Moral reasoning of Westerners vs. others

A recent paper (pdf) affirms a point once made by Ian Jobling:

[Henrich J, Heine SJ, Norenzayan A. The WEIRDest people in the world. Behav Brain Sci. 2010 Jun;33(2-3):61-83. Epub 2010 Jun 15.]

4. Moral Reasoning

A central concern in the developmental literature has been the way people acquire the cognitive foundations of moral reasoning. The most influential approach to the development of moral reasoning has been Kohlberg’s (1971, 1976, 1981), in which people’s abilities to reason morally are seen to hinge on cognitive abilities that develop over maturation. Kohlberg proposed that people progressed through the same three levels: 1) children start out at a pre-conventional level, viewing right and wrong as based on internal standards regarding the physical or hedonistic consequences of actions; 2) then they progress to a conventional level, where morality is based on external standards, such as that which maintains the social order of their group; and finally 3) some progress further to a post-conventional level, where they no longer rely on external standards for evaluating right and wrong, but instead do so on the basis of abstract ethical principles regarding justice and individual rights—the moral code inherent in most Western Constitutions.

While all of Kohlberg’s levels are commonly found in WEIRD populations, much subsequent research has revealed scant evidence for post-conventional moral reasoning in other populations. One meta-analysis carried out with data from 27 countries found consistent evidence for post-conventional moral reasoning in all the Western urbanized samples, yet found no evidence for this type of reasoning in small-scale societies (Snarey 1985). Furthermore, it is not just that formal education is necessary to achieve Kohlberg’s post-conventional level. Some highly educated non-Western populations do not show this post-conventional reasoning. At Kuwait University, for example, faculty members score lower on Kohlberg’s schemes than the typical norms for Western adults, and the elder faculty there scored no higher than the younger ones, contrary to Western patterns (Al-Shehab 2002, Miller, Bersoff, & Harwood 1990).

Research in moral psychology indicates that typical Western subjects rely principally on justice- and harm/care-based principles in judging morality. However, recent work indicates that non-Western adults and Western religious conservatives rely on a wider range of moral principles than these two dimensions of morality (Baek 2002, Haidt & Graham 2007, Haidt, Koller, & Dias 1993, e.g., Miller & Bersoff 1992). Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, and Park (1997) proposed that in addition to a dominant justice-based morality, which they termed an ethic of autonomy, there are two other ethics that are commonly found outside the West: an ethic of community, in which morality derives from the fulfillment of interpersonal obligations that are tied to an individual’s role within the social order, and an ethic of divinity in which people are perceived to be bearers of something holy or god-like, and have moral obligations to not act in ways that are degrading to or incommensurate with that holiness.


Tanstaafl said...

This WEIRD acronym is more grating than WASP.

Couldn't they find a suitable set of words to justify using CRACKA?

n/a said...


I agree, it's annoying.

N Ackerman said...

Yes, Jobling's piece on competitive altruism was particularly insightful.

A real world example of this research is the number of refugees Japan takes in each year compared to the number Sweden does.

Anonymous said...

Racial Differences in Moral Reasoning