Exemplary morals: mind, body and the cultural transmission of what's right
(University of Oxford)
Paper short abstract:
Interdisciplinary work on moral cognition is hampered by an untenable dualism between neurobiological and social constructivist explanations. Using the example of the cultural transmission of moral exemplars, I argue that emergence-based models of moral enculturation can overcome this problem.
Paper long abstract:
Neurobiological and social constructivist explanations of moral behaviour are often presented as competing, rather than complementary, paradigms. Not only does this feed into an implicit mind-body dualism within moral anthropology, it also hampers interdisciplinary work on moral cognition more generally. This paper argues that this disconnect is in part due to a lack of models that can account for both dimensions, and suggests that a non-reductivist, monist concept of 'mind' as an emergent dimension of 'brain' can be useful to overcome this issue. This argument is illustrated with the example of the cultural transmission of moral cognition through the internalisation of moral exemplars. Exemplars here are culturally specific representations denoting categorical kinds of moral behaviour. Once observed in the process of enculturation, they are encoded in neural structures in the brain, and thus become part of the individual's cognitive and behavioural repertoire. Importantly, these 'socially constructed' notions of morality are not simply superimposed on biological 'hardware', but due to the plasticity of the brain fundamentally shape the biological body. One example of this is the physical capacity for empathy, which underlies a large part of moral reasoning. The notion of moral exemplars as culturally transmitted representations is ideally suited to bridging the gap between the cultural specificity of moral concepts and the universal human capacity for moral cognition. It can help to combine ethnographic insights on culturally specific moralities with the neurobiological foundations of enculturation, and facilitate interdisciplinary dialogue between moral anthropology and the cognitive and biological sciences.
Cognitive anthropology and cultural transmission; legacies and futures