4.2.5 Culture and its Evolution

Public morality evolves with experience.  People develop customs and expectations for each other’s behaviour; these form part of their cultural identity, which is affected by their shared experiences and changes in circumstances:

  • Societies evolve through shared experience of events; wars, revolutions, famines and plagues are just a few examples.
  • They are also influenced by ideas: by esteemed thinkers and leaders, by the emergence of religious groups and by what is happening elsewhere in the world.
  • People develop in their economic prosperity and social stability, which has the effect of gradually moving the focus of their concerns and their moral attitudes. Abraham Maslow described this, in A Theory of Human Motivation. His ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ defines five levels of priority, of which the most pressing is “physiological”: the need for food and drink.  Putting one’s children to work may seem not only reasonable but necessary if the alternative is starvation.  “Safety” needs come next, followed by “Belongingness”, then “Esteem”.  Only when people have satisfied these first four levels of need can they freely strive for “Self-actualisation”.  Societies reflect the people in them, so they follow a similar trajectory in their concerns.
  • Immigrants introduce new customs and traditions, which add to a society’s existing diversity.

These changes alter a society’s culture and its shared identity.  People’s perspectives alter.  Without any conscious negotiation, their expectations for each other’s behaviour gradually evolve.  And each time they consciously negotiate, their starting points will have altered.  The moral values of any society are validated by its degree of contentment.

If cultural change is very rapid in a particular area, though, a political response might be required to help allay people’s fears and avoid creating opportunities for troublemakers to stir up divisions between cultural groups (6.7.8).


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