restrained by the identical rights of other individuals, and everybody is encouraged to strive for the rights of all human beings to the greatest overall liberty (Dumont 1986).

The realization of negative duties of omission (e.g., not killing, not cheating, not stealing, etc.) is considered to be the prerequisite of a moral agent. Violating moral codes of this category might be condemned as evil. In contrast, the practice of the positive duties of commission is subject to an individual’s right of choice. Individuals who decide to undertake an altruistic act may be admired for their virtue. As a consequence, a certain state of tension is frequently aroused between social demand and the individual’s desire for freedom of choice. The autonomous view of self tends to entail the belief that performing social obligations in spite of individual rights may have the negative effect of restricting one’s own personal liberties. Even if one can justify working for the benefit of another person, the act of under-taking this responsibility is a resolution of personal choice, rather than an enforced social demand.

As indicated by Gilligan (1982), in contrast to the Kohlbergian ethics of justice for males, the moral reasoning of Western females can be characterized by the ethics of caring and responsibility. However, both the superogatory view of morality held by Kohlberg and the morality-of-caring framework developed by Gilligan are bound to the Western culture of individualism. Both stress freedom of choice and individual responsibility. Commitments to interpersonal caring are viewed as matters of personal decision, rather than as obligations to a particular social target (Miller 1994).

2.2 Morality In The East

In sharp contrast to the individual-centered morality of the West, contents of moral systems in the Oriental world, no matter whether they originated from Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, or Buddhism, can be described as duty-based. Unlike typical Western dualism, most Oriental philosophies advocate a monistic view of origin. That is, one’s life is construed as an inseparable part of the world in which one finds oneself, not as an independent entity standing in opposition to the outer world. For example, traditional Chinese philosophy conceives of the formation of all things in the universe as the result of dynamics between the two opposing forces of ying and yang. A person’s life is also produced from the unification of ying (female) and yang (male). In Confucianism, a family is conceived of as the body of a human being; each role in the family represents a distinct part of the body. For instance, the relationship between parent and child is like that between flesh and bone, while brothers are considered to be the four limbs (Hwang 1999).

The Hindu view of life is also premised on the functional interrelatedness of the universe. From the earliest times of Rgveda (about 1500 BC), the Hindus have believed that Rta is the governing dynamic principle underlying functional equilibrium of the cosmic order. The famous purushshukta of Rgveda assumes the functional relatedness of all living organisms. Any existing phenomena may attain a state of Rta when each of its parts remains in its proper place and functions in its own law of activity. Humans, animals, and plants are interrelated. They all are part of the cosmic immanent life force. The individual functioning of one in coordination with the individual functions of others results in collaborative equilibrium of the whole universe (Heimann 1964). In the same vein, Hindus conceptualize their society as a huge cosmic organism in which certain functions are allotted to each of the four major parts: the head, arms, trunk, and feet. Each of these four represents one of the four castes of Hindu society. Remaining in the proper function fulfills the goal of smooth collaboration of the whole society.

Instead of drawing the boundary of an individual around the immediate surface of one’s physical body, most Oriental philosophies conceive of this boundary as expandable to include one’s family or the whole society. Followers of Oriental philosophy tend to believe that external forces predetermine the social order. Role relationships within one’s primary group are especially unchangeable through one’s own efforts. Therefore, Oriental moral systems endow mandatory features not only to negative duties of omission, but also to some positive duties of commission. Examples include filial piety in Chinese society, repaying on (favors or kindness) in Japanese society, and utang na loob (debt inside oneself or a debt of gratitude) in Filipino society. These kinds of positive duties or categorical imperatives urge individuals to fulfill obligations to specific targets in the community. These obligations ensure the smooth functioning of society, rather than protect the rights of individuals. In Dworkin’s (1977) conceptual framework, Eastern moralities are based on duties or group goals rather than rights.

Compared with Western ethics of autonomy, ideas about individual rights are relatively uncommon in traditional Eastern moralities. Even moral discourse arguing for negative duties in Eastern moral systems are proposed not on the premise of protecting individual rights, but in consideration of maintaining social order or for religious reasons. For example, the act of killing others violates the principle of benevolence (ren). Ren, the requirement that all people carry out their moral duty to significant others in their intimate society, is the most fundamental moral rule for maintaining psychosocial homeostasis in Chinese society. Buddhists must adhere to five requirements: do not kill, steal, lie, be lustful, or taste intoxicants or meat. Violation of any of these requirements may result in karma bringing automatic retribution in a later life. Muslims also believe that the present life is short and temporary, while the future life is eternal and everlasting. Those who devote themselves to charity, especially those who sacrifice themselves for the almighty Allah, may ascend to Heaven. Those who indulge in evil doings will descend to Hell. This kind of moral discourse indicates that Eastern moral systems entail the ethics of community or the ethics of divinity, rather than the ethics of autonomy.

Moral discourse supporting the ethics of community or divinity in the Oriental world as revealed by sages or prophets are recorded in classics such as The Analects of Confucianism, or religious scriptures such as the Koran of the Moslem faith, or the Upanisads of Hinduism. Intellectuals who are able to interpret those classics or scriptures, like Confucian scholars in traditional China, Brahmans in India, priests in Islamic countries, and monks in Buddhist societies, have occupied high positions in traditional and even contemporary Oriental societies. Their position is similar to that of priests in the Christian world before the European religious Reformation movement.

In contrast, the modern Western view of morality advocates a position of secularism, which assumes that all moral agents are morally equivalent. Anyone can discover the natural law of morality without the assistance of revelations by a prophet or sage.

2.3 Global Ethics

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and East European communist regimes at the end of the 1980s, most countries have been incorporated into the world economic system of capitalism. The rapid expansion of opportunity for intercultural contact and exchange between people from the East and West has facilitated the formation of such concepts as multiculturalism and global ethics in the age of globalization. As part of the Universal Ethics Project sponsored by UNESCO, a group of international scholars of philosophy have proposed a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities and a list of global ethics (Kung and Kuschel 1993). The list consists of four categorical imperatives which are proposed on the basis of a fundamental demand that every human being must be treated humanely:

You shall not kill! Or in positive terms: Have respect for life!

You shall not steal! Or in positive terms: Deal honestly and fairly!

You shall not lie! Or in positive terms: Speak and act truthfully!

You shall not commit sexual immorality! Or in positive terms: Respect and love one another!

A careful examination of the list indicates that it consists of negative and positive duties already present in most cultures of the world, rather than positive duties which are specific to a particular culture in either the East or West.


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