February 07, 2006

Are we all fundamentally the same?

Writing about Are we all the same? from Neighbourhood #1

Wow, I haven't blogged for ages! I feel I should rectify this…

I stumbled upon Iyobosa's entry again today about edge.org's annual question. In it he refers to a previous entry he made about last years' question:
What do you believe in that we cannot prove?

One response was from Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard University who said that she thought:

All people have the same fundamental concepts, values, concerns, and commitments… our common conceptual and moral commitments spring from the core cognitive systems that allow an infant to grow rapidly and spontaneously into a competent participant in any human society.

Several years ago I would have agreed with this view, but my recent experiences have begun to change my mind. I spent a year working in a relatively rough state Community College and some of the children I met were, according to the generally-held moral concepts of society, completely lacking. I've seen many children lie about things they know their teachers have just seen them do, viciously pick on their peers and their seniors, show no respect for any other person (including their families) and repeatedly subvert the rules of our society. Some of the worst of these kids seemed to do these things with absolutely no remorse.

So I ask:

  • Do we all have an innate sense of right and wrong and of moral responsibility?
  • Can this sense of responsibility be subverted by the conditions in which we are brought up?
  • How do we account, for example, for extreme criminals who refuse to admit, particularly to themselves, that their crimes were wrong?

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  1. - No
    – Yes
    – Psychological wire-crossing

    I would hate it if we were all the same. That would be very very wrong.


    07 Feb 2006, 22:53

  2. Do we all have an innate sense of right and wrong and of moral responsibility?

    Probably not. The kids you’ve been around may have different moral standards and behavioural norms, but I think they aim for the same goals as you or I, just within a different framework. The average student here may fulfil a desire for accomplishment and recognition by performing well in some society or organising a production. In some areas, the easiest way of gaining recognition may be to become feared by fellow classmates. I feel a sense of security knowing family is around should anything happen, but others with less responsible/well endowed parents may need to resort to joining a gang for that feeling.

    Different groups will put varying weight on different goals. At university, more weight is put on thinking + acting independently than on conformity, as was the case in my secondary school. Similarly, those children you work with may value power and respect more than the benefits of being congratulated for good behaviour by someone in authority. The weight put on goals may differ, but I’d agree with in saying that nearly everyone desires power, respect, comfort, security, recognition, love, etc.

    08 Feb 2006, 00:10

  3. - Yes, but some choose to subvert it
    – Yes, but free will pays a part
    – In some case, something wrong with their brain. In others – I haven't a clue.

    We are all capable of great good and immense evil, and (I believe) capable of making the choice as to what we do.

    Very unfashionable view to hold in these postmodern times, but sod 'em…

    08 Feb 2006, 00:15

  4. Fascinating question though, much more complicated than my previous answer would suggest.

    08 Feb 2006, 00:17

  5. That is very interesting, Edward.

    I watched a bit of a programme a few nights ago about an American man who, at one point in his life, had weighed half a ton. There were several people on the same show who blamed their huge weight problems purely on genetic influences. Of course there may be general genetic predispositions, but I think it's treading on dangerous ground to take no personal responsibility for your actions or the condition in which you find yourself as a result of them.

    08 Feb 2006, 11:24

  6. I don't think we have an innate sense of right and wrong, I think morality's a blank canvas until your upbringing paints something on it. Those of us who've been lucky enough to have a happy, balanced childhood are very clearly shown what's right and wrong, e.g. harming others, stealing etc but unfortunately we can't assume that's the norm for all. Those kids in that school, Sarah, were probably brought up in an environment where being rude and having no concern for others was perfectly acceptable, so they developed in that way. BUT, I do agree with your last comment: you reach a stage where you can't blame your environment or condition any more and need to take the responsibility to change. A child living in a war-torn country may grow up never understanding that just shooting someone isn't the way to solve a problem; but the rude teenagers have no excuse for growing up into bad citizens in a country where there are so many opportunities, and so many social markers for what's right and wrong.

    As for that half-ton man: he has no sympathy from me. Yes, he may be genetically predisposed; yes, there may be underlying psychological issues (e.g. depression)...but surely when you can't even walk you should realise for yourself that there's a problem you need to deal with?!

    08 Feb 2006, 11:28

  7. I agree completely, Vib. I the case of the children I taught, many of the teachers were reluctant to meet with their parents because the parents also swore and shouted and couldn't continue a civilised conversation. It was hardly surprising that they acted the way they did because they hadn't been taught any other way. I guess it depends how much you think someone is capable of change after their 'formative' years. My Mum (a teacher at the same school) often gets fed up with high school teachers being blamed for bad student results when many of the kids they get are not equipped with the attitude to work or the basic knowledge base on which to build upon. It's very difficult to make a difference to a child at the age of 12 if they've been undermined by the teaching of their parents and their primary schools.

    Iyobosa, I agree. I think it is important to recognise that there is a difference between striving for similar goals and having the same moral commitments. After all, as you said, striving for the same goals can lead you down paths of differing moral acceptance.

    08 Feb 2006, 11:45

  8. More resources should be given to trying to stop emotionally disturbed kids from getting worse and becoming the criminals of tomorrow.

    It's crazy that more resources are given to kids from good backgrounds who want to learn than those who really need support. It's like spending road maintenance budgets on smooth roads while ignoring the ones which are full of potholes!

    08 Feb 2006, 13:12

  9. Juicy

    Glad to have your interesting debates back Sarah, I'd missed reading your thoughts. It always amazes me that you can be so reflective and questioning on here and yet be a complete giggly rebel with me in rehearsals! You rule!

    08 Feb 2006, 13:40

  10. George, that's not entirely true. I'd agree wholeheartedly that more time and money should be spent on disturbed kids. However, more state resources are already spent on those kids than the less troublesome ones: they are the ones that get smaller-class or one-to-one tuition, the use of councellors etc. The education of many kids of a 'good' background is paid for by their parents.

    Thank you, Juicy! I think it's because I'm blonde: my brain only works intellectually for very short periods of time! Also, being silly is far more fun…

    08 Feb 2006, 13:48

  11. Personally I like to use my phrase for people who do bad things: "They aren't evil, just misguided (or teething)".

    People are a blank slate at birth and morality is dictated by how you are brought up.

    08 Feb 2006, 14:47

  12. I would say that we do have an innate sense of right and wrong … but we don't know what qualifies as each, which is where the social programming comes in. Not that there's much difference between that and what others have said.

    I don't know about free will, but I think people can change, and aren't defined just by their genetics or childhood. I'd hope people can continue to change throughout their lives, although it seems much harder as they get older they first have to unlearn things before they can learn anew. Which seems to be much trickier for most people.

    08 Feb 2006, 17:04

  13. People are a blank slate at birth and morality is dictated by how you are brought up.

    Indeed. Particularly in the younger years, what children learn their parents and elders is taken as truth and becomes ingrained in them. So if not much is done to teach them manners or morality at this age, or if they learn from bad sources, it can have a lifelong effect. The same principle is why most children grow up with the same religion as their parents; they are told that a particular God or Gods exist(s), and once they're older it's difficult (but not impossible) to break away from that. But the teaching of general morality has a wider effect on themselves and others.

    08 Feb 2006, 17:22

  14. Sukhdeep Singh

    Emotions and intelligence married with instinct a mix that cant always work.

    Empathy is something all people feel unless physically unable (brain not working), but you can ignore it in the same way you can ignore or subdue anger and other emotions

    09 Feb 2006, 12:23

  15. This discussion is completely messing with my head. I'm reading a book by Erich Fromm at the moment where he urges us to understand and feel that everyone has so much human nature and experience in common. When I read it yesterday I felt that and I caught myself smiling at people in the streets. But 1) when I picked the book up again this morning I'd forgotten how to reach that "central relatedness" or whatever you wanna call it, and 2) even when I did feel it yesterday Fromm kept on saying that when we are in touch our deep human similarities (as opposed to our many differences) we will invariably treat everyone with care and respect and tenderness, and I just can't handle that hippie pacifist attitude, it almost disgusts me, i don't know why.

    Anyway, I still wanna be able to feel the ways in which we all are the same because I believe in many extremely important ways we really are. Our bodies and brains sharing the same design and all. And it's great feeling a connection with strangers. So I was very happy to find this discussion this morning. But what do I find, the main argument against us being the same is that some of us don't seem to be kind people? What the hell??? Am I going crazy or something? I didn't have a bad upbringing, very warm in fact, I just don't have a need to justify my behaviour using "right and wrong", actions have consequences, some good some bad, that's all there is. No? I don't feel at one with humanity so maybe I'm just screwed, but what happened to Nietzsche? Seriously. Yes, Edward, unfashionable, I plain don't get you. Just because you recognize other peoples emotions you must immediately strive to make them happy? My fight club's just never gonna happen is it?

    Patel, I don't think we're born without any moral predispositions. Reciprocal altruism, cooperation and love for your family are all highly adaptive traits that many of us certainly carry genetic predispositions towards. The only reason we aren't all hyper-altruists is that selfishness is also advantageous. We're all more or less inclined in either direction at birth and then experience has its huge part to play in shaping that core. Some of us are caring, some tender, some have less or much less careful ways of feeling for other people and sharing life with them, some are psychopaths and don't connect with other people at all. That's it. No? Tell me what I'm missing.

    I think our mental lives are really similar in a lot of ways. I think everyone I see feels all the physical sensations (vision, movement, hunger, safety, sex, fear in the dark and what have you) very much like I do; feels the basic emotions quite like I do, is trying to tackle problems and plan their lifes with some of the same things in mind as I have like Iyobosa said; I think there is an infinite human background-noise or background-feeling that almost all of us share. But I've almost given up on thinking I'll ever feel unity with with any of the many ways in which people say you "should" live your life if you wanna be a loving person Sarah. There is innate predispositions towards what is good and what is bad, but they're not the same for everyone. Those kids are what they are Sarah. I don't know. Sorry about this massive comment that might not have contributed much, it just happened to be exactly what's been going through my head the last couple of days.

    09 Feb 2006, 12:32

  16. Christopher, perhaps I wasn't clear about what I meant. I completely agree that some of us are predisposed to be more emotive/caring/affectionate/reserved/friendly than others – it's part of the variety that makes life interesting. My point is that we aren't predisposed to know what's right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable according to society. To take it at a shallow level, Americans tend to see not talking to someone you've just met as rude, whereas us Brits will see talking too much to a stranger as rude. I could be born with the same predisposition to being chatty as an American, but the society I've grown up in has conditioned me to view that trait in a different light to someone across the pond.

    On the deeper level that Sarah started this discussion on: yes, we all feel, yes we all have emotions, yes, we all have a survival instinct and inherent fears, but knowing which is the 'right' way to act upon these is something conditioned by environment not something intrinsically known.

    And not to be pedantic Christopher, but I'd prefer it if you didn't refer to me by my surname, i.e. "Patel": Vibhuti or Vib please!

    09 Feb 2006, 14:26

  17. Christopher, I’m afraid I don’t think I should have any responsibility for your mental wellbeing. If you choose to read my blog you do it voluntarily, and I can choose to write about what I like within reason. I was merely beginning a discussion I find interesting.

    I think you have misunderstood what Edward said. In fact, I’m really not sure how you got from what he said to what you said he said, because they are utterly different.

    Honesly, I’m finding it really difficult to understand your argument because it is so scattered. I think you have misunderstood my original question, so let me explain… if I can, though I don’t really understand what your point is other than to misrepresent me, so it may be difficult. Iyobosa said that he think we are all driven towards the same goals: ‘power, respect, comfort, security, recognition, love’ etc. There is difference between this and what Elizabeth Spelke said: that we all have an innate sense of moral responsibility. Moral responsibility is defined in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ by its very nature. I never said that we all must be different because some of aren’t kind all the time: that is a hideous simplification that you have inflicted on this debate. However, I was commenting that I have observed that if children are brought up in a morally irresponsible manner then they are themselves like to be morally irresponsible. This seems to argue against Spelke’s claims.

    I am not trying to inflict my own views on this debate: respecting your elders, abiding by the law and telling the truth are all thing that our society conceives to be ‘right’ and that is why I used them as examples. I guess

    Please don’t use the word ‘certainly’ to describe unproven scientific conjecture. In fact, your whole comment is filled with things you make out to be fact that are merely your opinions.

    Those kids are what they are, true, but would they have been completely different had they been adopted at birth by a different family (nature vs. nurture)? Would their moral responsibilities be any different or would they just share the same fundamental goals and urges? Interestingly, although many of the kids I taught behaved odiously to me, there were very few that I didn’t ultimately like a lot because there was always a likeable part you could find under the bravado if you looked hard enough. Maybe this is our similarity: that everyone is likeable in spite of our learned behaviours.

    Is there anything wrong with wanting to understand and investigate why we are like we are?

    09 Feb 2006, 14:43

  18. I didn't mean any offence Sarah. I misunderstood: thought you were talking about what makes you or keeps you from feeling a deep complex connection with everyone else, but you're discussing nature nurture and how it applies to morals. My bad.

    (about the imagined debate: sorry my argument is so scattered. it's not an argument really, just a feeling i'm failing to express. why try to talk about 'right and wrong' when there's 'good and bad'? i should just read some nietzsche. the sentence after the ref to edward didn't refer to him btw, just to what i thought was the overall idea.)

    About the actaul debate: I still think it's "certain" that we're genetically predisposed towards some forms of altruism. Look at any textbook in behavioural ecology. But then again, humans may be special, and we must ask how deep is our capacity for change really is. How plastic is the average adult human brain? So much of what we do seem to be out of habit, including what you call right and wrong. Guess that's a shared human trait too. Inertia.

    09 Feb 2006, 17:41

  19. Chris, I can see that you are clearly not a scientist. There is no thing as certainty only degrees of confidence. Morality and behaviour beyond pure survival instinct are almost definately not coded genetically. It may be possible that someone is genetically predisposed to a learning disability causing an inability to observe the subtleties of society around them resulting in an alturistic attitude. This kind of attitude is dependant on the people around them as a more caring society would be quicker to notice and help teach someone to be more selfless.

    In my opinion, the plasticity of the human mind decreases as age and experience increases. As far as it has been observed in neurobiological experiments, the capacity for change does not stop. Therefore anyone can change assuming they want to change. A deep rooted racism would be harder to change than an opinion about a colour of a wall when decorating due to the strength of the connections within the brain.
    Where you say "much of what we do seems to be out of habit, including right and wrong" is essentially a good theory. Personal morality being driven by the interita of the morality of the society surrounding you. It is not possible to test this theory though, as it would be immoral of us (according to our local ethics) to set up an experiment isolating a child from birth, giving it no human contact and then observing its moral code once it has grown up.

    10 Feb 2006, 12:01

  20. David Metcalfe

    Of course we could not isolate a human child in that way. I would however be interested to learn the results of such an experiment on, say, a chimpanzee.

    Those of you postulating a 'blank slate' of human morality are ignoring generations of studies of monozygotic twins reared apart. Genetically identical people raised in radically different environments are behaviourally very similar. There clearly is a genetic component to all of this – the question is simply to what degree.

    10 Feb 2006, 14:57

  21. James

    "Do we all have an innate sense of right and wrong and of moral responsibility?
    Can this sense of responsibility be subverted by the conditions in which we are brought up?
    How do we account, for example, for extreme criminals who refuse to admit, particularly to themselves, that their crimes were wrong?"

    1. How would we test such a proposition? By observing that most races and cultures have some behavioural rules in common? Perhaps, but the number of things common to every culture in history is so small it doesn't really get us very far. Even amongst Western Civilisations there is enormous disparity – the religious insanity of the Crusades and Inquisition, the iniquities of Apathied, the gladiatorial games of the Romans, the difference in attitudes towards sex between the Romans and the Victorians, and so on and so on …

    2. It follows from my answer to (1) that the conditions of upbringing are the crucial factor in one's sense of right and wrong, both in terms of small things such as social niceties (some languages have no words for please and thank you) to rather bigger things such as just causes for going to war.

    3. See (1) above. In addition to different societal prescriptions for right and wrong, each society contains criminals, who could subscribe to a different moral code, or who might be insane.

    10 Feb 2006, 15:58

  22. Richard Holland – thank you for the clarity of your contribution. Its very interesting what you write about those genetically predisposed to a learning disability being unable to observe the subtleties of society around them resulting in an alturistic attitude. Taking your comment to its logical conclusion what you imply is that that normal behaviour is the inverse of altruism – i.e. selfishness. Indeed selfishness, aside from our sensory perceptions, is perhaps all we share in common at birth.
    Surely our goals are always going to be ultimately selfish. As Iyobosa Adeghe wrote nearly everyone desires power, respect, comfort, security, recognition, love. Its depressing when you think about it, but the only reason why we obey moral codes – norms – laws – is because we, as individuals, want to live in a society where no one will murder/ rape/ steal from/ screech four letter words at or drive into the back of US. This is why we find such behaviour abhorrent in others.
    Which brings me back to altruism – even those who purport to be acting selflessly are really, I think, still gaining pleasure themselves from the knowledge that they are helping others. I think the only way to act purely selflessly would be to act apparently purely irrationally – i.e. with no benefit conferred to ourselves at all. This is perhaps what makes us human.
    Christopher Harries: 'I almost can't handle that hippie, pacifist attitude, it almost disgusts me, I don't know why' – may I suggest you are struggling with your masculinity. Please don't take that the wrong way. Depending on our biological gender we all struggle to be independent which is perceived as a strength rather than dependent on co-operation, which is perceived to be feminine and therefore a weakness. This high value you place on independence and personal responsibility for ones actions is perhaps also what drives your libertarian, moral relativist attitude – 'just because you recognise other people's emotions you must strive to make them happy?' Live and let live? I'm afraid I disagree – I think teachers, doctors, parents – those in authority generally – have a duty to guide us, and should nurture as wide a concensus as possible as to what is right and wrong. This is precisely because we are not born with a pre-programmed moral code – as the fundamentally different cultural norms of say 21st century Canada and 19th century Afganistan, for example, would attest. Moreover, rather than waiting for those in authority to earn our respect we must presume respect towards them, because the alternative is anarchy and ubiquitous insecurity.

    10 Feb 2006, 16:41

  23. James – hear hear!

    10 Feb 2006, 16:45

  24. Tortoise lover

    I think that most of us grow up in different environments but subvert to the same thoughts and attitudes at some point. It's all about experience and 'growing up'. How long that takes determines how long l it will take us to be similar in terms of minds and attitudes. Even criminals (except a minority) realise that they lose out in the long term if they keep doing what they do. Then, does it not mean that they start sharing the same attitudes as society?

    10 Feb 2006, 19:28

  25. I think instinct (genetic programming) sows the seed for our sense of right and wrong and upbringing builds on it. Behaviour such as looking after some humans, dominating others, etc. is related to survival, the instincts are manifested in love, competitiveness, etc. which, due to our advanced cognitive powers we are able to (mis)interpret in the language of morality. I don't believe in moral realism, but I'm happy to uphold moral ideals because I can't escape the world I've been brought into. – in it, morality exists.

    The apparent rift in morality between different people is due to different interpretations and manifestations of instinct. One man might protect himself by making peace with his fellow men, another might do so by killing them. As people who believe in the "peace" approach, it's in our interest to close down those who don't. A really great way to do this is to label the way we do something "right" and certain other ways "wrong", attaching as much objective truth as we can to such definitions.

    11 Feb 2006, 11:22

  26. David – the proposition of using monozygotic twins as a "control" and the "experiment" would be very interesting,
    but the time required to aquire data for a sample size of scientific relevance would take decades. At the moment
    there is no system to monitor the behavior of such a system and still could not accomodate for the control specimine
    that is kept away from the rest of society.

    – the other proposition of observing the traits of a chimpanzee… how do we know that deep down a lower order
    primate holds the same sense of morality as we do with respect to: theft, murder, rape, freedom of speech etc.?
    would observing them be a true indication of nurture Vs. nature in humans? personally I think it would be laughed at
    by the scientific community.

    Alex – there is no "logical conclusion" of implication about my comment of normal behaviour Vs. alturism. I provided
    one hypothesis, that may relate to one small subset of a community. Personally i say normal behaviour is what you
    are used to. Alturism could therefore be what you are used to experiencing. From any situation, you take away the
    experiences you want to take with you.
    Selfishness to you may be something that is common to all of us, but to be honest, I don't think I do anything at
    the moment with a selfish attitude:

    • Me offering to help someone in the lab because they have to leave early does not mean that I get to leave early
      the next day, the two things are independant.
    • If someone can't pay for their lunch, I will offer to pay. Does this give me monetary gain? probably not, but I
      may get the money back at some point letting me break even.
    • I will happily go somewhere for someone else's moral support without asking anything in return.
      Recently, if I had taken selfishness to its full conclusion I would have saved the hassle, time and effort of a 360
      mile round trip (£30 petrol money) home for my mother's birthday. I did it, because I knew she would be unhappy if
      she had spent it alone. Am I a selfish person? Quite honestly I'd like to think not, if someone disagrees, I'd like
      to know why, and how I can improve the situation.
      Do I gain pleasure from all of this? Generally no, as it means I can be walked on, my kindness abused, and treated
      like a piece of furniture. BUT this is how I've been taught to behave to other people: taking their views into
      consideration, and being flexible to their needs.
      Personally I don't believe that selflessness has to be derived from irrationality. Rather more, I belive that
      irrationality drives selfishness, as it requires the ignorance of outside influences to truely manifiest.
      Masculinity and and a dislike of pacifist attitudes are not something that I believe should be linked. In general I
      don't link a gender with an action as it results in segregation of ideas. Pacifism is something I quite enjoy while
      being male and happy with my "biological gender". I also have no hangups about enquiring to females about help with
      concepts or techniques as I feel that co-operation can result in much better alliances than bitching will ever do.
      Many would say that true masculinity is linked to strength, and strength in this situation is linked to knowledge,
      so co-operation is the only way to further one's self.
      I wouldn't see teachers, doctors and parents as people who have a duty to guide us, but as people who have
      chosen to guide us, and their influence on the next generation's moral code as a benefit to society's next
      generation, as it is to our current generation.

    11 Feb 2006, 14:26

  27. Richard, the fact that we (or I) think and feel is certain, basic arithmetics are self-contained and certain. In other contexts we can speak of certainty anyway if we feel like it. Never mind. I'm not sure I would call libido, the ability to pick up a language, or an infants preference for human faces and sounds part of the "pure survival instinct" that you talk about, yet these and other behaviours certainly (sorry) have a considerable genetic element to them, as does many modulators of behaviour like temperament and intelligence. The grid has a good selections of texts on evolutionary psychology…

    Alexander, struggling with my masculinity? Good one :) Maybe. Your phrase "Rather than waiting for those in authority to earn our respect we must presume respect towards them, because the alternative is anarchy and ubiquitous insecurity" certainly gives me the creeps. You sound quite conformist, let me ask you: do you believe all that "right and wrong" (law) comes down to is what is necessary for a society to function? Also, I think you underestimate empathy – people can love and help others because they feel a deep unity with them, not just because they want to feel satisfaction from having done the "right" thing.

    James, your second paragraph sounds so sarcastic i'm not sure whether you believe in objective "right and wrong" or not. But for those of you who do, tell me please, how do you convince someone who behaves "wrongly" and doesn't believe in your morals, that he is "wrong"? If what your argument comes down to is pure emotion, shouldn't you then drop the idea of objective "right and wrong" and talk instead of actions in terms of their percieved quality? (You can still "close [him or her] down" if you have to…)

    11 Feb 2006, 18:37

  28. Richard – I am not a scientist either, which may explain my shortsightedness here. As far as I can see, however, you are looking at things rather narrowly. What I am arguing is that what distinguishes us humans from all other organisms is our ability to act against the grain of cause and effect – our ability to act irrationally whenever we chose, because though we may be preprogrammed to eat, sleep, reproduce, excrete etc we are not wired to perform exclusively with the objective of fulfilling those particular objectives all the time.

    Rationality may be defined as acting according to reason – i.e. with support or justification, motive or inducement for the action – i.e. acting in accordance with the theorum that everything has a cause and effect and is a cause and effect.

    Let me ask you now why you would help someone in the lab without any certainty that they would return the act of kindness the next day. Assuming the action on your part is rational, there is a reason for it. I imagine your reason for helping out your colleague (or not even a colleague, an unknown person) is that you wish to live in a society in which people perform random acts of kindness without expecting anything in return. This is undoubtedly a very noble and intelligent aspiration. My proposition however, is that it is also selfish (but you don't have to take this as a criticism), and the reason why I argue this is because you are consciously aware that you would be a member of the society you are promoting by leading by example and therefore you would potentially stand to benefit from one of the random acts of kindness if such a society flourished. The same would go for offering to pay the guy who for whatever reason doesn't have enough change for his lunch or driving 360 miles to spend time with your mother on her birthday. I don't think it will have never occured to you that when you are at your mother's age and lonely you would enjoy it if your children came to visit you on your birthday. (As it happens I really enjoy giving people lifts in my car but it would be neive of me to deny that the pleasure I gain is not selfish).

    Of course you are human, so all these actions – helping out the other guy at the lab; paying for someone else's lunch; driving to your mother's could just as easily be deliberately irrational but I would argue, in order for them to be irrational, you can't have given much thought to them at all really. Certainly if you have been brought up to behave according to a certain moral code – taking other people into consideration and putting their greater needs before your lesser needs (or even their equal or lesser needs before your own equal or greater needs) such actions of objective kindness may indeed be second nature or even reflex actions whereby you don't stop to think about why you are doing them. However, while this may be true of holding the door open for someone I don't honestly think that you would rationally drive 360 miles without thinking about it.

    Anyway, my point is that rationality is driven by motivation and that the only source for that motivation, assuming we are not acting under duress, is internal – from the self. Therefore all rational activity must be selfish (conceptualizing selfishness in a non-negative way).

    11 Feb 2006, 18:54

  29. (continued) As regards the relation between masculinity and pacifism, my argument was not that these two should be linked. My point was that, unfortunately, they are often linked because violence or militantism is the manifestation of insecurity about mascuninity. If a male individual feels he has a yang imbalance because society or his upbringing imposes expectations on him to express his masculinity, but at the same time he perceives society as restricting the acceptable means of such expression of mascunity he will feel pressurised to express his mascunity by non-acceptable paths. This is why there have been 29 school shootings by teenage males since 1982.

    University is a haven because the androgenous pursuit of knowledge allows men and women to escape the pressures of gender role expectations imposed by society. However, even within uni certain subjets linked to systemising and the impersonal – maths and physics are often perceived as more masculine than other subjects concerned with human behaviour and emotion, which are perceived as feminine. It would be neive to suggest that a campus full of sexually active hormone charged young people would not realign the exterior norms of mascunline and feminine activity on campus, while of course, in their enlightenment allow OTHER students to opt out.

    If masculinity is essentially a question of strength I suggest a highly masculine activity would be to walk into campus wearing a skirt in front of your oldest male friends – THAT would require strenght – of mind.

    Of course masculinity is not necessarily male, nor femininity female, but just think how confusing sexual relationships would be if masculinity and femininity were not linked to certain activities – how easy it would be to offend the other person… Unless the underlying basis of the relationship was forgiving friendship.

    Hmm – the furtherance of knowledge through co-operation: I don't disagree with you, in fact I wish you could explain this to my fellow law students.

    Teachers, doctors and parents have a duty to guide us precisely because they have chosen to guide us. Once our parents make the choice to reproduce or adopt us, teachers to take on the task of teaching us, or doctors to treat us they cannot then suddenly change their minds. I'm afraid I put a high value on living by the consequences of ones actions, even if they are mistakes.

    11 Feb 2006, 18:55

  30. Christopher – well observed, I am indeed a self-confessed social conservative, vectorially. I don't believe that all that law – concepts of right and wrong – boils down to is what is necessary for society to function. This may be the way the legislative production line is headed but I stand apart, in lonely dissent. (Yes, go on, keep on killing yourself, so long as no one else gets hurt. Actually sorry – no comment, I couldn't possibly presume to pronounce on your activity because I'm not my brother's keeper.) No, no, no, no, I am no cruel poikilothermic liberal. I even believe people should to be told whats in their best interests, ESPECIALLY if they don't like what they hear. SHOCK HORROR. I can see you blacklisting me now. Well I have opinions that are difficult to digest, on principle, and I make no apologies.

    I probably do lack empathy. I wasn't programmed to emphathise at birth. Its not what I would have wanted, but if only you could see how hard I worked to compensate…

    11 Feb 2006, 20:04

  31. On altruism, I would (and have) argue that everything people do is motivated by selfishness of a kind, be it a direct motivation to get money or power, a nice feeling from having made someone else happy, or simply to prevent yourself from feeling guilty about not being good. I'd suggest the latter two would explain helping people out in labs and driving a long way to see your mother.

    So I don't think people do anything if they don't think they'll benefit in some way. I do still believe in altruism, as I think the very idea that doing something to help someone else makes you happy is pretty altruistic. I wouldn't count the desire to not feel guilty for helping people, though.

    But, to drag myself back to the subject at hand, is altruism of this (or any other) kind a part of our genetic makeup, or a result of our upbringing? I'll cheat and say both: we're inherantly social animals, and wanting to help one another is a survival instinct, as much as selfishness is. This biological programming is reflected in our society, with laws that encourage us to be helpful, which in turn helps to influence our thoughts and behaviour.

    A quick thought experiment: If you took a human child away from society and had him raised by orangutans, where they were taught as an orangutan to be an orangutan and think like an orangutan, would they be human in any sense other than biologically? And if we took an orangutan baby and treated it as a human, would we get a human?

    Nature and nurture evolved together; I don't think they are entirely seperable.

    11 Feb 2006, 20:30

  32. - No – chavs
    – Yes
    – Dunno

    12 Feb 2006, 00:06

  33. Way I see it: humans ARE animals.

    In fact, we're lower than beasts.

    To say humans are "distinct from other animals": we're not. We're ants on a bigger scale really, only with fewer morals.

    And re: evil etc. It's all relative. One could argue the 9/11 bombers were evil, but they were doing what they genuinely believed to be right. Likewise, Hiroshima, Pearl Harbour, The Crusaids…whatever…from "our" point of view, it was "the right thing", but from that of others, it was "evil". "Evil" and "right" are probably the same if looked at with an ice-cold eye.

    12 Feb 2006, 01:19

  34. nobody


    12 Feb 2006, 01:46

  35. Altruism doesn't exist. At some point there is a "feeling better" thing about whatever it is, and this negates the idea of altruism. I'm sure Richard Holland's examples are all very heartwarming and that stuff, but if I push him hard enough he will end up either relenting or lying to me. Either way, altruism doesn't exist. I'm glad the rest have picked up on this also.
    This is not to say that we are all terribly selfish. The problem with talking about a simple selfish/altuistic distinction. "Selfish" has a negative connotation, and how we think of the word is not what we mean when we say "there is no altruism".

    Harris is right about pacifism. Unnatural and false. And I don't buy this crap on masculinity that Alexander was on about.

    As to the 3 questions.
    1. No, you get taught or find out for yourself (or don't, as the case may be) what right and wrong is, and that taking responsibility for your actions is desireable and what is needed to consider yourself a person.
    2. see above
    3. see above

    And no, we are not "fundamentally the same". If this is meant very modestly, as in, "we all get angry/sad/happy, etc.", well this is fine. But it's as good as me saying "all humans are humans". It's not particularly interesting.
    If you're thinking beyond that, you run into trouble. Why are there so many people who get on with life greatly and are generally "happy" and active people for no apparent reason, and some who find everything, just living, harder. It's a lot to do with early experiences, and how congruent these are with what's the norm in society. Of course you could just as easily have these experiences and not notice, or simply be to selfish. For example, me and my sister are radically different people. What is it that causes this? Am I simply more perceptive in recognising what lonliness and rejection is, or did she genuinely never experience it? Or did it just matter more to me? I don't believe we're all the same for a second. Why am I not down at "score" every week?

    12 Feb 2006, 01:51

  36. Pacifism – unnatural and false? I disagree, for personal reasons. Do you do much vigorous excercise, Vincent Carroll-Bataglino?

    Perhaps, if one finds it difficult getting on in life due to experiences in the formative years of ones childhood one's natural reaction to other people will be adversarial and confrontational. Perhaps the presumption, at least, is that everyone else is a potential threat, who will shoot you if you don't shoot them first, or worse still, bite your hand if you offer to feed them. Or perhaps the adversarial attitude is a comfort zone where one can escape other people's real cold-hearted indifference.

    Does it follow that if someone comes up to you waving an olive branch saying 'I want to be your friend' it is impossible – because of your internal experiences instinctively tell you to be wary – to act irrationally – though I think cereberally is a better word – and take him seriously?

    You illustrate very commendably – by the difference between yourself and your sister – how limited the nature – the genetic – argument for human character development is. That you share more than 99% of your genome with her is irrelevant to what you, as opposed to a statistician or astronomer, for example, find to be 'particularly interesting' – i.e. the differences between human behaviour.

    12 Feb 2006, 12:50

  37. Rich Boden, morality may be entirely relative – but I think its necessary to stress in bold with a double underlining that we should not simply accept that and act according to whatever standards we personally consider to be right or wrong (indeed assuming we have personal standards at all, for we could change our perceptions of right and wrong on a daily basis). In fact I would say it would be fundamentally dangerous and self destructive if we attempted to do so. I think its necessary sometimes to take a step back and remark 'thank goodness for the law' – the not exclusive but certainly mutually inclusive purpose of the law, as Chrstopher Harris pointed out, being for society to function.
    The only reason we may have fewer morals than the ant is because we understand the concept of morality – (yes I'm speciesist, guilty as charged) – which is all the more reason to adhere to them (yes morality is subjective but a majoritarian agreement on morality, as established by democracy renders it objective to all intents and purposes) religiously.

    Alex xxx

    12 Feb 2006, 13:10

  38. fundamentally yes we have the same stuff like organs etc. obviously but are morality evolves as we grow from basic survival to the people we are. We are totally shaped by experience in my opinion. If you get bullied you either bully or become stronger and kinder so won't bully evolution. Plus fundamentally I think humans are pack animals we can survive on our own but we also 'hunt' in packs modern day 'hunting' in schools involves gangs. Dunno if that is on the point or not…

    12 Feb 2006, 20:52

  39. I don't get the relevance of "vigorous exercise" question. Enlighten me?

    12 Feb 2006, 23:09

  40. Exercise is the key to defusing our stress levels and general disgruntlement, hostility to the world. After going for a good long run I always see that pacifism makes sense. Mens sana in corpore sano. I swear by that.

    12 Feb 2006, 23:53

  41. I go gym as often as I can.
    Doesn't mean I'm willing to go along with this "don't be angry" shite.

    13 Feb 2006, 10:20

  42. I'm not proposing that you shouldn't be angry, Vicent: anger is a natural emotion that we inevitably feel from time to time; to try and repress it would be even more dire. What I am proposing is that you should try to avoid channeling it through violence and non-pacific means – i.e. militantism. The discharging of energy through exercise, I am suggesting, leaves only the angry thoughts, which you can overcome by expression on paper. Anger coupled with energy is dangerous because it is difficult to target rationally and proportionally. I think it would be more productive to explain to the object of your ire that they are making you angry – empathy can only come with understanding, whereas an eye for an eye will simply make the whole world blind, no? Surely my suggestions are in your best interests – unless there is more at stake on your part – namely control, dominance and power over weaker individuals at the mercy of the unpredictable and injurous expressions of your anger.

    13 Feb 2006, 11:49

  43. Alexander, two things. First, you say that we should adhere to morals as established by a majoritarian agreement, as established by democracy: if you'd been born in 1920s germany you'd have been a religious nazi 20 years later. You cool with that? Second, do you really want to die without ever having been in a fight?

    Vincent, if you got stuck with your sis on an island for a couple of months you'd find out how scarily similar you are. And lots of that is genes. All of you who don't think DNA has a large part to play in shaping a person's psyche please take a week to read 'Nature via Nurture' by Matt Ridley this summer, or at least a review of it or something. Thanks for backing me on the pacifism, people need to watch Apocalypse Now more often..


    13 Feb 2006, 16:05

  44. Alexander, what about the many people who go to gym and what-not in order to be better at channeling anger to physical violence?
    The rest of your comment, I'm struggling to see the relevence. Writing things down? Control over the weak? an eye for an eye will make the world go blind? What the hell are you on about?!

    Christopher, your example not clear.
    What do you mean by "similar"? Again, yes I find she may be similar as in being a human that needs water and food. This doesn't mean she is actually anything like me in any other way but physically. It's just not the way it is. I know that because I know her and I know me, and I know we are not "similar".
    And what's your obsession with fighting dude. It's a great film, but get over it. Reserve violence for those that deserve it. Then make for a 24 hour torture session.

    13 Feb 2006, 19:00

  45. Christopher Harris (sorry about spelling your surname with an 'e' the first time round) – Though I think religious Nazi is a contradiction in terms you have found the Achille's heel in my argument. The problem inherent with democracy is the assumption that the demos is in fact morally right. Unfortunately in de jure democracies which are de facto dictatorships freedom of speech is curtailed, history is re-written, people are brainwashed, the media is censored and elections are rigged. I would hope that such a crowd-mentality inducing society could not flourish where there is a tradition of centralist politics, debate and where the majority of people have access to the Internet and the panoply of conflicting thought-provoking literature it disseminates in googlish proportions. I also think that in such a society of disparate minds there is a greater need then ever before for a ribbon of common morality to hold us all together. That is why I concurrently argue for counter-disestablismentarialist objective morality and absolute freedom of speech. Don't we all benefit greatly from online debates? But if laws were to change ephemerally – on a daily basis – the whole structure of society would be undermined, and people who justifiably desire interaction with their fellow social beings would be left in a state of disarray – which is why I lean towards social conservatism, especially in reaction to legislative overproductivity. I would further submit that Nazi Germany is a definitive example of how far the moral underpinnings of society can be skewed as a result of perverted nurture, as opposed to nature influences on human mental development – Die Hitler Jungen springs to mind. Bearing this in mind I would postulate that we have all the more reason to keep piety with ageing constitutional texts, – to regulate, as the Scottish philosopher Alexander Hume, argued, according to a prudent harmony between the fruits of modern empirical discovery and the common inherited experience of history.

    The answer to the second question you addressed to me is 'no.'

    13 Feb 2006, 19:41

  46. Corrigendum, Christopher – I meant to say the answer to the second question you addressed to me is 'yes'

    13 Feb 2006, 19:47

  47. Vincent – I have no objection to boxing and wrestling provided that the participants wear the appropriate protective gear. I'm afraid I fail to see why you struggled to understand the relevance of my comment. I personally thought I had lucidly explained the links between anger, physical violence, dominance, masculinity and the perpetual tendancies of vendettas. I don't think there's any point in repeating what I have already said, unless you have any specific misunderstandings?

    13 Feb 2006, 20:00

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