Innate vs. Cultural Morality

Hambydammit's picture

I find that in America, there is a very pervasive and fundamental misunderstanding of human morality. Very often, people try to classify acts as being moral or immoral, and this often leads to a deadlocked conversation, since for any conceivable act, there is some way (even if admittedly far-fetched) to justify it as good or bad in a particular situation.

Upon discovering this stumbling block, many people just throw their hands up in frustration and declare that all acts are completely subjective, and there is no such thing as an objective morality. Others insist that there are some things which are so incredibly clear that we may declare them to be universal. I submit to you that they are both wrong.

Innate vs. Cultural

The common conception of morality is flawed because it is assumed to be a single concept. It is not. Rather, there are two distinct kinds of morality, which I will refer to as innate and cultural. I will begin with an illustration, and then proceed to a firm definition.

Consider the act of tipping. At the risk of opening a nasty can of worms, I'm going to relate a story from the recent American Atheist Convention. My friend and I were sitting at the hotel bar after the evening's presentations were finished. At one point, the emminent Professor Richard Dawkins stood beside my friend and ordered two drinks. (As I recall, it was a margarita and a white wine.) After getting his drinks, Dawkins laid down a twenty, and upon receiving change, picked up the entire amount, pocketed it, and walked away with his drinks. My friend and I were both mortified, but we didn't mention it for a few minutes, until in a fit of pique, my friend called for the bartender and gave him several dollars, explaining that he thought it was awful that Dawkins had stiffed him.

This story is beautifully illustrative of the two concepts of morality. First, let's consider the act of tipping. If you found a Martian who had no concept of earthly matters, and explained "tipping", he would have no way to figure out whether or not it was appropriate. Why should one pay more than the agreed upon price for a good or service? Then again, if the price of a good is going to the establishment, why should an additional fee not go to the server of the good? There's simply no way to work it out logically.

Nevertheless, tipping is an act of morality. Dr. Dawkins probably ought to be forgiven for his faux pas. He is, after all, British, and it is considered bad manners in the UK to tip. Despite that fact, it is undeniable that whether or not he is forgiven, he should have tipped. He was in America, where bartenders either pay the rent or not based upon whether they receive tips. Tipping is an act of cultural morality. That is, whether or not one should tip is entirely dependent on the cultural perception of tipping.

At this point, one should ask the following question: Alright, so tipping is relative, but where does our inclination to either tip or not originate? That, as it turns out, is the Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question. I submit that tipping is a cultural application of an innate moral principle, namely fairness. Across all cultures on earth, humans have a concept of fairness. What is fair and what is unfair varies drastically, but there is always a moral obligation to treat others fairly when they deserve it. (Obviously, we can talk about how one goes about deserving fairness, but right now, let's stick to one topic.)

In England, it is considered rude to tip because it unbalances the transaction. It is seen as condescending, as if implying that the waiter is somehow insufficient to make a living on their normal salary. In America, on the other hand, tipping is required in order to make the transaction balanced. The system is set up differently, but the principle is exactly the same in both cases. This, then, is how morality can be absolute while being subjective. In the UK, you are objectively and absolutely obligated not to tip, while in America, you are objectively and absolutely obligated to tip.

Let's move on to something more difficult. As I've explained in great detail previously, humans are not naturally monogamous. However, they're not naturally polygamous either. Humans fall somewhere in between. We tend towards either serial monogamy or mild polygamy. Most cultures have some degree of legitimate polygamy, while only a very few (historically and present-day) have been either exclusively monogamous or polygamous.

With this in mind, let's consider a married man who has sex with someone other than the woman he is married to. In America, this is generally considered morally wrong. In parts of Utah, Asia, the Middle East, and in quite a few tribal cultures, it's considered a good thing -- if the second woman also happens to be his wife! In fact, in many cultures, it would be considered extremely bad form to withhold sex from one wife, as it would deprive her family of an heir, and that would be the equivalent of a cardinal sin.

Again, we need to look for a principle against which the act of having intercourse with multiple women can be evaluated. I suggest that the most obvious principle is fidelity. Again, across all cultures, humans expect loyalty from bonded partners. This extends from mating to business to international alliances. Once we have made a promise, we ought to keep it. From this point of view, it is easy to see that having multiple sexual partners can be either morally good or morally bad, and it all depends on what kind of promises are culturally expected. From these two examples, we can begin to get a grasp on how morality works in humans. We have innate motivations and expectations which precede culture -- fairness, loyalty, and justice, to name a few. Based on the way a culture functions, we can evaluate an action on whether or not it conforms to the locally subjective expectations and determine whether or not it was moral or immoral.

What about Really Bad Things?

This certainly isn't the end of the discussion. It would be difficult to leave morality here without discussing things like genocide, rape, torture, and other behaviors that seem to give every indication of being "universally bad." It is very hard for many people to leave things open-ended because they feel that without a blanket condemnation of such acts, there is an invitation to invent a culture in which they are considered ok.

I suspect that there are some acts, like those mentioned above, which are so inherently likely to offend the innate human moral sense that they will not be consistently sustainable as "good acts." Though we can imagine a society in which rape is universally acknowledged as good, it's very hard to imagine a society in which the vast majority of women genuinely believe it to be good. This is a very important point. There have been many societies in which one group has imposed its own "morality" on the population, but a close examination usually (always?) reveals that this morality is not universally agreed upon, but rather, universally enforced by those who are actually acting immorally by legislating that which defies our moral instincts.

I suggest that acts which are "universally bad" are tautological. Consider rape. Rape is literally defined as the unfair use of a person for sexual gratification. To say that rape is always wrong is simply to say that an act of unfairness is always wrong when fairness is right. Some acts of sex -- even forced sex -- are not considered rape, and are not, therefore, wrong. There are some people who like being forced to have sex, after all. Think very hard on this truth: Without knowing the desires of both parties, it is impossible to tell whether a rape is being commited, or whether two lovers are playing an elaborate game. (Of course, if we suspect a rape, we are better off assuming the worst, since the best case scenario is preventing a rape, and the worst is ruining a fun moment of play.) For that matter, some people like being subjected to what many people would consider torture. Again, it is the principle, not the act. Strap electrodes to two men's testicles, and you have one case of torture and one case of a very happy masochist.

Is there ever a case where genocide is fair? Perhaps not, but we must avoid the temptation to declare that this admission constitutes a case for the absolute immorality of certain acts. I can, after all, imagine a far-fetched but possible situation in which an act of genocide would be the best of several very bad alternatives. When I say that there is probably not a case in which genocide is fair, I am really saying that it is so highly improbable that it is not worth serious consideration at this time.

What Constitutes "An Act"?

We must be very careful with our definitions. Let's continue thinking about rape in an effort to avoid potential philosophical traps. Is the act of forceably engaging in intercourse with a woman who is physically fighting back wrong? I don't know, and neither do you. As I mentioned, I can show you a scene involving such actions, and without knowing the motivations of both parties, you cannot tell whether it is an act of rape or an act of play.

Forcing sex on a woman is not inherently immoral. Raping a woman -- by definition -- is inherently immoral.  This is where theists often misplace morality.  They believe that a particular set of physical movements is inherently wrong, like sex or masturbation or punching someone in the face.  What they miss is that actions by themselves are neither moral nor immoral, and morality can only be judged by how an action impacts another person.

Hopefully, you can see that even with something as apparently clear-cut as rape, we cannot account for all cultural differences. In America, many people think that a woman who feels "pressured" to have sex by a date is being raped, while in other cultures, the matter would be settled by the fact that the woman invited the man into her bedroom. Rape is not a universally agreed upon action. It is a universally agreed upon principle which can manifest as different actions in different cultures. We must be careful to separate descriptions of physical actions from descriptions of cultural relevance. "Rape" is a cultural value assessment, while "forced sexual intercourse" is a description of a physical action. We must not make the mistake of substituting one for the other in a moral evaluation.

The Trap of Strong Feelings

Here, I must issue a very stern warning. There is a very, very big difference between strong feelings and innate feelings. We must be constantly aware of this, or we will fall victim to the fallacy of believing our culture to be morally superior to all others. Culture can give us very strong emotional reactions to various acts. The Dawkins Tip Fiasco is a great example. My friend was genuinely and deeply put off that Dawkins didn't tip. He was so upset about it that he couldn't rest until the injustice was rectified. Nevertheless, his intense emotional reaction is most certainly not evidence that tipping is innately good.

This is where science can help us. Cognitive psychologists have made a lot of progress into determining what beliefs are innate to humans. With more research, we will most likely be able to hone our knowledge of our instincts even further. Perhaps there is a basic algorythm which describes all humans' perception of fairness. If this is so, we could theoretically examine any transaction in any culture and determine if it closely matches human instinct. Then again, perhaps not. It might be that the algorythm is too complex to be reasonably approximated.

Nevertheless, even if our judgments are necessarily fuzzy around the edges, the key to evaluating moral practices is understanding the difference between a cultural application of a princple and the principle itself. If there is a moral to this story, it is this: If you are trying to ascribe absolute moral value to a description of a physical act, you are making a philosophical error. If you cannot make a direct connection to an innate, rather than a cultural moral impulse, you would do well to keep an open mind about other people's morals. After all, there are many different sub-cultures within a nation. (It might be that within your Baptist culture, it is wrong to have threesomes with your wife and her best friend, but you must not try to impose that as an absolute moral upon someone who vowed to share sex with agreed upon third parties as part of a bonded relationship.) Finally, you must not claim something to be innate if it is not shared across cultures and history.

It is my belief that if we follow these basic principles, they will lead naturally to a very egalitarian culture, for they will automatically exclude a very wide range of behaviors from moral judgment while allowing for a wide variety of practices within sub-cultures. If we bear them in mind, we will naturally come to understand the meaning of various actions within cultures very foreign to us, and we will learn to respect that which -- though odd to us -- has a legitimate and fulfilling place in other people's lives.

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/
Books about atheism

 I enjoyed the article, I

 I enjoyed the article, I don't know if I agree with all of it, but I'm not exactly sure where I'm suppose to respond? The comment section?

You refer to tipping (in America at least) as a moral action, and I don't agree. If I tip because I feel tipping is a way of insuring the person serving me is getting fair wages, that the money I tip is for their services, that what I pay for the food or the drinks or whatever, doesn't cover their pay sufficiently, than tipping can be perceived as a moral action. Because my moral belief that workers should be getting fair wages, that people should be getting their fair dues.

But if another person eats at a restaurant and tips, only because he plans on eating they're again, and is worried if he doesn't someone is going to spit in his food, Tipping here is not a moral act at all. A moral act is one that should be in the framework of empathy, and guilt. That only when we commit an act out compassion, is an act moral. If compassion is not the underlying reason for the act, than the act is not moral. Your friend who tipped for Dawkins did so for this reason, that he felt that waiter wasn't getting his fair shake, that Dawkins cheated him out of what he should have been owed. 

There's a multiple of other reasons why people tip as well, such as it being a cultural faux pas, or tipping based on how well they were served, and not tipping at all if they were served rater poorly. None of these are moral acts. 

If someone decides to help an old lady, take care of her, and all that just so that he can manipulate her and get into her will, he wasn't being moral by taking care of her.

Secondly in reference to rape. Rape is wrong from the frame work of empathy, physically forcing  a woman to have sex when she does not want to, is inflicting suffering on that woman, the raper is not acting in empathy towards her, but is using her for his gratification at the expense of her suffering, and that's immoral. Some people, in a certain culture may say that she deserved it, perhaps by letting the guy in the room. But that doesn't mean I'm going to accept it and tell them oh it's okay, it's a cultural thing. I'm going to tell them it's wrong for the same reasons i feel it's wrong in my country as well, because the raper is violating her dignity, violating her rights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vastet's picture

That was an enjoyable read,

That was an enjoyable read, and there's little that I disagree with, though at the same time I remain unconvinced that any form of morality can be objective in any fashion. Even rape is not immune. I can come up with potential scenarios where rape would be in the best interest of society, and where the "victims" would have no problem with their status as "victims".

From what I have figured out, morality starts with the individual, then moves through the culture, then the species, then the environment. But all of these factors can be altered, therefore so can the morality.

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

butterbattle's picture

It was an enjoyable read.

It was an enjoyable read.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, | As I foretold you, were all spirits, and | Are melted into air, into thin air; | And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, | The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, | The solemn temples, the great globe itself, - Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, | And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, | Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff | As dreams are made on, and our little life | Is rounded with a sleep. - Shakespeare

Hambydammit's picture

 Quote:That was an

 

Quote:
That was an enjoyable read, and there's little that I disagree with, though at the same time I remain unconvinced that any form of morality can be objective in any fashion. Even rape is not immune. I can come up with potential scenarios where rape would be in the best interest of society, and where the "victims" would have no problem with their status as "victims".

Then you agree with me.

I don't think I've been clear enough.  (This is a work in progress, and I don't like some of my terminology.)  I'm saying that we can call something "absolutely wrong" and have a marginally meaningful statement, but only as a matter of semantics.  In other words, if we invent a word, "Flargle," and define it as "any act that is morally wrong" then a flargle is always wrong by definition.

This doesn't help us to evaluate any particular act, though.  In order to qualify as a flargle, an act has to be determined to be morally wrong first.  We don't use flargle to determine wrong, but to identify it after the fact.

So, let's talk about men forcing women to have sex against their will.  We cannot make the blanket statement that any and all instances of a man forcing a woman to have sex against her will is necessarily wrong, for as you mention, we can imagine a situation in which it would not be.  But that's just the thing -- it wouldn't be rape if it wasn't morally wrong.  Rape is defined as a morally wrong act, not as a specific physical act.  There are many ways to rape someone, and each of the physical acts involved in rape could be done in a context which was not rape.  

So, saying "Rape is immoral" is the semantic equivalent of saying "Things that are immoral are immoral."  That's what I mean when I say that it is trivially true that some things are always wrong.

Quote:
From what I have figured out, morality starts with the individual, then moves through the culture, then the species, then the environment. But all of these factors can be altered, therefore so can the morality.

Everything starts with the individual, so this is also trivially true.  That's what the whole Selfish Gene principle is about.  Evolution doesn't do anything "for the group."  Anything that happens for the benefit of the group is the result of something that manifests in individuals.

I think you'd be hard pressed to show that the innate principles of human morality are malleable, but it's true that certain actions can change as culture changes.

 

 

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/
Books about atheism

Thomathy's picture

I just want to be clear. 

I just want to be clear.  Not to pick on the example you give, Hamby, but I think I can extend your answer to other scenarios.

In Canada, or at least my part of Canada, tipping is not in the realm of morality.  People tip based on perceived service.  In fact, I believe a number of polls have shown Canadians to be the 'worst' tippers.  That's beside the point, because it's compared to how people from other countries tip, but it illustrates the point.  My question is: Is anything in particular necessarily in the realm of morality?  I'm pretty sure I know the answer to this, but humour me.  would I be correct in saying that tipping is not necessarily, or always, moral or immoral, but may well be a thing devoid of morality (or, by extension, any other given thing)?

BigUniverse wrote,

"Well the things that happen less often are more likely to be the result of the supper natural. A thing like loosing my keys in the morning is not likely supper natural, but finding a thousand dollars or meeting a celebrity might be."

Hambydammit's picture

 Quote: Is anything in

 

Quote:
 Is anything in particular necessarily in the realm of morality?

Again, we can trivially say that some things are, but we'd just be creating a tautology.  In order for something to be a moral (or immoral) action, it has to be an action which has a measurable effect on another person (or possibly, animal).  There are some acts which are only possible when two people are involved.  I suppose we could be intentionally inflammatory and say that anal sex is necessarily a two-person activity since we can't fuck ourselves in the ass.   So... anal sex is necessarily within the realm of morality.

Here's where it gets trivial, though.  Just because it is within the realm of morality doesn't mean it's necessarily a moral or immoral act.  It is just potentially moral or immoral.

We've also got to ask what it means to be moral (in the positive sense).  Does "moral" mean "for the benefit of others" or can it be extended to apply to avoiding immorality?  In other words, am I being moral when I simply do not do immoral things, or do I need to do something specifically beneficial to someone else?  For that matter, can I say that by not doing bad things to others, I am doing something good by default?  In the common usage, it's fair to say that by living peacefully in society, we are being moral.  If this is true, then any lack of action we um... take... by... not acting... is not doing a bad thing, and so.... is morally good... so, if we are within the vicinity of another person, we cannot help but act morally if we avoid immorality...

In the end, this is just a lot of wordplay, though.  I can't think of any physical action which (devoid of cultural significance) must still be a matter of morality.  I believe we have to just restrict our discussion of morality to that which involves intent, and which affects others.

 

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/
Books about atheism

Topher's picture

Great essay. This reminds me

Great essay. This reminds me of a post by todangst on the issue of theistic morality, where he concludes like you that innate morality--morality based on human nature--explains the similarities across moral system whereas cultural morality explains the differences.

Here the post:

todangst wrote:
If man really were in contact with a 'transcendent being' that laid down moral law, then one is saying that geography and culture play no role in the foundation of morals in the first place. Well then, what would be the point of a 'transcendent being' transcending all of reality in order to lay down a moral law that is just going to be reinterpreted through a cultural filter that this creator must also be responsible for in the first place? The same 'transcendent being' would be perfectly responsible for the parameters of existence that allowed for differences in interpretation across culture.

See the problem yet? You'd have to appeal to the same 'transcendent being' as the cause of the problem.... So the theist must steal from secularism to make his argument... he must make the Panglossian error and assume that our world is a given, yet also hold, at the same time, that our world is contingent upon an omnipotent god.

The ultimate contradiction.

Only secular morality can explain differences in morality across culture. Geography, environment, context, zeitgeist, etc., all explain how human need is reflected differently in various moral systems.... There is one foundation that 'transcends' all human cultures: human nature X environment. The most parsimonious explanation is that human character is the origin of similarities across moral systems, whereas environment and culture explain the differences. The 'supernatural hypothesis' is not only the ultimate violation of occam's principle, it fails to account for the differences that environment and culture explain.  To the theist view, the differences in morality across culture are problems, outliers in the data that cannot be made to fit into their 'paradigm'...

http://www.rationalresponders.com/forum/sapient/atheist_vs_theist/8157?page=1

 

Hambydammit wrote:
Here, I must issue a very stern warning. There is a very, very big difference between strong feelings and innate feelings. We must be constantly aware of this, or we will fall victim to the fallacy of believing our culture to be morally superior to all others.

I think it is possible to say some cultures are better--morally or otherwise--than others. For instance I would say a Taliban-like Islamic culture, with things like stonings, women forced to cover up, etc, is worse than most other cultures. It's possible that everyone agreed that stoning was a good thing (including those being killed), and women liked having to cover up, etc, and for such a society to be equally happy and fulfilled as those societies which abhor those acts. Although I would question whether such acts really do lead to a better society.

"It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring" -- Carl Sagan

Vastet's picture

Hambydammit wrote:Then you

Hambydammit wrote:

Then you agree with me.

Yeah, I'm mostly just trying to stretch this out a little bit for clarification purposes.

Hambydammit wrote:

Everything starts with the individual, so this is also trivially true.  That's what the whole Selfish Gene principle is about.  Evolution doesn't do anything "for the group."  Anything that happens for the benefit of the group is the result of something that manifests in individuals.

Yes, which is where culture, species, and environment come in. All of these factors impact the self, to varying degrees of importance.

Hambydammit wrote:

I think you'd be hard pressed to show that the innate principles of human morality are malleable, but it's true that certain actions can change as culture changes.

I don't think I'd be hard pressed at all. I might have to do some searching for papers, but I remember learning that Psychology studies have shown that one self can be very different from another self in the realm of principals of morality, and with any moral, and regardless of cultural implications. Some people don't have any identifiable morals at all.

Many psychologists seem to define these people as abberations to the norm, but that is patently ridiculous and ignores evolution. They naturally exist, they cannot be abberations; unless you're willing to open the door to the possibiliity that everyone is an abberation, which relegates them to simply being an abberation of an abberation. Who is to say which form of human morals will persevere through evolutionary pressures in the future, if any?

If the most basic of moral tenets can be "altered"(not the right word, but a proper one escapes me atm), then it follows that all the morals that stem from it can as well.

The only ones that may be unalterable I would argue aren't morals in the first place, but instincts. Like a survival instinct, for example. An instinct can closely resemble a moral under the right circumstances.

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

Hambydammit's picture

 Quote:I think it is

 

Quote:
I think it is possible to say some cultures are better--morally or otherwise--than others.

I agree, but we must not resort to determining moral quality by the strength of our emotions.

Iranians are probably equally emotionally opposed to women's freedoms in America as we are emotionally opposed to their oppression in Iran.  We must not rely on the strength of our conviction, but the strength of our argument.  If a thing is moral, it conforms to an empirical model.

Here's where it gets tricky.  Sharia law is based on an empirical model of a sorts... that is, they have a book which they can check a behavior against.  If the book empirically says, "Kill a woman for doing X," then there's your answer.  This is why we must not only avoid non-scientific foundations for morality, we must actively oppose them.  The only way to begin to approach morality is to look at what happens in the falsifiable world of cause and effect.

 

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/
Books about atheism

HisWillness's picture

Just in time. I trust you

Just in time. I trust you won't mind if I pass this along in my (most likely fruitless) discussion with AtheismIsNonsense? The discussion seems to hinge on morality being something akin to a series of light switches, with one master switch labelled "The Bible". Once you get that Bible switch flipped, then the other switches work, but they can only be on or off, goddammit!

Saint Will: no gyration without funkstification.
fabulae! nil satis firmi video quam ob rem accipere hunc mi expediat metum. - Terence

Hambydammit's picture

 Give him the Hambydammit

 Give him the Hambydammit Moral Library if you like:

What Does Sugar Have To Do With Murder?!

Godless Morality and Fear

I'm a particular fan of this one... (because of the pictures, of course)...

Christian Morality (with pictures!)

http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/2009/02/02/morality-absolute-and-subjective/

 

Atheism isn't a lot like religion at all. Unless by "religion" you mean "not religion". --Ciarin

http://hambydammit.wordpress.com/
Books about atheism

HisWillness's picture

 I liked those--great

 I liked those--great reads, but I've bowed out of the discussion. He's actually crazy, and you can't do much with crazy, other than recommend a psychiatrist. I'm going to save my energy for people who might have some sense.

It's odd (this is related to morality): I feel bad about giving up on people. It's not like me, but I've changed my mind. There's a moral decision right there: changing your mind.

If you don't have the ability to change your mind on moral issues, can you still be moral? I don't think you can even learn without changing your mind, so I'd say a dogmatic position is practically the opposite of moral.

Saint Will: no gyration without funkstification.
fabulae! nil satis firmi video quam ob rem accipere hunc mi expediat metum. - Terence