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Moral regulation in farming and nonfarming communities

Research Topic
Moral regulation in farming and nonfarming communities

Lead Researcher
Malle, Bertram F., Professor, Brown University

Host Researchers
Toshio Kawai, Professor, Kokoro Research Center, Kyoto University

Yukiko Uchida, Professor, Kokoro Research Center, Kyoto University

One of my recent interests is to examine the different forms of moral regulation in different human communities—especially the practices community members use to sanction norm violations. In human cultural history, a stark contrast in sanctioning
behavior exists between hunter-gatherer communities, which appear to have favored mild moral criticism, and modern industrial societies, which favor institutionalized and interpersonal punishment. I am interested in studying these two types of sanctioning in contemporary communities.
Prof. Uchida’s and colleagues’ 2019 article entitled “Farming Cultivates a Community-Level Shared Culture…” shows that modern-day communities (e.g., farming vs. urban or fishing) can differ substantially in their joint activity patterns, concern for reputation, and cooperation. These phenomena, along with shared norm systems, are at the core of morality, and even though Prof. Uchida did not frame her findings in terms of moral psychology, the question of how people enforce social and moral norms is consistent with Prof. Uchida’s framework and extends the work that she has already done.
The hypothesis I would like to test in collaboration with Prof. Uchida is whether these two types of communities differ in their forms of moral regulation, especially norm enforcement and sanctioning behavior. One might hypothesize that smaller farming communities enforce norms by way of constructive, often mild acts of moral criticism, which impose the smallest possible costs on both the critic and the criticized. This pattern is likely to be caused by the closer ties, both in terms of familiarity and interdependence among community members and the requirement to maintain group harmony. In fact, there may be strict norms of moral criticism in place that discourage “overblaming” norm violators. By contrast, larger urban (and perhaps fishing) communities may use more damaging forms of enforcement, including harshly punishing sanctions that impose far greater costs on the criticized than on the critic. This pattern is likely to be caused by the social and physical distance among community members, who do not anticipate future interactions or do not pursue the goal of maintaining broader harmony. A recent expression of such harsher sanctions can be found on social media, where anonymity, distance, and minimal costs of exerting punishment seem to accelerate the damaging methods of norm enforcement.
A second component of the proposed research connects to Professor Toshio Kawai’s project on “venting and aggression.” Venting can manifest as a constructive form of moral criticism, a demand for justice for the community as a whole (e.g., in social protests); but venting can also manifest as a destructive act of self-enhancement, laying claim to one’s own moral worth and putting down another’s (e.g., in derogation or aggressive punishment). If we can distinguish such different forms of venting, I would expect that the more constructive form would be more frequently used in smaller farming communities than in larger urban communities.