Richard Schweder’s Three Ethics That Help Understand Culture Wars

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, Jonathan Haidt briefly summarizes the work of Richard Schweder, a psychological anthropologist at the University of Chicago:

Shweder’s research on morality […] shows that when people think about morality, their moral concepts cluster into three groups, which he calls the ethic of autonomy, the ethic of community, and the ethic of divinity. When people think and act using the ethic of autonomy, their goal is to protect individuals from harm and grant them the maximum degree of autonomy, which they can use to pursue their own goals. When people use the ethic of community, their goal is to protect the integrity of groups, families, companies, or nations, and they value virtues such as obedience, loyalty, and wise leadership. When people use the ethic of divinity, their goal is to protect from degradation the divinity that exists in each person, and they value living in a pure and holy way, free from moral pollutants such as lust, greed, and hatred. Cultures vary in their relative reliance on these three ethics […]

By the end of the 9th chapter, Divinity With or Without God, Haidt goes on to explain how the three ethics play out in practice:

Which of the following quotations inspires you more: (1) “Self-esteem is the basis of any democracy”; (2) “It’s not all about you.” The first is attributed to Gloria Steinem, a founder of the feminist movement in the 1970s. It claims that sexism, racism, and oppression make particular groups of people feel unworthy and therefore undermine their participation in democracy. This quote also reflects the core idea of the ethic of autonomy: Individuals are what really matter in life, so the ideal society protects all individuals from harm and respects their autonomy and freedom of choice. The ethic of autonomy is well suited to helping people with different backgrounds and values get along with each other because it allows each person to pursue the life she chooses, as long as those choices don’t interfere with the rights of others.


The second quote is the opening line of the world’s biggest-selling book in 2003 and 2004, The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, a guide for finding purpose and meaning through faith in Jesus Christ and the revelation of the Bible. From Warren’s perspective, the self is the cause of our problems and therefore efforts to raise children’s self-esteem directly with awards, praise, and exercises to make them feel “special” are positively evil. The core idea of the ethic of divinity is that each person has divinity inside, so the ideal society helps people live in a way consistent with that divinity. What an individual desires is not particularly important—many desires come from the carnal self. Schools, families, and the media should all work together to help children overcome their sense of self and entitlement and live instead in the way Christ intended.


Many of the key battles in the American culture war are essentially about whether some aspect of life should be structured by the ethic of autonomy or by the ethic of divinity. (The ethic of community, which stresses the importance of the group over that of the individual, tends to be allied with the ethic of divinity). Should there be prayer in schools? Should the Ten Commandments be posted in schools and courthouses? Should the phrase “under God” be struck from the American pledge of allegiance? Liberals usually want to keep religion out of public life so that people cannot be forced to participate against their will, but religious conservatives want schools and courthouses re-sacralized. They want their children to live in a (particular) three-dimensional world, and if the schools won’t provide it, they sometimes turn to home-schooling instead.


Should people be allowed to use birth control, abortion, reproductive technologies, and assisted suicide as they please? It depends on whether your goal is to empower people to manage some of the most important choices of their lives, or whether you think all such decisions must be made by God.


Show Comments