Cultural differences in moral reasoning are driven by various influences -- history, leadership, religious belief, experiences with peace and warfare, available resources and the strategies for extracting and distributing those resources. These cultural differences are not limited to the scale of nations. There can also be differences in the culture and moral reasoning between schools, communities, companies, even families. Moral reasoning has a way of adapting to or being shaped by people's needs and perceptions.
Absolutes vs. Relativism
There's an ongoing, cross-cultural debate on whether moral values are absolute or relative. Are there universal morals that apply to all regardless of culture, or are moral values a negotiation between the environment, natural selection and social conditions? It's a hotly debated topic, but clearly moral reasoning diverges among cultures. In some areas, gay marriage is accepted and not in others. Some countries permit personal firearm ownership, in others you can be jailed. The same is true for possession of certain plants.
Overpopulation has led China to impose some restrictions on family size. Today it has over 1.35 billion people and most Chinese live with an average density of 326 people per square mile. People living at that density calls for, and perhaps requires, a moral system that emphasizes cooperation and harmony -- exactly what Confucianism teaches. In China, conditions and moral reasoning lead to limits on family size.
In Russia, conditions and moral reasoning lead to an opposite conclusion. Russia's population density is slightly below 14 people per square mile, with about 143 million total population. Government policy encourages families to have as many children as they can (which also requires cooperation and harmony).
Japan's situation is complex. They face a rapidly aging population and steep decline in fertility, in part because strong Confucian values demand marriage before children, but marriage rates are dismally low. Japan is caught between cultural values and an inevitable economic decline unless fertility and immigration increase; thus Japanese moral reasoning is now forced to resolve this conflict to maintain national prosperity.
Consider a simplified example of conflicting interests between a factory owner and a farmer. To remain in business, the factory owner must balance costs and expenses. This may mean discharging pollutants in the atmosphere because it is the lowest-cost way to eliminate wastes. If costs are not well-controlled, the factory could fail and people would lose jobs. From this perspective, cost control is a moral good.
From a farmer's perspective, if crops are contaminated by mercury particulates from the factory, the moral good of cost control becomes the evil of food poisoning. Similarly, an agricultural society will have a different moral perspective on some issues than an industrial society. Cultural values -- morals -- tend to dovetail with practical needs.
On the issue of global warming, there's a clear clash between the view in academic culture, which is driven by several lines of evidence pointing toward anthropogenic climate change, and the views of fossil fuel and other industries, a culture that tends to combat any conclusion that will affect profits. When scientific facts and self-interest diverge, the effect on moral reasoning is illuminating.
Cultures vary in how they value others in their midst. Slavery is a stark example, and had its advocates. It is now widely condemned, yet persists in the form of human trafficking, or sex slavery. Sexual slavery victims tend to flow from economically insecure areas to regions of relative stability. When times are hard, the young women who comprise the majority of victims can be manipulated and entrapped with promises of phony jobs. Some locales, most famously Bangkok and Amsterdam, tolerate the sex trade by reasoning that it's a matter between consenting adults. This blurs the line between consent and coercion and complicates enforcement against human trafficking.
Other forms of devaluation persist, cutting across lines of ethnicity, gender, age and disability, resulting in societies stratified by economic class (U.S.), social castes (India, Pakistan) and ethnicity (U.S, Japan). Social stratification is inherently hierarchical, a pre-rational behavioral pattern, and proactive moral reasoning is working to reduce it through affirmative action programs in the U.S. and India.
Moral reasoning varies by culture in accordance with what the culture values. As noted American author Robert A. Heinlein pointed out, “Man is not a rational animal. He is a rationalizing animal.” It's clear that moral values are relative in practice. If there are also absolute universal moral values, no clear consensus has yet emerged that identifies them.
- Journal of Psychology in the Schools: Social Moral Reasoning in Chinese Children -- A Developmental Study
- CIA World Fact Book: China
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Moral Relativism
- MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science: Cultural Relativism
- UK Independent: Japan: A country in crisis?
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime: Global Report on Trafficking in Persons
- Pakistan Express-Tribune: Pakistan’s Caste System: The Untouchable's Struggle
- National Geographic: India's Untouchables
- Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images