Posts Tagged With: society

Origins of Morality: Innate or Learned?

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.

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Internet Journalism and the Freedom To Speak Your Mind

There are things I cannot say or I would get quickly arrested.
There are things I cannot say or I would lose my job, my customers, or be abandoned my close friends, or be rejected by some or all members of my family.
There are things I cannot say or I would be less respected and perhaps severely censured in the media.
And that’s here in Canada.

BUT, what makes this of interest to me at least, is that along with a handful of similar countries throughout the world, I still have the greatest degree of freedom of expression in my writings compared to the majority of countries who apply stricter rules for researchers and journalists.

So, since all events are a function of time, place, and circumstance, Canada is one country that I should be able to speak my mind by paying close attention to the timing of what I say, where I am saying it, and with whom, how and why I’m saying it. And do this without too much worry.

Lately in the news, there has been much discussion about internet security and rights of self-expression. The relationship of course between security and expression is not always obvious. Suffice to note that one’s security may be mitigated by one’s publicly expressed beliefs. History is replete with examples of death, torture, imprisonment, deportation, and shunning that have befallen those who chose to speak their minds in public. How many journalists have been shot, tortured or even beheaded in the past few years? In many cases it’s not because of what they have said but because they belong to a profession that investigates and reports their findings. So bad things happen to good people, even if by association.

Saying that a) organized religions have a poor record of promoting and salvaging peace, b) nude is not lewd, c) all aberrant behaviour is explainable through science, d) many Vegans have low red blood cells, d) proportionate representation is the only truly democratic way to vote, or e) sexual preference has no bearing on civic responsibility – might get me in trouble with some people. And these are what I would term ‘mild’ propositions.

Yet, the public media is guided by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Canada, and several federal and provincial Laws, that guarantee certain parameters within which, luckily, an author can function from a wide base of interests to state his or her case. I am able to write about nipples, and penises, and racial prejudice, and political corruptness, and poverty among the elderly, and the shoddy rehabilitation of criminals, and child abuse, and how 80 individuals control most of the world’s wealth, outmoded education systems, and so on. And few people know, or perhaps want to know, that there is a law in place in Ontario that allows women to bare their chests in public, provided it is not done in an obvious sexual way, such as cutting the lawn. So there’s a topic that could be written about without fear of legal sanction, but one might have to deal with cryptic bolts of rebuke by some ignorant readers.

Speaking your mind is your right. How you say it, to whom, where, why, and when, may be predict the kinds of responses you get. Nonetheless, the world’s a better place, I feel, from the presence of authors of all kinds, who seek truth, fairness, an informed public, and a desire to improve the human condition.

TL Hill, PhD
February, 2015

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Sociology: What is it? and What does it do?

SOCIOLOGY is many things. It is the systematic study of human behaviour in groups (using statistical analysis, interviews, focus groups, content analysis, historical data, documents, theory). It is an academic discipline, usually located in a college or university as a “Department.” It is a body of professionals. It is a social science. It is a movement in theory and paradigm construction since the late 19th century, with roots in social change. It can be, in its advocacy (promoting o assisting applied social change) form, a change agent.

“Of all the social sciences, it is sociology that most closely scrutinizes change and conflict in the wider society. The range of the discipline and the importance of the arguments that are disputed within it, still make it the most exciting of the social sciences.” (Oxford Concise Dictionary of Sociology, 1996. p. 501)

Sociology attempts to discover regularities in human behaviour which, over sufficient time or with sufficient accuracy, can ultimately inform social policy in a meaningful and lasting way. The goal of sociology is “not to teach you that the biological realm is a residual category with a minor role in explaining human behaviour”, but “to disentangle what is biological from what is socially constructed” and how each relates to the other (Giddens, et al, Introduction to Sociology, 2012. New York: Norton). Constructed aspects of society at micro- and macro-levels that sociology focuses on include gender/sexuality, family, social class,  education, inequality/conflict/feminism/power, institutions, corporations, demography, health, aging, religion, volunteer and government agencies, deviance/conformity/crime, communities, social change, criminology, work, values, norm, and race/ethnic relations. So this ‘pot pouri’ is extensive, and takes sociologists into many and varied areas of research and writing concentration.

Like other professional domains, sociology evolves to contain adherents to particular and sometimes conflicting viewpoints about society. Conflict theorists may not agree with the tenets of structural functionalists, nor symbolic interactionists, with feminists. While politically divisive at times, these differences feed strength into the discipline as clarity and accommodation lead to a unified voice over time on policy choices.

In his indictment of the social sciences for their inherent self-deception, Trivers (The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, 2011. New York: Basic Books) states: “We have seen numerous ways in which self-deception may deform the structure of intellectual disciplines. This seems obvious in both evolutionary biology and the social sciences, where increasing relevance to human social behaviour I matched by decreasing rates of progress, in part because such fields induce more self-deception in their practitioners. One common bias is that life naturally evolves to subserve function t higher levels. Not genes but individuals, not individuals but groups, not groups but species, not species but ecosystem, and, with a little extra energy, not ecosystems but the entire universe. Certainly religion seems to promote this pattern, always tempted to see a larger pattern than is warranted.” (pp.319-320) Trivers implies therefore that the social sciences are “pseudo-sciences” because they lack the enough integrity to ward against deceit and self-deception (like psychology has done). He cites cultural anthropology’s shortcoming by not “synthesizing social and physical anthropology”, and chides all social sciences for not incorporating the discoveries of the biological sciences. Bias lies with the researcher, and bias lies with the respondent, so how can ‘laws’ of society ever hope to be discovered.

Well they can’t. Trivers misses the “for all intents and purposes” point about scientific rigour and social policy. The point of sociological work, from research to advocacy, is to make the applicability of findings the best for all intents and purposes. And so with the other social sciences. Sociology informs policy aimed at improving the human condition, by discovering patterns of behaviour that may and may not, be beneficial to the rest of us.

As a sociologist, one of my goals has been to question prevailing patterns where I see injustice, or in-egalitarian practices, or ways of behaving that just don’t make sense. Human body acceptance for instance, is one area I see as a rich ‘frontier’ for research and commentary, especially as it has to do with norms of nudity, rights, and self-expression.

Going ‘where others dare not go’ is a practitioner feature of sociology over the other social sciences. The sociology journals are full of fascinating discoveries about humans, as well as trade magazines and populist publications sociologists also write for. As ‘risk-takers’ at times, some sociologists doing research and advocacy can fill in the knowledge voids others refuse to investigate.

Terry Hill, PhD

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The ‘Pinky”

You’ve been there. At one of those events or parties where everyone stands around drinking tea with their little finger stuck up in the air, possibly because there’s no where else to put it.

Or perhaps the symbolization of your quite visible pinky denotes social status. Like in Downton Abbey scenes.

Actually, it doesn’t have to be held up in full sight at all. So why do we/some do it? I think the link to Downton Abbey gives us a strong clue. The obvious pinky tells us you are of the ‘cultured’ variety of humans, intent on preserving a particular image in all social settings, especially where there are strangers present of equal or particularly higher social status. Both men and women do it, unless you are a man with a farm or football background or a bricklayer perhaps. No need for pretension among these kinds of chaps. Women are, on the whole, more aware of social conventions than men are, for a whole pile of reasons, not the least of which is that women have wider social circles than men. When I was in high school in the ’50s in Mississauga, Ontario, girls took “Home Ec” classes, and boys took “Shop”. These stereotypical finishing programs equipped us for life as a man or as a woman. One of my girlfriends then, in grade 11, was taught how to set a table and serve tea to a group of other people. This included how to hold a tea-cup properly, namely by pinching the handle between your thumb and index finger. Only two, or possibly three digits were necessary apparently. So this left space for the other two or three.

Since there is a natural tendency to let those fingers ‘float’, raising the pinky works well, almost on its own. It is physically quite comfortable.

And the pinky is the only finger really narrow enough to explore ear and nose orifices, and it also makes a good toothpick after a roast-beef dinner.

So raising it publicly may be a way of advertising its importance. The next time you have a cup of tea, especially if you can’t fit your first finger through the handle, stick your pinky proudly in the air in defiance of coffee lovers who use mugs. Cheers!

Categories: Provocative topics, Science and Religion, The Body | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

“A truth can walk nude but a lie has to be dressed”

“A truth can walk nude, but a lie always has to be dressed”

– Anonymous

An insightful related quote by Sherlock Holmes was “Naked is the best disguise”.

If you feel this is true, write me about your views on how this quote could be applied to the wearing of clothes. I will respond to your view, with my interpretation of this quote as it applies beyond simply the novel, well into society.

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