Saturday, May 8, 2010

Thinking about Moral Development

A recent study of morality in infants found that for toddlers even something as trivial as T-shirt colors can be a moral issue. The within-group preferences are the basis of morality as in "Our T-shirt colors are good, yours are bad. This observation is an early indication that social groups are the basis of human morality and certainly part of our genetic moral imprinting.

This is why it is so important to pick your culture very carefully: A child will be necessarily be imprinted with the memes of his parents and their Social Support Group (SSG). It is called socialization and is critical if the child is to survive to puberty. This is in fact nature's plan if a cold cruel indifferent universe can have a plan. It probably would be better to say this is the implicit plan of the generations of social animals that preceded us. It in critical for a human to be a part of a tribe. A lone human is a dead human in the natural world. Nature, or more precisely the human genome has provided an escape hatch in the adolescent rebellion phase of any normally intelligent child. And if the child is exposed to other tribes as many modern children are in school, the rebellious child may find a better (or worse) tribe to associate with.

Obviously as a child choosing a culture is a pipe dream, but as an adult anticipating reproducing the SSG that you will provide for your child will determine whether the child is warped into some form of aberration or becomes a useful, productive contributor to the larger society.

Religions can be acceptable SSGs but again it is important to choose, if you can, a religion that is aware of and trying to be a part of the larger society. Many are not, and treat the larger society as hostile and dangerous, even to the point of home schooling or religious schooling to keep the child warped into the aberrant group. These UFSSGs may be more adaptive from an evolutionary perspective, they breed enough, but I certainly hope not.

The society in which I was brought up acceptance and participation in the society was determined not by a belief system, but by how one treated the others who were a part of it. There were many religions represented, mainly Christians, but some Jews and some of no discernible religion. The earliest moral lessons I remember were lessons on stealing and fair value exchange issues. Starting at about 5 or 6. It was not a matter of bad or good, but one of trust. One had to build a trustworthy reputation and it was easy to destroy it. Examples of untrustworthy people were all around and were not considered one of 'us' whoever 'us' was.

It is important that there never was a 'them.' The rest of the world was simply not 'Our kind of people.' The different strokes for different folks was the attitude that was basic to my upbringing. The next door neighbors were Catholic in everything they did. It was clear that they were not one of 'us.' They were good people, nice neighbors, the kids were acceptable playmates, but they didn't share the values that defined 'us.' The first time I heard the second great commandment I knew that Jesus was talking about my next door neighbor.

It would probably be easier not to work on righteousness and nail my shadow to the cross, but that doesn't work for me. Christ has nothing to do with my behavior or my relationships with other people. He is not responsible for any injury I might inflict on them and neither is Adam. The arrow of responsibility is very short and it points right at me. I think all this work makes me a better member of my chosen society both as an actor and as a role model. It is my effect on my society today, in this life that is important to me. No more, and no less.
The UU youth group was an important influence in my moral development. I was a regional officer and went to national conventions where supervision of our moral behavior was strictly peer driven. There were no rules, no belief systems, and yet we had to function as a coherent group in spite of radically different views on everything from God to sexuality. I learned to respect the rules and limits of others without internalizing them. I learned to communicate my rules and limits without projecting them on others. This was fairly easy with respect to God, in spite of my unusual for the time overt atheism, but the sexuality issues as you might expect in a group of horny teens with no rules except respect for your partner made for some interesting times. Further, deponent sayeth not.

My parents' relationship lasted more than half a century, the usual bumps and frictions, but in general I would agree that their relationship was generally good and a stable base for my development as a moral person.

My mother was an intelligent, independent, and strong woman, and the iconic ancestor was similar. Not domineering as many such women can be, but not submissive either. She knew she was equal to anybody else. Not better, but no worse. My older sisters who were important in my early life inherited these traits. One might say I had no experience with other types of women or at least didn't notice other types. My father was an equal partner in my parenting and in his marriage, but traditional gender role models were basically ignored.

I am sure siblings and playmates were caught out and instructed on stealing, but as usual my own burning ears were what made me learn. But relevant to the shadow topic, it was always behavior correction. "We" don't do that kind of thing. Never "That is bad," and absolutely never "You are bad." I don't remember "bad" as part of my parents' vocabulary.

As I remember it sharing was a part of playing with toys. Even my teddy bear which for a while was a constant companion was shared. I vaguely remember a kind of a round dance game where the teddy bear danced with everybody.

The "We" in all of it was what "We" considered to be an elite society. One in which each person was expected to be knowledgeable, thoughtful, responsible, mannerly, fun to be with, and to do their chores diligently and without direction or complaint. There were "Others" some of whom were part of a different elite, and some who were definitely less than elite.

As I grew up I moved in a variety of groups, each with different values and it was important to be aware of those values and at least know why I violated some of them. In general because they conflicted with other values that I considered more important. As an example many of the groups I participated in due to athletics had a rather crude sexual morality. I was brought up to consider sexuality was a relationship first issue. The love 'em and leave 'em of the athletic and cheer leading world was of no interest to me.

But in all cases I was intensely aware of the fact that there was only one person in the world that was responsible for any hurt feelings or worse that I caused, and that was me. No confession booth, no cross to nail things to, just me. I couldn't even blame my parents, they would just laugh at me and say you got yourself into this, lets see how you get yourself out. This does not mean they were not supportive or helpful, but it was my problem not theirs.

In high school and college I played with the big dogs in a bunch of packs, moving smoothly between them as necessary. The mores of each pack were different. The team sports had one, the individual sport group had another. The choral groups another. The science geeks a different one. The UU youth was wildly different. In college the philosophy and religion group yet another but basically a continuation of the UU youth. The social and party group, there was only one I could afford to play with, was again quite different.

This was in no way a multiple role issue. Just like religions all groups had things that contributed to my character development. Those that were useful I adopted, but I never felt the need to "buy into the group package." At my college, the student football cheering section was a mandatory Saturday afternoon social function. I was not particularly interested in spectator sports, and the team sucked. But drinking the frozen orange drink, and socializing with friends, many of which shared my distaste for the game and the team was worth my time and energy. The football enthusiasts who cheered each half way decent play, and booed the refs, were part of the group, but I did not share their enthusiasm, just their company.

In order to work well in all these groups I had to be aware of the mores and how I would respond to them. No subconscious responses allowed, they would bite me on the rear cheek every time. I like to think that I integrated the best of all those groups into a coherent self image. The lessons from all those groups have served me well as a productive adult responsible for my own life. I have totally changed the direction of my life three times, each time moving into a completely different work and life style. It was very useful to be able to join a group as an observer and know how to spot the important things for being a part of the group.

Golf was very instructive for me in the mores department. Very early I was a competent golfer thanks to an ex pro instructor in my father. It is ridiculously easy to cheat in golf. But choosing to do so even in a practice round will very quickly insure that you will never get a money round. There is no way to repair the damage to the reputation of a golfer that cheats. Further it is assumed that a golfer that cheats in golf will cheat whenever hesh thinks hesh can get away with it. Politicians always cheat in golf.

I have no delusions of perfection but I frequently thank those, mostly dead now, that brought me up without a shadow and taught me how not to internalize shadow making criticism. I thank them not for them, but for me. I can still put names to those who taught critical lessons in responsibility. If someone tells me I screwed up, I have two choices, I can say yes, I did, and do what I can to repair the damage, or I can 'consider the source' and say "No it is your problem, I don't need to even consider it, and I certainly don't need to make it my problem."

I actually strive to achieve perfection in my ethical behavior and my moral relationships. It is not really that hard as all moral and ethical behavior is considered, and misjudging another's reaction is technically their problem not mine, although perfection would be taking that into consideration.

Since I have neither a shadow nor a God to blame for any transgressions, and the arrow of responsibility always points back to me, I try not to be willfully wrong in any situation. I do not always succeed sometimes due to a social misunderstanding, sometimes a simple screw up. But in any case I am the damage repair crew. That does make thinking about what one is doing a lot more important.

Others may try to impose a shadow on me but I do not need to accept its existence simply because someone says it is there. Any more than I need to accept the fundie's assertion that I am a sinner because all people are sinners. If the fundie thinks hesh can act out herm uncontrolled basic instincts in a socially dysfunctional manner because everybody is a sinner, and hesh gets to nail herm acting out to the cross and its OK because the cross is available to all sinners, we have total control by the church. Except I am not a sinner, and I can call herm on herm dysfunctional actions with a clear conscience because I control my possibly dysfunctional actions openly and consciously. I don't always succeed, but it isn't because sin made me do it, or my shadow burst out, it was because I failed. No one else. Not mom, not the preacher, not God, not the Devil. It was J'Carlin and no one else. If it needs fixing I fix it."

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