By Rita A. McNamara
Character and Content
Originally posted on May 2, 2016
Here is an excerpt:
Our ability to infer the presence and content of other minds is a fundamental building block underlying the intuitions about right and wrong that we use to navigate our social worlds. People living in Western societies often identify internal motives, dispositions, and desires as the causes of all human action. That these behavioral drivers are inside of another mind is not an issue because, in this Western model of mind, people can be read like books – observers can infer other people’s motives and desires and use these inferences to understand and predict behavior. Given this Western model of mind as an internally coherent, autonomous driver of action, the effort spent on determining whether Martin meant to harm Barras seems so obviously justified as to go without question. But this is not necessarily the case for all cultures.
In many societies, people focus far more on relational ties and polite observance of social duties than on internal mental states. On the other end of the cultural spectrum of mental state focus, some small-scale societies have ‘Opacity of Mind’ norms that directly prohibit inference about mental states. In contrast to the Western model of mind, these Opacity of Mind norms often suggest that it is either impossible to know what another person is thinking, or rude to intrude into others’ private mental space. So, while mental state reasoning is a key foundation for intuitions about right and wrong, these intuitions and mental state perceptions are also dependent upon cultural influences.
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