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Culture puts unique spin on moral judgment.

On the basis of research conducted in the United States over the past 20 years, psychologists have largely assumed that people employ a mixture of two types of moral perspectives: "justice" judgments, which revolve around rules of fairness, legal rights and reciprocation of favors, and "interpersonal" obligations, which focus on the needs of others as they arise in a particular relationship or situation. A popular theory is that women emphasize the interpersonal outlook, whereas men prefer justice judgments.

But a new study of people in the United States and India finds that at least three distinct moral perspectives exist, shaped largely by culture. The study, published in the April JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY, also disputes the gender-based theory.

"Culture seems to be a far more powerful determinant of moral perspectives than gender," asserts psychologist Joan G. Miller of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., who directed the investigation.

Miller and Yale colleague David M. Bersoff supervised interviews of 120 people from middle-class backgrounds, half in New Haven and half in an Indian city. Each group consisted of equal numbers of males and females at three age levels: third grade, seventh grade and college. U.S. volunteers came from a Christian or Jewish background; those in India followed Hindu beliefs and customs.

Twenty middle-aged, upper-class Hindu Indians in high-prestige jobs, such as physicians, also completed interviews.

In one session, participants read descriptions of either justice or interpersonal breaches that ranged from minor to potentially life-threatening. For instance, a moderate justice breach describes a man who steals a train ticket from another man's coat pocket, adding that the victim has enough money to buy another ticket. A moderate interpersonal breach portrays a man who for selfish reasons does not deliver the wedding rings to his best friends's wedding. Volunteers rated the degree to which they accepted or rejected these behaviors and explained their reasoning.

A second session asked for ratings of conflict situations -- again ranging from minor to life-threatening -- in which the fulfillment of one moral obligation led to the violation of the other. For example, a moderate conflict involved a man who has to catch a train to deliver wedding rings to his best friend's wedding. His wallet and train ticket get stolen, and he has to decide whether to take a ticket from the pocket of an unattended coat that also contains enough money for the owner to buy another train ticket.

The researchers say volunteers who preferred taking the ticket to meet an obligation to a friend endorsed an interpersonal choice; those who chose not to take the ticket made a justice judgement.

In the two sessions, Indians from both social groups strongly preferred meeting interpersonal obligations, whereas slightly more than half the U.S. sample favored justice obligations. U.S. participants treated only the justice perspective as subject to regulation and considered interpersonal decisions a matter of personal choice or values; departing from the two U.S. perspectives, Indians treated both interpersonal and justice obligations as subject to strict social rules.

The Indian responses apparently stem from the Hindu emphasis on social duties and responsibilities, the researchers argue. A cultural emphasis on individual rights and justice shapes the moral perspectives of U.S. residents, they add.

No sex differences appeared in either culture. A number of U.S. researchers have failed to document differences in the moral perspectives of men and women, Miller points out, yet some influential studies have found marked differences. However, the latter projects have not examined whether gender influences moral judgments more than culture does, Miller adds.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:May 2, 1992
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