Morals and harm

A letter from our February edition.

Schein et al. (‘The uncensored truth about morality’, December 2015) claim too much in presenting their theory of dyadic morality as universally applicable. They argue that intentional harm inflicted by one person on another ‘is the very core of a universal moral template’, but fail to demonstrate this. Indeed, one of their early examples serves only to illustrate the limitations of the theory. This is the statement that ‘debates about abortion hinge on whether fetuses are capable of feeling pain…’. This is simply untrue: abortion debates are overwhelmingly disagreements on matters of principle, not reducible to harm or not harm: the rights of the woman versus those of the foetus, the question when a foetus becomes a person, and the sanctity of human life. Then, in attempting to show that the theory applies across cultures, they argue that a particular Hindu dietary rule can be reduced to preventing harm to a relative. Perhaps so, but that does not show that all rules concerning spiritual purity can be similarly reduced.

They criticise the theory of Haidt (2012), who shows how, across the American political spectrum, people differ in their attachments to five moral dimensions or modules: care, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Schein et al. describe evidence that judgements about harm underpin all of these, thus supporting their claim that the dyadic theory is all that is needed. However, even if harm can be shown to be the sole basis for Americans’ moral judgements (which is unlikely, given the abortion example, for instance), this does not demonstrate the universal applicability of dyadic morality.

Americans on both the political left and right inhabit the culture of Western liberalism, within which the individual person has ultimate moral worth and in which the values of freedom, equality and tolerance are assumed. Hence the moral importance of harm to the individual. Siedentop (2014) traces the roots and spread of this culture. The point here is that these assumptions are not shared by most of the world’s population. For most people, ultimate moral worth is accorded to deities, nations, or spiritual or national leaders. Similarly, the Western assumption of equality between the sexes and between people of different social ranks is clearly not accepted universally. Fukuyama (1992) foresaw the end of history, with Western liberal capitalist democracy about to become the global norm. How wrong he turned out to be. The aim of Schein et al. – to produce a universally applicable account of moral reasoning – is hugely important, but remains to be achieved.

Roger Paxton PhD CPsychol FBPsS

Fukuyama, F. (1992). The end of history and the last man. London: Penguin.
Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind. London: Allen Lane.
Siedentop, L. (2014). Inventing the individual: The origins of Western liberalism. London: Penguin.

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