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Thread: Moral Principles Learned via Social Osmosis

  1. #1 Moral Principles Learned via Social Osmosis 
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    Moral Principles Learned via Social Osmosis

    I came across this statement “for everything human beings do by intelligence rather than instinct, any course of conduct they choose when they might have chosen differently, is a moral action” in “The Metaphysical Club” by Louis Menand and it stopped me in my tracks. I had to study this statement and make a decision about its validity.

    I consider the words ‘moral’ and ‘ethical’ to be interchangeable.

    We all have the ability to do harm or to do good to other people; and we all are fully aware of that capacity. How can we know this? We can know this because we are capable of imaginatively placing our self into the boots of the other person?

    Young children know this, as is evident by there shouts of condemnation:
    “That’s not fair!”—“She won’t share!”—“He hit me and I didn’t do anything to him!”—“He promised!”—“Cheater, Cheater!”—“Liar, Liar!”—“It’s my turn!”

    I suspect most of us, adults and children; learn these ‘ethical principles’ through social osmosis (without conscious effort). We ‘know’ these principles of ethical behavior but often fail to practice them because there are always so many other forces pulling us in another direction.

    The forces pulling us into unethical behavior are many; for example, ego and social centric forces, self-delusion, selfishness, and especially because of our ignorance and the complexity of the problems we face.

    Webster defines educate as—to develop mentally, morally, or aesthetically [beauty] especially by instruction. Webster defines indoctrinate as—to imbue [infuse] with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle.

    I think that it is imperative for each adult to become conscious (aware plus attention) of the difference between these two terms--‘educate’ and ‘indoctrinate’--and also to recognize just how much of our attitude toward matters of ethics results from our education or from our indoctrination.

    I agree with the statement in the first paragraph, do you? I find it I to be staggering to realize this to be a fact, do you?


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    hmm i often wonder what would happen if we were taught the opposite of our morals.

    example

    we are taught stealing is right

    and if we all practiced this, by social osmosis we would pick it up., would we still think it morally right? or would there be something in the subconscious telling us that what we are doing is wrong


    everything is mathematical.
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  4. #3  
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    Quote Originally Posted by organic god
    hmm i often wonder what would happen if we were taught the opposite of our morals.

    example

    we are taught stealing is right

    and if we all practiced this, by social osmosis we would pick it up., would we still think it morally right? or would there be something in the subconscious telling us that what we are doing is wrong
    We are so determined by the approval of others that our culture certainly determines much of what we are.
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    Quote Originally Posted by organic god
    hmm i often wonder what would happen if we were taught the opposite of our morals.

    example

    we are taught stealing is right

    and if we all practiced this, by social osmosis we would pick it up., would we still think it morally right? or would there be something in the subconscious telling us that what we are doing is wrong
    No, I don't think there is any subconscious moral compass, other than what we learn, There's plenty of examples of what you describe. The Thugee cult in India, the Italian Mafia, the Nazis, etc.
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  6. #5  
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    Perhaps we have inclinations towards helping others and inclinations towards harming others, and perhaps these motivations map to different parts of the brain.
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    Yes, and these inclinations or predispositions are innate. The brain is an evolved organ adapted to a stone age environment, and most of our decision making probably occurs subconsciously before we consciously announce or act on the decision.

    Perhaps our present environments interact with the innate inclinations to produce the variety of results that seem to suggest complete freedom of choice, but in fact reflect little if any free will.
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    Quote Originally Posted by organic god
    hmm i often wonder what would happen if we were taught the opposite of our morals.

    example

    we are taught stealing is right

    and if we all practiced this, by social osmosis we would pick it up., would we still think it morally right?
    I guess we would soon notice that it's not good when things are stolen from us. Such morally perverted cultures as the Nazis or Thugees can only exist for any length of time by classifying people into "us" and "them", and deciding that "we" rob or kill "them", but not each other.
    Leszek. Pronounced [LEH-sheck]. The wondering Slav.
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    Quote Originally Posted by coberst
    We all have the ability to do harm or to do good to other people
    True. Or at least, I agree with your statement.

    Quote Originally Posted by coberst
    ...and we all are fully aware of that capacity. How can we know this? We can know this because we are capable of imaginatively placing our self into the boots of the other person?
    I disagree with this on three levels.

    First. We are able to place ourselves in the other person's boots only to a limited degree. I can imagine what it might be like to be blind, and can even put pads over my eyes to simulate it. But I will always know that should I get into difficulties I can take the pads off, so my imagination will never be exactly like being blind. Being able to place ourselves in the other person's boots to this limited degree does not, in and of itself, give us awareness of their capacity to do harm or to do good. Having empathy for your situation does not permit me to know whether you are going to use that fire extinguisher or simply let the house burn down.

    Second. It seems to me that it is not reasonable to suppose that everyone else knows everything you know. Just because you are aware of your capacity to do harm or to do good, does not show that everyone else has the same capacity. (Note: I am not saying they do not have that capacity, I am saying you have not shown they have that capacity).

    Third. You give examples of children displaying familiarity with unfairness and their shouts of condemnation. There is no logical connection between these shouts and your claim that they show awareness of universal capacity to do good or to do harm. Merely by identifying that you have lied to me I have not demonstrated awareness of any universal ability, particularly since most children would claim that whilst others might do these things, they themselves do not.

    Quote Originally Posted by coberst
    I suspect most of us, adults and children; learn these ‘ethical principles’ through social osmosis (without conscious effort).
    Whilst I suspect that if this were true, there would be no need for punishment systems designed to encourage conscious effort to amend our harmful behaviours. That such systems are both widespread and long lasting would seem contra-indicative of your claim.

    Quote Originally Posted by coberst
    I agree with the statement in the first paragraph, do you?
    No. Intelligence tells us that there is only one way to assemble a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has to be up the right way, oriented correctly and in the correct position. Do that with all the pieces and you end up with a pictue. Do not-that and you end up with a non-picture. Since I would argue that assembling a jigsaw puzzle so that it does not represent the picture on the box is not immoral, the statement in the opening paragraph is not true.

    I make shirts. This procedure requires me to do a lot of things by intelligence. I assemble the various parts of the shirt in a certain sequence, and match them to each other in certain highly specific ways. Doing this correctly results in a shirt. Doing anything incorrectly results in a non-shirt. Since I would argue that making a non-shirt is not immoral, none of my choices are moral actions. Therefore the statement in the opening paragraph is not true.
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    numbers

    In another thread on this forum I suggest the need for a science of morality. I think that if we had such a science we would all have a better understanding of these matters.
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    Quote Originally Posted by coberst
    In another thread on this forum I suggest the need for a science of morality. I think that if we had such a science we would all have a better understanding of these matters.
    In other words, you have no cogent response to my post, you are not motivated to defend the position adopted in your opening post and therefore you change the subject and hope no one will notice.
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  12. #11 Re: Moral Principles Learned via Social Osmosis 
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    Quote Originally Posted by coberst
    We all have the ability to do harm or to do good to other people; and we all are fully aware of that capacity. How can we know this? We can know this because we are capable of imaginatively placing our self into the boots of the other person?
    This is way too simplistic. What if there are more than one person involved? Is it moral to raise taxes, knowing that it will make the taxee unhappy? Or do your sympathies lie with the beneficiaries of the government largess? You can't answer that question by simple application of the "golden rule."
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  13. #12 Re: Moral Principles Learned via Social Osmosis 
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    Quote Originally Posted by coberst
    “...any course of conduct... is a moral action”

    I agree with the statement in the first paragraph, do you? I find it I to be staggering to realize this to be a fact, do you?
    I was raised amid a circle of left wing activists, and it was formulated "every decision is political". E.g. if it's the feminist talking, she means that how a girl does her hair, whether she uses contraceptives, has a baby, etc. are all political. Because each has some effect or new set of consequences, at the very least to the political movement itself (imagine 1970's context, but still true IMO). You could say economic or moral, but ultimately these resolve in politics. For example Sarah Palin's wardrobe does not include hijab, and that's political. It does not include furs or Nikes either, and that's political. You can see a subtle political effect in any action, if you've been "politicized", as it was called. Ironically that looks a lot more like indoctrination than education. I take it for just another lens, useful at times, but there are other views.

    You can't take a step without crushing some poor microscopic worm, and you can't buy an onion without oppressing some third world farmer. So sure every action is moral but what can we do? We aren't omniscient, and can't weigh evertything. Necessity trumps morality, ethics, politics. What we do is sacrifice one for another, in different arrangements, what we think most expedient towards the greater good.

    You could "max out" morality but then you'd fail some other fronts no doubt.



    I believe that philosophy as adults consciously engage, is trying to articulate what was already established by instinct and childlike matter-of-fact reasoning. You tell a toddler that the broken toy is made of parts, and those are made of parts, and so on; he says, "Oh", the little cogs of his mind turn over once or twice, and it's like, done. Years later he may root it out and feel he's having these fresh ideas.

    As for moral osmosis, we do have sympathy hardwired, that basically copies and pastes behavior we observe into our own brains, like it or not. So for example if this mechanism pastes the action of a cop chokeholding a crook, you're going to come to moral terms with that, and, if it pastes the behaviour of struggling under the chokehold you'll come to moral terms with that too. A big part of the game is looking only where you want to see.



    @numbers. Your shirts. Surely assembling a non-shirt would be an economic action, for you? Then do you see how economy dovetails with politics and morality? What if all the workers in a clothing sweatshop decided to make non-shirts?
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    Surely assembling a non-shirt would be an economic action, for you?
    Yes. Economic, not moral.

    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    Then do you see how economy dovetails with politics and morality?
    I agree that some moral choices are economic in nature. I agree that some moral choices are political in nature. I'm not sure that these two facts imply the claim you make, but that isn't a position I would go to the wall for.

    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    What if all the workers in a clothing sweatshop decided to make non-shirts?
    I considered this before making my original post to coberst. I concluded that since morality is relative, you and I are free to make different choices about whether this act is immoral or not. You might argue that since it potentially has negative consequences for the worker's otherwise innocent family it is immoral. I would argue that it was itself the consequence of the employment practices at her workplace and it is the sweatshop owner who is guilty of immorality. A third person might argue that two wrongs don't make a right and it was her act in accepting the job in the first place that was immoral.

    Either way, I would argue that simply sewing two pieces of cloth together could not be considered immoral, but then again, drawing a cartoon of the prophet is apparently a crime worthy of punishment by death so there is obviously no concensus on this. Feel free to disagree.
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  15. #14  
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    Quote Originally Posted by numbers
    Feel free to disagree.
    I agree that if your overt action is "just making shirts", then that's basically what you're doing. But that doesn't rule out doing more besides, on other levels.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    But that doesn't rule out doing more besides, on other levels.
    No, it doesn't.

    But neither does it rule out doing less, either. By this measure, everyone who has ever chosen not to try to make a shirt has, according to coberst's original claim, made a moral action. Since this is so self-evidently ridiculous I didn't think it a route worth taking.
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  17. #16  
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    Inaction can be moral too. Is that really ridiculous?

    Suppose right now you could be saving a life. Well, you have the power and you know you could pursue a nobler cause than making shirts. But you don't. You make a shirt, instead.

    That is not to pick on anybody. We're all petty and negligent. I think that is ridiculous, but it's just the way we are.
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  18. #17  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    Inaction can be moral too. Is that really ridiculous?
    No, it isn't ridiculous in a general sense. I was referring specifically to not-shirtmaking. It strikes me as ridiculous that we need to discuss whether not-shirtmaking is a moral action. Not-lifesaving is a moral action, not-spider-squashing is a moral action, not-stealing my neighbour's roses is a moral action. But not-shirtmaking?

    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    ...you know you could pursue a nobler cause than making shirts. But you don't. You make a shirt, instead.
    You have (inadvertently/cleverly) turned what I said inside out. Now you are suggesting that not-alternative to make a shirt is a moral action, whereas I said that not-shirtmaking without mentioning any alternative was not a moral action. I deal with this inversion at the end.

    I admit that if I decided not to make the shirt for some specific reason, lifesaving or bank robbery perhaps, then not-shirtmaking can become a moral choice, depending on what else I choose to do. But of itself, not-shirtmaking is not a moral act. Suppose I chose not to make a shirt to do a jigsaw instead, how moral is that?

    Not-shirtmaking would only become a moral choice (for me, not the girl in the sweatshop) if the alternative had some moral component. Then that alternative would be the moral act.

    We do also need to remember that in accord with the original quote from Menand, our choice has to be made with intelligence, not just on a whim or by instinct. So whilst diving into that swirling river to save the beautiful young maiden in distress might be very noble, extremely brave and highly moral, it does also have to be the intelligent choice before it can qualify.

    This would also apply to your inversion (above), so to qualify under Menand making the shirt has to be the intelligent choice over the noble act. Tricky, but not impossible. If the noble act were dangerous it might be intelligent to decline, but you would still need to show that it wasn't just your survival instinct, because that moves Menand's goalposts.

    On balance, I think Menand has lost his marbles, coberst didn't really think about what he said before he posted, neither shirtmaking nor not-shirtmaking are moral acts and I'm afraid I have completely lost track of what your point really is, even though I get a distinct feeling you are simply playing devil's advocate.
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  19. #18  
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    Quote Originally Posted by numbers
    I have completely lost track of what your point really is, even though I get a distinct feeling you are simply playing devil's advocate.
    Same here, same here.

    Quote Originally Posted by numbers
    in accord with the original quote from Menand, our choice has to be made with intelligence, not just on a whim or by instinct.
    I guess we both see that as a weird condition. It seems designed for weaseling doesn't it?

    Quote Originally Posted by numbers
    I admit that if I decided not to make the shirt for some specific reason, lifesaving or bank robbery perhaps, then not-shirtmaking can become a moral choice, depending on what else I choose to do. But of itself, not-shirtmaking is not a moral act.
    That depends on subjectivity doesn't it? Or, what lens do we see the action through? If you're in a perfect bubble unto yourself then nothing you do is moral. But if you are, for example, a "US citizen" then everything you do - objectively, and especially to foreigners - is not only moral but economic and political. Now, people get caught in the switch all the time. For example many young men go to war for reasons easily traced to trailer park economics. Taken subjectively enough, their individual decisions - like risking arrest by smoking a joint in the school parking lot - seem far removed from stringing barbed wire through some tropical village. In hindsight, we would rather claim a grander vision, provided we like our place in it. On the other hand, if we don't like our place in it, we'll weasel we were victims of circumstance.

    Anyway, society demands we accept the greater moral implications of our actions. I can't argue with that, but as for the boundless nature of society's request, I might remain tactfully silent. :wink:
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    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    If you're in a perfect bubble unto yourself then nothing you do is moral.
    That is, incidentally, precisely why I chose shirtmaking as my example in the first place; I am in a bubble. I make shirts only for my own enjoyment, because I get a huge thrill out of wearing home made shirts to work and having my colleagues not be able to tell the difference.

    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    ...everything you do - objectively, and especially to foreigners - is not only moral but economic and political.
    I agree that actions to or with others can be moral. Also, since morality is relative, we could be doing something I see as being benign but which they view as having hugely important moral implications. This is an enormously frustrating but hugely fascinating aspect of human interaction. It requires our lens (to use your term) to have filters that present the world in an approximation of the other person's point of view, and for us to have different lenses and filters for different groups of our acquaintances. A large part of what we do when choosing friends is reducing the number of lenses and filters we are required to have in order to make life simpler. At least some people do it that way; there are people who prefer to have drama in their life.

    I am, however, not really in step with you on this marriage of morality to economics and politics. It would have to depend, I suppose, on how you define economics and politics; these words don't really figure in my everyday conversation so I don't have grab-bag definitions ready to hand, politics is what politicians do. Earlier, however, you made the point that for some people the clothes you wear can be a politically motivated decision, and for many people the newspaper they read certainly is. So I do understand how for some people politics is much more than being what politicians do: do I eat organic bread, or drive an alternative fuel vehicle, or recycle my trash, and so on. I don't do any of those things but neither do I view my choices as being political in nature. Maybe this is just another lens option; you can view my actions as being political even though I do not.

    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    For example many young men go to war for reasons easily traced to trailer park economics.
    Is this the same as bar-room economics?
    I'm not sure I understand your point in the rest of this paragraph. I don't see how you leap from going to war to risking arrest by smoking a joint and from there to stringing barbed wire. Whatever point you're trying to make it made a loud whooshing noise as it went right over my head.

    For the sake of having a conversation I'm going to guess: We sometimes do things that we might like to claim were motivated by some highly noble thing, but which in hindsight turn out to be motivated by something much less noble. If we get caught out in this (self) deception we often construct elaborate reasons for it. If that doesn't work, we will often claim it wasn't our fault.

    Yes, we do. It's human nature to make mistakes; show me a man who never made a mistake and I'll show you a man who never tried. It also appears to be fairly universal to try to cover up our mistakes. Most of us seem to agree that this is permissible (or at least forgiveable) if the depth of the deception equals (more or less) the seriousness of the mistake. But this also fits on a sliding scale where the disparity is permitted to be greater the more closely related you are to the person who made the mistake. This is why sometimes a wife will forgive her sister something she would find inexcusable in her husband, and why the standards we demand of those in public life are much stricter than those we impose on ourselves (even though a large number of us would like to pretend otherwise).

    Quote Originally Posted by Pong
    ...as for the boundless nature of society's request, I might remain tactfully silent.
    To me, this is what philosophy is about; the boundless nature of society's request. Philosophy is a constant re-examination of the request to see if it is just, or fair or rational. The reason why we, as philosophers, never agree is because you want the request to be just while I want it to be rational. Sometimes, but not often, it can be both. Either way, remaining silent, tactfully or otherwise, is not an option. You are subject to the request and every action you take is a response to it. Actions speak louder than words.
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  21. #20  
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    Quote Originally Posted by numbers
    In other words, you have no cogent response to my post, you are not motivated to defend the position adopted in your opening post and therefore you change the subject and hope no one will notice.
    Welcome to the self indulgent discussion technique of senor coberst. Coberst lacks the empathy you have referred to, feeling that internet forums exist merely as a place where he can expound his truly wondrous insights into the human condition. These thoughts are often simplistic, but sometimes do offer an interesting perspective. Just don't expect much of a discussion if you have the temerity to question the Master. :wink:
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  22. #21  
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    Coberst is a great discussion starter. I'm surprised he posts anything besides new threads.


    Well, Numbers, I have little of worth to add here. Honestly, you've thought through so much more than I, it's all agreeable and I'd be straining to outstretch you... and what's the point?

    About the kid going to war. That's a moral "switch" as in broadening the focus to improve the picture. We get that where people are individuals and members of a group. You can rate their actions in either context, sure to find virtue in one context but seldom both. Likewise you can (well, politicians often do) "switch" individuals into components of the state and back again into joe plumber or whatever. I can talk about "Canada" and this actually means me Canadian taxpayer or me "the public" or it could mean the bureaucrats in Ottawa only. I could have a job at a hospital or I could be a health care provider. The moral implications expand and contract.

    About the boundless nature of society's request, and tactful silence. I refer to the disparity between what we ought to do, in keeping with spoken moral consensus, and our lame reality. I'm not really complaining though. I think people are more shabby and complex than admitted - we all have our own crap keeping us from being supermen - and perhaps just keeping our crap together and out of other people's faces is a super feat in itself.
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