Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics
The Sources of Morality, Continued
Characterizing the SourceGRiggs
One can go on till one is blue in the face characterizing such feelings as "really" judgement, as "really" reflective, as "really" un-human. I'm just sorry, common sense tells me that these altruistic feelings have come from human faculties and not from... some newly planted petunia!!!!!Eyler Coates
Why not assume that tolerance derives simply from the rational faculty as opposed to the instinctual? Or that it is instinctual with intimates, but can be extended to all humanity through rational choice? Sometimes, the whole "nature vs. nurture" argument seems to ignore the rational part of man, as though he were completely controlled by impulses implanted either by nature, in the form of innate characteristics, or by nurture, in the form of an external environment, and assumes that individual choice is not a factor at all. Thus, the individual seems to have no responsibility in the process whatever. In some cases, perhaps the individual is almost completely controlled by these forces. And undoubtedly those forces exert a powerful influence in any case. But I suggest that an individual does retain the ability to guide his actions by reason, and that the better educated and trained he is, the better he is able to exert autonomous control over his responses.
Here, I strongly agree with you; though, for reasons developed above, I might not see the necessity for putting quite such a high premium on "the better educated and trained he is."Eyler Coates
Perhaps the caveat might be unnecessary if by "better educated and trained," we assume that to mean something broader than formal, in-school education. I meant it (or hope that I did) in the sense of a developed capacity to understand the meaning of enlightened self-interest, or (the expression I prefer) the ability to form an identification of interests with the universe outside oneself.
It is interesting that we often speak of "nature vs. nurture" on one hand as though individual responses were totally controlled by one or the other of those two forces, and then we design our laws and punishments (including capital punishment) as though his every act, including the most violent and emotional ones, were completely controlled by rational processes.GRiggs
Perhaps, I am being dense again, but are you suggesting here that the true reality lies in
a)the "rational processes" assumption behind "our laws and punishments,"
b)"nature vs. nurture" as the sole determinants of human behavior, or
c)the virtual impossibility/impracticality of positively coming down on one side or the other?Eyler Coates
The problem lies in my having incompletely expressed myself. I was referring to the calculations of deterrence that go into such things as capital punishment. It is as if the lawmakers assume that he that commits murder rationally considers the pros and cons of such an act, whereas it seems almost certain that such acts of violent disregard of the moral code have little or no rational assessment of the consequences. To take it a step further (here I go again), I would suggest that every immoral act involves some degree of irrationality, with nature or nurture or both being the overruling factor. But this pretty much flies in the face of Jefferson's assertion that man's morality is "as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling," doesn't it? Or does it? Certain levels of moral behavior certainly are innate, especially, for example, a mother's concern for her child. But higher, more extended morality--especially, for example, that which overcomes racism--does not seem to be innate.
The critical formulation here (and I take off my hat to you on this one) is "an identification of interests with the universe outside oneself." The extent to which empathy with one's fellow creatures is innate or cultivated has been studied in several projects recently covered in a chapter on Empathy in a new book, Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, (1995). On page 98, Goleman writes:
"Developmental psychologists have found that infants feel sympathetic distress even before they fully realize that they exist apart from other people. Even a few months after birth, infants react to a disturbance in those around them as though it were their own, crying when they see another child's tears. By one year or so, they start to realize the misery is not their own but someone else's, though they still seem confused over what to do about it. In research by Martin L. Hoffman at New York University, for example, a one-year-old brought his own mother over to comfort a crying friend, ignoring the friend's mother, who was also in the room. This confusion is seen too when one-year-olds imitate the distress of someone else, possibly to better comprehend what they are feeling; for example, if another baby hurts her fingers, a one-year-old might put her own fingers in her mouth to see if she hurts, too. On seeing his mother cry, one baby wiped his own eyes, though they had no tears."
I would welcome our readership's response on whether or no these responses strike them merely as quintessentially "narrow," "clannish," "familial" responses or whether such responses in fact suggest a more innately "other-directed" instinct for concern directed at just about everyone else with whom an "uncultivated" ("unwarped"?) human being may conceivably come into contact. (Indeed, some may feel uncomfortable at simply limiting our scope to human beings. How about the gorilla Binti's care for the fallen child at the zoo?)
Please let's have everyone's comments. Thank you.
By the way, Swinburne described Aeschylus's Oresteia as the "greatest spiritual achievement of man," but I still don't know where his remark comes from. Please, enlightenment on this question would also be sincerely appreciated.Eyler Coates
It would be easy for me to believe that "empathy with one's fellow creatures is innate"; that it is present, just as the studies indicate, in very young children; that the early natural sensitivities of infants are destroyed by the later experiences in their environment (nurture); and that these sensitivities (which form the natural source of instinctual morality) are restored through the individual's "spiritual" development.
So is this an inevitable cycle that one goes through at some point between one's emancipation from the cradle and one's emergence into full, legal adulthood? Clearly, if so, it is not one's initial "learning" that is critical in shaping one's ethical outlook but the extent to which one can "recover" one's initial moral bearings later in youth. I am not questioning the validity of such a take, merely seeking to clarify it. Would such an understanding concerning "growing up" inevitably involve the "loss-and-gain" scenario I am inferring?
I don't think it can be called a matter of "recovery" because, in fact, one is moving from the simplicity of childhood to the complexity of adulthood. One must be "born again," but one cannot re-enter the mother's womb and become a child again. There is no going back, but there is an acquiring of a parallel form of innocence, though it is all taking place within this much more complex adult world.
If that is the case, then we can presume that the passage to adulthood is critical in establishing an individual's good or evil--meaning nobody is born good or evil, since all are evidently born good at the beginning. Am I understanding you correctly?
Sounds reasonable to me.GRiggs
The degree of evident variation here lies therefore in the extent to which one's moral rudder is or is not compromised through the vicissitudes of "nurture."
In addition, is the degree to which one depends, successfully or unsuccessfully, on spiritual "re-awakening"--later in youth--in turn conditioned by the extent to which one feels an unconscious necessity to reacquaint oneself with the ethics of childhood in the first place?
I would think not. Childhood is gone forever. I believe it serves, in this context, as a metaphor for the kind of person we must be, not the actual person. When this happens, however, there is a certain consonance or parallel, and the adult is often described as "childlike."
I think this process is reflected in every great spiritual tradition from the Buddhist "Enlightenment," to the Christian "New Birth." And we remember Jesus saying, "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and hinder them not, for to such belongeth the kingdom of God." (Mk.10:14)G Riggs
In my incorrigible way, I admit I let the extant variations in this saying tease me. In both my copies of the King James version, Mark reads as follows:
"Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God." (italics mine)
The result? I'm sincerely curious as to whether your apparent alterations of "forbid" to "hinder" and of "of such is" to "to such belongeth" were dictated by scholarship or stylistic considerations. I note that in the Jefferson Bible at chapter 11, verse 14, the Matthew reading (19:14) is used:
Suffer the little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for to such belongeth the kingdom of heaven.
Yet even here, though the word order is as in Matthew, and the word "forbid" is used here as in all three canonical appearances (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in the King James translation, the phrase "to such belongeth" is still being used. Is this Jefferson's choice or yours? Please, I would be interested in your reasoning if it is yours. Thanks.
And I remain curious as to the derivation of "hinder." Here is the equivalent passage as it appears in Matthew in the original King James:
"Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven."
In fact, "Of such is" is the phrase used consistently by the King James throughout all three Synoptics. On the other hand, the absence of "the" before "little children," though it is also absent in Luke, 18:16, is in contrast, as we see above, to its presence in the King James Mark. This distinction, in fact, is present in no modern, scholarly translation. All three Gospels apparently read identically in this respect in their originals. Thus, the variant "the" appears to be due to local variations in the King James translation and not to any variant in the originals.
Before the reader becomes totally confused, here, one after the other, are the three versions of the saying as they appear in the King James (I follow modern scholarly consensus regarding descending levels of authenticity in giving Mark first followed by Luke and winding up with Matthew; as we can see, the evolving pattern of variation appears to vindicate this hierarchy, since, putting the King James variant on "the" aside, the original Mark and Luke versions appear virtually identical):
"Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God." (Mk. 10:14)
"Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God." (Lk. 18:16)
"Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven." (Mt. 19:14)
Clearly, Matthew has not only changed word order in the first half, it has substituted "heaven" for "God" at the conclusion. I leave it up to other scholars to ponder the larger implications of all this, but I remain curious as to Jefferson's (and Eyler's?) scholarly choices in this regard. Thanks.
Let me say up front that Jefferson made no changes in the words of the King James Version text (though he, of course, omitted many of them), except for one rather curious instance. When Jefferson used Luke 14:5 (9:5 in the Jefferson Bible), he changed the phrase "And answered them, saying," to "And he saith unto them." Coincidentally enough, this is a change also dictated by the modern versions!
Although this discussion might seem to some like arguing over how many angels can split hairs on the head of a pin, it is actually a very interesting point, and provides an excellent illustration of the guiding principles behind the revision and correction of the King James text. The first principle was this: The KJV would be left untouched unless modern versions indicated that it was in error. All corrections that were made were done so as to retain as much as possible the original literary style of the KJV.
Eliminating the easiest phrase first, "of such is" was replaced by "to such belongeth" because the three principle modern translations used as reference--the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, and the Revised Standard Version--all translate this phrase as "the kingdom of God belongs to such as these," or some similar wording. The modern versions, in other words, relay the thought of possession. It may be that the phrase, "of such is the kingdom of heaven," indicated possession to the early 17th century reader; indeed, "of" has the meaning of possession to the modern reader in some word structures, as in "house of Riggs." But to the modern reader, the phrase "of such is the kingdom of heaven" means "the kingdom of heaven consists of such." Since the principle translations indicate this is not correct, the change was made, retaining as much as possible the KJV style.
Similarly, "hinder" is used by all three modern versions rather than "forbid." A problem arises with Matthew 19:14, however, because the word order is different from Mark and Luke. If "hinder" were used here, you would have the stylistically unacceptable phrase "hinder them not, to come unto me." True, this could have been rephrased to read "hinder them not from coming unto me," which is slightly less unacceptable. But when one considers that the difference between "hinder" and "forbid" in this context is small and hardly of the magnitude of the difference between "of such is" and "to such belongeth," and since the correction of this slight difference would have necessitated a major stylistic revision, the balance swung in the other direction, and "forbid" was retained. One could quibble endlessly about this and its lack of uniformity with the same passage in the other two gospels (while noting that the word order in Matthew is itself not uniform), but a decision had to be made, and that is the way it fell. Although Biblical purists may refuse to face the fact, the truth is, all translations of the Bible and of every other book consist of a multitude of similar compromises.
If altruism does stem after all from innate human urges, and I emphatically side with Jefferson on this one, that begs the uncomfortable question how come feelings of intolerance and violence spring up amongst society's members in the first place, whether with regard to miscegenation or to the proper way of opening one's morning egg (courtesy Jonathan Swift)?Eyler Coates
My arguments above seem to take the question in a different direction. I guess I am suggesting that neither trained responses nor innate responses are entirely good or bad. Our innate moral sense probably suffices for ordinary matters of justice and fairness, but those innate senses can also lead us in other directions with respect to certain explosive instinctual issues. At the same time, our education and training may help us to overcome certain of our "baser instincts," but may tie us up in knots with pseudo-intellectual theories on some matters of simple human justice.
As an example of the first proposition, a jury of even ignorant persons might have no problem determining issues of common justice in a murder trial for one of their peers, but may be led by instinctual prejudices if the defendant is of another race. In the second proposition, a highly intelligent individual may have no problem whatsoever in dealing justly and fairly with friends and family members (and thus being mostly controlled by their instincts), but when faced with decisions on something like government programs affecting persons not of their immediate group, may have their entire thinking process perverted by pseudo-philosophies like Marxism, Objectivism, or other similar ideologies.GRiggs
This is the hardest question of all, and one on which I invite everyone to share their thoughts.
I offer a very humble, admittedly half-baked "Thoughts in progress."
1. Certainly, it is the case that, along with innate altruistic urges, one can also fall prey to short-sighted, self-centered urges that neglect the common good.
2. Such a one, through accident or misfortune, might not be perceived as being flawed at one time and so be placed in a position of undue influence over one's peers.
3. Perceiving that one's power, in the short term, might be dependent upon inculcating a "fortress," "tribal" mentality amongst one's peers, one proceeds to demonize certain "other" ways, "other" habits, "other" persons in an effort to make one's peers all that much more dependent on one's own personal whims and fancies.
4. An intrinsically decent, but poorly informed citizenry get spooked by such representations regarding the "Other" and fall into certain habits conducive to the One's peculiar satisfaction and greed for insular power but ruinous to the intrinsic decency of the citizenry themselves.
5. These sadly "fortress," "tribal" habits of thinking and doing may outlast the lifetime and the immediate influence of the Greedy Insular One (whom for convenience I'll just term the GIO) by many generations, sometimes many centuries. They may be insuperably difficult to overcome.
6. With enough enlightenment, clarity of articulation, and capacity to relate with others on their own terms, a figure may come along centuries later who can dislodge the sickening influences of the GIO in a humane, simple way, causing future generations to wonder why such an intrinsically decent citizenry was ever induced to fall into such ultimately self-destructive habits in the first place and maintain them for such a drearily long time.
Of course, it is with regard to Item 6 that we return to the chief concern of this thread: what exactly has made such enlightened individuals throughout the ages tick, what precious human faculties can they tell us about and teach us about, and wherein lay the secret of their apparent success in communicating with individuals who were altogether deadened by centuries of unthinking habit.
Perhaps, an understanding on our part of the manner in which the GIO can subvert everyone's humanity will help us to understand the dynamics of an enlightened altruist's triumphantly successful communications to the GIO's longtime victims.
By the way, when I re-read these steps by which society may be drawn into a vortex of repetitive intolerance, I was reminded here of what I had just read in the section, "A Nation's Abandonment of Morality," on E.C.'s Thomas Jefferson website, the chapter on Moral Degeneracy:
"...I have always found that rogues would be uppermost, and I do not know that the proportion [of fourteen out of fifteen] is too strong for the higher orders and for those who, rising above the swinish multitude, always contrive to nestle themselves into the places of power and profit. These rogues set out with stealing the people's good opinion and then steal from them the right of withdrawing it by contriving laws and associations against the power of the people themselves." --Thomas Jefferson to Mann Page, 1795.Eyler Coates
Without doubt, the intolerant can reinforce intolerance on the instinctual level, or can teach their twisted theories to highly intelligent people on the intellectual level. All of which makes us uncertain who or what to trust. It also suggests the wisest course is to examine everything carefully and not put our confidence or trust in the thoughts or theories of any man (or woman).
Table of contents for "The Jefferson Bible"