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Moral Emotions v. Rationality

Percival52's picture

Desmond Hubbard

Tuesday, April 14th

NeuroBiology and Behavior


Moral Emotions v. Rationality


Since the first spark caveman used to create fire, humans have spread over the entire globe in a relatively short time span. During this time we began to develop as species creating unique cultures and civilizations everywhere. A civilization is created when a sufficiently large enough human population so that it is impossible to know all but works together to fulfill the needs of all. Furthermore a civilization is characterized by its technological and educational capabilities, like weapons and written language. The balance that a civilization strikes, as it comes into being, amongst education, technology, general need fulfillment leads to the organic creation of culture. In this way culture is a by product of the creation of a civilization but is in no way superfluous to maintaining a stable civilization.  Although culture is produced by a particular civilization it is not geographically limited like a civilization; the same culture may thrive in various civilizations. It is this nature of culture that makes it much harder to define. Culture doesn't have any clear defining lines and exists in the minds of those that participate within it. Since culture exists within the minds of those involved, then it can be said how the group collectively agrees and defines their selves is what constitutes culture. How a particular group practices common traditions, rituals, customs, and values leads to the creation of a new and unique culture. Despite the difficulty in defining culture, it is reasonable to argue that values and passing on values to the next generation is the primary concern to any culture.

One way to think about the relationship between culture and values is viewing it in a similar light to our bodies and the genetic material we carry. Genes are those tiny biological devices which contain vast amounts of information, all of which is focused for the replication and spread of more genes. We can liken culture to the human body, a vessel that has elaborately evolved to pass along the gene's biological information. Culture is the device that humans use to pass along to the next generation of humans that what those before have deemed important. Values refer to those things that are worth desiring in life like, power, benevolence, integrity, honesty… etc (1). It is no stretch of the imagination to believe that people had value systems long before civilizations were created. And ever since humans began to place importance in things a silent problem has arisen: How do I make others value what I value? Genes successfully mastered their problem of passing along their information by creating sex. Genes built our human bodies and developed our brain chemistry to include a sex drive, all so that they could go on existing. Humans have had considerably less success in passing along values. Culture is our attempt to indoctrinate values in the next generation.

The juxtaposition of genes and values is appropriate because at the heart of the conflict is nature v. nurture. It isn't important here to discuss which force is more dominant in the creation of an individual personality. It is only important to acknowledge that everyone is born unique but despite this uniqueness people may behave essentially in the same manner. Our similar behavior is not due solely to the influences of culture but our innate moral abilities (2). Morals or the lack thereof serve as the basis for values (1). A particular way culture attempts to indoctrinate potential new members with its values is through manipulation of a person innate moral emotions. The main moral emotions that are manipulated by cultures through traditions, rituals, and customs are shame, guilt and empathy (1). Empathy is the ability to place oneself into another situation and feel as they do. Guilt and shame are closely related but are two separate emotions. Guilt is expressed in terms of a particular act (I shouldn't have hit him.) and motivates a person to particular set of actions (I apologize for assaulting you.). Shame is expressed in terms of the self (I am a horrible person.) and doesn't motivate the person to particular set of action but a complex re-evaluation of the self (How can I not be a bad person?) (1, 3). Cultures attempt to manipulate these emotions to instill in potential new members the values that they desire which in turn fosters loyalty and community. Choosing emotions as the conduit to gain loyalty is an obvious one. An emotional connection ensures that the new group member care for what the others have already chosen as important. However, even the most innocent methods for cultivating a sense of loyalty may back fire. A culture might highly value benevolence (a value highly correlated with empathy) and encourage its members to house the homeless whenever possible. If a person is highly empathetic then they might carry this action to an extreme, housing way more then can carefully be cared for. A person might refuse and feel guilty whenever a story appears on the news about someone freezing to death. In addition the community at large might shame the person into congruence with the benevolence value behavior. The combination of guilt and shame, plus the underlying condition of social anxiety could easily send this person into a downward spiral of depression.

This methodology is successful as noted by the hundreds of unique cultures throughout the world. It is by no means coincidental that specific values are shared by a particular culture. If a thousand people experienced the same thing at the same time, a thousand new and unique perspectives would develop but certainly not a single cohesive set of values. Cultures force people to align in the same way, along the same values, but emotional stimuli may not be the best way. Since everyone is unique, everyone has a different ability to cope with emotional stimuli. The inability to appropriately resolve emotional conflict may lead to psychological disorders like schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and many more (2). Although most people may be able to handle and segment the occasional scolding, or save the children canvasser, those who cannot, may be irreparably damaged, an event that is counter to the cause of culture.

Instead of perpetuating traditions, customs and rituals that depend on emotional stimuli, instill it through reasoning. This of course already happens in schools throughout the world. It is not the mission of general public education schools to instill values for a particular culture. However cultures do you use additional schooling to instill their own values. Jewish people create summer camps to teach their values, the torah and the Hebrew language. Christians use vacation bible school to teach about Jesus Christ and his values. Even secularly Persians teach Farsi to their children while also teaching about Persian tradition and customs. It is not necessary to create emotionally stressful situations to force bonding among the participants. The concept of scaffolding can be applied both to general education and value indoctrination (4). This approach does not discourage the role of emotions play in the development of someone's value system. Scaffolding values ensures that the emotions involved won't cause lasting harm to a developing child.



1.      Silfver, M; Helkama, K; Lonnqvist, J-E; Verasalo, M (2008). The relation between value priorities and proneness to guilt, shame and empathy. J. of Motiv. Emot., 32:69-80.


2.      Burdick, D J. (2001). A Basis for Morality. Biology 202 Web Paper. /exchange/node/1903


3.      Shame.


4.      Turner, V; Berkowitz, Marvin (2005). Scaffolding morality: Positioning a socio-cultural construct. New ideas in Psychology, 23: 174-184.


Paul Grobstein's picture

culture: present, past, and future

"Culture is the device that humans use to pass along to the next generation of humans that what those before have deemed important."

So culture is a "story"?  Made up by people out of their own experiences, to encourage certain behaviors in their offspring?  Suspect that's a useful way to think about it, but perhaps there is more to it?  Culture encourages particular behavior not only in offspring but also in contemporaries, no?  And, at least in some cases, might encourage the development of not only what existing and past people have "deemed important" but also new things that haven't yet been thought of?