Circles of concern

2009-12-01 00:00

WHAT do Queensland and the Zulu kingdom have in common? Nothing at all, it might seem, but in this article I will connect them in order to shed fresh light on the current debate about cultures and conscience.

We go first to Queensland, home state of Ted Scott and Phil Harker, two Australians whose work on applied ethics has enriched my own. In chapter six of their book The Myth of Nine to Five: Work, Workplaces and Workplace Relationships, they suggest that our moral sense grows through three stages.

Basing their explanation on the work of Swiss educational psychologist Jean Piaget, they discern the earliest stage of moral development in the first six years of life or so. Here the young human mind relates to the world through sense-based thinking. Feelings are therefore decisive. The emerging moral sense can be called egocentric because it is defined by the child’s experience of reward and punishment. Good is what makes the child feel comfortable, safe, fed and secure. Bad is what brings pain, fear and discomfort. Here it is “my self” that matters, say Scott and Harker.

They tell us that over the next six or so years a second stage of moral growth takes place, giving rise to an ethic where “ourselves matter”. The young mind has advanced to concrete thinking, responding richly to learnings that can be visualised, which is why stories are so powerful. This enables the moral sense to widen into an acceptance of the norms and conventions of the social group to which the child belongs, such as the family and his or her religion and cultural community. Scott and Harker speak here of an “ethnocentric” morality.

From about the age of 12, the mind develops a capacity for abstract thinking. Thus, at school arithmetic gives way to algebra with its abstractions. This mental advance opens the door to a third stage of moral growth, where we see, if we are taught to make this advance, that “all selves matter” and not just me and my pleasures or the values of my social groups. But not all of us make this transition, remaining for life within the circle of an ethnic or culture-based morality.

Now, I want to connect this view of morality with the clash of values between supporters and opponents of the bull-killing ceremony, both of whom believe that they are right. Both would agree that needless, inflicted suffering is bad but — crucially — they disagree about whose suffering is a bad thing.

Supporters of the ceremony seem not to be overly disturbed about the bull’s pain because for them the conventions of their traditional culture rank higher. In the Scott and Harker model, theirs is a morality of the second kind, being very clearly ethnocentric.

Their opponents can be seen as operating with the third, universal stage of morality, because they judge that ethnic norms must give way to what they see as the higher value of avoiding cruelty to all beings capable of suffering pain, which includes cattle.

The point to grasp is that goodness is defined by and within these two types of morality, so that the same action can in all sincerity be judged right and good in one and deeply wrong in the other one. This is exactly what we see in the current dispute about the bull-killing.

Is it fair to think of these two moralities as stages of growth, with one being seen as less

developed ethically than the other? As somebody who grew up in an Anglo-German Christian home but with wonderful Jewish friends, I learnt in my boyhood that too strong a sense of ethnic belonging can be a dangerous thing, and that goodness, deep goodness, knows no ethnic boundaries, nor even religious ones.

Thus, I have always resonated with a maxim said to come from William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury when Hitler’s thugs were trampling all over Europe. He said that moral progress means enlarging the circle of your concern.

• Martin Prozesky is an independent applied ethics consultant and professor emeritus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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