Influential Prose

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Cultural Influence on Morals

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

Culture influences morals. But it is not the only influence, nor necessarily the strongest one. Thinking about how culture influences morals raises several questions. What are morals? What is culture? What are their sources and what causes them to change? The dictionary definition for morals is “relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior.” The definition of culture is “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.” And it may well be that both culture and morality are less an agreement than a constant process of adding and subtracting effective rules for social cooperation and survival.

Popular Culture
Popular culture — TV, movies, media, fads — is a social conversation. The media provides news, ideas and entertainment, generally presented within the bounds of existing moral codes. For example, kissing on TV shows and movies has long been depicted in American media, but was taboo in Indian media for decades. The social conversation is about where the boundaries lie. Sometimes, morality sets the parameters and culture determines what behavior, within those parameters, is acceptable. Both America and India have moral codes, but the boundaries have sometimes been in different places. Different cultures, different ideas about right and wrong.

Family and Other Influences
We are exposed to cultural values from many sources — family, peers, education, authorities, religion. Because we spend most of our formative years with family, the values of the family, good or bad, are a powerful influence. The impact of other sources varies with age, experience and understanding. As we enter adolescence, for example, the influence of peers grows and that of family often wanes. These multiple influences affect our personal values and our outlook. Who we are and what we believe evolves, even as we recognize some enduring principles.

Conflicting Moral Sources
Values from multiple sources sometimes conflict. Behavior that is accepted at home may not be accepted at school and vice versa. Where does culture end and morality begin?

The religious answer is that our aspirational values are set down by a deity and it is our task to live in accordance with them. But another answer has been suggested by research on primate behavior by Dutch/American biologist and ethologist Frans de Waal. His studies have identified moral behavior in socially intelligent mammals — chimpanzees, monkeys and elephants — implying that morals have developed as a result of natural selection.

Generational Change
We are born into a world of values that have existed throughout humanity’s history. We absorb these values as children while we navigate our social environment, processing and reevaluating them through our adult lives. While value systems resist change within generations, they are subject to fresh inspection by each new generation, and each new generation chips away at the norm.

Samuel Butler once observed that “Morality is the custom of one’s country and the current feeling of one’s peers.” Morals are also subject to change, but usually over longer stretches of time. There are clear instructions on slave management in the Bible; it was an accepted practice at the time. Our moral values and our culture are different now. Our culture says slavery is wrong, and our moral code agrees.

Culture influences morality, and morality influences culture. But they don’t always agree. That’s why the social conversation never ends.

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Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 11:10 pm

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