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News: April/May 2019

Word frequency reveals morality’s tides • Marx’s tomb vandalised • Black holes evade conceptual capture — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Moral Talk and Moral Conflict

Researchers Nick Haslam, Melanie McGrath, and Melissa Wheeler of the University of Melbourne in Australia have traced the development of moral language over more than 100 years. Using a program called Google NGram Viewer they searched for 304 terms with moral content in the English language Google Books database. The search covered books published between 1900 and 2007. While they found an overall decline in the use of words conveying general morality, such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘moral’, and ‘evil’, there was a sudden and remarkable turning point around 1980: “The fifth period, from around 1980 to the end of the study period in 2007, involves a relatively sudden shift in the salience of moral concepts.” From then on, they write, “moral content increasingly saturates the database”. More precisely, “Both individualist and social order and cohesion-based moralities rise in parallel, suggesting a broader re-moralisation.” The authors believe this may correlate to a hardening of moral fronts, an “increasing moral polarisation and conflict.”

Moral Thinking & Moral Argument

Is morality relative? Researchers at Oxford’s Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology analysed ethnographic accounts of ethics from sixty societies, drawing on over 600 sources, to test the hypothesis that morality serves to promote cooperation. If true, the fact that there are many types of cooperation means that there are many types of morality. They found seven cooperative behaviours considered morally good in 99.9% of cases across the sixty cultures they studied. They were: “Help your family”, “help your group”, “return favours”, “be brave”, “defer to superiors”, “divide resources fairly” and “respect others’ property.” Dr Oliver Scott Curry, lead author and senior researcher, comments: “The debate between moral universalists and moral relativists has raged for centuries, but now we have some answers. People everywhere face a similar set of social problems and use a similar set of moral rules to solve them. As predicted, these seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures. Everyone everywhere shares a common moral code. All agree that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do.”

What Are Black Holes?

Black holes are astronomical objects composed of a singularity and event horizon that consume everything around them. However, Dr Erik Curiel of the Munich Centre for Mathematical Philosophy at Ludwig-Maximilian University shows in a recent paper in Nature Astronomy that the definition of black holes is surprisingly tricky: “The properties of black holes are the subject of investigations in a range of subdisciplines of physics – in optical physics, in quantum physics and of course in astrophysics. But each of these specialties approaches the problem with its own specific set of theoretical concepts.” Curiel, who studied philosophy and theoretical physics at Harvard and the University of Chicago, argues that the answer must be strongly informed by philosophy: “Phenomena such as black holes belong to a realm that is inaccessible to observation and experiment. Work based on the assumption that black holes exist therefore involves a level of speculation that is unusual even for the field of theoretical physics.” He came across many different definitions of black holes, and he believes this to be a positive sign, as they open up a variety of scientific approaches.

Karl Marx as a Cartoon Hero

Karl Marx tomb
Karl Marx’s grave: a communist plot?

China’s Communist Party has thought of a new way of communicating Marxist ideas: a cartoon series called The Leader. Commissioned on the occasion of his 200th birthday, it portrays Karl as a clean-shaven, romantic young scholar who wants to save humanity. Script author Zhuo Sina comments: “We’re using the medium of cartoon in the hope that more young people will find out about him. They don’t always really understand philosophy or have an interest in it. There are plenty of resources, many books about Marx, but this is really intended to be for young people.” The Leader gained an average star rating of 2/5 from users of Chinese film and literature website Douban.

Meanwhile in London, Karl Marx’s tomb in Highgate Cemetery was vandalised twice in February. Slogans were daubed all over it in red paint. One read: “Architect of Genocide terror + oppression mass murder.” One visitor, Max Blowfield of the British Museum, expressed his sadness to the BBC: “I’m just surprised that somebody in 2019 feels the need to do something like that.”

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