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National Research University Higher School of EconomicsNewsResearch&ExpertiseExamining Moral Change in Modern Societies: A Conversation with Hermann Dülmer

Examining Moral Change in Modern Societies: A Conversation with Hermann Dülmer

On April 12, Professor Hermann Dülmer of the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg delivered a special lecture at the Higher School of Economics entitled 'Modernization, Culture, and Moral Change in Europe: From Universalism to Contextualism' within the framework of the 7th LCSR International Workshop on Subjective Well-being and Growing Inequality. An expert in sociology and social psychology, he spoke with the HSE News Service about his research interests and his ongoing cooperation with HSE.

— One of the key areas of focus in your lecture was the question of how moral rules are applied differently in modern societies versus societies of the past. What was your main message?

— A central assumption of my presentation is that moral rules such as ‘You should not kill, not steal, not lie’ exist in virtually every society.  In highly insecure traditional preindustrial societies, absolute strict rule obedience and the belief that a benevolent higher power will ensure that things ultimately turn out well fulfil a basic psychological need for security. According to Ronald Inglehart, this allows people to cope with high stress.

In a modernizing world where rationalization and secularization are growing, however, people are no longer responsible only for the right action. They can no longer accept the burden of the consequences of right action to God or other supernatural powers (who created the world as the world is). The economic prosperity and the emergence of the welfare state in advanced industrial societies in the decades after World War II increased the sense of physical and economic security for the individual. As a consequence, the psychological need for steadfast, absolute rules diminishes. People growing up with a high level of security can tolerate more ambiguity. Both Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel argue that self-expression gets higher priority.

Modernization also means that cognitive skills and competences are growing, which according to Kohlberg fosters moral development: people become increasingly able to take into account potential negative consequences of strict rule obedience when they apply universally valid moral rules in daily life. Contrary to more traditional societies where there always existed only one morally justifiable action, by taking into account possible negative consequences, ‘grey areas of moral dissent’ arise in more modernized societies according to Nunner-Winkler. However, violating a universally valid moral rule for pure self-interest at the expense of others is and remains morally wrong in modernized societies as well.

— You have been examining change of moral rules or, to be precise, change in how moral rules are applied. Can you provide some examples?

— To test moral change, two different types of situations were compared: bribery and tax evasion, which are examples where universally valid moral rules are in general violated for pure self-interest at the expense of others. Abortion and divorce are two examples where potential negative consequences might justify violating moral rules. 

Empirically, it turned out that younger cohorts are indeed more tolerant than older cohorts regarding all of these behaviours. The same applied to better educated people compared to the less well educated only with respect to abortion and divorce. Under conditions where others are in general harmed for pure self-interest, the better educated were less tolerant than the less well educated. These results confirm that education fosters a deeper understanding of moral rules, which allows the individual to take into account foreseeable possible negative consequences of strict rule obedience. Higher educated people are better able to apply universally valid moral rules in a more context sensitive way (moral contextualism). The results furthermore show that people in more modern countries are on average much more willing to justify abortion and divorce than people living in more traditional countries. With respect to bribery and tax evasion, such a trend does not exist at all. Hence, modernization fosters a more context sensitive application of moral rules, which is much less the case in less modern countries. It should be mentioned, however, that divorce and abortion are two topics that fall into the ‘moral grey area’. As such, they are seen as quite controversial across countries as well as between citizens within countries.

— How did you collect data for your research?

— For my analyses, I used the last wave of the European Values Study 2009, which covers 47 European societies. The fieldwork for the next wave is scheduled for 2018.

— Was there anything particular about the social life of Europe that led you to focus on this issue?

— Well, bribery and tax evasion are two topics that are increasingly being countered, and not only in the European Union. My analyses show that there is a transnational consensus in Europe that such behaviour is not justifiable. This result also clearly shows that moral relativists are empirically wrong. One of the reasons might be that they focus too much on situations where exceptions might be justified by potential negative consequences. All in all, the analyses confirmed what was expected from theory.

— You have been working with HSE since 2011 and served as a key professor at the Summer School arranged by the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LSCR) in St. Petersburg in 2013. What else have you work on with HSE colleagues? Did you discuss any special projects during your time in Moscow?

— Yes, currently I am working with LCSR colleagues on an article on trust. We collected the data some time ago, and the majority of the data analysis is also already done. We used the opportunity given by the conference to discuss the paper. The next step is to write it.

Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service