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Moral Pluralism: Beyond Harm

A pluralist theory is one which entails that there are multiple kinds of moral concern which are not reducible to just one ultimate concern; for example, both purity and harm. By contrast, a monist theory is one which identifies one fundamental aspect, most likely harm, or something related to harm, as the sole basis for all genuinely moral concern. What kind of evidence might favour descriptive moral pluralism over monism? This section introduces two key sources.

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In order to describe human moral psychology, do we need to recognise incommensurable kinds of moral concern?

This section offers three reasons for a positive answer.

First, it seems that harm- and purity-related concerns are incommensurable; and both kinds of concern appear to be involved in ordinary moral judgements (Chakroff, Dungan, & Young, 2013; Chakroff, Russell, Piazza, & Young, 2017).

Second,specific kinds of moral concern (e.g. purity) appear to have had different roles in evolution. For instance, van Leeuwen, Park, Koenig, & Graham (2012) had subjects answer questions which indicated the degree to which they endorsed moral concerns linked to purity, authority and loyalty (the ‘binding foundations’) compared to the degree to which they endorsed moral foundations linked to harm and unfairness (the ‘individual foundations’). They found a link between stronger endorsement of binding foundations and the historical prevalence of pathogens in the region subjects lived:

‘historical pathogen prevalence—even when controlling for individual-level variation in political orientation, gender, education, and age—significantly predicted endorsement of Ingroup/loyalty [stats removed], Authority/respect, and Purity/sanctity; it did not predict endorsement of Harm/care or Fairness/reciprocity’ (van Leeuwen et al., 2012).

This is coherent with the idea that purity has been important because it enabled humans to mitigate risks from pathogens associated with their diet long before they understood pathogens.

The third reason for accepting (descriptive) moral pluralism is that it appears to be needed to explain how cultural differences in moral psychology underpin attitudes to homosexuality. Greater endorsement of binding foundations appears to explain stronger homophobia (Koleva, Graham, Iyer, Ditto, & Haidt, 2012), and this may explain why both being more socially conservative (Barnett, Öz, & Marsden, 2018) and being more sensitive to disgust (Lai, Haidt, & Nosek, 2014) is correlated with being more homophobic.

While none of these reasons are decisive, it appears that moral pluralism is needed for a variety of explanations. This justifies us in accepting that there are several kinds of moral concern.

Descriptive vs Normative Moral Pluralism

Our focus on this course is humans’ ethical abilities. We are therefore interested in whether or not we need to recognize that they invovle multiple moral concerns that cannot be reduced to one ultimate concern. This is a concern about descriptive moral pluralism.

There is a distinct, narrowly philosophical question: Are ‘different values [...] all reducible to one supervalue, or [... are] there really are several distinct values’ (Mason, 2018)? This is a question about normative moral pluralism.

Given that humans’ ethical abilities are limited and may not reflect how things actually are, one might be a descriptive moral pluralism but a normative monist (or conversely).

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binding foundations : Categories of moral concern linked to social needs; these are often taken to be betrayal/loyalty, subversion/authority, and impurity/purity (Graham et al., 2011).
individual foundations : Categories of moral concern linked to individual needs; these are often taken to be harm/care, cheating/fairness (Graham et al., 2011). Sometimes called individualizing foundations.
moral disengagement : Moral disengagement occurs when self-sanctions are disengaged from conduct. To illustrate, an executioner may avoid self-sanctioning for killing by reframing the role they play as ‘babysitting’ (Bandura, 2002, p. 103). Bandura (2002, p. 111) identifies several mechanisms of moral disengagement: ‘The disengagement may centre on redefining harmful conduct as honourable by moral justification, exonerating social comparison and sanitising language. It may focus on agency of action so that perpetrators can minimise their role in causing harm by diffusion and displacement of responsibility. It may involve minimising or distorting the harm that follows from detrimental actions; and the disengagement may include dehumanising and blaming the victims of the maltreatment.’
moral pluralism : Descriptive moral pluralism is the view that humans’ ethical abilities involve distinct moral concerns (such as harm, equality and purity) which are not reducible to just one moral concern.


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