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The Evolution of Ethics

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Charting Human Emotions

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Defining Survival In an Ethical Context

The Integration of Science & Ethics

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   Chaapter 11

    

Visceral Morality

Visceral morality addresses the seminal ground of social morality because it profoundly shapes the evolution of ethical systems. It is not morality learned from a book; rather, it is acquired through emotions and experience. For example, imagine that you have been standing in a long line on a hot day at the supermarket. As you approach the checkout someone cuts in front of you. Depending on other issues of stress and fatigue in your daily life, you react with annoyance or outrage. This is visceral morality expressing itself. Moral expressions such as this are not always fair and reasonable. Encounters such as this become part of societal memory. Some memories have endured over decades or centuries and taken on a form of legitimacy in written codes of conduct that define behavior in almost every aspect of social life.

Visceral Morality as Moral Knowledge

Most of the accepted, credible moral theory of the past 300 years would dispute the existence of “moral knowledge.” One cannot define morality or right and wrong behavior or claim murder is morally wrong by conventional meta-ethical reasoning because, by conventional rules of logic, one cannot logically move from “what is” to “one ought to do.”

Emotional Reactivity

     Emotional reactivity relates to the intensity of a response to environmental stimuli. A normally unreactive cerebral person can suddenly flip into a highly reactive state given a certain convergence of events. Such a person might have recently broken up with a romantic partner after an intense fight or lost a job in a power struggle at work. In such a highly charged emotional state he might respond to a mechanic over an expensive repair job on his car with intimidating language and mind games. In response to that mental provocation, the mechanic reacts powerfully in an emotional way that further sets off the car owner who is now in the unfamiliar territory of high emotions. Morals and ethics addresses both the mechanic’s and the car owner’s need for calm.

Quantifying Visceral Reactivity

Quantifying ethics and social morality would reasonably lead to the study of the five types of visceral reactivity.

Emotional Reactivity or Level 1 Behavior. A newborn responds to the world viscerally. As the child grows older, visceral responses are replaced with other types of responses more appropriate to the civilized world. Visceral reactivity comprises at least two categories for adults: (a) environmentally triggered behavior, such as being startled by a spider, and (b) interpersonal situations that trigger behavior in terms of stages of maturation—childhood, adolescence, or adulthood.

Those interpersonal situations trigger Cultural Reactivity Level 2, which shapes and refines raw urges and passions. A child will express an urge at will, such as blurting out a need in the middle of a conversation. With time, the child learns the consequences of acting on impulse in relation to achieving important goals (i.e., not being inappropriate during a job interview). A person who has aged but not matured might consider staying out of jail an important goal. For a person seeking acceptance in high society, the goal might be avoiding offending important people.

Moral Reactivity Level 3. Moral and religious training inculcates certain responses to moral situations. Lying or attempting to deceive might provoke a response of disgust and disdain. A person with moral or religious training might react strongly to inappropriate language or dress. The active consciousness of morality and issues of right and wrong drives one’s reactions to events.

Professional Reactivity Level 4 (disciplined and educated responses, including occupational learning): Optimally, to reach one’s goals one must temper both moral and cultural reactivity with disciplined reactions that follow professional codes or instructions, formal training, education, or years of experience. Visceral fears do not burden a pilot when flying through a violent storm because his reactions correspond to a set of procedures established in early training. Disciplined responses maximize survival at all levels of existence. Through training and discipline people can exist outside a food chain that depends on gross responses of vulnerable people to thrive. Here, a person exists beyond mere genetic definition.

Intellectual Reactivity Level 5. Level 4 behavior aligns closely with level 5 behavior. Here, a person does not always respond immediately to a set of codes, training, or social obligations. Level 5 people make reasoned, intelligent responses. For argument’s sake, we can divide intelligence into two parts. First, optimizing intelligence involves being brilliant or smart but self-serving: for example, a person might bootstrap himself by his emotions to high levels of cultural, religious, or intellectual achievement. Second, non-optimizing intelligence is intelligence that is not self-serving in thought or deed.  The use of genetic or behavioral templates to guide responses is rare here. Achievement in this world is deliberate, and well reasoned. Passions and pleasures, although significant, play a minor role in motivating a person here.

Level 5 reactivity can also include a highly sophisticated form of “emotional reactivity;” a highly sensitive and acutely perceptive view of social interactions. Successful and wealthy business people and professional diplomats often hone emotional skills in much the same way that a professor hones intellectual skills. Persuading people to work together or finessing million-dollar business deals often depends on one’s discerning insight into a client’s or future business partner’s emotions. The reactions of these people to those around them are highly quantified and executed in their delivery. It is not a literate or mathematical quantification; rather, it is an emotional and symbolic quantification that almost constitutes a language unto itself. The achievements of these people provides the evidence of this quantification.

The Cybernetic Trigger and Boundaries

Crossing a boundary triggers a cybernetic reaction of social feedback. For example, in a large department store where there are no clear boundaries between the cash register counter and the rest of the showroom floor, a customer inadvertently walking behind the counter and standing next to the cash register would naturally trigger the store clerk’s concern. In another example, a stranger who inadvertently touches a woman might cause her to react viscerally and physically because the stranger has crossed a boundary, and it is of great concern to the woman to thwart unwelcome advances. In rough neighborhoods, many street people react strongly if someone accidentally bumps into them. In such incidents, unbridled emotions express themselves in the absence of police. Ordinary people might not recognize they had crossed a boundary and might suffer a beating as a result. In a final example, an unrefined person who sits down for dinner at an upscale restaurant crosses a boundary; a  waiter offended by that person’s attire or language might ignore the patron, resulting in expressed raw emotions that could lead to the patron’s physical removal from the restaurant. Boundaries define levels of emotional reactivity evident in a complex society.

Vibrant societies need a finite amount of inappropriate boundary crossing, within controllable limits, to give them meaning, romance, and depth. Wealthy people will dine in a rough neighborhood, putting them at risk in the same way that a mountain climber takes risks on the slopes. When boundaries are crossed and risks are known, life becomes more meaningful because one slip may put a person in serious trouble.

If we view human beings as biological machines, cybernetic triggers play an important role in notifying the human machine of a change of state. Crossing a perceived boundary will trigger a wide spectrum of responses, given differences in genes and acculturation. Scientifically, we could define this as a person’s “reactivity” or predisposition to react to specific stimuli. A person’s genes produce a wired-in response that, with time, is tempered by another wired-in response derived from acculturation. As people mature they learn to restrain the powerful impulses reactivity can produce. Emotions can undershoot or overshoot their intended targets or manifest as well-balanced responses. A culturally sophisticated person can respond to social stimuli in a way that minimizes conflict and maximizes social harmony and productive relationships.

A balanced response (a state of peace) does not trigger a cybernetic cycle. However, because it is so precise it communicates information and a civilizing force that can become model behavior for others to strive for. Each personal encounter sets up a cycle of actions and consequent reactions. The relationships of immature people are often fraught with intense emotions that trigger other strong emotions in an endless cycle of actions and overreactions. Age and experience create emotional balance and reduce emotional excess. Thus, acculturation’s powerful effect on a person’s wired-in impulses diminishes the likelihood that a person will act in ways counterproductive to social and personal growth.

Behavioral Templates: The Relationship Between Ethics, the Civilizing Force of Acculturation, and (perhaps) Genetics

Human behavior generally follows what we may call “behavioral templates.” Living is much more enjoyable if a person does not have to be alert to every danger and detail of existence during every minute of the day. For example, you board an airliner with hundreds of others. You are traveling with your friends. Your reactions are contingent on the actions and emotions of the other passengers. Your behavior is not focused; rather, it loosely follows a behavioral template of “how to behave in public on an airliner.” The pilot, on the other hand, is expected to be fully “present” at the controls. The pilot must be focused, thoughtful, and alert to all possible dangers that could affect the lives of hundreds of passengers. The pilot’s routine derives from a disciplined set of procedures. The passengers’ contingent reality has no place in the cockpit environment. The pilot’s actions and reactions are finely tuned to be precise and balanced. Any overreaction or underreaction might cause the airplane to crash.

   The existence of behavioral templates (genetic or cultural predispositions) creates yet another problem. If a person’s actions and reactions are predictable, an unscrupulous individual can exploit that person. Again, one must think of the human being first as a biological machine. That is, most human actions and reactions are exercised at the subconscious level following this or that behavioral template. Only a small percentage of human experience is disciplined and well thought out. Because most people are so predictable, they invite exploitation.

People are vulnerable biological machines who need to express their identities in the context of some larger, more protective organization. Moral and religious codes of conduct fulfill the need to belong to something that can guide people through life’s treacherous waters. In many ways the urge to survive inspires the growth of moral and legal systems to protect the highly vulnerable human machine from the excesses of human emotions.