Election poster from the 1930s for Sweden’s Social Democratic Party (source). Is the welfare state more workable if the population is more predisposed to obey moral norms?
Do we differ genetically in our ability, or willingness, to comply with moral norms? Please note: I’m talking about compliance. The norms themselves can vary greatly from one historical period to another and from one society to another.
Apparently some people are more norm-compliant than others. This is the conclusion of a recent twin study from Sweden (Loewen et al., 2013). A total of 2,273 individuals from twin pairs were queried about the acceptability of four dishonest behaviors: claiming sick benefits while healthy (1.4% thought it totally or fairly acceptable), avoiding paying for public transit (2.8%), avoiding paying taxes (9.7%), and accepting bribes on the job (6.4%).
How heritable were the responses to the above questions? The heritabilities were as follows:
Claiming sick benefits while healthy – 42.5%Avoiding paying for public transit – 42.3%
Avoiding paying taxes – 26.3%
Accepting bribes on the job – 39.7%
Do these results indicate a specific predisposition to obey moral norms? Or is the genetic influence something more general, like religiosity or risk-taking, both of which are known to be partly heritable? To answer this question, the authors ran correlations with other factors:
Significant correlations were exhibited for age (r=.10, p=.00), sex (r=.12, p=.00), religiosity (r=.06, p=.00), preferences for risk (r=-.09, p=.00) and fairness (r=-.10, p=.00), locus of control (r=-.03, p=.01), and charitable giving (r=.09, p=.00). However, these significant correlations were relatively weak, suggesting that our measure is not merely standing in for these demographic and psychological differences between individuals. There were no significant correlations with behavioral inhibition (r=-.00, p=.81) or volunteering (r=.01, p=.29). (Loewen et al., 2013)
The jury is still out, but it looks like compliance with moral norms has a specific heritable component.
Does this heritable component vary from one population to another, just as it seems to vary from one individual to another? The authors have little to say, other than the following:
Replication in other countries should occur, as the exact role and extent of genetic and common environment-influence could change in different national and cultural contexts. Such a multi-country approach could thus offer some clues on the generalizability of our findings. (Loewen et al., 2013)
Swedes seem to be better than most people at obeying moral norms. Only 1.4% think it acceptable to claim sick benefits while healthy! Maybe that’s why they’ve been so successful at creating a welfare state. So few of them want to be free riders on the gravy train:
Gunnar and Alva Myrdal were the intellectual parents of the Swedish welfare state. In the 1930s they came to believe that Sweden was the ideal candidate for a cradle-to-grave welfare state. First of all, the Swedish population was small and homogeneous, with high levels of trust in one another and the government. Because Sweden never had a feudal period and the government always allowed some sort of popular representation, the land-owning farmers got used to seeing authorities and the government more as part of their own people and society than as external enemies. Second, the civil service was efficient and free from corruption. Third, a Protestant work-ethic—and strong social pressures from family, friends and neighbors to conform to that ethic—meant that people would work hard, even as taxes rose and social assistance expanded. Finally, that work would be very productive, given Sweden´s well-educated population and strong export sector. (Norberg, 2006)
This is not how most of the world works. While studying in Russia, I noticed that the typical Russian feels a strong sense of moral responsibility toward immediate family and longstanding friends, more so than we in the West. Beyond that charmed circle, however, the general feeling seems to be distrust, wariness, or indifference. There was little of the spontaneous willingness to help strangers that I had taken for granted back home. People had the same sense of right and wrong, but this moral universe was strongly centered on their own families.
In sociology, the term is amoral familialism. Family is everything and society is nothing, or almost nothing. It was coined by American sociologist Edward Banfield:
In 1958, Banfield, with the assistance of his wife, Laura, published The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, in which they explained why a region in southern Italy was poor. The reason, they said, was not government neglect or poor education, but culture. People in this area were reluctant to cooperate outside of their families. This kind of “amoral familialism,” as they called it, was the result of a high death rate, a defective system of owning land, and the absence of extended families. By contrast, in an equally forbidding part of southern Utah, the residents were engaged in a variety of associations, each busily involved in improving the life of the community. In southern Italy, people did not cooperate; in southern Utah, they scarcely did anything else. (Banfield, 2003, p. viii)
Where did Western societies get this desire to treat family and non-family the same way? To some extent, it seems to be a longstanding trait. English historian Alan Macfarlane sees a tendency toward weaker kinship ties that goes back at least to the 13th century. Children had no automatic rights to the family property. Parents could leave their property to whomever they liked and disinherit their children if they so wished (Macfarlane, 2012).
Indeed, Macfarlane argues that “Weber’s de-familization of society” was already well advanced in Anglo-Saxon times (Macfarlane, 1992, pp. 173-174). This picture of relatively weak kinship ties is consistent with the Western European marriage pattern. If we look at European societies west of a line running from Trieste to St. Petersburg, we find that certain cultural traits predominate:
– relatively late marriage for men and women- many people who never marry
– neolocality (children leave the family household to form new households)
– high circulation of non-kin among different households (typically young people sent out as servants) (Hajnal, 1965; see also hbd* chick)
Again, these characteristics go back at least to the 13th century and perhaps much farther back (Seccombe, 1992, p. 94).
Historians associate this model of society with the rise of the market economy. In other words, reciprocal kinship obligations were replaced with monetized economic obligations, and this process in turn led to a broader-based morality that applied to everyone equally. In reality, the arrow of causation seems to have been the reverse. Certain societies, notably those of northwestern Europe, were pre-adapted to the market economy and thus better able to exploit its possibilities when it began to take off in the late Middle Ages. The expansion of the market economy and, later, that of the welfare state were thus made possible by certain pre-existing cultural and possibly genetic characteristics, i.e., weaker kinship ties and a corresponding extension of morality from the familial level to the societal level.
Banfield, E.C. (2003). Political Influence, New Brunswick (N.J.): Transaction Pub.
Hajnal, John (1965). European marriage pattern in historical perspective. In D.V. Glass and D.E.C. Eversley. Population in History. Arnold, London.
Loewen, P.J., C.T. Dawes, N. Mazar, M. Johannesson, P. Keollinger, and P.K.E. Magnusson. (2013). The heritability of moral standards for everyday dishonesty, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 93, 363-366.https://files.nyu.edu/ctd1/public/Moral.pdf
Macfarlane, A. (1992). On individualism, Proceedings of the British Academy, 82, 171-199.http://www.alanmacfarlane.com/TEXTS/On_Individualism.pdf
Macfarlane, A. (2012). The invention of the modern world. Chapter 8: Family, friendship and population, The Fortnightly Review, Spring-Summer serial http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2012/07/invention-8/
Norberg, J. (2006). Swedish Models, June 1, The National Interest.http://www.johannorberg.net/?page=articles&articleid=151
Seccombe, W. (1992). A Millennium of Family Change. Feudalism to Capitalism in Northwestern Europe, London: Verso.