Sunday, 1 April 2007

Where do we get our values from?

Are humans born as homunculi, containing within themselves the seeds of all their adult traits? What role does genetic transmission play in the formation of character? Is ‘conscience’ innate or learned? These are all hard-fought battlegrounds, and my own ponderings over the sources of personal value-systems are far from conclusive.


First, it must be the case that physical inheritance determines many aspects of the individual – certainly where tendencies to a particular disease runs in families. But whether such influences determine all aspects of character is a more open question.


Few now hold that the infant is born a tabula rasa – a blank page upon which anything can be written by early contacts and influences. It is more likely that each newborn baby has some inherited predispositions and tendencies. Experience, however, is crucial. An easy birth, followed by gentle, loving nurturing is more favourable to the development of a placid, trusting nature than an angry, tense one. Even in a loving family, however, stressful adult situations can have a negative effect by inducing tensions in a child, as happened in my own case.


Education – in the widest sense – plays a primary role. Our nationality, our family history and traditions, our early awareness of social, cultural, and religious influences regarded as ‘normal’ by our parents and grandparents, all shape our childish assumptions.


In adolescence and early adulthood, the influence of good – and bad – teachers can be critical in forming an intelligent and enquiring approach to knowledge, while poor teaching can permanently turn a child off from the wish to learn. I was exceptionally fortunate in this respect, both at school and at university, and owe a lifelong debt to half a dozen or so dedicated and inspiring teachers who spared no pains to encourage and enthuse me.


Peer group influence is more problematic – more so nowadays than when I was young. Children are great imitators, and “keeping up with the Jones’s” whether in bad, anti-social and self-damaging habits such as drug taking, extravagant expenditure, or even worse in gang warfare and violence, are hazards never far from the minds of today’s responsible parents. The benign side of the coin, fortunately, is the formation of lifelong friendships which are a great comfort and support to many in times of crisis as well as in happier days.


So while some of the sources of our values are clearly discernible, others are part mystery and part lottery. Those of us who have had at least some good luck in the draw should acknowledge how fortunate we are, and be as charitable as we can in judging those who have fared worse than we did.

17 comments:

Richard W. Symonds said...

Can't argue with that AC - blast !

anticant said...

Oh dear - I was hoping for some constructive criticisms and additions from you to this very tentative post!

loneranger said...

Hello anticant,
Luckily, thanks to free will and a conscience, we humans can be almost anything we want to be regardless of our condition or environment.
I too feel remarkably lucky and am quite appreciative of the fantastic and dynamic professors and teachers I've had that have helped me learn how to learn.
I do think it's got to be a bit of both, nature and nurture, but ultimately young humans show the potential to overcome great difficulties and hurdles all the time, given they have the desire to learn. That concept is key, you've got to want to learn. Those that don't, well, they wind up food for the fishes. It is probably less than more that overcome the hurdles, but the potential is there.
Education trumps genetics I think. Of course, if your parents are just simple morons you're going to have a bit more of a time with it, but you've got the chance.

ranger said...

As for your original query....values.... what values? Whos values? I assume we adopt whatever values we want in the end.

Richard W. Symonds said...

To my mind, Ranger, you are getting to the crux of the matter - but I think our minds are simply too young to understand yet.

Values can be either Objective (a realist philosophy) or Subjective (a relativist philosophy) - just as our behaviour can be either genetically determined or learned.

There is a connection between the two eg Objective/Subjective, Nature/Nurture - like there is a Cartesian connection between Mind and Body.

The problem we have as humans is deciding which is which - and, tomy mind, that problem is as difficult to work out as the problem of Pre-destination and Free Will...maybe impossible...maybe not.

Maybe our young minds are simply not developed to understand yet.

I have 'had a go' with Values here :
http://www.philosophypathways.com/newsletter/issue47.html
(11 - Who was Cyril Joad...)

but the more I try and understand, the more I become aware of my ignorance.

Jose said...

It's startling to see how already into Century XXI we cannot discern how our personalities are formed. We have been able to place a man on the moon, have hundreds of satellites hovering over our heads taking countless peeps on what we are or aren't doing, but still we are in pampers as to what our real personality is. The theories pointed out by ancient psychiatrists or psychologists are still being considered when it is a question of our human brains, those mechanisms we have been born with but which, alas, keep being as mysterious as the Universe is.

Latest news I have read - I didn't care to remember the link - is that our DNA is controlled by an external factor inside our body, so perhaps in a very short time all those conclusions that freed innocent from prisons or that established paternities, could be dated, old stories.

I agree with the generalised opinion that external influences have to do with our behaviour, but I also think that this behaviour is also subject to instinctive changes, as may be fear or happiness or love or hatred, that there is an "unknown" inside us that conditions and may overcome our apparent attitude.

In sum, the more scientists research on the physical the less we know about the spiritual - if I am permitted to call the latter so.

Richard W. Symonds said...

Scientific reasoning has nothing really to say about the 'spiritual' - our moral values etc.

Our Reason is still very young and under-developed - much of what we believe to be true is a matter of guesswork - or faith.

Emmett said...

(THE Following excerpt from some memoir leaves the sense that, most of all, the child must be loved enough to be given time to ask questions and to be told stories -- ERS)

...[WHILE] Mom sleeps on after the late-shift the night before and Pop goes away into the day to work, I visit downstairs with my Irish Step-grandma in her St Anthony Park parlor, in St Paul on the sofa in the rising light after breakfast. She shows me her rosary and says what the priest said early that morning at the Corpus Christi church and tells me all about when you die. We have just buried my cat, Little Linda, in the garden, who was run over on Gordon at the foot of Ludlow Avenue and I am interested in this death-business. I am three and know that someday the information somehow will be important to me, too:

"THE Angels and the imps all fly way low over the new graves, my little boy. Oh, the clouds of ‘em! They’re in a race, you see, to get all the new souls. The angels take all those they catch straight up to Heaven. And the imps, why, they catch theirs with wienie-forks and stick ‘em ALL, Poop! just like that, in gunnybags and, Zip! down we all go to see the Evil One, when those bags are all so nice and full…. But never you mind, my little boy — because your Grandma prays for YOU!"

pela68 said...

Nice post Anticant. Always a pleasure to read them!

Jose said...

Pela68, I do agree with you.

anticant said...

Thanks, everyone, for your interesting comments. I couldn't respond sooner, as I was on a time-consuming and tiring hospital visit yesterday.

1LONERANGER - I'm not convinced that we are such free agents, largely independent of nature and nurture, as you seem to think. The ancient free will vs. determinism debate will probably never be conclusively resolved - but as Isaiah Berlin said, although we cannot be absolutely certain that we possess free will, we usually behave as if we did, and rightly so.

While there is a range of intelligence, nobody is irrevocably stupid unless they have physical brain damage. Most people are capable of learning far more than they actually do. As you say, motivation is the key. But I can't agree with you that those who choose not to learn, and reject knowledge, are mere luckless losers. In this globally interdependent society, they are a great anti-social burden: sometimes a positive menace.

"We adopt whatever values we want in the end". Yes - but who's values?

RICHARD - I think the Cartesian mind/body dualism is a pious fallacy. Our perceptions and notions of reality are mediated through our consciousness, which is focussed in the brain. I can't conceive of a disembodied mind. I'm suspicious of the other traditional dualisms too. A holistic approach to the unresolved mysteries of humankind and the universe seems to me much more fruitful.

JOSE - It puzzles me why there has been such lack of progress towards a universally acceptable moral philosophy, in contrast to the giant strides taken by technology. The difference between right and wrong is perfectly apparent and has been for millenia. There is a wealth of knowledge about spirituality - especially in the East. So why all the interminable wrangles over how to behave? You might say 'Original Sin'; I would say human stupidity.

EMMETT - You are absolutely right that children need nurturing love, and time. But we need to be careful what stories we tell them. No disrespect to her, but I'm not sure your Irish step-grandma's account of death, sweet and loving though it was, was the wisest one for a small child.

PELA68 - Thank you for your kind words. Please stay around my blogs. Thank you too, Jose old friend.

Jose said...

I must apologise for the undue use of "pampers" in my comment, this is a commercial brand of nappies here which I think is also used in Britain, but as I am not sure I just wanted to clarify.

Well, Anticant, I used the word spiritual because in my hurry I didn't remember the word "psyche" which was what I meant. Anyhow the scientific psyche may be replaced by "spiritual" by those thinking religious.

Apologies.

anticant said...

JOSE - I don't think "psyche" and "spirituality" are synonymous. Spirituality is an innate potential of every human being, and as a concept is not the monopoly of those who think in supernaturalist religious terms. Much spiritual development has of course been pursued within a consciously religious mental framework, but a great deal more has not. Self-realisation and deepening awareness are spiritual components of Eastern non-theistic meditation as well as of humanistic psychology - not only of Christian or Sufi mysticism.

I am not "against" religious mysticism. What I am against is the self-righteous dogmatism of the bigoted religious person who says: "My God is the only true God; my way is the only true way, and all the rest of you are damned."

Emmett said...

SORRY, Antimacassar, you had to have been there, I suppose...the whole tone was as loving as could be, even though very-obviously the (theologically-heretical!) manifest content was at least based upon the same weary & usual reward/punishment conditioning. What she was /really/ putting across to me in effect, of course, was that she was in reality a good witch, and that I was thus safe forever & ever. As for /others/ being tipped over Right Into The Boiler & Sent Down To Hell, I think 'tis Marie-Louise von Franz who remarks that we'd ought /not/ to be overly-fearful of the alleged 'bad' effects of fairy-tales. It is absolutely necessary for the bad witch to be pushed into the furnace -- as, little children being innocent naturally want /justice/. Equally naturally, being old and corrupt, /I/ work & pray & envison mercy all over the place!

B Wook, Bewildered

Jose said...

I don't think they are, either, anticant and I agree with what you say in the last paragraph of your comment. In fact that was what made me separate myself from the Church.

Bigotry is one of the ills that are ruining the good spiritual health of humans, even affecting their psyche in the process.

anticant said...

EMMETT - What you say about justice being an 'innocent' concept of the as yet uncorrupted child is so true - proof of the innate goodness of human beings [the opposite side of the coin to 'original sin'?].

JOSE - Surely what those of us who share good will and concern for the dire state of the world are united against is the misuse of 'God' to justify cruel and wicked actions. Religious tribalism is the devil.

Jose said...

Indeed, Anticant. I agree.