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Whither Human Nature?

In a post entitled "The religious rejection of the moral being" Francois Tremblay of Goosing The Antithesis writes:

I talked to Sean of Black Sun Journal, and he has a somewhat different perspective on the issue. He talks to a lot of Buddhists and New Age people who claim that their moral ideology of cultivating compassion above all else is the best path for mankind. In fact, all religions make this kind of exclusive claim - that only one specific part of human nature is good, and that the rest must be subjected or rejected.

So Sean’s question was "who’s right ?". I would argue that this is a bad question, and that the real question is "why privilege one over another ?". It makes no sense to repress any part of human nature, and the tension that ensues is bad for the individual, and bad for society by extension.

My comment, re-posted here:

My question about "who’s right?" really had to do with sorting out evolutionary influences. Which parts of human nature should we be evolving away from? Which should we be emphasizing as we move toward the future?

Depending on your persuasion, you can use "human nature" to argue for the morality of any type of behavior.

If I like monogamy, I can argue that it’s "natural" for humans because that’s how most societies are organized. Conversely, if I like polyamory, I can point to Bonobos, who seem to get along just fine that way, and argue that humans should evolve toward multipartner bonding. I can also point to human societies where polyandry and polygyny have been effectively practiced.

If I like deception, I can say that our brains evolved for deception. If I don’t want to be lied to, I can argue that using the brain to deceive for advantage is immoral.

In terms of evolutionary utility, someone could mount an argument to justify murder, rape, even religion, based on the fact that they are all "human universals." And at some point, they conveyed advantage onto the perpetrators.

So I understand your various points about morality. But I think from an evolutionary standpoint, the question I raised still remains as relevant as ever: How do we make a moral argument for an evolutionary direction? What evidence can be brought to bear to support a particular trait being supported or discouraged?

This is especially important when discussing memetics, which is now the dominant force in evolution. Ideas about what are good and bad behaviors can actually change the level of acceptance of those behaviors.

This is not about a utilitarian standard of "goodness" or anything like that. It’s about advocating for individuals to advance to higher levels of personality development so they can get the most out of their lives. Which direction should they move?

The answer will be different for everyone. Sure we need to take all influences into consideration and hold the tension between them. Sure we need to be free to apply our rational mind to make individual decisions. But we are not really free to do this. We are all affected by social norms.

To challenge those norms, we need to be able to justify our position based on what is the "true" or "authentic" or "preferred" human nature. Not in a religious sense, but in a sense that supports the individual. And true human nature takes many conflicting forms.
I don’t have the solution, but I think it’s an important discussion to have.

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Comments (7 comments)

Aaron Kinney / March 2nd, 2006, 10:27 am / #1

Very interesting. I would say though that polyamory or polygyny, for example, are neither right nor wrong, anymore than vanilla or chocolate are right or wrong.

What I would argue, is that everyone should be free to express their own values, as long as your value expression doesnt repress the expression of another.

While your question is basically “Whos right?”, I think the better question is “whats right?”

This is because asking what as opposed to who, gives it more of an objective than subjective feel. What I mean is that one question asks which conscious opinion is correct, while the other question asks what is correct in accordance with reality.

Regarding those who think cultivating compassion above all else is the best path, I think I would disagree. I am a compassionate person and I am somewhat known as an over-optimistic peacemaker in the atheist internet world, but I still dont think that unlimited compassion being thrown around society constantly is the best answer, or is even moral. It makes me think of a group of “yes-men” that wouldnt have the ability or guts to call a spade a spade, and as a result end up letting their group destroy itself.

Oooooh, and I got the perfect answer for your question here:

This is not about a utilitarian standard of “goodness” or anything like that. It’s about advocating for individuals to advance to higher levels of personality development so they can get the most out of their lives. Which direction should they move?

Answer: They SHOULD move in whichever direction that will maximize their happiness and allow them to realize their full potential. The challenge for them is to recognize which direction that is, for sometimes people WANT to move in directions that will not maximize their happiness.

Aaron Kinney / March 2nd, 2006, 10:29 am / #2

Oh I guess html code doesnt work in your comments section? I tried to italicize the paragraph I quoted from you but it didnt work.

Francois Tremblay / March 2nd, 2006, 1:58 pm / #3

Bad news - Harry Browne is dead.

BlackSun / March 2nd, 2006, 2:46 pm / #4

Yes, Aaron. That’s exactly what I’m getting at. How do we come up with a framework that will help people objectively evaluate what is best for them to achieve their full potential? And by extension, how do we come to terms with intelligently supporting a direction for human evolution that works for society as a whole?

For example, when I say that tolerance is better than bigotry, how do I support this assertion? An individualist might say: if I want to judge, stereotype, and hate other groups, that’s my right as an individual. We could look at the evolutionary utility of these type of judgements in terms of how they supported tribalism, and say, well yes, that person is just expressing their human nature.

How do we justify our goal of strong individualism while still placing limits on harmful actions such as bigotry that might also be an expression of human nature?

This is the crux of my argument. Because any of us can make a case for any given behavior. Others will argue it differently. So when two of these points of view come into conflict, what’s the objective standard?

darkdaughta / March 3rd, 2006, 3:16 pm / #5

I utilize unearned or systemic power as a framework to make my decisions. Who has it? Why do they have it? How did they get it? Who is harmed by their possession of it? What sorts of visions and goals are blocked from being realized because they have it? Where do I sit in relation to those who have it? How comfortable or uncomfortable do I feel about my positioning. How difficult would it be for me to shift my relationship to my own positoning as it relates to their or my own systemic power?

This is a short list that makes the work of developing a critique seem simple, but along with my answers I tend to also keep track of what my gut, heart and spirit are telling me. I’ve never been steered wrong.

The issues you’ve raised are definintely about compassion, tolerance who gets to decide as these all hint at underlying power relations between the colonized and colonizer, oppressor and oppressed, dominator and the dominated.

Only those who have positioned themselves or who have been positioned hierarchically above other people can be in a position to tolerate or to look down and show compassion.

As I’ve deconstructed some of this in my own life and relationships, some hilarious dynamics have unfolded, like sexperts feeling bad for the virginal, or the fatty wimmin feeling sorry for the wimmin in bony bodies or the powerful working class looking with pity on those who have been raised with class privilege and therefore know very little about how to sustain themselves as they work or the queer wimmin finding imposed hetero sexuality to be a really stunted way to live a life.

I know that repositioning will sound an alarm for those who are accustomed to understanding their own ways as superior while the knowledge of this positioning goes unnoticed and undocumented. There will be cries about equality and no one being thought of as better than anyone else.

I will invite those who go into reaction to take their attestations and direct them at the matrix around us as a way to actually achieve true equality as opposed to simply achieving my silence.

A shift in pardigm would be a marvelous thing for someone like me.

BlackSun / March 6th, 2006, 10:30 pm / #6

darkdaughta–

“I utilize unearned or systemic power as a framework to make my decisions.”

One of the difficulties involved in discussing issues of power is that they are often inherent or inherited. Intelligence, skin color, social circumstance–are all accidents of birth. So those who have privilege ultimately had as little to say about their good fortune as those who are disadvantaged.

This often leads to the ironies you discuss: “sexperts feeling bad for the virginal, or the fatty wimmin feeling sorry for the wimmin in bony bodies or the powerful working class looking with pity on those who have been raised with class privilege …”

To me this proves that it’s not the existing power structures, or even our circumstances that make the difference. It seems to me that it’s the level of responsibility we take–not only for making ourselves better, but for treating others ethically, that makes all the difference.

We cannot remain complacent in our circumstances, nor silent about injustice.

But accepting that hierarchy exists and recognizing our place in it is an important part of maturity.

In the exercise of our power, we may find the need to question our own assumptions and concepts of what is ethical. Being true to our nature is what I consider to be of highest importance. And doing so also raises inevitable conflicts with that nature and how to treat others. Religion and traditional morality don’t have much of value to say here. This causes me to look for an alternative framework or value system that we need, to guide our memetic and cultural evolution.

darkdaughta / March 8th, 2006, 8:47 am / #7

“Intelligence, skin color, social circumstance–are all accidents of birth.”

“But accepting that hierarchy exists and recognizing our place in it is an important part of maturity.”

Sean,
Do you read political/social theory or feminism? Our accidents of birth coincide with various constructed systems of domination that oppress whole populatins of people. I don’t debate the accidents of birth but how these accidents are have been utilized to maintain unnatural hierarchies that have brought our planet to the brink of destruction time and time again.

Part of the way these unnatural systems are maintained is by people acquiesing and accepting them as normal and correct. This apathy complicates resistance as often it can be the very people effected by oppression who participate in the oppression that keeps them in their place. Sad.

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