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Saturday, January 29, 2022

Are some cultures more mind-minded in their moral judgements than others?

Barrett H. Clark and Saxe Rebecca R.
2021. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B3762020028820200288


Cross-cultural research on moral reasoning has brought to the fore the question of whether moral judgements always turn on inferences about the mental states of others. Formal legal systems for assigning blame and punishment typically make fine-grained distinctions about mental states, as illustrated by the concept of mens rea, and experimental studies in the USA and elsewhere suggest everyday moral judgements also make use of such distinctions. On the other hand, anthropologists have suggested that some societies have a morality that is disregarding of mental states, and have marshalled ethnographic and experimental evidence in support of this claim. Here, we argue against the claim that some societies are simply less ‘mind-minded’ than others about morality. In place of this cultural main effects hypothesis about the role of mindreading in morality, we propose a contextual variability view in which the role of mental states in moral judgement depends on the context and the reasons for judgement. On this view, which mental states are or are not relevant for a judgement is context-specific, and what appear to be cultural main effects are better explained by culture-by-context interactions.


Summing up: Mind-mindedness in context

Our critique of cultural main effects theories, we think, is likely to apply to many domains, not just moral judgement. Dimensions of cultural difference such as the “collectivist / individualist” dimension [50]may capture some small main effects of cultural difference, but we suspect that collectivism / individualism is a parameter than can be flipped contextually within societies to a much greater degree than it varies as a main effect across societies. We may be collectivist within families, for example, but individualist at work. Similarly, we suggest that everywhere there are contexts in which one’s mental states may be deemed morally irrelevant, and others where they aren’t. Such judgements vary not just across contexts, but across individuals and time. What we argue against, then, is thinking of mindreading as a resource that is scarce in some places and plentiful in others. Instead, we should think about it as a resource that is available everywhere, and whose use in moral judgement depends on a multiplicity of factors, including social norms but also, importantly, the reasons for which people are making judgements. Cognitive resources such as theory of mind might best be seen as ingredients that can be combined in different ways across people, places, and situations. On this view, the space of moral judgements represents a mosaic of variously combined ingredients.