Global Morality & Economic Development

by Denise

For a while now, something that has struck me is how similar standards of morality have been throughout human history, irrespective of a society’s dominant religious beliefs.  Religious doctrine provides an explanation, a narrative, of human existence on earth and how we might transcend the failings of human nature; and the world religions differ significantly on the details of that overarching narrative.  However, on matters of conscience, matters relating to our dealings with others and society on the whole, there has been much more agreement than disagreement between the Judeo-Christian faiths, Hinduim, Buddhism and others.  C.S. Lewis touched on this in Mere Christianity, “I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities.  But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own.”  To a significant extent, the world religions possess a deep repository of human wisdom gleaned from millennia of reflections on life on this planet.  Given that the dynamics of human lives, families and communities are quite similar wherever one is born, it’s not surprising that sages within different religious traditions have come to similar conclusions about what is best for people and communities.

This observation is reflected in today’s release of the Pew Research Center’s “Global Views on Morality” report.  The Center polled individuals in dozens of countries around the globe, asking them to categorize a set of behaviors as unacceptable, acceptable, or not a moral issue.  The greatest moral differences are not between countries with different religious traditions.  The greatest moral differences are between countries at various levels of economic development.  It pans out pretty clearly that the Third World is the most morally strict and the First World is the most morally lax with Second World countries falling somewhere in between. (note: I use the “world” designations loosely–they essentially mean very developed, almost developed, and developing).


First World Representatives

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Second World Representatives

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Third World Representatives

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I find it quite interesting to note that the more economically developed a country is in terms of per capita wealth, the more likely they are to find that list of actions to be morally acceptable or to refuse to categorize them as moral issues at all.  Countries that are traditionally Protestant Christian, Catholic, officially secular, traditionally Orthodox Christian, traditionally Confucianist or Buddhist, and Hindu are all jumbled together in terms of their moral stances.  And not even public secularity makes a difference.  Rather, moral conservatism is inversely correlated with what the international community terms economic development.

My explanation for these findings is that, regardless of the Christian history of the West, it’s functional belief system is (and arguably has always been) nationalistic capitalism.  As a functional belief system, capitalism (as opposed to a free market in general) dictates that all human associations and interests be subjugated to the economic interests of the nation-state on the whole and personal economic advancement on the individual level.  It is a belief that the pursuit of self-interest will produce the best outcome.

The legal categories upon which our government operates are inherently individualistic in nature.   Because the law plays an important role in shaping the conscience of the citizenry, increasingly, many can see little rationale for moral norms which are not geared toward preventing the infringement of personal individual choice or advancement.  But whether the government should enforce those norms is a different question than whether those actions are, in fact, morally wrong.

The temptation of Westerners is to think that the economic prowess of the West is itself proof of its moral and cultural superiority.  It might be just the opposite.  The modern West succeeded so well in part because Western nations were willing early on to subvert moral norms for the sake of their nationalistic and individualistic advancement.  If masses of people are needed for labor to produce wealth for the nation, the capitalistic nation-state organizes and facilitates their kidnapping and generations of subjugation to serve its economic purposes.  If land is needed to grow the country, then the capitalistic nation-state forcibly removes peoples long living on those lands in order to make way for their settlers.  And if war must be waged to protect the availability of key natural resources, the capitalistic nation-state does so to protect its interests.  And a new morality is then crafted to buttress these actions which were taken purely to promote the economic interests of the nation on the whole.  Thus, nationalistic capitalism turns morality into the servant of its own self-interest.  This is what we see on an individual level as well.  Right and wrong become mere reflections of what one perceives to be in one’s own individual interest.  

For that reason, I don’t see Muslims as a threat, nor the Chinese, and not Putin’s Russia.  Pogo’s words hold true–We have met the enemy and he is us.