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Cultural Differences in Moral Reasoning

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

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.

National Differences
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.

Economic Differences
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.

Humanitarian Differences
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.

Social Stratification
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.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 3:20 am

Why Parents Shouldn’t Be Able to Refuse Medical Treatment for an Ill Child

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

Legally, refusal to provide or access medical care for children can be termed medical neglect. According to the latest available national statistics, documented child abuse and neglect in 2011 affected more than 675,000 children, or nearly 1 in a 100 kids. On average, 3 percent was stemmed from medical neglect in 41 reporting states. Some states average higher. Arkansas’ medical neglect rate is 7.5 percent, while the District of Columbia, Georgia, New York and Puerto Rico all average about 5 percent. The lowest rates are in Delaware and Utah at 0.04 percent and 0.02 percent respectively, plus both Wisconsin and Nebraska at 0.01 percent.

Causes
Medical neglect can have several causes, including economic hardship, lack of access to care or health insurance, family chaos and disorganization, lack of awareness, knowledge or skills, lack of trust in health care workers, impairment of caregivers, caregivers’ beliefs and children’s behavior, according to a 2007 article in the journal “Pediatrics.” Of these causes, two can involve active refusal of care: caregivers’ belief systems and children’s behavior.

Legal Exceptions
In most instances, medical neglect is legally actionable. The exception is faith-based exemptions, which are written into law in most states, according to Childhealthcare.org. These exemptions vary in scope. Forty-eight states permit exemption from immunization programs. Most states permit exemption from metabolic testing of newborns that can detect developmental problems, including some that can be prevented with treatment. Ten states have religious exemptions for eyedrops that can help prevent blindness in children who contact a venereal disease carried by their mothers. Seventeen states have religious exemptions to felony crimes against children.

Consequences
A study titled “Child Fatalities from Religion-Motivated Medical Neglect” in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal found that of 172 cases of child fatalities attributed to faith-based medical neglect, 140 had excellent (90 percent positive) prognosis with standard treatment. Many of the remaining 32 children were treatable, with good outcomes likely. The consequences of not participating in immunization programs can be widespread. In 1991, “The New York Times” reported on an outbreak of 492 measles cases in Philadelphia that led to the deaths of six children, two of them unrelated to the Faith Tabernacle and First Century Gospel churches at the center of the outbreak. A later check of the Faith Tabernacle school found 201 of the children in attendance had never seen a doctor.

Prevention
Most faith-based cases of medical neglect leading to illness and death are preventable. The nonprofit educational charity Children’s Health Care Is a Legal Duty lists other treatable conditions that resulted in the deaths of children in the care of Christian Science parents between 1974 and 1994; five by meningitis, three of pneumonia, two of appendicitis, five of diabetes, two of diphtheria, one of measles, one of septicemia, one of a kidney infection, one of a bowel obstruction, and one of heart disease. In the Philadelphia outbreak, three children were hospitalized under court order to ensure treatment. However, as long as religious exemptions remain in place, the justice system has legal limits on what they can do.

References
American Academy of Pediatrics: Religious Objections to Medical Care
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Familes: Child Maltreatment 2011 report
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Familes: Child Neglect: A Guide for Intervention
American Academy of Pediatrics: Recognizing and Responding to Medical Neglect
American Medical Association: Miracle vs. Medicine: When Faith Puts Care at Risk

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 3:11 am

Evangelism in the Early Seventeenth & Eighteenth Centuries

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

The roots of American evangelism go back to 16th century Europe, when Anabaptists began suggesting that church should be separate from the state. This view did not find favor among governments closely aligned with the Catholic church, and consequently Anabaptism was brutally suppressed. The means, as the Global Mennonite Encyclopedia starkly describes it, was often “the scaffold and the stake.” By the end of the 16th century, most European Anabaptist leaders were dead. Some of the survivors fled to America, where evangelism would later resume, but the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites who were descended from the original Anabaptists abandoned evangelism in the United States.

Evangelism, Not Evangelicalism
The most common personal experience with evangelism and apologetics in America today is with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who go door to door to advance their faith. Evangelists are the local equivalent of missionaries who go abroad to spread the word. Evangelism is not the same thing as evangelicalism. Evangelism is a practice, a way of sharing belief. Evangelicalism is a dogma and a trend that led to American political activism and megachurches in large U.S. cities.

Early American Settlers
The early 17th century in North America was marked by the establishment of colonies, including Jamestown, Plymouth and Boston. Some settlers came to escape religious persecution; others came to make money. It was a brutal time: many colonists failed to survive the deep winters, and native Indians were a danger as well. Although there was ample religious fervor among the colonists, there was little energy or enthusiasm for evangelism. Simple survival was the priority.

The Great Awakening
After a period of relative quiet in the religious sphere, like the calm before the storm, evangelism suddenly caught fire again in American culture during the Great Awakening. A charismatic preaching style modeled on the fiery, emotional sermons of George Whitefield, paired with dramatic “religious revival” events, drew increasingly larger crowds to Protestant churches in the late 1730s. Beginning in New England over six years, then spreading to the South, revivals were aimed at the faithful whose convictions were weakened by doubt and the unchurched who had little contact or experience with organized religion.

George Whitefield
Whitefield was a central figure in establishing American evangelism, but according to some, he may have also been a factor in sparking the American Revolution. Before Whitefield, sermons were top-down affairs — the pastor preached, the congregation listened. Using the call and response technique, Whitefield established congregational participation and encouraged emotional expression. This exciting new dialogue, together with a generally defiant attitude toward authority, stirred what Nancy Ruttenburg calls the “democratic personality.” The Great Awakening unleashed more than a religious revival; it reinforced a fierce sense of independence. This eventually led to the separation of church and state that Anabaptists had advocated.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 2:53 am

Chinese Religion & Ethics in the 17th Century

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

The Chinese word for religion didn’t enter the language until late in the 19th century, when scholars needed a term to translate the concept from Western texts. The conception of religion as the West understands it today simply did not exist in 17th century China. In the first sociological analysis of Chinese thought, Chinese scholar C.K. Lang wrote, “Even priests in some country temples were unable to reveal the identity of the religion to which they belonged. Centuries of mixing gods from different faiths into a common pantheon had produced a functionally oriented religious view that relegated the question of religious identity to a secondary place.”

Three Traditions
The three dominant influences on 17th century Chinese thought and belief were Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. These are primarily philosophical and ethical systems rather than religions, and each of these traditions have schools of thought and sects. Although aspects of ritual have theist overtones, such as requests for favors from deities, the Chinese relationship to deities can be described as devotion and veneration (respect) rather than worship. There are various deities for different aspects of life, such as the ubiquitous City God, who is often a long-dead former city leader. In Chinese cosmologies, everything is integrated, with no distinction between the natural and supernatural.

Confucianism
Formally taught in China for centuries, Confucianism was the dominant ethical system during the 17th century. Humanist and holistic, it imparts ethics with an emphasis on the practical, presenting a subtle and nuanced structure of ideal behavior. In contrast to the Western stress on personal autonomy, Confucianism centers more on relational values, such as family loyalty, mutual obligation and respect. Schoolchildren learned these values at the earliest levels, and the best students went on to take civil service exams. Exams were explicitly based on Confucian values, and constituted the world’s first comprehensive merit system whereby proof of knowledge and understanding of ethics was required.

Buddhism and Daoism
Buddhism came to China from India via Silk Road trade routes in 67 CE, but it was several centuries before Buddhist concepts were fully adapted and integrated with the Chinese worldview. The Chan (Zen) school dominated through the 1600s. Daoism, also known as Taoism, is indigenous to China, but frequently makes a point of distinguishing itself from other beliefs, such as highlighting its differences with Buddhism. In practice, both traditions have shared deities, include complementary values and in the 17th century, both acknowledged the supremacy of the state over temple.

Folk Religion & Christianity
In the 1600s folk religion was popular among the illiterate, rural peasants who made up the majority of the population. Folk religion was a polyglot of animism, shamanism and elements of the three main traditions in a syncretic mix. This diffuse assortment of practices continued for centuries and still survives today. In the late 16th century, Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci was reestablishing Christianity in China after a long lull, and the 17th century was marked by waves of incoming Jesuit priests fulfilling Ricci’s legacy. By the early 18th century, the Qing emperor was encouraging his subjects to reject Christianity in favor of local beliefs.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 11:23 pm

Who Advocated Religious Individualism?

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

The modern understanding of religious individualism, as defined by the Catholic Encyclopedia, “describes the attitude of those persons who refuse to subscribe to definite creeds, or to submit to any external religious authority.” It is conceptually similar to “cafeteria Christians,” a phrase used to describe Christians who take an a la carte approach to their faith. This is done by accepting some aspects of Christianity while rejecting others. For example, one might accept the teachings of Jesus while dismissing the stories of virgin birth and resurrection as myth. The religious individualist expands on this idea to encompass different faiths. Rather than go all in with one religious tradition, a personalized set of ethical views are derived from the elements of a variety of faiths.

Søren Kierkegaard
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is frequently referenced in relation to religious individualism, but as an ardent Christian, Kierkegaard’s expression of the idea diverges from the current definition. His view could be termed introspective individualism, or internalized religion–faith that is deeply embedded within the individual. Kierkegaard was a fierce critic of the Christian Church of Denmark, and his focus on the individual over the institution contains the seeds of the modern understanding of religious individualism. Today, the religious individualist proactively assembles a collection of values from several sources rather than passively accepting a package of values from a single, institutional source.

Martin Luther
The first advocate of religious individualism was Martin Luther. A respected Catholic priest and professor of theology, he sparked the Protestant Reformation by challenging the church’s positions on indulgences and the path to salvation in 1517. Luther openly defied the Pope by declaring that the Bible, not the Pope, was the final word on divine knowledge, a direct challenge to the Catholic Church’s authority. He also translated the Bible from Hebrew and ancient Greek to common German, making it more accessible to individuals. This further weakened the church by depriving it of the sole power to interpret Biblical understanding. Individuals could now evaluate the Bible for themselves and form their own opinions, a change that would have profound and lasting consequences.

Jean-Marie Guyau
In 1897, French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau published the “The Non-Religion of the Future,” a book that describes religious individualism in the modern sense. Guyau argues that religion as it exists is in decline and speculates about the dimensions of a secular society. The following year, the “Philosophical Review” published a dismissive review of Gayau’s book, but his ideas have proven prescient in the United States and northern Europe. Much of Europe is now predominately secular, and the segment of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated is growing faster than any faith group.

Religious Deregulation
Sociologist Roger Finke of Purdue University portrays the separation of church and state in early American history as religious deregulation, which triggered variety and vitality in American worship. Religious individualism can also be viewed as a process of deregulation, but on the individual level. Individualism has always been about maximizing personal choice; religious individualism simply extends this power to the realm of values by rejecting subordination and advocating the diffusion of power from institutions to people.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 11:17 pm

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.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 11:10 pm

Globalization & Religious Violence

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

Even as the world population has grown, globalization has made our planet shrink. Travel options have expanded, more people are living in cities, and the products we use daily are increasingly made and distributed by multinational corporations. Mass production and its economic advantages have been expanded to nearly all corners of the world, to the point where one can find familiar food, clothing, tools and services wherever people gather in large numbers. Change, such as the worldwide use of mobile smartphones, now spreads with amazing speed. For people of faith who live in accordance with established traditions, the velocity of change can feel threatening and provoke violent backlash in defense.

Resistance to Change
Venerated social values are resistant to change. The dominant religious traditions today — Christianity, Islam and Hinduism — have existed for centuries, their core tenants preserved and passed on through generations. When rapid change ripples outward, it generates friction as it collides with deeply held religious beliefs. Occasionally this friction flares into violence.

In September 2005, a stark example began in Denmark, where the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten broke an Islamic taboo by publishing mocking images of the prophet Muhammad. The images quickly appeared in other newspapers around the world, sparking widespread riots. This violent reaction also became a global phenomenon. Buildings burned and an estimated 200 people died soon after publication because news is now globalized through the internet.

Elements of Conflict
In his book “Religious Violence in the Age of Globalization”, Hans G. Kippenberg observes that conflict is never caused by religion alone. Rather, violence results from the complex interaction of economic interests, political division, cultural discord and social upheaval. Sometimes tensions with a surface appearance of religious or ethnic strife may mask more basic disagreements.

An example is the ongoing conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been blamed on differences between ethnic Sunni Kurds, Turkish forces and Iraqi Shi’a Muslims. However, the region is rich with oil, and this has been another major focus of contention. Much to Baghdad’s consternation, the semi-autonomous Kurds have done oil survey and extraction deals with several multinational firms. Thus, it may be misleading to simply attribute conflict to ‘religious violence’, as it is likely that more than just religious faith is involved.

Cultural Hegemony
The most casual study of history shows conquest has often been accomplished by violence. Empires have subjugated, enslaved and annihilated peoples, cultures and faiths. But trade has played a role as well. It can have the effect of normalizing cultural exchange, and globalized trade has delivered many benefits. But it has also prompted accusations of cultural hegemony — cultural domination by economically powerful nations — as Western influence expands in tandem with the growth and spread of market economies. The primarily Western members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development account for 59 percent of global gross domestic product.

Incoming trade and migrants can expose people to conflicting values, and the secular decoupling of religion and government in the West is anathema to some cultures. Resistance to this perceived hegemony is another factor that has motivated religious fundamentalists to commit horrendous acts of aggression — witness the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Globalization of Violence
The globalization of information and travel has provided radical militants and smaller, less-developed nations with new levels of agility and lethality. The weaponization of biology is becoming increasingly feasible, and the potential for small groups of religious fundamentalists to instigate a nuclear and/or biological attack against nations in response to real or perceived injustice is aided by these developments.

Embassy attacks, seemingly-routine roadside and suicide bombings, and other violence — some of which has a religious component — has shaken parts of the Middle East, Africa and other regions over the decades. Those attacks provide abundant reason to believe that globalized technologies can be leveraged by small angry groups, both religious and secular, in any part of the world. No place on earth is invulnerable to that possibility.

Violence is sparked by conflict. Trade requires cooperation. For better or worse, both conflict and cooperation are now globalized. Humanity’s future depends on how we manage these opposing influences.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 11:03 pm