Feb 04 2012

Morality and ethics – part 6

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 10:46 pm

Note: This is part 6 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5

In my previous posts on morality, I’ve listed a set of baseline premises which we can use as the foundation of a system of morality:

  • Perpetuation of the human race
  • The value of human life
  • Individual autonomy and accountability
  • Importance of community
  • Respect for living things
  • Intentions and consequentialism are both relevant when evaluating an act’s morality
  • Utilitarianism: we should maximize the benefit to the greatest number of people without violating the above principles

From those premises, I have derived three basic universal moral rules:

1. Be selfless and loving and live the golden rule
2. Act for the future
3. Be a part of the community and promote its welfare

In this post, I will discuss Rule #3: promote the community’s welfare. Rule 3 can be dangerous if it is used to justify a combative “us versus them” attitude, especially when combined with a zero-sum view of the world. This is why Rule #3 comes last. Promoting the community’s welfare does not justify acts that violate Rules 1 and 2.

What is “the Community”?

Humankind’s history of religious and moral thought has been one of a general progression (though often faltering) toward an ever-expanding notion of who we include in our conception of “us.” This is seen in the creation of the more universal world religions of the axial age that transcend race and ethnicity (at least in theory, if not always in practice), such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Rules 1 and 2, which I’ve previously discussed, embody that universal spirit.

But even with an ever-expanding definition of who we include in our conception of “us,” in practical terms there are still different categories of “us.” Let’s think about an example: say that you see two people standing in the road in the path of an oncoming truck – one of them is a stranger, and the other is a close friend. Let’s also say that you only have enough time to save one of the two people by pushing them out of the way. Who do you save? Almost everyone would, without hesitation, save their close friend.

How big is a community?

Humans are social animals. Though we are adapted to flourish and thrive as members of a mutually supportive group, there appears to be physical cognitive limits to the number of people who we can emotionally and intuitively incorporate into our mental model of the world. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar was the first person to propose this cognitive human limit. He conducted a statistical analysis of different primate groups by comparing the average group sizes of various primate species with other characteristics of those species. He created a regression equation which predicted that, based on human characteristics, the average natural human group size would be about 150 (with a 95% confidence level that the real number is somewhere between 100 and 230). He then looked at the sizes of stone age villages and hunter gatherer tribes and found that their average population sizes matched his predictions. In fact, 150 may even be at the high end and seems to only be achievable for groups of people who are physically close together and who spend a significant amount of time nourishing their social relationships.1

Dunbar’s number is based on comparisons of humans with non-human primates and by studying our primitive ancestors (and contemporary cultures living in situations similar to our stone age ancestors). Two anthropologists – H. Russell Bernard and Peter Killworth – conducted studies of people’s social connections in modern society in the United States and came up with a higher number. Their results showed that the mean number of meaningful social ties that each individual had was 290 (the median was 231).

Perhaps the Bernard-Killworth number is evidence of our continued evolution – as our ancestors moved from living in small hunter gatherer bands to living in larger, more complex societies, perhaps selective pressures have increased our cognitive capacities and made it possible for us to handle larger social circles. But whether Dunbar’s number (150) or the Bernard-Killworth number (290) is right, either way we have an upper bound of about 300. When we think about being part of a community, three hundred is a relatively low number when we consider the number of people who live in an average city or country.

What Dunbar’s number shows us is that there is apparently a limit on how many people we can emotionally include in our conception of “us.” This makes intuitive sense. We may intellectually understand that all people – even those outside our community – are worthy of equal moral consideration, but in the real world, when a truck is barreling toward our friend and a stranger, we push our friend out the way first, and few people would argue that this natural tendency is immoral.

This disconnect between our intellectual understanding of morality and our emotional understanding grows out of the human tendency over the last few millenia of living in ever-larger polities and societies. In small groups, maintaining social cohesion is relatively easy because we are well-adapted to this behavior. In larger groups, however, we lack the cognitive and emotional capacity to intuitively self-organize in the way that small stone age bands and modern hunter-gatherer tribes have been able to organize. The large institutions of modern life (along with the resulting stability and technological progress they bring) are foreign to our natural constitutions. In light of Dunbar’s number, it thus becomes clear why the universalistic tendencies of the major world religions were necessary to the flowering of human culture and development. Such moral rules give us the cognitive and emotional tools to step beyond our normal mental limits to reach out of our social circles and act morally to “others.” But universally applicable moral rules do not come naturally to us. Thus, while our intellectual conception of who we include in “us” has expanded (and even perhaps the limits of our emotional conception of “us” has almost doubled from 150 to 290), in practical terms, our innate biological tendency is to morally and emotionally commit ourselves to relatively small social groups.

I think it unlikely that Dunbar’s number is a hard cutoff. We have a much smaller group of close friends and family with whom most closely identify as “us.” Moving out from there, we have growing concentric circles of people until we reach our “Dunbar group” of people for whom we have devoted our brains’ limited capacity to build strong social ties. Past our Dunbar group, most of us have at least some social contact with more than just 150 (or 290) people in a given week or month – those are people who we start to emotionally consider as “others”; as our emotional ties to them weaken, we start to apply learned rules of morality to our interactions with them. Our emotional conception of social ties becomes weaker and weaker as we move from our core social group of 150-300 people to others with whom we have weaker social ties.

None of us has one single static conception of “us.” Instead, we each have concentric and overlapping definitions of “us,” and those specific definitions are different for each person. Beyond their higher intrinsic priority, it is especially important that the first two rules take precedence over Rule 3 because universal moralistic thinking does not come naturally to us. Our ability for learning and using rational thinking makes universally-applicable moral rules possible; the fruits of these moral developments have become obvious over the last few thousand years as violence in human societies has gradually decreased and stability has increased (along with accompanying increases in material welfare). But no rational moral system can ignore the realities of human biology. And thus Rule 3 has tremendous importance because humans naturally organize themselves into groups and communities, and much of the meaning and fulfillment we get from life comes from our membership and participation in the communities of which we are a part. Community members care for each other, and are willing to make sacrifices for each other that perfect strangers would be unwilling to make. The strength of our social links to others declines as we move from our small core group to others, but each of those concentric circles constitutes a community that we would identify as being an ever-weakening version of “us.”

Be a part of your community

Many people consider differences and diversity to be of supreme importance. My personal experience has been that being exposed to different cultures and ideologies has forced me to look at things from a different perspective, has helped me sharpen my thinking, and has broadened my perspectives. But being part of communities of people who we consider as being the “same” as us is also important for our personal well being and for the future of our society.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s research indicates that “the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings.”2 Other research by political scientists has shown that the level of ethnic and linguistic diversity in a country is correlated with higher levels of instability in a country and lower levels of democracy.3 The ordering of the three rules tries to strike the balance between deriving the benefits of community while not forsaking the benefits of universal morality and exposure to diversity.

Once we’ve committed ourselves to the first two Rules, then creating unified communities promotes social welfare. Rule 3 can be dangerous if misinterpreted. It is not a justification for ethnocentrism or racism. It does not justify harming outsiders in order to benefit the community. Since strong communities and strong social ties are so beneficial for us, however, it is important to properly support the idea of community. Because of our social nature, the best future outcomes for humanity will come from building strong and cohesive communities of ethical people.

So how do you follow Rule 3? First, identify your communities. Look at the expanding concentric circles of the social groups that you are a part of, starting with your closest associates (such as family and close friends) and expanding each new circle out to slightly more distant relationships. Then, think of the strong moral obligations that you have under Rules 1 and 2 and apply those rules even more strongly to the members of your community. Look for ways to make sacrifices to help those in your community. Actively participate in the community, you do your fair share of the work to keep it functional, volunteer in your community and promote good relationships within the community (such as by reaching out to others and by avoiding negative gossip). Again, the same moral obligations and behaviors behaviors from Rule 1 and Rule 2 apply to your dealings with fellow community members, only more so.

Would it be better if we could conceive of humanity as being one giant community? Yes. But our brains are just too limited to emotionally conceive of a community of 7 billion people. Rule 1 and Rule 2 point us toward a universal human community and help us focus our behavior toward that ideal. But it is important to recognize our biological and cognitive limits and that is why it is not only morally justifiable, but also morally desirable, for us to also focus on building strong small communities in our day-to-day lives as well.




2 The Downside of Diversity, Boston Globe.

3 Clague, Christopher, Suzanne Gleason, and Stephen Knack. 2001. “Determinants of Lasting Democracy in Poor Countries: Culture, Development, and Institutions.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 573:17-41.

Thompson, Curtis. 1995. “Political Stability and Minority Groups in Burma.” Geographical Review. 85, No. 3 (July 1995): 269-285.