Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response | Philosophy Now

Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response | Philosophy Now.

And still more on morals.

This is one area where we really are locked into our own value system. Is it important to know whether it is genetically hard-wired or culturally conditioned? Are we looking for a universal moral system? Is there a basic attitude that is “right”? Like: “Do onto others….”?

And most of all: does it matter?
If a girl is married off at 12 to a 50 year old man, and that is all she knows, does it matter?
If a person is sacrificed to the gods and thinks this will give her a place in heaven, is this wrong?

The only universal yardstick I can see is the amount of suffering any action produces in the short run. The long run is beyond our ken. The universal consequences are way beyond our reckoning.

We westerners are children of the French enlightenment, with its idea that we COULD be perfect somehow. Strangely enough this goes the Christian churches one better: While the Christians see humans as savages that need to be raised aloft by seeking the grace of the lord, the enlightenment movement condemned us to do it all on our own, without any divine grace. The responsibility is all ours, and so is the blame and the desperation.

Isn’t this what the snake offered: To know right from wrong? Didn’t this cause the expulsion from paradise?
As the German playwright Heinrich von Kleist said: ” Paradise is behind us, and the gates are locked. And now we will have to commence our travels around the world and see whether maybe it is open from the back.”

The secure sense of right and wrong is behind us, and we feel lost without a rock solid value system. And now we have to look closely at morals, the whys and wherefores, and see what we can come up with that might bring some peace to the human heart.

Relativism of morals means that there is no eternal, “god-given” value system.
So where do values and rules derive from?
Evolutionary Psychology answers that they are developed tools to help with gene propagation.
The rules of morals are multifold, because many sets of rules will work. And some kind of “working” is all that is required for a set of rules to be passed on.
This passing on generally is twofold: On one side by some kind of genetic inheritance (and, no, I’m not of the opinion that the last word in genetics has been spoken yet. I think we have only scratched the top of the hidden treasure casket).
On the other side by the extelligence of cultural tradition.
I think the main value in creating culture is exactly this: A set of implicit rules that defines what is right and what is wrong.

As soon as it becomes possible to question these rules, they must fall apart and lose their value. BECAUSE they are arbitrary.
For implicit morals to work, they must remain unquestionable.
Cultural cohesion is mandatory for morals to do their job.
This is the first stage, the paradisical “Not knowing right from wrong”: the questionless reliance on extelligence, reified as god.

Knowing right from wrong requires the ability to step outside these rules and realise that many different sets of rules WILL work. I.e. many systems will lead to the result of successful propagation of individual (genes) and group (culture) inheritance. Which is the only definition of success nature knows.

Many of us are stuck in this second stage. We are at a loss about right and wrong, because we started thinking, and we started seeing our value system from the outside.

There is a third stage, but it is not reached as a matter of course, or just by drifting along.
And as is common with many of these three steps progressions, the first and the third step look strikingly similar.

We come back to the most basic set of rules: having winnowed out the cultural baggage, we again return to the basics.
And although it is possible to talk at length about these basics, it really comes down to this: “Do as little harm as possible.”
We “take up a path”, to paraphrase the Jukai Ceremony. With rules written not in stone, but in something more fluid than water, as Ross Bolleter-Roshi is fond of saying.

Morals become our own responsibility. We take the inherited wisdom of our ancestors (the extelligence) and with our intelligence create a personal value system which serves as a guide for our behaviour.


About Armin

Hermit, free-lance monk, laughing pessimist, hopeless optimist, standing upright after being bowled over too often, crawling when he should fly and flying without a pilot's licence. Clinging to bushes and grasses in his free time.
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