Moral judgment and the condemnation of others, including fictional others and others who have not harmed the self, is a universal and essential feature of human social life. Many social animals respond to violations, attacks, or defections against the self in dyadic relationships (Trivers, 1971), but something seems to have happened in the evolution of primate social cognition that makes primates, particularly human beings, chimpanzees, and bonobos, exquisitely sensitive to violations of the social order committed by others against others (de Waal, 1996). In these few species that exhibit what we might call “third-party” morality, individuals react emotionally to violations, and these reactions often have long-term effects on social relationships between violators and third parties. Could these emotional reactions be part of the foundation of human morality?

Shweder and his colleagues proposed that there are three distinct ethics that cultures use to approach and resolve moral issues: the ethics of community, autonomy, and divinity. Each ethic is based on a different conceptualisation of the person: as an office-holder within a larger interdependent group-family- community (community), as an individual preference structure (autonomy), or as a divine creature bearing a bit of God within (divinity).

Shweder and his colleagues (1997) developed this model by analysing explanations by Hindu Indians of the moral status of a variety of actions. A hierarchical cluster analysis of the themes and moral concerns showed these three principal clusters, which are quite intelligible to Westerners, even though they were derived from Indians. Researchers carrying out ongoing work with this theory have found it useful for explaining moral differences across cultures and social classes (Haidt, Koller, & Dias, 1993) and for understanding such things as the culture wars (Hunter, 1991) that currently pit liberals and progressivists (whose morality is limited to the ethics of autonomy) against conservatives and orthodox (with a broader moral domain, including community and divinity; Jensen, 1997).

(Paul Rozin ,Laura Lowery, Sumio Imada, Jonathan Haidt 1999)

The first cluster (Code 1 – The Ethics of Autonomy) relies on regulative concepts such as harm, rights, and justice and aims to protect the zone of discretionary choice of individuals and to promote the exercise of individual will in pursuit of personal preferences. This is the kind of ethics that is usually the official ethic of societies where “individualism” is an ideal.

The second cluster (Code 2 – The Ethics of Community) relies on the regulative concepts such as duty, hierarchy, interdependency and souls. It aims to protect the moral integrity of the various station or roles that constitute a society or a “community” where a society or community is conceived of as a corporate entity with an identity , standing, history and reputation of its own.

The third cluster (Code 3 – The Ethics of Divinity) relies on regulative concepts such as sacred order, natural order, tradition, sanctity, sin and pollution. It aims to protect the soul, the spirit, the spiritual aspects of the human agent and nature from degradation.

Presupposed by the “ethics of autonomy” is a conceptualisation of the self as an individual preference structure, where the point of moral regulation is to increase choice and personal liberty.

Presupposed by the ethics of community” is a conceptualisation of the self as an office holder since generally it can be considered that one’s role in life is intrinsic to one’s identity and is part of a larger interdependent collective enterprise with a history and standing of its own.

Presupposed by the “ethics of divinity” is a conceptualisation of the self as a spiritual entity connected to some sacred or natural order of things and as a responsible bearer of a legacy that is elevated and divine.

It is important to keep in mind that cognised reality is incomplete if described from any one point of view and incoherent if described from all points of view at once. (Shweder, 1993)

It seems to be the case that in direct contrast to secular society in the United States, the discourse of autonomy and individualism is backgrounded in Hindu Society, whereas the discourses of community and divinity are foregrounded, made salient and institutionalised. That does not mean there is no personal experience of autonomy and individuality in India. Rather it is absorbed into the discourses of community and divinity. Similarly, although ideas of community and divinity have been backgrounded and left out of much of the world description produced and institutionalised by modernist western social science, these communitarian concerns continue to live on, implicitly or explicitly, in the unofficial “folk culture” and its discourse.

In the United States today society has become an expert on the topic of the “ethics of autonomy”. The idea of rights have been extended to different domains such as education and health care. The class of “rights” holders is extended to include children and animals. The idea of worldly autonomy is expanded to such an extent that it is now imaginable that children should be free to choose the parents they want. Society in the US has enlarged the idea of harm to include such all-embracing notions as “harassment”, “abuse”, and “exploitation”. It has continued to stretch the notions of rights, autonomy and harm even as it wonders nostalgically how it lost its sense of community and divinity, and struggles to find a way to recover them. In rural India, on the other hand, the “ethics of autonomy” is much less salient, while the institution and ideologies of community and divinity are highly elaborated and finely honed, which creates its own special distortions, of course.

An ethics of community and an ethics of divinity still flourish in the south asian regions. The doctrine of karmic consequences and the idea that “old sins cast long shadow” flourishes here as well. To some, these ethics, doctrines and ideas may seem antiquated. Nevertheless, as the world begins to witness an increase in agent-blaming moralistic explanations of various issues the connection between action and outcome shall be advertised, regulated and evaluated in terms of social or community costs. The idea of “sin tax” is going to enter a collective consciousness and be enforced by the state. Whether our highly individualistic ethics of autonomy will give way to an ethics of community or divinity in a world full of anxieties, remains to be seen. Yet, as we search for postmodern ways to rethink our responsibilities to society and nature, it would not be too surprising if we began to acknowledge the intuitive appeal of ideas such as “sacred self”, “sacred world”, “karma”, “dharma/duty”, “pollution” and “sin”. It would not be surprising if we began to worry a lot about how those ideas are to be reconciled with the individualism that we value as well.

(excerpts from Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, Park 1997. I have modified the text in some places to acknowledge a wider range of issues. The paper is originally around health care policies in the United States)

I feel debates around issues such as “sexual preferences”, “gender equality”,  “income inequality”, “human rights” and so on have stretched beyond the ethics of autonomy and into the realm of community to gain a moral acceptance.

On the other hand, issues pertaining to culture, tradition and heritage are pushed beyond the ethics of community and divinity into the realm of “autonomy” wherein the former are being labeled as regressive to keep up with the  dominant notion of the self as advertised by the more influential western cultures.

Power struggles today revolve around these issues wherein a handful few have become self-proclaimed agents of morality to either promote or prevent an evolved social order.


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Ethics of Autonomy – Children today have the moral “right” to choose who their parents should be.

Ethics of Divinity – Madrasa’s or a school run by the muslim faith imparts lessons in ethics in order to maintain a peaceful social order. A misunderstanding of the moral codes, apart from several other conspiracy theories, has led to one faith being sidelined as regressive and harmful to world society in general.

Ethics of Divinity – A “ved pathshala” (School of Hindu religious studies) is a place where “brahmins” are taught the ancient hindu scriptures.The Guru-Shishya Parampara or the Guru-Disciple tradition is India’s most ancient system of education that has prevailed since Vedic times, when students from faraway places would come to live in a Guru’s hermitage or ashram to acquire the knowledge of the Vedas and get trained traditionally in various disciplines include art, music, and dance. This came to be known as the Gurukul system of learning which literally means “learning while living with the Guru in his ashram.”

At some point this became a brahmin only tradition. A degradation from an ancient past- when it used to be a school for all children, while the purpose of preserving heritage and cultural identity is original, the notion of reservation is a modern concept.

Ethics of Community – Equal rights is a common theme of all religions and thereby one would assume social structure is built on this default. Yet, it seems humans have regressed to an extent that we need to raise awareness for such a basic moral value.

Ethics of Community – A teacher is only second to a parent in imparting sound moral values to the young generation. A creative profession so critical but yet grossly undermined, is according to me, one of the major causes for social discord.

Ethics of Divinity – Feudal ethics celebrating hierarchy are a hallmark of societies that place the ethics of autonomy in the background. A hierarchal structure comes with a responsibility where the subordinate provides loyalty in return to the security provided by the superordinate. This system, when it clashes with democracy, pits the ethics of Autonomy against the ethics of Community and Divinity often leading to fundamentalist wars based on moral grounds

Ethics of Divinity – In countries such as India, the notion to Autonomy can only be promoted by accommodating the idea of Divinity. I feel borrowing ideas from a foreign culture and enforcing them on a local culture in the name of “liberalisation” is not going to help. The concept of a secular country is hard to establish in India because the religious philosophies (abrahamic minority vs non-abrahamic majority) at play in this region are fundamentally at odds with each other.

Ethics of Autonomy – Kings and queens to defend the masses against the poor masses ruled by other kings and queens. Power struggles in the name of protection is not new to human evolution. Democratising the power struggles has had a reverse impact. If anything, we the masses, have merely become spectators of a game played by the powerful few under the garb of democracy.

Ethics of Community – An Actor-Audience situation have long played a key role in extending the ideas of community and divinity over the self. But we rarely see the torch bearers practising what they preach. Take entertainers on a big screen or politicians on stage for example.

Ethics of Autonomy – The ideal state of society will be to have an equilibrium of the CAD triad. And sex is at the centre of that. When the divine notion of this act can be reasoned with the community the self can locate its true dharma.

Ethics of Community – A corporatisation of moral values has led to an altered view of the social responsibility that individuals bear towards the global community. Excess is the new norm causing the ethics of autonomy to trample over the “ethics of Divinity” which, amongst other things, stipulates sustainable co-existence within this sacred cosmos and with nature

Ethics of Autonomy – Individualism is the new norm of the post modern age where a disregard of the ethics of community and divinity has led to health problems such as “alienation” and “isolation”. We tend to live more in our virtual world than in the real worlds often building a fake affable and unrealistic persona in the former realm.

Ethics of Autonomy – A right to be who you want is challenged by long standing institutionalised notions of Community and Divinity mostly miss-appropriated to fit personal gains in today’s political climate.

Ethics of Community – Social spaces which promote free speech often become hotbeds for moralistic debates that challenge the status quo.

Ethics of Community – The state responds to popular notions of morality and enforces laws that require a seismic mind-shift in acceptance for the ones who hold the ethics of divinity close to heart. This leads to popular uprisings often revolting against changes in “perceived” beliefs.

Ethics of Community – We have evolved from a time when elders took a stand for whats best for a community based on their past experiences in order to progress humankind forward. Today, mob justice seems to have take its place where discourse on morality has now become a free for all to judge and punish as per each one’s version of random unqualified histories.

Ethics of Autonomy – Individuals reacting emotionally to violations of social order leave a long term effect on social relationships between the violators and third parties. Some mental illnesses (Bipolar Disorder, BPD, Schizophrenia to name a few) have a direct correlation to gross violations of such established social orders.

A handful few have become self-proclaimed agents of morality to either promote or prevent an evolved social order.