Morality and Agency

Yesterday, Robert Murphy posted an unconvincing excerpt, written by G.K. Chesterton, on moral relativism. Chesterton’s argument seems to be that if two moral systems can really be different, then why call them moral systems at all. He claims (correctly),

Of course, there is a permanent substance of morality, as much as there is a permanent substance of art; to say that is only to say that morality is morality and art is art.

I commented, pointing out — although, not explicitly targeting the above — that we can see morality as a sort of category, where individual moral systems can have a diverse set of beliefs regarding what is “right” and “wrong.” As such, that we can describe a general category and ascribe to it some constant qualities doesn’t mean that some of the elements within said category can be different, and even mutually incompatible (e.g. “slavery is bad” versus “slavery is good” [I chose this example, because it's an example of real world moral relativism]).

P.S. Huff, in a separate comment, agrees with, but rhetorically challenges people to find an example of two sets of moralities that are completely different,

Having said that, I would be shocked if anyone could produce an example of two societies with completely different moral codes. Significantly different, yes; radically different, maybe. But completely?

I agree; what’s more, I think it is a great example of the relevance of agency in sociology. There are varying degrees of agency, but essentially it’s a theory which argues that the individual forms an identity and ideology from within. This is contrasted with interpellation, which holds that the individual receives her ideology from outside influences. The truth is probably somewhere in between — and depending on the individual —, but there is some level at which agency is useful.

If there were no agency, similarities amongst moral systems would be the product of cultural export, or interaction between different societies. But, I think P.S. Huff’s caveat holds even for the most separated cultures: there are always some similarities in moral beliefs across otherwise separate peoples (although, this is probably more relevant for pre-modern societies, when there were various divisions of labors that weren’t associated with each other to a meaningful degree). Different people develop similar concepts of “right” and “wrong:” for example, murder is probably almost universally considered wrong (although “murder” can be defined in such a way that, for instance, “murder” can be wrong, but human sacrifice can be right).

These similarities, I think, are a product of a similar human condition. All humans are subject to the scarcity of economic goods, therefore most societies develop some kind of property rights (not necessarily the property rights that we know today in the United States or most of Europe; it could be of a more primitive kind), which then tends to impose a sentiment on right and wrong on matters of property. Similarly, as scarcity can lead to conflict, most societies develop rules on when it’s okay to enter into conflict and when it isn’t, also imposing parallel feelings of “right” and “wrong.”

This isn’t straightforward agency, because the individual is still subject to her environment (and it’s the environment which shapes the legal and moral code), but it helps explain how separate cultures can develop similar ethical constellations, despite having minimal interaction with each other. What’s interesting, though, is that the similarities tend to dissipate once we move on to the details, because the nuances aren’t as constrained by objective, physical limitations, or a society’s environment. Where there are less external factors pressuring somebody to adopt certain practices and habits, out of convenience or to solve problems, there is far more room to rationalize a broad set of varying ideologies.

Edit: Coincidentally, Douglass North talks about morality in the context of human consciousness, in Understanding the Process of Economic Change. He draws on Pascal Boyer, who argues that the “psychology of moral reasoning” is largely genetic — i.e. the product of biological evolution. This includes, as well, our propensity to cooperate with each other. In face of the evidence, it may be difficult to doubt the importance of genetics in determining moral beliefs, but clearly complex ethical systems are the product of both genetics and culture (experience, institutions, et cetera).