Wednesday, October 06, 2010

A thought on Culture and Ethics

There was an interesting episode of the Kojo Nnamdi show on public radio in which he interviewed Kwame Anthony Appiah on his book The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen. Briefly (probably doing damage to his thesis) Appiah holds the once people in a culture have begun to doubt the morality of a practice (such as dueling, slavery or foot binding) then if others bring shame on the people of the culture for that practice or ridicule them for the practice the culture will come to perceive the practice as immoral. The question is important -- how does a culture improve its ethics?

Ridicule and shame are of course different. I am not sure how one would go about ridiculing suicide bombers, even when their act is clearly ineffective and in a bad cause, but to do so might be more effective than shaming them. Appiah points out that seeking to shame someone for something which they will not be ashamed of may well be counterproductive.

I was wondering how a culture would come to honor some behavior as especially moral or ethically meritorious. Millions of dogs and cats are euthanized each year in the United States. This seems clearly something that we should be ashamed of. How might we change our culture so that one's honor would not permit one to contribute to to this carnage. Might it be better to honor those who take effective steps to stop the carnage rather than to shame those who contribute to it?

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