Friday, January 06, 2006

InG we T - Societal Morals

In Gods We Trust
Commitments 2.3 - Societal Morals

From page 112

Simple consent between individuals seldom, if ever, successfully sustains cooperation among large numbers of people over long periods of time. Displays of commitment to supernatural agents signal sincere willingness to cooperate with the community of believers. Supernatural agents thus also function as moral Big Brothers who keep constant vigil to dissuade would-be cheaters and free riders. To ensure moral authority survives without the need for brute force and the constant threat of rebellion, all concerned - whether master or slave - must truly believe that the gods are always watching even when no other person could possible be looking. Once these sacred relations become a society's moral constitution, as in our "One Nation Under God," they cannot be undone without risking collapse of the public order that secures personal welfare. This is one way that the conceptual ridge of our evolutionary landscape connects with the ridge of social interaction.

According to this chapter, supernatural entities function as big brothers because of our awareness and sensitivities concerning false belief. Abstract thinking gives us the ability to assign intention to seemingly non-random events. Thus supernatural beings arise as plausible explanations for some of the doors abstract thinking opens. Our heuristics for false belief detection, make us conscious about our actions, or at least the way they may be perceived. This combination explains why we believe God is always watching. It also explains why people may be so concerned about the consequences of eliminating the unifying effect of religion in our society.

We can only operate in large groups if we believe other people are generally acting on a set of accepting laws and behaviours. While exceptions will always occur, society is glued together because it is accepted that these individuals will be punished, eliminating the benefits that one could get as a rogue. Once people stop playing by these rules, society can't help but collapse. The evolutionary cognitive arms race has selected for people who have no trust with strangers. After all, strangers may or may not play by accepted rules.

Can an open society ever create a strong enough sense of nationalism or strong enough cannon of accepted social guidelines to replace an evolutionary programmed Big Brother?


chris g said...

I think this ties into my thoughts on the religion like tendencies of progressive left wing humanism. Removing the acceptance of the universality of religion means some other universal set of rules must take its place, well as long as society is not to break down in chaos. I think the emphasis on human rights indicates that some believe there is a large enough core base of universally accepted moral values to enable us to get rid of those that may be tied into superstitious beliefs.

chris g said...

I think this also ties into recent posts on dangerous ideas, well specifically the loss of the concept of the soul

Clark Goble said...

It's a good question - to what degree that social pressure or habit can overwhelm instinct. I tend to think (and I think Atran gets at this somewhat) that to the degree it does that instinct simply transforms social pressures.

Consider "officially" atheistic nations like the USSR. What happens is that the various religious instincts simply adopt elements of the new ideology.

chris g said...

Yes, it certainly seems like humans are hard wired in their tendency to accept common moral assumptions. While there certainly can be a fair amount of flexibility in the implementation of morals, I think the rules underlying them have to be pretty universal. if not, one would have a hard time determining how the actions of others are rational. Perhaps this is one of the reason many people find the social progressiveness of today so manipulative.

It is based on fundamental morals that are different from historical ones. They are presented as individual options that are not forced on anyone. However, the reality is, once society starts to shift, human tendency towards universally accepted group morals kicks in. It creates a strong dividing line between those that fully accept the newly rennovated Big Brother, and those that still want to be judged by the old one. In this sense social progressiveness is at least as divisive as any critique one could lay on George Bush. The difference seems to be in the level of overtness.

All in all the present shift is creating quite a unique religion out of liberal neo-humanism.

chris g said...

Sorry , I never quite got to your point Clark. I think instinct certainly transforms social change to make it fit with our religious hard wiring. Thus we will always have a moral Big Brother. The shift to a new equilibrium point may not always be pretty, but compromise positions certainly seem to be rather unstable.

Social pressure can never hope to create a utopia of independent individual morals. Any reasoniing that portends this is, to my mind, either completely naive or, after a blatantly hypocritical power grab from which we are to trust that they can overcome human nature to properly balance society in an unstable equilibrium.