Life Driven Purpose, pg 66

“Daniel Dennett, in Freedom Evolves, writes that it makes no difference whether our moral impulses are evolved or learned. “[T]he theory that explains morality … should be neutral with regard to whether our moral attitudes, habits, preferences, and proclivities are a product of genes or cultures.” I think this is true because culture itself is ultimately a product of evolution. Whether you think “instinct” is purely biological or a learned habit, or a combination of the two, it comes down to the same goal: the minimization of harm to biological organisms.”

–Dan Barker, Life Driven Purpose, pg 66

20 COMMENTS

  1. @OP – “Daniel Dennett, in Freedom Evolves, writes that it makes no difference whether our moral impulses are evolved or learned.

    It really does make a difference to the design of education programmes, when considering what can be learned and what can’t!

    Whether you think “instinct” is purely biological or a learned habit, or a combination of the two, it comes down to the same goal: the minimization of harm to biological organisms.”

    I’m not sure of the context of this, but there seems to be a lack of definition of “harm”, and of “biological organisms”.

    The operation of food-chains in nature, is an arms race between predator and prey, with “harm” to the losers in the race.

    Modern medicines in protecting humans (or domestic animals) from infections, causes serious “harm” to bacteria, while agriculture and urban development, does both necessary (to humans) “harm” to displaced wild ecosystems, and wider unintentional harm, by ignorance, thoughtlessness, greed, and carelessness!

  2. Whether you think “instinct” is purely biological or a learned habit,
    or a combination of the two, it comes down to the same goal: the
    minimization of harm to biological organisms.

    One just have to consider that some patterns of culture are harmful for individuals, for instance:

    http://epicureandculture.com/thailand-long-neck-women/

    and many more examples, just name it…

    Or, in antropological terms, we are more a product of culture than producers, so the culture of a group can shape individual minds so that cultural change does not occur at the speed of ligtht (well, concerning technology, yes it does), and there are mechanisms that keep tradition and avoid cultural change.

  3. By defintion culture stands for what is not inherited, but learnt through cultural transmition by mechanisms of socialization, so the sentence formulated

    “instinct” is purely biological or a learned habit

    Instinct is in a sense the opposite: what is innate (not learnt), no need to teach a baby suckling.

    I am capable of saying nonsense easily too.

  4. Just let me add that, at the same time, the paragraph seems very wise to me, How wise is this?

    I think this is true because culture itself is ultimately a product of
    evolution.

    Any way, really liked the paragraph.

  5. I think this is a case of someone banging the drum they own. Mr. Dennett’s is evolution. Whatever the source of morals, our moral culture can be improved through teaching and dialogue and the law. I tend to think that both culture and evolution have contributed to our morality (whatever that is, no one seems to be able to define it; I keep asking Christians what Christian morality is and none of them can answer).

  6. I don’t understand what mr. Dennett means by this

    it makes no difference whether our moral impulses are evolved or
    learned

    There was time when I read a lot on this site that human morality evolved. But now I am discovering that it isn’t so. Actualy, that nobody knows for sure. It is natural to me, that it is learned,… it is a set of learned behaviors like all human behavior. Our cubs are taught about behavior from parents primarly, than schools… . So if some cub lives in deranged family that thinks it is good behavior to steal, lie, bully, rape, or hate arabs, muslims, japanese, catholics, blacks, women, etc., than this is a morality for them. If schools teach them that there is a god and that it is all right to lie, steal, bully, rape, kill … in the name of their god, than that is their morality. So it must be learned, and it DOES make a difference who is teaching “puppies” how to behave, and what are they teaching them. Because if morality evolved with homo sapiens, than wouldn’t be the same in all humans? I do not understand what he thinks by “evolved”. If he thinks that it evolved in accordance with society than it is learned, isn’t it?

  7. And than this:

    Whether you think “instinct” is purely biological or a learned habit,
    or a combination of the two, it comes down to the same goal: the
    minimization of harm to biological organisms.

    I have read and heard from many documentaries (about humans) how we have no instincts any more just some reflexes. Enough time have passed so instincts could be overriden by frontal cortex. If we, as part of animals, have this instinct not to kill our own species (like other animals do) wouldn’t we stop at killings of each other? We have consciousness and with this “apparatus” we could overrid that instinct. And learn some ugly behaviors. 😉 So, this have no sense for me:

    it comes down to the same goal: the minimization of harm to biological organisms.

  8. it makes no difference whether our moral impulses are evolved or
    learned

    Actually I think it does. Not arguing too deep about it I know someone that I think is really cruel, however capable of being gentle afterwards, what made someone argue “even the Devil is gentle sometimes”, I guess we all know the difference between being gentle by nature and being almost forced (in this case by religion which makes me wonder what if this person was not religious, would it be a kind of a “monster”?). Not too much development on the subject, but as common good sense people I think we can figure out there must be a difference, otherwise “the Devil can be gentle sometimes” would fit so well. This is just common sense.

  9. It makes no difference whether our moral impulses are evolved or
    learned.

    That’s very true, because our moral “impulses” are neither – neither learned nor evolved, neither genetic nor a product of culture. (Not sure I’d characterize them as impulses either.)

    I offer no elaboration at this time, as I have already written ad nauseam about this. Just something to think about. (What could he be saying? Is he nuts?)

  10. Okay, let the autodidact (and massively ignorant) Dan elaborate just a bit. This is highly speculative (a euphemism, perhaps); but here’s another way of viewing this:

    “[T]he theory that explains morality … should be neutral with regard to whether our moral attitudes, habits, preferences, and proclivities are a product of genes or cultures.” — Dennett

    I think what the scientific community as a whole says about “genes” explaining our personality in a moral sense is similar to the neuroscientist’s claim that all causes pertaining to our personality traits can be explained by looking at what’s happening in the brain. It can’t, can it?

    No one is doubting that neuroscience can be and is highly instructive or that genetically inherited traits are real; but I am inclined to think that our genetically inherited moral disposition is the product of the actions of our forebearers; actions have created our genetic makeup (the predisposition to be virtuous or to engage in wickedness) and not the other way around. How can genes be a (moral) first cause? Actions are the first cause, guided either by motives or impulses. (Not the same thing.)

    Our ancestors made decisions: kill or don’t kill. Killing was more prevalent; at a certain point another choice presented itself, and that decision left its mark in the form of a (moral) gene (?). (Sounds weird because it is.)

    Killing was an impulse. The emergence of restraint, an extraordinary thing, appeared as the resistance of temptation to act upon that impulse, and was brought into existence by the motive of compassion, not genes. That created or reflected (?) moral character, and was passed on genetically and eventually influenced and shaped culture(s).

    The origin of moral feeling is still shrouded in mystery, and may always remain a mystery. I know all about care for the offspring; I hear about that all the time. That may explain something, but not everything.

  11. was passed on genetically….genetically inherited moral disposition – Me

    Damn it; I screwed up, misrepresented myself. The moral character is inherited, but there is no moral gene, in my opinion. And culture cannot possibly explain true sympathy. That was my contention. Sorry. I messed up that comment. It happens.

  12. Dan

    I think what the scientific community as a whole says about “genes” explaining our personality in a moral sense is similar to the neuroscientist’s claim that all causes pertaining to our personality traits can be explained by looking at what’s happening in the brain. It can’t, can it?

    Our cognitions, our consciousness, are both embodied and situated. Its a weird neuro-scientist, these days that doesn’t accept that. The idea that genes configure brains, define the person and character (as you have it with a priori knowledge) is both depressing and reductive. The truth appears to be that we a far more porous entities at our fundament. Genes are sequenced building instructions, still functional within us, not a terminal plan.

    The following is the link to the story of a neuro-scientist losing sight of this and committing suicide because it seemed to him the motor for altruism, genetically, seemed inadequate. The comment following on is mine and is the meat of my comment here.

    https://disqus.com/home/discussion/crossexamined/the_argument_from_results_a_new_atheist_argument/#comment-3232843160

    My concern is that you write

    The origin of moral feeling is still shrouded in mystery, and may always remain a mystery.

    Which is utterly wrong in my view. Many of the parts are known and now being put together. Besides, once we start down the road of mammal mutuality for whatever reason the simple net benefit of co-operation creating secure food-supplies so we survive otherwise terminal catastrophies, and, aided by a capacity to make inferences about the future, we get the cherry on top.

    (comment on illusion thread half written to be posted later)

  13. Dan #10 : What could he be saying? Is he nuts?

    hahaha… exactly my first reaction when I read those passages by Dennett. 😉
    He confused me with this “moral impulses” being learned or genetically inherited (evolved). Than I came to a conclusion that he doesn’t know exactly how we came in possessions of this moral impulses, but for him and for his philosophical statement it is not important. That statment being ” it comes down to the same goal: the minimization of harm to biological organisms”. So, finaly, after questioning myself in my head, if he has gone mad, hahaha… I came up with a explanation that he sees morality as a consequence of our conduct to minimize harm to biological organisms.

    [T]he theory that explains morality … should be neutral (says Dennett)

    I thought it is already so. But only in my head perhaps haha.

    …with regard to whether our moral attitudes, habits, preferences,
    and proclivities are a product of genes or cultures.

    …but with this part of the sentence it looks like he is contradictory to that first part when he says it should be neutral. That is why I thought if he has gone mad. hahaha… 🙂

    Interesting thoughts, Dan. When I was questioning myself about “moral impulses” and if they are inherited or culturally evolved, I came up with conclusions that I do not think it is genetical and that we are not born good or evil (or with predisposition). We can be both… we can become both by education (by learning some behaviors). And I do not see this inheritance of moral character also. But it is an interesting subject.

    Our ancestors made decisions:…

    Somehow I think that our awareness of those decisions has something to do with if “moral gene” can be created in the first place. Decisions about hurting or stoping ourselves of hurting others… there are several different reasons in milions different heads, and that is why I am inclined to think that can not be formed something specific in our body that deals with it. I think that as long as there is ability to make all sorts of decisions one can not make this thing called moral gene or moral character, or similar. Because at the same time one has ability to make contra decision from the same source (called decision centre for example). But if those first decisions (actions) are not from the same source…from where those other decisions (re-actions) came from (asking myself). It is an interesting subject, I agree. But I am inclined towards behaviorism. And a conduct that we have learned give shape to a society, and culture. (and now I have a feeling I couldn’t crystalize my thoughts properly, hahaha)

  14. Phil

    Think you posted this Ted Talks on placticity before and after I watched Rory Bremner on ADHD last night, I think I finally got it and where ‘morality’ lies in the brain. At least part of it as morality is dependent on many parts and many genes. As described last night, ADHD has thousands of responsible genes of which only about thirty have been found. I found the part about the frontal cortex being the filter for our judgement and how plasticity forms those judgements in the first place. Morality is learned but the learning is complicated and the final decision is still reliant on the filters. You can learn something is wrong but if the right filter is not there then mot doing it becomes hard. It shows that not even the all consuming fear of your own ‘god’ can completely stop you from doing wrong and this changes daily because of placticity. So Dan, there is no one gene for morality but thousands if not hundreds of thousands. Early learning of; don’t do that, wash your hands etc, stays with us but ADHD can distract us.

    The genetically modified fruit flies that we’re distracted by a light moving right to left and always turned left as supposed to the unmodified being more even in their choice of tunnel to take.

    My brain is not the same after watching that last night.

    https://youtu.be/LNHBMFCzznE

  15. Can’t help but feel angry for getting dragged in the ancient philosophical arguments, as an intellectual necessity, when practice teaching could have gotten me there much quicker.

  16. I’ve just noticed that my essential point in this comment, that follows on from the account of NuszAbides,

    https://disqus.com/home/discussion/crossexamined/the_argument_from_results_a_new_atheist_argument/#comment-3233024234

    does not automatically appear. Sorry. for not noticing.

    THIS (here linked) is the comment that should have formed formed the meat of my earlier post in #13. (Didn’t want to cut and paste. The traffic is earned by the channel it appeared in.)

  17. Incidentally Dennett’s parsimony in not identifying moral processes is entirely reasonable as a philosopher trying to find what are the essential elements of a philosophy of morality.

    He has more than a few ideas about moral processes, but he need give no hostages to fortune in making his simple proposition. Indeed, his point is this lack of specifics.

    Post before this has gone awol for a while….

  18. I see my hastily written comment has generated a few comments. You can disregard much of what I had written above (which I don’t suppose is asking much); I wrote that and then instantly regretted it; it says far too much and too little. But feel free to take what you can – assuming there is anything that warrants even a moment’s thought. Thanks. DR

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