History of the Dance, Part Six

"Am I my brother's keeper?" might be considered the central question of Judeo-Christian morality. Opinions, as they say, differ. Perhaps the majority of Americans might say "It depends." Libertarians say "No" and Randites "Hell no!" It seems that rural Mayan villagers are at the opposite (and biblically endorsed) pole.

...most people think actions that lead to harm are worse than omissions (i.e. not doing something) that lead to harm. Think of a doctor killing a patient with a lethal dose, as opposed to letting them die by not administering a life-saving drug.

Most people match this pattern of responding but so far most participants have been from urban, technologically advanced cultures. Now Marc Hauser and his colleague Linda Abarbanell have translated these kinds of moral scenarios and taken them to a rural Mayan community in the highlands of Chiapas in Mexico.

The rural Mayans showed the usual bias for seeing harm caused deliberately in pursuit of a greater good as more forbidden than harm caused as a side-effect in pursuit of that same greater good. But Abarbanell and Hauser's breakthrough finding is that the rural Mayans didn't believe that harm caused by direct contact was worse than indirect harm and they didn't think active harmful acts were morally worse than harmful acts of omission.

The researchers don't think these differences emerged because of translation problems. Choosing to focus on the omission/active harm type situation, the researchers tried out several different scenarios, including one designed for use with children, and always the results were the same. The rural Mayans saw agents as more causally responsible for active harm, they just didn't see them as more morally blameworthy. Moreover, when Abarbanell and Hauser tested a more urban Mayan population, they did show the usual tendency to see harmful acts of omission as less bad, thus suggesting that this difference in moral judgment is specific to the rural community.

The authors speculate that the more intimate community of rural life leads to the more communitarian value structures.

Put me down with the Mayans. That's probably why I so detest libertarian ideas and values. I see this as perhaps the key divide between liberal and libertarian.

Via Marginal Revolution


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