Communicating Social Virtues Within and Across Cultures
Mark Nowacki (Singapore Management University) [BIO]
Human beings appear to be endlessly creative in their ability to develop distinct yet viable alternative forms of social organization. Each form of viable social organization embodies a distinct way of life and tends to valorize the particular social virtues that support it. Given the bewildering variety of viable human societies, we might expect to see a similarly bewildering variety of virtues exhibited by individuals from diverse societies. And we do indeed encounter variety—but far less than one might expect.
Originally proposed by the eminent anthropologist Mary Douglas, Cultural Theory (CT) is a conceptually rich and empirically well-grounded theory in the social sciences. A distinctive feature of CT is its insistence that there are only five basic types of group organization (“ways of life”) found within any viable society. Proponents of CT also point to a requisite variety condition: within any sufficiently large viable society the five ways of life are both mutually supporting and mutually interdependent. (Of course, within a given society one way of life may be relatively more prominent than another.)
The five ways of life identified by CT are themselves correlated with distinct “forms of rationality,” i.e., coherent yet incommensurable schemes for understanding the world. Adherents of a particular form of rationality will generally behave in accordance with their rational interpretation of the world, and as such they will develop specific virtues to support the successful performance of those actions that are in keeping with their way of life.
I argue that adopting a slightly modified version of the CT account can cast considerable light on important puzzles in contemporary Virtue Ethics (VE). A combined VE-CT account permits us to broadly characterize distinct types of moral personality and forms of moral reasoning. This in turn can aid efforts to promote ethical understanding both among the distinct ways of life found within a single society and among the various ways of life located across diverse societies.