2015-11-02

A Two-Penny Theory Of Cultural Morality

Imagine two hypothetical cities: San Salvatore and Friedrichsburg.

San Salvatore is a land-locked region where the winters are mild, but the summers are harsh. The growing season here is notoriously fickle because sometimes there are severe droughts, but often when the droughts break, there is severe flooding that destroys crops; the summers can be hot and dry, but if the growing season is too short, then the local crops never reach full maturity and the farmers lose big time. Since it is a large, land-locked area, it never attracted a very large population. Consequently, the sparse but hardy human population ended up being culturally quite homogeneous. They also learned, after many harsh summers, that the survival of all of them depends on a tight-knit community that lends a helping hand when disaster strikes. This tight-knit community had additional upshots: since everyone knew each other, they could all do more or less as they pleased because if anyone got into trouble, the community would step in to enforce the community's moral standards. The standards that evolved were, again, a by-product of a culturally homogeneous community; any significant deviation from local standards could be seen as a signal that Deviant Person X will not be reliable when disaster strikes. The community will, by and large, be unilingual; after all, why speak a different language when so much of your survival depends on your ability to communicate with society at large? So, the community naturally moves in to stamp-out any significant social deviance. Finally, deviants in such a community often feel quite ostracized (because they are).

Friedrichsburg, on the other hand, is a port city, and thus has always enjoyed the attributes of an international commercial hub. The winters can be incredibly cold and harsh, but springtime is beautiful and features ample rainfall, enough to make growing leafy greens and root vegetables relatively easy. For those things that are difficult to produce, the city's ability to trade with far-away regions makes survival a little less touch-and-go. Being dependent on this trade, however, means that the community cannot afford to turn its nose up at people from radically different cultures - they need their stuff! And with a relatively constant churn of international citizens coming to port, trading, and then moving on, their is little reason to build up a great distrust of social deviance. Multilingualism becomes incredibly important in a city like this, since there are many people speaking many languages with whom everyone would like to trade. The more languages one can speak, the more one can trade with other members of the community. Still, people who originate from similar regions tend to congregate at night and form diaspora in order share a bite of traditional cuisine and speak their native tongue to remember "home," wherever it may have once been. There is, after all, a lot of variation within the city at any given point in time. The survival of the community, then, depends on a certain degree of open-mindedness. Those who treat outsiders poorly discourage outsiders from bringing their cargo to port, and that becomes an existential threat for the community. So open-mindedness is not merely a social value, it's an attitude that can impact the economic success of the whole city.

Suppose there is a young man who wants very much to be a good person, and to also be a successful person. Let's call him "Sam." Sam's core personality traits and desires are simply what they are, we shall take them as given. They are a part of his personality.

If Sam were born and raised in San Salvatore, then his desire to be ethical and successful would lead him to certain conclusions. He'd have a strong incentive to pay attention in church, to dress in accordance with local customs, to signal his intolerance of distrustful behavior, to signal his trustworthiness to other locals like him. He'd want to make sure he felt included, like an important member of the community.

If, on the other hand, Sam were born and raised in Friedrichsburg, he might be equally hard-working, honest, ambitious, etc., but the way he might go about making his way in the world would be quite different. He'd need to signal open-mindedness to foster relationships with as many trading partners as possible. He might get too attached to any one church or social group for fear of being deemed insufficiently cosmopolitan.

I make no empirical claims about the above scenarios. I offer it merely as one possibility for how similar people might come to very different ideological perspectives depending on the community in which they exist. If such situations were to exist in the real world, a reasonable person could fully understand the benefits of socially enforced homogeneity in a community that depended on it, while also understanding the benefits of cosmopolitanism in a community that depended on it.

Still, in the modern world, it would seem silly to cling too much to one type of perspective or the other. Most regions in the world are no longer set as being one type of community or the other. While some might argue that the world is now more interconnected and cosmopolitan than ever, the truth of the matter is that today's world is very different from the port cities of old, in several important ways. And doubtless no one would suggest that the average community is as touch-and-go as the old land-locked agrarian societies of days gone by.

So, what we need in today's world is a set of social standards that reflect today's world. Ideally, this would include the best strengths of all possible norms. We ought to be open-minded enough to interact productively with anyone who doesn't threaten us, but not so open-minded that we become tolerant of genuinely destructive behavior. Our social standards ought to be strict enough as to be self-policing, without the need for an expansive (and abusive) police state, but not so strict as to create cultural homogeneity. Finally, the standards ought to be dynamic enough to facilitate our lives as we tackle the next problems of the human condition: environmental challenges, medical breakthroughs, scientific advancement; but not so dynamic that our own personal values aren't anchored to anything concrete and we become narcissists.