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Immorality and bu daode, unculturedness and bu wenming

  • Vilius Dranseika
  • Renatas Berniūnas
  • Vytis Silius
Brief Research Paper

Abstract

In contemporary Western moral philosophy literature that discusses the Chinese ethical tradition, it is a commonplace practice to use the Chinese term daode 道德 as a technical translation of the English term moral. The present study provides some empirical evidence showing a discrepancy between the terms moral and daode. There is a much more pronounced difference between prototypically immoral and prototypically uncultured behaviors in English (USA) than between prototypically bu daode 不道德 and prototypically bu wenming 不文明 behaviors in Mandarin Chinese (Mainland China). If the Western concept of immorality is defined in contraposition to things that are matters of etiquette or conventional norms and thus tied to a more or less tangible moral/conventional distinction, then we are dealing with a different structure in Mandarin Chinese—the prototypically bu daode and bu wenming behaviors seem to largely overlap. We also discuss whether bu lunli 不倫理 and bu hefa 不合法 can be considered adequate candidates for translation of immorality and we answer in the negative.

Keywords

Normative domains Morality Daode Moral philosophy Moral psychology Cross-cultural studies 

Introduction

In contemporary Western moral philosophy literature that discusses Chinese ethical tradition, it is a commonplace practice to use the Chinese term daode 道德 as a technical translation of the English term moral. Such usage is supported by references to dictionaries; these terms seem to be used interchangeably by bilinguals (Buchtel et al. 2015), and it is also endorsed by contemporary Chinese academic authors writing about daode or lunli 倫理 (ethical) (Gao 2005). At the same time, many authors also notice problems with equating morality, as it is usually understood in the Western literature, with daode. Kupperman (2002) pointed out that for early Confucians, questions of style—usually understood as primarily an aesthetical concern—would be an important part in considerations on good life and character and/or right action, thus in practice functioning as a moral concern in the Western sense of the term. Rosemont (1976) suggested that early Confucians did not distinguish the specifically moral sphere of human reality as separated from other normative domains. He encourages everyone to accept the thesis that there “are no unique concepts of morals, moral actions, or moral dilemmas in early Confucianism” without in any way implying that this is a philosophical defect. On the contrary, Rosemont seems to suggest that understanding the unique patterns of early Confucian normative categorizations would provide us with broader and less culture-bound perspectives in moral philosophy and psychology (Rosemont 1976, p 50). Additionally, in fact, recent studies in comparative moral psychology provide some empirical evidence showing a discrepancy between the English term moral and the Chinese term daode, indicating that violations of conventional norms of civilized or cultured behavior in everyday Chinese usage are conceptualized as bu daode 不道德, or, if we agree with the dictionaries and academic convention, immoral acts (Buchtel et al. 2015). In the present article, we intend to contribute to this discussion on the meaning of the terms morality and bu daode. We believe that these questions are not only interesting in their own right as questions of lexical semantics, but that they can also have implications for descriptive projects in Moral Psychology and Moral Philosophy, and that they can inform choices made in translation.

Daode 道德

The contemporary Chinese term daode is a compound of two important, rich, and not easily translatable terms of the early Chinese thought tradition. The term dao 道 literally means “road, path, way”. In its broader sense, it also means a way or method, art, teachings of being, acting, and functioning (Ames and Rosemont 1998). The term de 德—commonly translated as “virtue”, “power”, or “potency”—in its earliest usages has denoted a non-physical and non-coercive influence of one person on the other, arising from the common and mutually beneficial interactions between two humans (Nivison 1996; Pines 2002; Gassmann 2011). In short, de can be aptly explained as a particular, instantaneous and unique expression of the totality of the human way of life and action (or dao, in early Chinese terminology; Rosemont and Ames 2009). In the early Chinese tradition, there are also less human-centered understandings of dao and de, but, taken in the most general form, it is clear that in this more Confucian rendition of the terms, there is a significant thematic overlap with what would be considered moral concerns in the West.

This apparent overlap of the two terms—moral and daode—seemingly justifies and facilitates scholarly explorations of what Chinese, past and present, hold as a “moral issue” and what Chinese consider as “immoral actions”. Such a formulation of the question poses a problem. Namely, the English term from a Western cultural background is taken as a reference point in the subsequent cross-cultural discussions, and almost never the opposite is true (Shun 2009). As a result, an existence of a universal moral domain or moral cognition as existing separately from conventional or aesthetical normative domains is often taken for granted. Then, the non-Western cultures, at best, are forced to answer “Procrustean questions” that vex people with a Western worldview, but cannot necessarily be adequately expressed in non-Western traditional and modern languages (Rosemont 1988; Goldin 2005). This is not to say that non-Western intellectual traditions have never in any way or form inquired or given answers to what we in the West call moral questions. We suggest that, for example, in the Chinese intellectual tradition, we can find many relevant deliberations that touch upon important aspects of what would be understood as moral sensibilities in the Western sense. However, it seems that the Chinese start their questions and discussions from a set of normative categories that are significantly different from the Western ones.

Daode 道德, wenming 文明, and li

A different approach would require starting from the Chinese concept daode, allowing that it could possibly be a unique Chinese way to categorize norms (Rosemont 1976; Buchtel et al. 2015). Accepting daode as a unique normative domain would also require to restrain from a critically unreflected intention to fit it into the allegedly universal sphere of moral norms. In contemporary academia, one of the most widespread ways in which moral psychologists and moral philosophers writing in English elucidate the concept moral is by contrasting it with the concept of conventional (Turiel 1983). Within this conventional domain one can find norms of etiquette, as well as other forms of “cultured”, “civilized” behavior. If the terms moral and daode have the same meaning, we should see a similar moral/conventional contrast in Chinese as well. However, once we start the analysis of daode as Chinese concept within the Chinese cultural environment and intellectual tradition, we immediately see that various important terms that belong to the concept cluster surrounding the term wenming文明 (culture) are also close affiliates to the concept daode. Namely, for the Confucian tradition, the dao and de were foremost the terms to analyze and describe human actions, and conditions, and already in the early Confucian texts dating as early as third century BCE, the dao and de were closely associated with refined, cultured, and civilized (wen 文) life and actions, which were subsumed within the notion of li 禮 (see Liji: Quli I.8, Xunzi 1.12). In such a cultural context, it is difficult to expect a strict separation or even an intention to separate conventional (cultural) and moral norms.

The term li is usually translated as ritual, but it also means ceremonies, rites, customs, proprieties, etiquette, and also morals. It is one of the most fundamental concepts in early Chinese intellectual tradition, denoting the whole set of culturally agreed, formalized ways of personal and social interactions that has to be personalized in each particular interpersonal encounter. The important thing to note here is that there is a “moral” meaning that is present in the term li, but it seems to be inseparable in early texts from all the other connotations that are closer to the contemporary Western idea of the domain of “conventional”, including aesthetical norms of decorum and cultural norms of civilized behavior (Rosemont 1976). Even more importantly, suggestions are made that for early Chinese, li is not merely a social and secondary attribute of human communities, but is also a fundamental quality in a sense of “human-building conventions” that constitute human beings and make human life possible (Neville 2008, p 29).

Do daode 道德 and wenming 文明 overlap?

Taking these traditional Confucian views into account, and given the continuing cultural and social influences of Confucian worldview on contemporary Chinese society, one should expect that conventional cultural norms and regulations, or civilized behavior (wenhua 文化/wenming 文明 in contemporary Chinese) for the everyday Chinese speaker would naturally be included into the daode normative domain. Thus, when translated in a standard way into English, these norms would be conceptualized as moral norms. To the extent that in the traditional Chinese view li is understood to be definitive of the very human existence itself, one can also expect that questions concerning the accordance to conventional cultural norms and civilized behavior will be met by Chinese with a very strong conviction and emotional response, similar to one that is observed in Western respondents reacting to moral transgressions (see, for instance, research on moral/conventional task: Nucci 2001; Smetana 1993; Tisak 1995; Turiel 1983).

Claims to these effects are not limited to theoretical literature, though. Buchtel and her colleagues in a recent empirical paper (2015) note that the “Chinese lay concept of “immorality” is more applicable to spitting on the street than killing people” (p. 1386). In describing one of their studies they write: “although 70% of Beijing participants called to spit on the public street “immoral” (11% of Westerners), only 42% of Beijing participants called to kill a person “immoral” (81% of Westerners)” (p. 1388). As further noted by these authors, “Results suggest that Chinese were more likely to use the word immoral for behaviors that were uncivilized, rather than exceptionally harmful, whereas Westerners were more likely to link immorality tightly to harm” (p. 1382).

Such results seem to suggest that bu daode is a significantly different concept from English immoral, which presents us with at least two theoretical options. Either some other expression of Mandarin Chinese translates “immoral” or no exact translation is available and Mandarin Chinese presents an alternative division of the normative space. In this paper, building on the pioneering work of Buchtel and her colleagues, we will discuss new empirical data bearing on these questions.

Study 1: Free-listing

In this study, we set out to collect prototypically immoral and prototypically uncultured behaviors, as understood by American, Mainland Chinese, and Lithuanian participants. In order to explore the typicality of transgressions, we have adopted one of the traditional methods in cognitive anthropology—free-listing. It is especially useful in that it allows researchers to familiarize themselves with the concepts shared and used by the respondents (see de Munck 2009, Ch. 3). Free-listing allows one to describe the conceptual domain from an emic perspective, as it is used within a particular cultural group. It is a snapshot of the most salient features of the concept under investigation. Emic data can be useful in themselves and they also can be quantified and structured into etic (that is, formulated in the language used by the social scientists) categories.

Method

Participants

American, Chinese, and Lithuanian participants were recruited online to complete a short questionnaire (N = 356; after removing 3 participants from outside the US and 4 incomplete questionnaires: N = 349; age range = 17–63; median age = 24; mean age = 28; male = 130; female = 229).1 US participants were recruited via Mechanical Turk for a small fee. Chinese and Lithuanian participants were recruited by distributing the web link to an online questionnaire among students and staff of universities in the respective countries.

Materials and procedures

Participants were given the following prompt (two groups: one was asked about immoral, the other about uncultured behaviors):

The aim of this study is to learn which actions or behaviors are considered immoral [uncultured]. Please provide a list of actions and behaviors which, in your opinion, are immoral [uncultured]. Please list at least five examples. There are no correct answers, we are just interested in your opinion.

The following term-pairs (Table 1) were used in the English, Mandarin Chinese, and Lithuanian versions. Please refer to Appendix 1 for precise formulations in all three languages.2
Table 1

Term pairs used in the study

 

Immoral

Uncultured

Mandarin Chinese

不道德 (bu daode)

不文明 (bu wenming)

English

Immoral

Uncultured

Lithuanian

Amoralu

Nekultūringa

Coding

Participants provided lists which were mostly composed of lists of simple verbs or nouns referring to particular behaviors. However, some terms were either synonymous or superfluously formulated, therefore we ran through the lists to reduce the number of terms by unifying synonyms, where appropriate, changing from singular to plural and vice versa, and checking for typos. Lithuanian and English lists were coded each by two of the authors and then any remaining differences were resolved through discussion among all three authors. Mandarin Chinese lists were coded by one author and any remaining questions were settled by discussions with native speakers of Mandarin Chinese.

Results

Free-listing frequencies

The numbers of different terms resulting from data analysis with the software program FLAME (Pennec et al. 2012), which builds upon the now classic program for free-list analysis ANTHROPAC (Borgatti 1996), are reported in Table 2.
Table 2

Number of lists and cited items

 

Immoral

Uncultured

Number of lists

Number of cited items (types)

Number of cited items (tokens)

Mandarin Chinese

不道德 (bu daode)

 

57

91

276

 

不文明 (bu wenming)

65

72

314

English

Immoral

 

60

91

301

 

Uncultured

49

118

248

Lithuanian

Amoralu

 

61

110

341

 

Nekultūringa

56

106

308

The most frequently used terms and their frequencies are reported in Tables 3 and 4.
Table 3

Most frequently mentioned immoral (bu daode, amoralu) behaviors

Lithuanian (61)

American (60)

Chinese (57)

Item

Freq

%

Item

Freq

%

Item

Freq

%

meluoti/lying

28

45.90

Killing/murder

49

81.67

公共场合喧哗/being loud

28

49.12

vogti/stealing

26

42.62

Stealing

47

78.33

乱扔垃圾/littering

27

47.37

žudyti/killing/murder

23

37.70

Cheating

25

41.67

随地吐痰/spitting

24

42.11

smurtauti/violence

20

32.79

Raping

24

40.00

插队/cutting in line

15

26.32

tyčiotis/bullying

18

29.51

Lying

20

33.33

欺骗/cheating

14

24.56

išduoti/betrayal

11

18.03

Animal abuse

9

15.00

公共场合吸烟/smoking in public

13

22.81

negerbti kitų/disrespecting others

10

16.39

Adultery

8

13.33

盗窃/stealing

8

14.04

svetimauti/adultery

8

13.11

Paedophilia

8

13.33

辱骂他人/insulting

8

14.04

kankinti gyvūnus/animal abuse

8

13.11

Harming others

7

11.67

破坏公物/damaging public property

6

10.53

apkalbinėti/slandering

7

11.48

Violence

7

11.67

不遵守交通规则/not observing traffic rules

6

10.53

išnaudoti/exploiting

7

11.48

Fighting/hitting

6

10.00

不让座/not giving seat

5

8.77

sukčiauti/cheating

7

11.48

Child abuse

6

10.00

随地大小便/urinating or defecating publicly

5

8.77

girtauti/alcohol abuse

6

9.84

Discriminating

4

6.67

打架/打人/fighting/hitting

5

8.77

vengti atsakomybės/avoiding responsibility

6

9.84

Racism

4

6.67

不赡养父母/not providing for parents

4

7.02

veidmainiauti/hypocrisy

5

8.20

Exploiting

4

6.67

破坏花草/damaging lawn

4

7.02

negerbti tėvų/disrespecting parents

5

8.20

Disrespecting others

3

5.00

背后议论/slandering

3

5.26

nepadėti/not helping

5

8.20

Torturing

3

5.00

欺负/bullying

3

5.26

ignoruoti kitus/ignoring others

4

6.56

Incest

3

5.00

涂鸦/graffiti

3

5.26

diskriminuoti/discrimination

4

6.56

Damaging environment

3

5.00

损人利己/being selfish

3

5.26

elgtis savanaudiškai/being selfish

4

6.56

Sodomy

2

3.33

道德绑架/moralizing

3

5.26

Numbers in brackets represent the number of participants in a condition. Freq shows how many participants mentioned a given term. Percentages indicate the proportion of participants in the group who mentioned a given term in their lists

Table 4

Most frequently mentioned uncultured (bu wenming, nekultūringa) behaviors

Lithuanian (56)

American (69)

Chinese (45)

Item

Freq

%

Item

Freq

%

Item

Freq

%

keiktis/swearing

27

48.21

Swearing

13

26.53

随地吐痰/spitting

44

67.69

spjaudytis/spitting

22

39.29

Farting

13

26.53

乱扔垃圾/littering

44

67.69

triuksmauti/being loud

17

30.36

Picking nose

12

24.49

公共场合喧哗/being loud

38

58.46

siukslinti/littering

17

30.36

Burping

11

22.45

公共场合吸烟/smoking in public

18

27.69

negerbti kitų/disrespecting others

10

17.86

Being loud

11

22.45

插队/cutting in line

18

27.69

tyciotis/bullying

9

16.07

Spitting

7

14.29

说脏话/swearing

16

24.62

apkalbineti/slandering

9

16.07

Not washing

7

14.29

不遵守交通规则/not observing traffic rules

10

15.38

negerbti vyresnių/not respecting older people

8

14.29

Being rude

6

12.24

辱骂他人/insulting

10

15.38

ignoruoti kitus/ignoring others

7

12.50

Stealing

6

12.24

随地大小便/urinating or defecating publicly

7

10.77

girtauti/alcohol abuse

7

12.50

Chewing with mouth open

6

12.24

乱穿马路/jaywalking

6

9.23

pertraukineti kitus/interrupting others

7

12.50

Bullying

5

10.20

打架/打人/fighting/hitting

6

9.23

nesisveikinti/not greeting others

6

10.71

Eating with hands

5

10.20

涂鸦/graffiti

6

9.23

čepsėti/chewing with mouth open

6

10.71

Poor manners

5

10.20

在禁止吃饭的场合吃东西/eating in unsuitable places

6

9.23

grubiai bendrauti/being rude

6

10.71

Not holding doors

4

8.16

上厕所不冲水/not flushing toilet

5

7.69

vėluoti/being late

6

10.71

Quarreling

4

8.16

霸占座位/seizing seat

4

6.15

rūkyti viešumoje/smoking in public

6

10.71

Fighting/hitting

4

8.16

破坏公物/damaging public property

4

6.15

lįsti be eilės/cutting in line

5

8.93

Not thanking

3

6.12

不讲究卫生/poor sanitation

3

4.62

neišjungti mobilaus/leaving mobile on

5

8.93

Cutting in line

3

6.12

打扰他人/disturbing others

3

4.62

nesilaikyti KET/not observing traffic rules

5

8.93

Scratching private parts

3

6.12

抖腿/shaking legs

3

4.62

krapštyti nosį/picking nose

5

8.93

Talking with mouth full

3

6.12

吵架/quarreling

2

3.08

Numbers in brackets represent the number of participants in a condition. Freq shows how many participants mentioned a given term. Percentages indicate the proportion of participants in the group who mentioned a given term in their lists

The results on prototypically immoral transgressions seem to accord with recently reported results, employing similar methodologies. US results for immoral are largely in accordance with results by Schein and Gray (2015), Mainland Chinese results for bu daode are in accordance with results reported by Buchtel et al. (2015), while Lithuanian results accord well with a study reported by Berniūnas and Dranseika (2017). Free-listing studies on uncultured, bu wenming, nekultūringa were not previously done, to the best of our knowledge.

At first glance, the following trends seem to emerge in the data. In Mandarin Chinese, lists of bu daode and bu wenming behaviors seem to be very similar (Table 5): the top 3 items overlap (“being loud”, “littering”, and “spitting”), 7 items overlap in the top 10, and 12 items make it into both top 20 lists. Numbers are much smaller for Lithuanian, and, especially, English lists. Only one item (“stealing”) made it into both lists of the top 10 USA immoral and uncultured behaviors. Within the top 20 lists, one more item is common—“fighting/hitting”. This suggests that there is a much more pronounced difference between prototypically immoral and prototypically uncultured behaviors in the USA than between prototypically bu daode and prototypically bu wenming behaviors in Mainland China, with Lithuanian results falling closer to American than Chinese results. This seems partly in conformity with results reported by Buchtel et al. (2015), who report that in Mandarin Chinese, an especially strong link exists between “immoral” and “uncivilized”.
Table 5

Overlap between most frequently cited immoral and uncultured behaviors

 

Overlap in top 3

Overlap in top 10

Overlap in top 20

Mandarin Chinese

3 (100%)

7 (70%)

12 (60%)

English

0 (0%)

1 (10%)

2 (5%)

Lithuanian

0 (0%)

3 (30%)

5 (25%)

Comparison between groups

In order to look at these data in a more quantitative manner, we put together the top 10 most frequently mentioned items from all six lists [3 languages; 2 conditions (immoral and uncultured) in each] and, after removing duplicates, a list of 39 items was compiled (see Appendix 2). Then we checked the percentage of participants who mentioned any particular item in their lists as well as differences between the lists (see Appendix 3). For example, in an immoral condition, stealing was mentioned by 78.33% of American participants, while in an uncultured condition—by 12.24% of American participants. Then we treated the difference between percentages as a measure of difference between the lists, thus resulting in a numerical value of 66.09 as a measure of difference between the American immoral and uncultured lists for the term “stealing”. Differences between USA and Mainland China, and between Lithuania and Mainland China were statistically significant. For example, differences between frequencies of items in immoral and uncultured lists were larger than differences between frequencies of items in bu daode and bu wenming lists). A Mann–Whitney U test indicated that differences between conditions in the USA sample (Mdn = 6.67) were larger than differences between conditions in the Mandarin Chinese sample (Mdn = 1.75), U = 460.5, p = 0.003, rrb = 0.39. Similarly, a Mann–Whitney U test indicated that differences between conditions in the Lithuanian sample (Mdn = 8.93) were larger than differences between conditions in the Mandarin Chinese sample (Mdn = 1.75), U = 395.5, p < 0.001, rrb = 0.48. No difference was observed between USA and Lithuania. A Mann–Whitney U test did not indicate that differences between conditions in the USA sample (Mdn = 6.67) were either larger or smaller than differences between conditions in the Lithuanian sample (Mdn = 8.93), U = 733.5, p = 0.787, rrb = 0.04.

Discussion

Our data seem to support the claim by Buchtel et al. (2015) that the Chinese tend to think about “immoral” and “uncivilized/uncultured” as tightly interconnected concepts, whereas the Westerners tend to conceive of these two categories as rather different, and perhaps opposing, as in a moral/conventional distinction of the Turiel tradition in moral psychology (1983). The results are also in agreement with the theoretical position expressed by Rosemont (1976).

It may also be worth noting that Kupperman (2002), writing on why Western philosophers should read Kongzi, stated:

“The characteristic preoccupations of contemporary Anglo-American ethical philosophy, especially, begin with moral or social choice. Such choices in their nature involve a great deal at stake, and for most people will seem to occur infrequently. This focus leads to [..] ‘big moment ethics,’ one of whose appealing features is that (by its emphasis on major choices at ethical crossroads) it in effect treats almost all of life apart from the big moments as an ethical free-play zone, in which one can do whatever one likes.” (p. 40).

This characterization seems to also fit the ordinary Western concept of morality emerging from our data. Prototypically, immoral behaviors for American participants can be characterized as being more extreme and less likely to be encountered in daily activities, whereas prototypically bu daode behaviors for Mainland Chinese participants were quite mundane and likely to be encountered in daily activities. While killing/murder was the most frequently mentioned item in the USA sample (mentioned by 82% of participants) and made it to the top 3 in the Lithuanian sample (38%), only one Chinese participant mentioned it. Furthermore, the most frequently mentioned items in the Chinese list (being loud, littering, spitting, cutting in line) were mentioned very seldom, if at all, by Lithuanians and Americans.

Study 2: Bu lunli 不倫理 and bu hefa 不合法

Given the fact that prototypically immoral behaviors were very different from prototypically bu daode behaviors, we decided to explore two other Chinese terms to see whether they would allow us to identify terms whose prototypical instances are more similar to the American immoral behaviors. The terms we chose are bu lunli 不倫理 and bu hefa 不合法. For these two additional studies, we used the same method and data coding procedures as the previous study. The only difference was that the terms inserted in the probes were different. Please refer to Appendix 1 for precise formulations.

Study 2a: Bu lunli 不倫理

The reason for choosing bu lunli is that it is yet another Chinese term that could potentially be equivalent to the field of immorality as it is understood in the West. In contemporary Chinese academia, the terms daode and lunli were even taken to roughly correspond to the distinction between morality and ethics, which is a well-established distinction in Western philosophical literature (for a short overview see Gao 2005, pp. 44–58). In this case, daode is taken as a more subjective aspect and taken as a translation of morality. Lunli is taken to translate as the English term ethics, understood as a systematic development and grounding of subjective moral intuitions and convictions, as a theory of morality (Gao 2005, p. 44).

Lunli, too, has a long history of usage in early Chinese texts and both Chinese characters have been important terms in the Chinese tradition. Lun 倫 in early Chinese texts means “class of things” or “order of things”, but was primarily used as meaning “interpersonal human relations”, or—in more processual reading by Roger Ames—as “the living of one’s roles and relations” (Ames 2011, p 97). This term was also widely used in a compound wulun 五倫 which in Confucian tradition means “five cardinal human relations”. Li 理, another important and rich term in Chinese intellectual tradition, here simply means “structure, pattern”. Both Chinese characters compose a single term lunli meaning “patterned human relations”.

The study participants were recruited online via SoJump.com for a small fee (N = 52; age range = 20–45; median age = 29.5; mean age = 30; male = 25; female = 27). The most frequently mentioned items are listed in Table 6.
Table 6

Most frequently mentioned bu lunli and bu hefa behaviors

Bu lunli (52)

Bu hefa (58)

Item

Freq

%

Item

Freq

%

辱骂他人/insulting

13

25.00

盗窃/stealing

51

87.93

打架/打人/fighting/hitting

12

23.08

强奸/raping

23

39.66

随地吐痰/spitting

10

19.23

杀人/killing

19

32.76

不孝/unfilial conduct

10

19.23

不遵守交通规则/not observing traffic rules

18

31.03

通奸/adultery

10

19.23

欺骗/cheating

14

24.14

盗窃/stealing

9

17.31

醉酒驾驶/drunk _driving

12

20.69

乱伦/incest

9

17.31

打架/打人/fighting/hitting

12

20.69

随地大小便/urinating or defecating publicly

8

15.38

放火/arson

8

13.79

不尊老/not respecting older people

8

15.38

逃税/tax evasion

7

12.07

公共场合亲热/intimacy in public

7

13.46

破坏公物/damaging public property

5

8.62

Numbers in brackets represent the number of participants in a condition. Freq shows how many participants mentioned a given term. Percentages indicate the proportion of participants in the group who mentioned a given term in their lists

There are three items that overlap between the top 10 lists of bu daode and bu lunli behaviors: spitting, stealing, and insulting. However, looking at the whole lists, there seems to be a rather clear difference among them in a sense that the prototypical bu daode (as well as bu wenming) behaviors are more often issues of public propriety, where there is no clear individual victim (e.g. being loud, littering, spitting), while the prototypical bu lunli behaviors are more saliently those that have identifiable victims, often in the family context, such as unfilial conduct and adultery. This seems to be consistent with the traditional Chinese usages of lunli as explained above. In addition, overlap among the top 10 lists of American immoral and Mandarin Chinese bu lunli behaviors is very limited—there are only two items in common: stealing and adultery.

Study 2b: Bu hefa 不合法

The notion hefa 合法 in contemporary Chinese means “legal, lawful, legitimate”. It is clearly a legal notion, associated with formalized legal norms, which are supervised by the state authority. The second character in this binomial, i.e. fa 法, in early Chinese intellectual tradition meant “norm, law, standard, regulation”, while the first one, he 合, simply means “to suit, to agree with”. Fa 法 was one of the central terms in the early Chinese school of thought fajia 法家, or the Legalists. This school was one of the main intellectual rivals of Confucians in suggesting the best ways of structuring people’s lives, society, and the state. In this rivalry fa, as one of the main pillars of Legalist thought, was mainly contrasted with li 禮, or the ritual, which was one of the pillars of Confucian thought. Fa was to be formally established and enforced by the state through the means of punishment. Li, on the other hand, was understood more as a communal means of interaction, that has to be personally internalized through education. The adherence to the li norms was to be induced by the personal example of state and communal leaders (see, for example, Lunyu 2.3).

For this study, participants were also recruited online via SoJump.com for a small fee (N = 58; age range = 20–66; median age = 31; mean age = 34; male = 30; female = 28). The most frequently mentioned items are listed in Table 6. There are three items that overlap between the top 10 lists of bu daode and bu hefa behaviors: stealing, damaging public property, and not observing traffic rules. However, there seems to be a rather clear difference between the two lists in a sense that the prototypical bu daode (as well as bu wenming) behaviors are more often issues of public propriety, while the prototypical bu hefa behaviors are those that have clear legalistic implications. Four items overlap between the top 10 lists of USA immoral and Mandarin Chinese bu hefa behaviors: killing/murder, stealing, cheating, and raping. Furthermore, all four items appear high on the lists: within the top five items in both lists. One interpretation of these results is that there is an accidental connection here based on the fact that legal regulations also cover the most extreme moral transgressions. However, there can be an alternative interpretation, suggesting that there is a close connection between law and modern Western notions of morality, as suggested by Anscombe (1958). Under this legalistic reading, there indeed would be some affinity between morality and hefa.

General discussion

These differences between prototypically bu daode, bu wenming, bu lunli, and bu hefa behaviors seem to hint at different aspects of why behaviors are valued negatively: bu daode and bu wenming seem to be especially focused on public propriety, bu lunli—on interpersonal relationships within a family context or relations with identifiable others, while bu hefa seems to refer to legal prohibitions. All three aspects can be recognized within the English meaning of morality, but these preliminary results seem to suggest that the Chinese have more explicit and more clearly delineated normative domains focused on these aspects.

One of the reviewers encouraged us to explain why we should interpret these results as relevant not only to lexical semantics—that is, the study of the meanings of words in human languages—but also to conceptual distinctions in Psychology and Philosophy. That is why we think that our empirical methods could be suitable for the latter task.

On the one hand, we would be happy to limit ourselves in this paper to a more modest claim that—as a matter of meaning of words—daode does not translate as morality. We would be happy if this article serves as a warning and a reminder to academic translators of Western and Chinese literature, and Chinese-speaking students of Western tradition, as well as English-speaking students of the Chinese tradition.

On the other hand, we would like to provide three arguments why we think that the present work can be relevant to cross-cultural Moral Psychology.

First, free-listing is a classic cognitive task used routinely to recover the prototypical structure of how people cognitively represent various concepts and categories (see, for instance, the classic work by Eleanor Rosch on the internal prototypical structures of ordinary object concepts via lists of attributes and characteristics of different kinds of ordinary everyday objects; Rosch and Mervis 1975). There is a long tradition of using this method as a cognitive measure in psycholinguistics and cognitive anthropology (de Munck 2009). Indeed, the free-listing method has been employed to study a wide array of cultural domains, where “[a] domain may be defined as an organized set of words, concepts, or sentences, all on the same level of contrast, that jointly refer to a single conceptual sphere” (Weller and Romney 1988). Thus, we are reluctant to agree that the method is suitable only to the study of the meanings of words.

Second, the results of the present study are in line with results obtained using other and perhaps less controversial methods. One reviewer helpfully pointed out that it would be a good idea to use different and more experimental methods to study how people conceptualize morality. By giving them scenarios of various kinds of transgressions and by avoiding any usage of the English immoral or the Chinese bu daode, we would be in a better position to grasp the conceptual interconnection between the moral and conventional domains. As a matter of fact, in a different study (Berniūnas, Dranseika, and Silius, under review) we did exactly that and found that, indeed, Chinese tend to moralize—in a sense of “moral signature” (Berniunas et al. 2016)—typically conventional (as usually understood in the Moral Psychology literature) transgressions more often than the American participants. Edouard Machery also refers to an ongoing research program (see Machery 2012 for a description and Levine et al. (unpublished manuscript) for the first results) that aims to uncover differences in how people categorize norms and found that “Americans draw a sharp distinction between moral and nonmoral norms and also distinguish different kinds of moral and nonmoral norms. In contrast, Indian participants do not seem to draw distinction between moral and nonmoral norms, suggesting that the moral domain may not be a universal.” (Machery 2018: 263).

Third, Machery provides an argument that aims to show the relevance of such linguistic data to the study of cognitive universals. Referring to the work of Anna Wierzbicka, who claims that, in contrast to such deontic modals as “ought” and such normative predicates as “right” or “wrong”, some languages do not have a word for “morality” and thus do not lexicalize the distinction between morally good and morally bad (Wierzbicka 2001, 2007). Machery writes: “If the moral domain were a fundamental feature of human cognition, we would expect the distinction between moral and nonmoral norms to be lexicalized in every language, as are deontic modals and the distinction between good and bad” (2018: 262).

In the light of these arguments, we have hope that our paper will make a modest contribution to the psychological understanding of moral cognition.

Conclusion

How should we approach the question of whether bu daode and immorality is the same concept? One motive to resist their identification is the following: concepts do not function in isolation, they come in larger conceptual schemes and the business of translation should preserve these relations between concepts. If we believe that the Western concept of immorality is defined in contraposition to things that are matters of etiquette or conventional norms (which is very much consistent with results obtained from the American and Lithuanian samples) and thus tied to a more or less tangible moral/conventional distinction, then our results indicate that in the case of Mandarin Chinese, we are dealing with a different conceptual structure. It seems that the prototypically bu daode and bu wenming behaviors largely overlap, thus making this pair of terms not suitable to express a conceptual contrast that we see in the classic moral/conventional distinction, so central to contemporary Moral Psychology (e.g. Turiel 1983; Nucci 2001) and Moral Philosophy (e.g. Nichols 2004; Joyce 2006). The current study seems to support an emerging skepticism about the rigidity and centrality of moral/conventional distinctions in folk moral cognition (see also Levine et al., unpublished manuscript; Machery and Mallon 2010; Sachdeva et al. 2011; Sripada and Stich 2006). Indeed, there is a kind of functional lack of equivalence between these term pairs in English and Mandarin Chinese, and one ought to keep this in mind while conducting cross-cultural investigations of moral psychology, as well as when translating these terms between the languages.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    Participant characteristics by country: USA (N = 114; after removing 3 from outside US: N = 111; age range = 20–63; median age = 30; mean age = 34; male = 55; female = 65); Mainland China (N = 122; age range = 17–61; median age = 22; mean age = 24; male = 34; female = 88); Lithuania (N = 121; after removing 4 incomplete answers: N = 117; age range = 18–63; median age = 22; mean age = 29; male = 41; female = 76).

  2. 2.

    Note, in this paper we will sometimes refer, for ease of exposition, to Chinese or Lithuanian terms by using English terms. This, however, should not be taken as suggesting that, for example, bu daode is an exact translation of immoral. In fact, we will argue, on the basis of our results, that the English term immoral and Chinese term bu daode differ in very crucial respects.

Notes

Acknowledgements

This research was funded by a grant (no. MIP-15506) from the Research Council of Lithuania. An earlier version of this paper was presented at conferences at University of Vilnius, Tartu University, Kaunas University of Technology, and Osnabrück University, and a workshop at University of Iceland. We wish to thank the audiences at these events for suggestions on how to improve the paper. We also thank two anonymous reviewers for this journal for their valuable comments, Agnė Veisaitė for help with coding data, and Phyllis Zych-Budka and Vincent Giedraitis for language editing.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Philosophy, Faculty of PhilosophyVilnius UniversityVilniusLithuania
  2. 2.Institute of Asian and Transcultural StudiesVilnius UniversityVilniusLithuania
  3. 3.Institute of PsychologyVilnius UniversityVilniusLithuania

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