RE: morality and memes

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Tue May 21 2002 - 12:24:52 BST

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    Subject: RE: morality and memes
    Date: Tue, 21 May 2002 12:24:52 +0100
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    Hi everyone,

    Thanks for the comments. Gonna try and address peoples' comments so far

    I'll start with my question-

    >> More fundamentally are morals innate, or culturally produced?

            <Steve: My guess is cultural. Too many different kinds of behaviour
    that are
    > considered 'moral'>
            So, the $64,000 question is where do they come from, and how do
    particular morals take hold? Hence my comment about environment-

    >> If the latter,
    >> how/why do some spread more than others? Are what we perceive of
    as innate
    >> values, actually environmentally specific- which I mean in a way
    >> from culturally specific

            <Probably a function of both. If we knew how they spread we would
    have a
    > working theory of memes :-)>
            Indeed, that's one of the things I was wondering.

    >>(e.g. isolated communities favouring polygamy due
    >> to a gender imbalance).


            I'm sure I've read of isolated communities where the short supply of
    one or other gender relates to the tolerance of polygamy (IIRC some
    himalyan/tibetan community where women take many husbands, for example).
    Hence, environment with a big E, rather than purely cultural environment.

        <Philip: I feel that individual animals living in solitude know no
    morals. That is, they will stop at nothing, including killing or
    wounding other animals of their species, to get their share of food.
    Social animals are a little different. It simply isn't good for the
    species to have no stop at getting food if it damages the wellbeing of
    fellow social group-members. So here's some set of morals desired
    however basic and primitive.>

    Yeah, hence you get the idea of reciprocal altruism, and perhaps morality is
    born of that.

    <Philip: Regarding memetically. Morals can be expressed linguistically. So
    they are
    > intrinsically memetic or culturally transmittable. If morals lead to
    > increase in fitness of the group at hand moralistic memes may flourish. So
    > yes, morals can very well be memetic and yes they can also have a
    > biological basis.>
    Hmm, I think Wade's comment is interesting here, in terms of relating this
    to the question of ideas/beliefs/values as what is transmitted, as opposed
    to behaviours/practices-

    <Wade: Problems in morality are dealt with in various ways, and it is the
    > persecution and punishment of non-accepted conduct that is transmitted,
    > through laws and hierarchies and biases and other notices and
    > condemnations of society.>
    Which brings me to Grant's point:

    <Grant: It sounds like we're back to that old arguement: is it nature or
    nurture. I
    thought that was resolved a long time ago. It's both. Both genes and memes

    act on the mind and body to produce attitudes and ideas that help us live
    together in ever larger societies. Without both, I don't think it would
    happen. Within the individual, the values created are the result of input
    from both the emotional and environmental forces that shape the person from
    the day he/she is conceived. Within society, memes fight in the
    battleground of the mind pool for survival and dominance. That, at any rate

    is my concept of the overview. Other views are welcome to compete. ;-)>

    Yeah, I don't mean to suggest an absolute distinction between nature and
    nuture, but there are levels of effects in both senses. I suppose this is a
    difference between metaethics, questions of the existence (or otherwise) or
    moral absolutes, and applied ethics (how should one behave in a given
    situation, and indeed how much free will do we have to make choices in
    situations). Like religious belief, people (including the non-religious)
    often regard moral values as somehow more fixed, more certain, more absolute
    than other ideas/values that they may hold. As such they may be resistant
    to the idea that their morality is not as innate (or even innate to any
    extent) as they "feel" it to be; that it may be a product of their
    socialisation to the community in which they live. But, there may also be a
    sense in which environment may have had a fundamental impact on the
    emergence of that community's consensus of moral values (in the same way
    that indigenous people who live in mountain areas often have mountain
    oriented gods, and people who live on the coast have sea-oriented gods).
    And this in turn relates back to questions of the potential for humans to
    behave in different ways in different circumstances, and to what extent
    cultural pressure can make people conform to a (potentially) non-adaptive
    strategy- like religious celibacy, or suicide bombing. The electric-shock
    experiments we've discussed before come to mind again, where people did what
    they were told by the man in the white coat, but I think I'm ramlbing now...


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