Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Tribal Loyalty, Rule by the Elders, Rule of the Strong

Tribal Loyalty, Rule by the Elders, Rule of the Strong
Humans live and have always lived in tribes, but the nature of those tribes has changed. As technology has progressed, so has the shape of the communities in which people lived, and the economic necessities they face.

Early tribes were defined mostly by geographic location, with a nomadic movement across a particular region. The flow of information was slow across tribes. As a result, you saw power structures which were defined by the ability to find food, provide for the community and so forth.

Knowledge was stored as oral histories, and older members of the community were respected for their function in preserving knowledge over time, educating children, etc.

Early archaeological records show societies typically had very rich cultures, with complex family relationships and strong spiritual beliefs. The basis for their relationships was very much their position in their community.

The religious beliefs of early tribal societies are largely lost for modern humans, although some elements of these belief systems continue in the various indigenous groups which still persist. They tend not be be at all similar to monotheistic religions, and instead are reflective of the problems which would typically face such groups. In a very real sense, they represent a kind of reasoning framework for those individuals. Assuming for the moment that a literal interpretation of those beliefs is incorrect, it is interesting to see how strong the need for a critical system is for human beings. The motivation to explain the world around use theoretically is very strong, even when the actual theories are very far removed from literal truth.

Primitive societies were able to commit to spiritual beliefs in spite of their eventual inadequacies in the face of modern technology. The emotional strength of people's spiritual beliefs continues to play an important role in our lives even though we now have much better physical theories for the world around us.

The book, “The Mind in the Cave” outlines the progression of early human society in Europe. The author explores the imagination of early humans, the evidence that as soon as they were an identifiable species, biologically modern humans have had a very rich intellectual culture, involved in art, religion and power struggle.

This form of society essentially continued until changes in technology, including farming and building, allowed larger groups of individuals to settle in a single location and in larger groups than ever before.

Once this occurred, the emergence of loyalties to a city or place rather than to a tribe began to be seen, and power structures changed to reflect the might of arms and ones position in “society”. Once a location had been settled, it then had to be defended, which really caused the beginning of the technology race.

Few philosophers regard primitive tribalism as the “best” form of society. However, many have noticed social parallels between this kind of society, and the sub-groups which form today. While we are no longer restricted to interacting with a small group of people, we still choose to treat some classes of people differently to others. Most people have an “inner circle” of people with whom they interact significantly more than most other people they know. The friendship relations between people still form a tribe, in the sense that there is a community of people from which we receive most of our ideas, have more regard for, feel more empathy for etc etc.
How useful is the idea of the tribe in describing your relationship with your community?
Do you think these structures show that society can never be regarded as a single entity?
To what extent are your beliefs inherited from tribal beliefs?
To what extent have you chosen to be part of a tribe which reflects your beliefs?
If your tribe broadly shares your moral beliefs, to what extent do you think those beliefs apply to people from other tribes?
What kind of responsibilities do you owe to people who are a part of your tribe?
What rights can you expect from others in your tribe?
What about those from outside of your tribe?
Where does the analogy of the tribe break down most obviously?

The tribe, our moral language and authority

Our morality is clearly influenced by the people with whom we predominantly interact. The affirmation we receive from others in response to others can direct our morality in powerful ways. For those who are interested in the idea of how powerfully our moral beliefs can be subverted, it is worth considering a number of case studies.

First, let us consider the Milgram Experiment.

To quote from Wikipedia:
"While I was a subject [participant] in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority. ... To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority's demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself. ... I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience..."

“The Milgram experiment was a famous scientific experiment of social psychology. The experiment was first described by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University in an article titled Behavioral Study of Obedience published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in 1963, and later summarized in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. It was intended to measure the willingness of a participant to obey an authority who instructs the participant to do something that may conflict with the participant's personal conscience.
The experiments began in July 1961, a year after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram devised the experiment to answer the question "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?" (Milgram, 1974)
Milgram summed up in the article "The Perils of Obedience" (Milgram 1974), writing:
"The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects' [participants'] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects' [participants'] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation."

Secondly, let us consider how an organisation such as a company can contribute to our moral downfall. ... waffle about Enron ...

In light of this, the role of the church is re-cast in a much more powerful light. If the church is accepted as an individual's tribe, and its authority figures given moral respect, then the church, willing or no, has causal responsibilities for a great many of the beliefs of its followers.

Religious belief itself may be one of the beliefs or attitudes accepted by those who live within the church's influence, but without resorting to such an anti-faith position, one can easily see how the conflict between religious parties arises.

What I think may be frightening to some people is how thin the veneer of belief and society can really be. This is not, I would argue, good cause to tear it down, but rather to recognise the fragility of our souls, and why we must be vigilant to protect them. Being clear about our beliefs and morals, and considering them well beforehand may be the best defense we have against moral corruption.

This moral corruption need not be with reference to a specific ideology, but can equally be in terms of psychological happiness, our own personal relationships with people and spirituality, etc.

Can you think of any examples in your own life where you have rejected the moral imperatives of an authority you respect?
Can you think of any means by which you could discover the role of authority in your moral position?
Does the Milgram Experiment mean that accepting a moral position from authority is always wrong?
A Christian viewpoint includes Jesus as a moral hero. What differentiates the followers of Jesus from the subjects in the Milgram Experiment?
To what extent to you consider yourself to be a moral authority? With respect to whom?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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10/05/2005 01:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Paul said...

One of your questions was: "Can you think of any means by which you could discover the role of authority in your moral position?"

I think it is a bit dodgy to rely on anyone's authority to arrive at a moral position. Surely it is our responsibility to critically evaluate what others say, and either agree or disagree with them. I think that is what philosophy is all about. As a lover of wisdom, the philosopher is seeking wisdom, which means they need to be able to think on their feet, without running back to some authority to tell them what to do.


10/06/2005 03:59:00 PM  
Blogger MelbournePhilosopher said...

Well, that's true, but the point is that people, including philosophers, have a lot of beliefs which haven't been vetted. Moreover, people *don't know* that they believe things that have been instilled in them by authority.

If you can't tell which of your beliefs are your own and which are inherited, you're in trouble.


10/06/2005 04:10:00 PM  
Blogger Robert Selmer said...

Unfortunately these days, the questioning of authority doesn't happen often enough.

Those who do question authority have an uphill battle, and that alone makes them suspect in the eyes of their peers as well as the authority. Many people simply do no exhaust the effort.

6/29/2006 12:34:00 AM  

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