Siðferðissálfræði Kína og vestursins, fortíð og framtíð

Aðalbygging Háskóla Íslands (225), 25. ágúst 2016

Moral Psychology China and West, Past and Present

University of Iceland, main building (225), 25 August 2016

This symposium addresses a broad range of issues related to normativity in Western and Chinese intellectual traditions as well as in everyday judgments. Western philosophical tradition, at least since the Enlightenment, emphasizes the autonomous character of the moral sphere. Moral sensibilities and judgments are often believed to be distinct and qualitatively different from the aesthetic, etiquette or legal judgments, thus requiring a specific normative vocabulary. This approach was also to a large extent inherited by the Western descriptive Moral Psychology.

On the other hand, the Chinese intellectual tradition, seemingly, puts much less emphasis on differences between various normative realms of human experience. Is the distinction between moral and non-moral normative domains in everyday evaluative judgments cross-culturally universal?

Is the established English moral vocabulary (and the direct translations thereof), that prevails in the academic literature on ethics, the adequate tool to describe everyday normative judgments of different cultures? Is the moral vocabulary of Western philosophy suitable to describe evaluative folk practices even in the West itself? Do folk normative concepts imply strict distinctions between the domains of ethics, aesthetics and etiquette across different cultures? Are there unsurmountable obstacles to translation of normative concepts and distinctions between Chinese, English and other languages?

These and other questions will be addressed in the symposium through an investigation of moral notions and approaches in diverse cultures such as Iceland, Lithuania, America and China.


Mikael M. Karlsson

"The Domain of Practical Reason: One or Many?"

Western – or European - accounts of the realm of practice have in general distinguished between the moral and the prudential. What is the basis for making this distinction, and should we suppose that it is bound to apply in societies different from those of Europe? And what should we say about æsthetics and etiquette?

Mikael M. Karlsson is Professor emeritus in the Faculty of History and Philosophy at the University of Iceland

Gunnar Harðarson

"Moral concepts in Old Norse didactic literature"

The study of ethical and philosophical concepts in Old Norse didactic literature can be approached through distinguishing words, concepts and conceptual systems. A word has a particular moral sense if it forms part of a conceptual system. For instance, in the Old Norse translation of Alcuin’s treatise on virtues and vices certain words express ethical concepts that derive their meaning from an underlying conceptual system while the same words in, for instance, the eddic poem Hávamál do not. However, texts such as Hávamál have sometimes been interpreted as containing the same ethical concepts as found in the translated didactic texts, with the result that the original meaning has been distorted. The ethics of Hávamál turns out to promote secular and materialist conditions for happiness, unrelated to the metaphysical underpinnings of the translated virtue-based ethics.

Gunnar Harðarson is Professor in the Faculty of History and Philosophy at the University of Iceland

Vilhjálmur Árnason

"Honour in the Icelandic sagas"

I discuss how interpretations of saga morality harbour different
conceptions of honour. I am critical of attempts to analyze the "moral outlook" of the sagas in terms of ideas and character traits, taken out of social context. I argue that the overarching values related to unconditional claims for honour on the one hand, and social need for peace on the other hand, exemplify a tension between two different types of morality described in the Icelandic sagas.

Vilhjálmur Árnason is Professor in the Faculty of History and Philosophy at the University of Iceland

Vytis SILIUS, Vilnius University
(co-authored with Vilius DRANSEIKA and Renatas BERNIŪNAS)

"Bu daode 不道德 behavior in China and West: avoiding asymmetry in cross-cultural moral psychology"

It is a commonplace practice in contemporary English language literature on moral philosophy and moral psychology dealing with Chinese tradition or comparative issues, to use Chinese term daode 道德 as a technical translation for English term moral. Such usage is supported by the references to dictionaries, equivalent usage of both Chinese and English terms by bilinguals (Buchtel 2015), and is also endorsed by contemporary Chinese academic authors writing on questions about daode 道德 or lunli 倫理 (moral/ethical) (Gao 2005). At the same time, many authors also notice problems with equating morality with daode, and recent studies in comparative moral psychology on folk intuitions and everyday language usage provide some empirical evidence in support for such reservations. However, it seems that problems with parallel usage of terms moral and daode rest already at a theoretical conceptual level that may have laid a shaky ground for research on "immorality East and West". This paper will highlight some particularities of both terms moral and daode in their respectful cultural contexts and indicate implications for cross-cultural research in moral psychology/philosophy.

DRANSEIKA Vilius (Vilnius University)
(co-authored with BERNIŪNAS Renatas and SILIUS Vytis)

"When Spitting is Immoral (bu daode 不道德) and Killing is Not. An Inquiry into Alternative Ways to Carve Up the Normative Space"

Emma Buchtel and her colleagues in a recent paper (2015) note that "Chinese lay concept of "immorality" is more applicable to spitting on the street than killing people." In describing one of their studies they write: "although 70% of Beijing participants called to spit on the public street "immoral" (11% of Westerners), only 42% of Beijing participants called to kill a person "immoral" (81% of Westerners)" (pp. 1386-88). We also obtained similar results in a recent study asking participants from China, USA, and Lithuania to provide lists of actions that they deem to be immoral (lt: amoralu; cn: bu daode 不道德). While killing/murder was the most frequently mentioned item in USA sample (mentioned by 82% of participants) and made it into top 3 in Lithuania (38%), virtually no Chinese participants mentioned it (mentioned by only 1 from 91 participants). Furthermore most frequently mentioned items in the Chinese list (being loud, littering, spitting, cutting in line) were mentioned very seldom if at all by the Lithuanians and Americans.

Such results suggest that bu daode (不道德) is significantly different concept from "immoral" as used in English, which presents us with at least two theoretical options. Either some other expression of Mandarin Chinese translates "immoral" or no exact translation is available and Mandarin Chinese presents an alternative division of the normative space. In this presentation we will discuss new empirical data bearing on these questions.

BERNIŪNAS Renatas (Vilnius University)
(co-authored with DRANSEIKA Vilius and SILIUS Vytis)

"Conceptualizing moral transgressions among Chinese, American and Lithuanian participants: Cultural differences and similarities."

In recent moral psychology literature there are several theoretical positions that disagree about the scope of the domain of moral transgressions, i.e. what kinds of socially relevant actions are moralized? Haidt and colleagues claim that there are at least five types of normative concerns: such as harm, fairness, respect for authority, in-group loyalty, and purity. Turiel and colleagues narrowed down to concerns about harm and fairness. Yet others argue that it is possible to conceptually reduce all moral considerations into either harm (Gray et al.) or fairness (Baumard et al.). All parts in this debate assume that people approach these concerns with a strong normative conviction. On the other hand, cultured or civilized behavior is considered to be a matter of convention, not morality. However, in contemporary Chinese language an English word moral is translated as daode. Importantly, as some recent empirical work suggests (Buchtel et al., 2015; also our study, presented by Vilius Dranseika), the term of daode naturally includes the notion of wenming 文明 (cultured or civilized behavior). If that is the case, then Chinese participants, unlike Westerners, should have a strong normative conviction towards transgressions of wenming norms. Also, cultured or civilized behavior should significantly mediate Chinese transgression judgments across all types of social actions and situations. In this presentation I will discuss new empirical evidence from China, US and Lithuania that explores certain cultural difference and similarities in conceptualizing moral transgressions.

Geir Sigurðsson

"Emotional and Physical Normativity Through Li 禮"

However the Confucian philosophy is considered nowadays, the core notion of li, often translated as ‘ritual propriety’, is probably regarded as its most antiquitated and weakest link. Nevertheless, a Confucianism without li would most certainly not amount to much. Instead of ignoring or bypassing li, however, I will in this paper show that li is in fact much richer and more open-ended than its usual translation and interpretation seem to suggest. In fact, I will argue that li constitutes a mode for emotional and physical development toward a moral becoming-with-others from which contemporary societies have much to learn.

Geir Sigurðsson is Professor in the Faculty of Languages and Cultures at the University of Iceland