Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Reason and Rationalization

with 5 comments

So, I got an e-mail from John telling me that the site wouldn’t let him post a comment yesterday.  If any of you are having the same trouble, you should e-mail me so that I can have it looked into.  I’ll admit it was rather strange with no comments at all yesterday, but I just figured you all were bored. 

Or, you know, appalled.

Anyway, John’s comment was this:

>>>Jane wrote “But there´s something else that´s universal across all literate (and
most nonliterate) societies across time-that women are socially and politically
secondary to men. ”

Some simple arithmetic sheds light on this. Consider a society before modern

First. if half of all children die before puberty, then a society needs at least an
average of 4 children per woman or it will die out. That means women will have
to spend a lot of time caring for children.

Second, remember the story of Semmellweis and his discovery of the importance
of cleanliness in hospitals. He observed a deathrate from childbirth fever of about
10% in a ward where doctors and medical students worked but 2% in a ward that
used midwives.

Take that 2% death rate as typical. Start with 100 pregnant women. 98 will
survive childbirth. Of those 98, 96 will survive a second pregnancy. You can carry
out the calculation and get about 90% survive 5 pregnancies.

Result: Women need to have a lot of children in order for the society to survive
but that means at least 10% of women will die in childbirth.

If it takes 5 years to turn a raw apprentice into a skilled carpenter, would you
choose a 14 year old boy or girl? I’d go for the boy!>>>

And I agree, of course.  A lot of what we find, as we look into the moral codes of various societies across time, is going to be moral precepts based in practical reality, but that’s been my point all the time.   Morality is grounded, objectively grounded, in the realities of the human condition, which are not infinitely malleable, but at least substantially fixed.

And it’s also true that some of those conditions may change, at least on the level of the day to day.   It’s almost certainly the case that the universal prescription of (at least relative) chastity for women is grounded in the need of men to insure that they are raising their own (and not somebody else’s) children. 

The evolutionary imperative there is obvious, assuming Darwin was right–controlling the sexuality of women insures that men will have their genes passed down, therefore the genes of men bent on controlling women are more likely to be passed down.

These days, of course, we’ve got much better and more accurate methods of figuring this out.  Even women in strict purdah found ways to have affairs.  DNA tests don’t lie.

But here’s the kicker–whatever good and practical reason there may have been for a particular rule over time, if it’s been around long enough, there’s a good chance that it’s at least in some way genetically encoded.  And that means that there is a chance it won’t go away–or, to be more precise, that the effects of it won’t go away–even after the initial conditions no longer apply.

That is certainly what has happened with the aggressiveness and attraction to risk in young males.  What was a really good evidence of biological fitness in a hunter-gatherer society somewhere out on the savannah is largely counterproductive in a world where success–including the ability to provide for a wife and children, or even to get a wife and children–is attained by sitting still in classsrooms, making five and ten year plans, and watching your every move to be sure there’s nothing on your record that Yale wouldn’t like.

But counterproductive or not, we’re stuck with the effects, which show up in everything from soccer hooliganism, violent crime and lighting farts to hypercompetitiveness in everything from climbing the corporate hierarchy to having the best and most expensive prom tux.

My point, in all of this, is not that if we discover an objective basis for morality, the morality we discover will violate some of the moral precepts some of us now hold–that it will dictate a second class status for women, say–but that, due to the fact that we fear it will, we don’t actually do the investigation we need to to make the discoveries we need to.

There’s a tradition of narratives in science about how the Church, for instance, feared scientific advance because it would disprove the myths it loved dearly, but in fact there’s little danger in most of the discoveries of natural science.  Evangelical Protestant problems with evolution notwithstanding, the chemical nature of nitroglicerin or the distance of Alpha Centauri from earth do not impinge significantly on our innermost convictions of who and what we are, or who and what we should be.

Morality is different because it is, in fact, intimately related to who and what we are, to our very identies as individuals, to our very status as human beings.  Grown men and women–who are, after all, the people who do philosophy–don’t get to where they are without having already internalized a set of moral rules, and those rules determine whether the philosophers themselves are decent human beings.

If you have internalized to a gut level the idea that doing X or thinking  Y makes you a monster and completely unworthy to belong to the human family, you’re not going to follow investigations whereever they lead you if they seem to lead you to the conclusion that morality lies in doing X or thinking Y.

I think that the reason that we are where we are, that we as yet have no objectivel based moral code (at least since Aristotle), that our modern philosophers give out squishy moral pronouncements based on nothing, is that nobody is actually doing the work to make the discoveries that would fix the problem.

We find the investigation of these things far too threatening, and so we don’t, really investigate.

If we did, we might find out that our fears are unfounded.  Or not, but at least we’d find out.

What we’ve got instead in the moral mush of Kurtz’s book, and a world population increasingly too diverse to be ruled by any single concept of God’s law, or even any single concept of God.

Written by janeh

July 1st, 2009 at 8:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Reason and Rationalization'

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  1. “If you have internalized to a gut level the idea that doing X or thinking Y makes you a monster and completely unworthy to belong to the human family, you’re not going to follow investigations whereever they lead you if they seem to lead you to the conclusion that morality lies in doing X or thinking Y.”

    This is obviously an imperfect process, because otherwise there would be no change in a given culture on morality. I suppose that the early adopters, so to speak, might be able to change their moralities because they had insufficiently internalized them, but they often try to spread their ideas to others, with some degree of success – eg ‘consciousness raising”; a process that I have always disliked intensely since I see an inherant contradiction between the idea that I am going to become aware of my beliefs and positions as a woman or as a member of a social class from discussion with someone else – and success will be determined by the extent to which my new views accord with those of the ‘someone else’.

    Anyway, yes, moral rules are deeply internalized in use, but they are not done so uniformly – I may end up never even thinking about taking a paper clip from work; someone raised next door may help themselves to paper clips and pens and the next person might believe they have the right to anything they can get their hands on, since the right to a possession is (in their minds) based on the ability to hold on to it.

    And they change. Maybe the people who change first haven’t internalized that particular bit of the moral code very well, but their ideas may very well spread.

    Smoking was once forbidden in the presence of women. Only fast women ever smoked themselves. Then everyone smoked, although some efforts began to be made to stop children smoking. And now, I recently heard a group of women of much my age and background talking about smokers and smoking as though they were discussing child molesters! I never smoked; I suffered from my parents’ smoking and smoking in buses and airplanes when that was legal. No one was more thankful than I when I could go to any public place and most private workplaces without smelling (or suffering carsickness from) smoke. And yet, the absolute confidence of these people, in the face of the fact that lots of perfectly nice people have smoked and do smoke, that smoking was a vile evil act made me want to support the smokers. Well, as long as they don’t start smoking in public transportation and workplaces again.

    And these women were convinced that this change in the moral status of smoking was permanent. I’m not. I wouldn’t be suprised if the pendulum swung the other way within my lifetime, and all the elegant and fashionable people are photographed smoking again.

    You can see the same things in other activities with moral implications – sexual activity, money and business. People’s views on them change, become more and less restrictive, and then more again.


    1 Jul 09 at 12:07 pm

  2. Other things too with women and pre-modern careers–a HUGE male advantage in bone and muscle mass, at a time when most careers were to some degree a matter of physical strength, and the flip side of the infant mortality and childbirth rates: a woman with a career could opt out, and the survival of the species quite literally depended on not too many women doing so.

    It would be interesting to have “controls”–a society with modern electronics and more primitive medicine, or with modern medicine, but still largely muscle powered. But that’s one of the things science fiction is for. Here, declining infant mortality rates, careers requiring more brains than muscle and the rise of the “woman professional” all go in lockstep.

    My guess is that the rise of the “knowledge society” and labor-saving devices is more important to the trend than medicine. Worth noting that the “old” trades–construction work, for instance–are still male-dominated when private, and the public sector ones–soldier and firefighter, among others–require blatant cheating on the physical requirements. There just aren’t a lot of women who can carry an unconscious 150 pound man very far, or lug 155mm shells around all day.

    As you suggest, customs and DNA well-suited for hunter-gatherers, and not too badly out of synch for early agriculture. Not necessarily what one would design for the modern era.

    But then there’s always someone ready to prove that previous morality is outmoded. A few years ago a landlord in New York burned down his own apartment building with a tenant or so inside. (He was eventually convicted of arson and murder.) As he was seen splashing gasoline around the lower floors, he explained “You don’t understand. This is the modern way to refinance!”

    Couldn’t comment yesterday. No problem today.


    1 Jul 09 at 4:18 pm

  3. AH! The comments are working again. Robert is quite right about physical strength. That plus the need to have a lot of children would lead to a division of labor. Women stayed home, cared for the children and did work such as spinning and weaving. Men did the work that required leaving home. Its not surprising that almost all societies ended up as “male patriarchies”. I would say that biology was destiny right up until about 1850.

    Sometime ago I read a paper or book which pointed out that human children cry but young animals stay quiet when their mother has to leave them. Crying attracts predators. Its a good point and suggests that the pattern of always having an adult around an infant has existed for a very long time.


    1 Jul 09 at 6:14 pm

  4. You guys have never read about those African & South American tribes where women do ALL the manual labor? While carrying their youngest infants on their backs and tending the younger children, as well.

    The men would bestir themselves to go hunting, or make war, but wouldn’t lift a finger to plant or harvest crops, which provide something like 85% of the calories, nor did they work around the hut. Farming was women’s work. The men got the fun, exciting stuff. The women got the drudgework.

    Mostly the men sat around and drank and waited for dinner, they didn’t even hunt very much, and war was not that frequent an occurance either.

    That was moral in their society, and it completely ignored the relative strength of women vs men. Men could have undoubtedly farmed larger fields, but morality dictated a different role.

    While the biological bounds of human nature may be finite, the range of possible human societies is so wide as to be nearly infinite. In some places morality dictates actions that defy logic, such as bypassing extra calories to restrict men to a limited range of options, or restricting women to the impoverishment of everyone. It’s hard to be rich when more than half your able-bodied workforce is kept home. That goes whether it’s male or female.

    And jd? There’s a real serious doubt that physical strength had anything to do with patriarchies. Men didn’t dominate and suppress women because they were strong. It’s a really complex issue, but I feel that patriarchies developed in large part because men feared women’s sexuality, and what the freedom to express that sexuality would mean to them. Thus women must be restricted, thus *somebody* has to go out into the world.

    Thus the cult of the virgin (not the Virgin), sex being dirty (for women), purdah, bride prices or dowries, burning widows and all that jazz. All moral at one time or another in various places.

    Why does morality change? Hard to answer. Just think about the last couple of decades in relation to gay marriage. 20 years ago the subject had never come up. Gays were barely acknowledged to exist in public life. At one point most people would have said it would never happen anywhere in the US. Now several states allow it or will soon, and in many others it seems just a matter of time.

    We’re in the middle of a morality change of fairly large proportion. Can you explain the mechanism? I certainly can’t.


    1 Jul 09 at 10:12 pm

  5. Further to Lymaree’s comment about layabout African men. Where I lived and worked in PNG in the 1960s, it was many years since there had been any major inter-tribal conflict. The people of the area had been under close government control for at least the previous 80 years so for about four generations.

    I lived near two villages which were separated only by a tidal channel perhaps 100 feet wide at its widest. These people were from two distinct cultural and language groups. (How they came to be in that situation is another much longer story.) The two groups intermarried quite routinely but still, after some 60-odd years since the people of the newer village arrived, each group refused to speak the other’s language.

    The original occupants of the land were hunter gatherers and subsistence farmers. The newer group got most of their sustenance from the sea, although they also grew their own vegetables on land leased from the original group.

    Now, the behaviour of the two groups was quite different when it came to who did the heavy lifting. In the fishing village, the menfolk combined with their neighbours to fish cooperatively from sea-going canoes (lakatois) which were mostly sail-driven, although outboard motors were becoming increasingly common. (The problem was that fuel was scarce and expensive, and the fishing trips sometimes went long distances and sometimes even over-night. “Fish” could include dugongs (think manatees) and sea turtles. These activities were almost exclusively men’s work, and very hard work it was too. Their womenfolk stayed home to look after the kids and to do the vegetable gardening.

    The land-based (original) occupants of the land, had always hunted and gardened. Any fishing was opportunistic and conducted in the shallows rather than in organised expeditions. Hunting was men’s work. Gardening was done by both sexes although the men did the heavy work such as cutting down trees and the heavy clearing of undergrowth for the garden sites.

    However, when it came time to bring home the day’s produce, which would invariably include great piles of firewood for the home fires, the men carried nothing but tools and weapons. Everything else was carried by the womenfolk. There was no evident need for men to be armed in case of attack because nobody would dream of attacking anyone in such circumstances (except in some more primitive parts of the country where such risks were even then still real and high). But the behaviour seemed to be hard-wired.

    I imagine that the Africans Lymaree mentioned were driven by similar historical cultural perceptions. Which might explain the gun culture in parts of the US. Or not, as the case may be.

    The circumstances that led to such behaviour might be lost in the mists of time, but they persist all around the world in primitive societies.


    2 Jul 09 at 1:36 am

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