I’m in a few Facebook groups for freelance writers. I love having access to a community of resourceful, knowledgable professionals. The best thing about these groups is the support that we all give and receive.
Right and Wrong: Are we born knowing one from the other?
Obviously there is a built-in response for sensory stimuli. We naturally avoid or protect ourselves from things instantly understood, such as hot/cold, very loud noises, offensive smells, sour tastes, and extremely bright light. We don’t need to think about these because we get instant feedback. And avoiding or respecting these sensations is something we thereon continue to do when we are aware of what caused them.
These responses differ from reacting to more subtle stimuli (those not immediately obvious) such as seeing rustling in the nearby bushes at night, hearing a weird sound coming from the basement, smelling perfume when no one is around, or tasting fish when you’re eating a grapefruit. Without a ready explanation we may avoid these places or things until they are no longer phenomena (things not yet fully understood). Having evidence of what caused them reduces our fear or suspicions.
So it is right to avoid or be suspicious of the instant and subtle events in cases mentioned above, until we discover or understand their cause. Our reactions to them do not need thinking about; they are just there and usually immediate.
Wrong is to persist; right is to avoid. So much for the reactions to our senses.
Morality however, has very little to do with singular sensual experiences and much more to do with social and intuitive experiences. It has to do with behaviour in the context of others.
Oxford (2002) defines morality as “principles concerning the difference between right and wrong”, and “the extent to which an action is right or wrong.” And “the branch of knowledge concerned with moral principles” is called ‘ethics’. This clearly sets the stage for grounding morality in social contexts. If for amusement I shot a bird in the forest, and no one was around to see me do it, and I didn’t tell anyone else that I did it, is it still an immoral act? Clearly not, as there are no grounds to develop principles or sanctions around the act from the reactions of others. Its immorality (experienced through guilt or remorse) or not, would reside only in my mind, being defined by me and me alone. This leads the discussion to the conclusion that all moral or immoral acts are social by definition. They cannot be otherwise. Hence, society has rules to guide behaviour that is social, from simple local norms (standards of behaviour from customs, folklore) to legal norms proscribed through legislation, e.g., the Criminal Code of Canada). Moral behaviour (all behaviour, in this context) has a range of regulating influences, some supportive (where altruism is rewarded), some tolerant (such as the legal right of women in Canada, like men, to go topless in public), others not (prison or worse for homicide). So, in the context of social human behviour, is morality innate (born with it) or learned (through socialization)? Are we innately altruistic, or destructive, or both?
The notion that morality is biological or innate, is cleverly argued by Hauser (2006). He states that “Underlying the extensive cross-cultural variation we observe in our expressed social norms is a universal moral grammar that enables each child to grow a narrow range of possible moral systems. When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we do so instinctively, tapping a system of unconsciously operative and inaccessible moral knowledge.” In other words, “we have evolved general but abstract principles for deciding which actions are forbidden, permissible, or obligatory.” Convincingly countering the biological/genetic arguments against innateness of morality, and the religious/legal arguments, Hauser expands on the idea that human behaviour is not fixed, rather changing throughout one’s life. “The child’s moral repertoire is not a parental clone.” Through being socialized as adults, all children learn to adapt to most workable norms but to keep unique views of morality within themselves throughout their adult life, to emerge in new circumstances where applicable. e.g., to decide to become a nudist/naturist, pot-smoker, Conservative, tattoo artist, breeder of parrots, or polygamist. We can’t teach our children what we don’t know. Their social life, although conformist in most functional ways, may embody privately shared norms we as parents are unaware of. As a process, socializaton is never a total process. Moral individuality can remain latent or invisible as well as manifest or obvious. Others only see what individuals are willing to share.
Parents, peer groups, and schools, are the primary socialization agents that inculcate a moral sensibility that prepares us for life. At one time religion was primary in this role of painting us all with values for the ‘truly moral’ self to emerge, but religions have become increasingly suspect across the world for this function, in the past three or four decades. As Pinker (2002) points out, “The alternative, then, to the religious theory of the source of values is that evolution endowed us with a moral sense, and we have expanded its circle of application over the course of history through reason (grasping the logical interchangeability of our interests and others’), knowledge (learning the advantages of cooperation over the long term), and sympathy (having experiences that allow us to feel other people’s pain).”
Morality is acquired both through an innate proclivity provided us through evolution, and through the nurturing of society’s institutions and social groups. Moreover, it is constantly changing. The trick of course, is to identify and practice universalizable and salient social norms (a-la-Kant), while recognizing and allowing for the expression of individual rights and freedoms.
Giddens (1992) has pointed out that “In pre-industrial Europe, the most serious crimes, which received the highest penalties, were religious in nature, or were crimes against the property of the ruler or the aristocracy.” (p.146) He goes on to list heresy, sacrilege, and blasphemy as religious based events that were “for a long time punishable by death in many parts of Europe.” (op cit)
Transgressions like fishing, hunting, picking fruit, or cutting down trees or bushes on the lands of the king or aristocracy by the common people, were also capital offenses (not always carried out). “The murder of one commoner by another was not generally seen to be as serious as these others crimes. The culprit often could atone for the crime by simply paying a certain amount of money to the relatives of the victim.” (p. 147)
Blasphemy – speaking irreverently about God or sacred things – (Oxford, 2007), is, in contrast to early Europe, an insignificant or minor offense in Western/European societies today. It occurs in everyday speech as part of normal conversation. Sacred persons’ names are often ‘taken in vain’. “Jesus Christ!”, “For Christ sake!”, “My God!”, “Holy Christ!”, “Mother of God!”, etc., are examples of expletives to draw attention to a circumstance the speaker wishes to emphasize. Some people do not use these terms of course, but many do, mostly men apparently. The repercussions from such usage are, if any, reputational only. And perhaps if asked, an apology often suffices. Sometimes science discovers new information about sacred things or persons that go against traditional beliefs. One anthropologist a few years ago had claimed that Christ lived to be 70 and had three children. More recently, a highly respected British historian claimed that Christ was a myth perpetuated by the Romans to secure compliance among the Jews.
In other parts of the world consequences of blasphemy may entail public lashing, stoning, imprisonment, threats of death, or even beheading. Where tradition or controlled opinion, not facts, is power, and compliance in society is extracted mostly by fear or guilt (a technique of religious leaders), strong reprisals for blasphemy will occur. Enlightenment to the point of having a critical conscience that’s expressible in society without fear of punishment, is one main offshoot of access to higher education. Irreverent comments are treated as hate crimes, which in Western cultures, irreverent comments are treated quite differently.
Blasphemy sanctions may however, extend to non-religious, civil actions to this day. Publicly criticizing a political leader’s family for example, may be construed as a form of blasphemy and even libel, leading to certain fines or brief imprisonments. Freedom of speech has its limits. Note that such freedom varies tremendously to this day throughout the world, and one can only hope that fair and objective consequences of ‘blasphemous’ comments will prevail, as in most democratic regimes today.
When I think back about high school years, sporting black hair and only weighing 147 lbs, my perspective on life was to see it as wondrous, hopeful, and exciting. My project time frames were short (as far as next week), and my ideas unpredictable.
After the air force, marriage, and university, my perspective started to change considerably, to embrace mortality as a definite thing, and to accept living on an old farm and driving 47 kms twice a day to work in the city, as the way things were meant to be. The loss of our two children within about 11 years of each other, was not.
Then, in my 50s and 60s, after many jobs and more degrees, and especially after also losing friends to cancer, and my parents to a stroke and pneumonia, life seemed precious. Time began to speed up. Health issues further aggravated this encroaching “carpe deum” philosophy, and I suddenly found myself enjoying conversation like never before. Slowing down in every way was looking better. After all, I had taught university long enough, directed several colleges and departments, written over 40 articles and book chapters, and successfully (with blips) raised two healthy daughters, plus re-marrying 13 years ago.
I still live in the country though, and consult, write and cut grass. And have regular ‘happy hours’ whereby I can take a cold beer or a sherry onto the deck, look out over the river, and converse for hours with our long-time close friends who live with us. Statistically, I have 12.7 years left in this current corpus delecti, and my bucket list might be too long. But I am not caring about being dilatory, or not quick-on-the-board-game-draw; rather, I contemplate my perspective on life in hedonistic and altruistic terms. I like happiness from doing what I like doing, and I enjoy helping others who are struggling. I find I read happy books now, not tragedies or sad biographies. I hug my wife every chance I get, and hug strangers if I feel they need it.
So life perspectives change with time and experience, and the aphorism is true…life is what you make it. Mistakes and all, but keeping upbeat is crucial. At 71, I still want to climb a tree.
On my 16th birthday, my Dad took me to the auto license bureau in Port Credit. I had no idea at first where we were going, but I smiled a lot wider when we rolled into the parking lot and he told me it’s time I learned to drive. After all, he had let me drive a few times that previous summer on the back roads of Peel County, and as a result my ego was awash with anticipation, but getting my license had never been discussed yet.
So on that day, while in grade 12, with a girlfriend and lots of buddies, I became a real man. I had arrived. I passed my test and I could drive.
Apart from some painful negotiation moments, borrowing one’s father’s car to go on a date can be loaded with risks, especially when your best buddie just purchased his ’54 Meteor and loved to try to sucker you into drag-racing on an empty street at midnight. Like, right out of American Graffiti. For some weird reason, girls seemed to be impressed with guys with fast (and often noisy) cars. Anyway, in 1961 I had purchased a blue and white ’56 Chevrolet BelAir, complete with a 283 cu in V-8, with money from digging water line trenches for my uncle. I paid $500 cash for it. It had 12,500 miles on the odometer and no rust. Lots of chrome, front, back and sides, and cloth ‘bench’ seats. It was a standard transmission with the gear shift on the steering column.
I had three proud moments – suping it up with fancy carburetors with help from my friend Greg and cousin Tim, taking my girlfriend for her first ride in it, and taking it to high school for the first time. There was a ’49 Pontiac lurking about the town at night that always wanted to drag-race with me. It wasn’t until much later I encountered the same car! in Toronto at the stop-lights at the bottom of Spadina and Front Streets at 1:00 a.m. There and then, with the loud encouragement of my 3 buddies with me, I decided the moment of truth had come. We checked in all directions for cops, waited for the light to change green, and I floored it. Well for the first 1/2 mile we were neck-and-neck, but by the time we got to Yonge Street I was 300′ ahead and had to slow down for traffic. All four of us cheered and yelled out the window at him as he sped by. He didn’t look at us. So like all high testosterone males at that age, my ‘rush’ was calming down and I was regaining my senses, as we travelled the QEW 12 miles towards home. I would never had done that had my girlfriend been in the car, because if she ever told her older brother I was doing 125 mph on the Lakeshore in Toronto, he would have made mincemeat out of me for sure (he was much bigger and four years older and very protective of his baby sister).
I drove my Chevy for five more years, until I joined the RCAF and had to sell it. But I hated to give it up. Unlike today’s cars, it had a definite simplicity to it that meant it could be fixed quickly. Spark plugs were easy to get at, and adjusting the butterfly valve in the carburetor took only minutes. Tires cost $17.00 each. A full “Continental Kit” for the rear end cost $225.00, but I couldn’t afford it at the time.
After the Air Force my next car was a baby-blue, 4-0n-the-floor Pontiac Bonneville convertible, but that’s a whole other story for another time. I only wish I had kept both of these beauties.
“I prefer the wisdom of the unlearned to the folly of the loquacious” – Cicero
So with that little pearl from Cicero I shall be as brief as possible. To start, traditionally, “Hell” is defined as… “Place or state reserved for unrepentant sinners after death, where they suffer both separation from God, and other traditional punishments”. (Oxford, 1996). or, “The abode of condemned souls and devils in some religions; the place of eternal punishment for the wicked after death, presided over by Satan”. “A situation or place of evil, misery, discord, or destruction”. “Torment; anguish”. “A sharp scolding”. Excitement, mischievousness, or high spirits”. [Informal] (Canadian Dictionary of the English Language, 1998)…and from the same source, “Heaven” is defined as… “The sky or universe as seen from earth; the firmament”. The abode of God, the angels, and the souls of those who are granted salvation”. “Everlasting bliss”. “A condition or place of great happiness, delight, or pleasure”.
What is it that humans do that makes them want to end up in Heaven and not Hell (normally)? What ensures some persons will be in one place and not the other, as a result of their actions? What if you don’t believe in either of them? Well, most people I know, religious or otherwise, do not intentionally seek out harm to themselves. We avoid death and harm by avoiding circumstances that would precipitate experiencing them. In other words, we try to take care of ourselves, usually out of fear of the possible alternatives. This all ‘makes sense’. But how much of our behaviour entails risk-taking versus risk-averse actions? Everyday activity carries risks with it, i.e., driving to work, crossing a busy street, drinking alcohol, using prescription (and especially non-prescription) drugs, air travel, playing a sport, etc. We just assume the chances of death or injury occurring are so few, that participating outweighs any risks.
If you believe in the concepts of Hell and Heaven, then avoiding harm to oneself, and more importantly, avoiding harm to others, will be predictive of where you end up. If you don’t believe in Heaven or Hell, you, regardless, act in such a way as to preserve your health and that of others. This is considered “normal” behaviour. Criminals and other “bad” people are thought to possess Devil-ish traits that make them do what they do. They do not possess Angelic traits, except when they appear to use these traits as a disguise for ulterior purposes. Sometimes we are ‘tricked’ by these people to give them the benefit of the doubt. And usually the ‘mentally ill’ person is not held accountable for their actions, which makes it unclear which destination they will end up in. But even criminals, unless they are mentally ill, would not choose to end up in Hell. So they take severe but calculated risks, or act out of spontaneous impulses, and avoid Hell by not getting caught. Or so they think.
There are then, like the criminal who plots his/her illegal behaviour, risks that if you succeed stave off Hell. But the accountant who speeds over the limit because he’s late for the office, is exhibiting criminal behaviour. Does a speeding ticket guarantee you will go to Hell? Does shooting three innocent people in your bank robbery attempt guarantee Hell is for you? How much of what is done is a risk of going to Hell? Maybe not one speeding ticket, but 200 speeding tickets? Will I go to Hell for killing one person, or ten, or 200? What if I’m rehabilitated? Will I go to Hell then?
Luck seems to play a key role in going to Heaven for some people. Plain good-living folk won’t go to Hell unless they take risks that fail them and injure others or society.
Going to Heaven may work for those whose risks of injury to others are removed altogether, in spite of their intentions. And for those who are convicted but are innocent in fact, luck works against them. Presumably they won’t however go to Hell.
It may be that luck plays a role in whether you go one way or the other, intentions aside. Luck may be necessary in human affairs if a benevolent deity has designed a hell (which seems surprising) with entrance criteria that are unattainable in real life. No one is perfect; therefore only those that strive to be model citizens yet show predictable (read ‘normal’) imperfections may go to Heaven. Unpredictable, egregious imperfections that are sustained, will guarantee a short route to Hell. Luck has a lot to do with it.
Humans are, after all, thrill seekers by nature, especially men and boys. The creation of the Heaven-Hell dualism ostensibly serves the purpose of guiding morality by forcing fearing of one over the other. It doesn’t always work. War will be the next subject in Terry’s Cupboard.
Look up. Look up. Way up!
No, it’s not Superman, Jack’s beanstalk, nor the Jolly Green Giant. It’s a flying drone, and it may be filming you. Or your property. Or car license plate number. Or it may be delivering your mail, or your groceries. Does any of this scare you?
You might think about how this revolution in mostly unregulated celestial browsing, could affect you, your family, your community and country. How might your privacy be compromised? What about drone noise and visual pollution if every one could operate one? What about pedophiles using them? Or thieves? Or political parties? Or the police? Or researchers? Or private investigators? and so on. You get the picture.
Sociologically, morally, legally, and environmentally – there are issues. Drones of the consumer type cost anywhere from about $250 to $3,000 and more. This means that I can readily go to my nearest hobby shop and within a few hours see what my neighbour is cooking on his Bar-B-Q, doing in his living-room, or wearing in his swimming pool. In the country, I could perform an aerial survey of how many cows my neighbour’s farm contains, and check out his feed-troughs and waste disposal system. In the city, off my balcony, I could film, and look into the windows of, hundreds of apartments and condos, including the penthouses. I could deliver illegal drugs very surreptitiously to anyone, just about anywhere, within up to five miles or more.
On the other hand, if I kept a drone in the trunk of my car, I could use it for rescue mission purposes such as delivering gasoline or food to stranded snow-storm or flood victims. I could film shots of a local baseball or soccer game my son or daughter is playing in. Perhaps the fun of drone ‘pylon racing’ might fascinate me. Or filming our foursome’s golf game. This list is endless.
There are some government regulations in place in Canada that govern the deployment of powered unmanned private and military aircraft. The problem is that sales are outpacing regulations in the consumerist-private sector. Controls fall short of all the possible criminal uses applicable to drones. Municipal, provincial and federal by-laws and legislative bills are definitely in a catch-up position. Meanwhile, fun-lovers and hobbyists will have a great time with these, while Rome burns from subterranean acts of the criminal kind.
Technology innovation always precedes cultural adaptation. Drones are an example. So whether it’s the electric or gas powered, three or seven bladed, camera or laser equipped models – drones are here to stay. So we better get used to it.
Have you paid close attention to the length of job descriptions these days? Especially institutional, financial and government job descriptions?
Have you tried to read all the way through them and understand what they are really describing and expecting?
At one time, not to long ago, a job description (JD) clearly indicated what it wanted you to do on one page. You filled in the rest on the job because the employer trusted you to grasp and learn, based on initiative and trial and error.
Not today. I read another JD today for a managerial position in a large Canadian corporation, and the JD had 41 distinct company accountables listed, and 19 applicant requirements. One accountability phrase was something like “You will leverage the product characteristics, with third party interventions based on conventional expectations of tactful negotiations and client respect”. What the hell does that mean? And there were 40 more just like it!
Qualifications needed were (and remember this was for a job that paid $62,000 to start): undergraduate degree , but preferably a MBA or equivalent; 5-7 years directly related experience; ability to direct a team of 7-12 people, and so forth.
So we have to ask ourselves, Why are job descriptions becoming so inclusive, intimidating, and unrealistic in terms of time in any typical day or even week, to do all these things? The answer lies with the assumptions that a) extremely detailed profiles of work activity will cause only the best candidates to step forward, b) the organization will therefore save on unnecessary training costs, and c) the company’s public image will be enhanced by pretense to superiority. The most predictable reaction after reading these impossible lists is to recoil, have another sip, and go for a re-read. Even then, once the task lists are understood in their fullness, a potential applicant most likely wonders “How can I do all this? Especially when realistically makes up 2,3 or 4 job descriptions?”
My Dad was hired as a Superintendent of a tube mill in a large manufacturing company, after he applied from a two paragraph job description. He lasted 38 years.