24 October 2006

Morality: a collective possession

According to recent theories, such as those proposed by Harvard professor Marc Hauser, the human capacity to make moral distinctions – right from wrong, good from evil – is programmed into the brain.

Across the globe, people follow the same basic rules of morality – a limited set of rules which professor Hauser calls ‘moral grammar’. However, professor Hauser cautions us, the actual moral choices of the individual person also depends on how the culture (in which the individual grows up in) uses this grammar, as well as on the emotions the person experiences when he sees others contradict what he has learnt to believe is good.

Could this mean morality is something we have as an existential possession? An inheritance from our forefathers that guides the way we live our lives today? Could morality, like language or ethnic identity, be a sort of collective possession of groups of people, binding them into socio-cultural orders?

If so, then morality may be a key factor in the construction and maintenance of these communities and individual cultures. That might explain why family values, the law, the education system, the interpretation and practice of religion, the media vary from one culture to another.

If we study films as representations of culture and morality, we find many differences between India and the rest of the world. Indian films do not explicitly show on-screen kissing or sex. Topics like homosexuality or incest are taboo. Even within India, at a regional level, there are clear differences. For instance, films from the state of Tamil Nadu in South India are permissive, showing a lot of skin on their female actors; while films from Kerala, a state next door, are more modest, preferring to stay away from any overt display of skin.

Why is this so? Perhaps, morality is as much a consequence of a community’s sense of self, cultural upbringing and existential well-being – a collective possession, so to speak – as it is a universal feature of programming in the human brain.

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