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Human Nature, Genes And The Basis Of Morality

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I am very familiar with Objectivism, at least I think. I am aware that the basis of morality is human nature. That humans have certain requirements for life, and that it is moral to act in those interests. Now I know that is vague, but I am sure all of you know the rest of the details.

Now, I also remember a long time ago getting a phamplet from ARI stating that Objectivism rejects all types of determinism, which included the term genetics in the list. I am almost positive that they don't actually reject the notion of genetics, but the idea that they have absolute control over the human body.

Getting to my point, genetics do dictate some traits and determine dispositions to do certain actions. If someone wants to argue that point, I can cite more than a few case studies. Now acknowledging that they do influence some actions, should that not be incorporated into morality as being a part of that human's nature? When we talk about human nature we talk about how they act to survive and how they use their minds to do so, but really that "nature" is only a disposition to do so. All people don't act to survive, such as suicidals, and not all people use their minds to do so, such as mooches and vegetables. So if we are to include the disposition to survive and use one's mind as part of the definition of human nature, then why not individual genes, as we discover them in the field of science?

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Getting to my point, genetics do dictate some traits and determine dispositions to do certain actions. If someone wants to argue that point, I can cite more than a few case studies. Now acknowledging that they do influence some actions, should that not be incorporated into morality as being a part of that human's nature? When we talk about human nature we talk about how they act to survive and how they use their minds to do so, but really that "nature" is only a disposition to do so. All people don't act to survive, such as suicidals, and not all people use their minds to do so, such as mooches and vegetables. So if we are to include the disposition to survive and use one's mind as part of the definition of human nature, then why not individual genes, as we discover them in the field of science?

Let me see if I can answer this correctly. The key issue here is volition. Volition allows man to set aside instincts and become more than a simple animal. It removes deterministic behavior and replaces it with an axiomatic system. Genetic instincts do play a large role in how man behaves, but man can set them aside for a higher ideal.

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I mean that it affects the probability that you might do it. For example, let's use one that doesn't deal with genes but still gets the point across: alcoholism.

Once you are addicted, your subconscious mind and probably your conscious mind work to fill the need. Once you are addicted your probability to want to drink will go up.

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I mean that it affects the probability that you might do it.

I will ask again: What do you mean by "disposition"? I am asking you what disposition is. Please define it in terms of essentials. What is the genus? What is the differentia that sets disposition apart from other things of the same genus? In other words, what facts of reality, if any, would give rise to the concept "disposition"?

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Let me see if I can answer this correctly. The key issue here is volition. Volition allows man to set aside instincts and become more than a simple animal. It removes deterministic behavior and replaces it with an axiomatic system. Genetic instincts do play a large role in how man behaves, but man can set them aside for a higher ideal.

I am not arguing volition. I completely agree that you could act differently than your genetics might dictate. However, I am arguing that the urge to survive and to think is a genetic trait, so why do we emphasize that while, denying all other genetic traits into the definition of human nature.

My point is that if you artificially manufacture and alter what is and is not human nature, then it is no longer a nature, and instead a man-made ideal.

So maybe I am arguing that the term human nature ought to be changed to man-made ideal.

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Let me see if I can answer this correctly. The key issue here is volition. Volition allows man to set aside instincts and become more than a simple animal. It removes deterministic behavior and replaces it with an axiomatic system. Genetic instincts do play a large role in how man behaves, but man can set them aside for a higher ideal.

[bold added for emphasis.]

In the philosophy of Objectivism, "instinct" is an "unerring and automatic form of knowledge." ("Instinct," The Ayn Rand Lexicon, p. 222)

What instincts (or "genetic instincts") do you think man has?

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I will ask again: What do you mean by "disposition"? I am asking you what disposition is. Please define it in terms of essentials. What is the genus? What is the differentia that sets disposition apart from other things of the same genus? In other words, what facts of reality, if any, would give rise to the concept "disposition"?

Okay, I think I see what you are saying, but I am coming at this from an objective perspective. I don't want to make claims about what is actually going on in someone else's mind, so I use the term disposition to describe that those with gene X tend to perform the corresponding act X more often.

To actually define disposition I would have to make claims about consciousness that I don't think anyone could confirm.

My only evidence toward disposition is introspection. I constantly think about buying a cheap Macintosh computer, therefore I check the Apple site a few time a day hoping to see a cheap refurbished one there. So the more I think about Macs the higher my disposition will be to check the site. When I didn't think about Macs when my PC was working fine, I never checked the Apple site to find a cheap Mac.

If this doesn't help, then I'm just not understanding what you want me to define, and I welcome you to make an assumption of what I mean, and change the word to something you can understand.

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I dont think its particularly clear what words like 'influence' mean in the context of volitional choices. If we are doing determinism, we can say that genes influence behavior in the sense that, given some particular environment, a person with gene X will do Y. In other words, 'influence' here means that the gene only governs behavior in conjunction with some enviornment (having the gene isnt sufficient for the behavior to occur, but without that gene, the environment wouldnt be sufficient either). And it is in precisely this sense that biologists will tell you behavior is influenced by genes.

But if we are using volition, this cant be what 'influence' means, since the gene isnt determining regardless of what environmental variables you conjoin it with. If the choice is free, it doesnt really make sense to say that it is 'constrained' or 'influenced'. I might even be inclined to go as far as to say that using words like 'disposition' and 'influence' when you believe in volition is an instance of the stolen concept fallacy - these words only have clear meaning within the context of determinism.

Edited by Hal
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Sorry to post twice in a row, but I feel as if you are being defensive because you think I am attacking the basis of morality. I want to assure I have no intention to do that, I believe that life ought to be the standard of morality and that the mind ought to be the means to acheive life. I am just saying that I have never liked the term human nature, because it implies that: 1. That there is a human nature and 2. We know everything about humans that we can say we specific detail what is their nature.

Lastly, using human nature to lay out morality implies that what is natural is inherently good, and I do not believe in inherent goodness, and I don't think Objectivism does either.

I dont think its particularly clear what words like 'influence' mean in the context of volitional choices. If we are doing determinism, we can say that genes influence behavior in the sense that, given some particular environment, a person with gene X will do Y. In other words, 'influence' here means that the gene only governs behavior in conjunction with some enviornment (having the gene isnt sufficient for the behavior to occur, but without that gene, the environment wouldnt be sufficient either). But if we are using volition, this cant be what 'influence' means, since the gene isnt determining regardless of what environmental variables you conjoin it with. If the choice is free, it doesnt really make sense to say that it is 'constrained' or 'influenced'. I might even be inclined to go as far as to say that using words like 'disposition' and 'influence' when you believe in volition is an instance of the stolen concept fallacy - these words only have clear meaning within the context of determinism.

So you are arguing that the words disposition and influence mean nothing in reality? That no action can be constrained or influenced?

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Sorry to post twice in a row, but I feel as if you are being defensive because you think I am attacking the basis of morality. I want to assure I have no intention to do that, I believe that life ought to be the standard of morality and that the mind ought to be the means to acheive life. I am just saying that I have never liked the term human nature, because it implies that: 1. That there is a human nature and 2. We know everything about humans that we can say we specific detail what is their nature.

Lastly, using human nature to lay out morality implies that what is natural is inherently good, and I do not believe in inherent goodness, and I don't think Objectivism does either.

So you are arguing that the words disposition and influence mean nothing in reality? That no action can be constrained or influenced?

Doesn't objectivism come to the logical conclusions that self interest is man's highest goal, not self preservation? Value-judgements can over-ride that instinct for self preservation. Self preservation is simply a truth we observe and find it to be a higher virtue, we assign it more value. While the urge to survive is definitely a genetic trait, I would argue that the urge to think is a trait, as given the large number of people in the world that surrender rational thought to have others think for them.

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So you are arguing that the words disposition and influence mean nothing in reality? That no action can be constrained or influenced?

I'm saying that they dont have any clear mearning when used to describe volitional systems, if volition is taken to describe some way of breaking free from the standard "genes+environment+life history = behavior" model of biological determinism. Not everything in nature is volitional however.

Edited by Hal
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Doesn't objectivism come to the logical conclusions that self interest is man's highest goal, not self preservation? Value-judgements can over-ride that instinct for self preservation. Self preservation is simply a truth we observe and find it to be a higher virtue, we assign it more value. While the urge to survive is definitely a genetic trait, I would argue that the urge to think is a trait, as given the large number of people in the world that surrender rational thought to have others think for them.

Okay, well then wouldn't you and I be arguing the same thing. That there is a human nature of self-preservation, but the man-made human ideal of self-interest is what must actually be the basis of morality? Thus it isn't a natural morality, but a man-made one.

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Morality is concerned with the question: what should I do? The reason human nature forms the basis of morality is because an understanding of our nature and requirements must be established before we can correctly answer that question. If you think "genetic dispositions" have some impact on morality, you need to explain how these alleged "dispositions" affect how we should choose our values and virtues.

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I'm saying that they dont have any clear mearning when used to describe volitional systems, if volition is taken to describe some way of breaking free from physical determinism. Not everything in nature is volitional however.

Okay, I can agree with that then. Let's use the term urge. Genetics dictates certain urges in certain people, which can be recognized by the person and translated into action, or denied and suppressed.

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Okay, I can agree with that then. Let's use the term urge. Genetics dictates certain urges in certain people, which can be recognized by the person and translated into action, or denied and suppressed.

Is this meant to be a definition, or a scientific hypothesis? Are we ruling out the possibility of (eg) genes affecting whether a person succumbs to an urge on philosophical grounds?

(When it comes to free will vs determinism, I think that phrasing the questions in an unambiguous, meaningful way requires even more work than finding the eventual ansewrs).

Edited by Hal
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Getting to my point, genetics do dictate some traits and determine dispositions to do certain actions.
I don't think that genetics determines any dispositions, but it does determine some traits. One example is that my blonde hair is genetically determined (though I could mask it if I wanted with food color). Another example is the gene that has to do with the crucifera-receptor on the tongue: it is a trait of some people that broccoli engenders a physically bad reaction, so they have a "disposition" to not eat broccoli. I don't know what other "dispositions" you have in mind, but many of them are learned, so I suggest being concrete about these genetic facts. One controversial example is homosexuality, which some people have claimed is involuntary (I don't believe it, but can be persuaded by good science). Do you think that your compulsion to check for a "cheap" Mac is genetic? Maybe it's just volitional behavior whose basis you don't understand, perhaps based on a not clearly thought out impression that a Mac is possibly of some value. The discussion of introspection in the appendix to ITOE might help. Probably there are some factors that you just have forgotten about or aren't focusing on that explain why you have chosen a "cheap" Mac as a particular value for you.
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Morality is concerned with the question: what should I do? The reason human nature forms the basis of morality is because an understanding of our nature and requirements must be established before we can correctly answer that question. If you think "genetic dispositions" have some impact on morality, you need to explain how these alleged "dispositions" affect how we should choose our values and virtues.

I am arguing that all things are physical. Humans physical make up is determined primarily by genetics. These genes we share in common are what makes us human. Thus to make an accurate model of human nature, you would need to include all that which makes us human, meaning all commonly shared genes.

I am saying that you are probably leaving out a few genes and urges when you simplify all of human nature down to we act in order to survive, and we must do so by using our minds.

Now the system of morality that you draw from that, I believe is correct, however, by oversimplifying human nature and leaving things out, you have artificially changed what we call human nature. This makes the concept less natural. So I am arguing that really Objectivists should believe something similar to how Objectivists form laws. That there is a good, but it must be created by humans.

So I am saying that Objectivism morality is a man-made ideal, and a good ideal. But not the natural order of things.

Is this meant to be a definition, or a scientific hypothesis? Are we ruling out the possibility of (eg) genes affecting whether a person succumbs to an urge on philosophical grounds?

(When it comes to free will vs determinism, I think that phrasing the questions in an unambiguous, meaningful way requires even more work than finding the eventual ansewrs).

I suppose I am dismissing it on philosophical grounds and not scientific. I believe it was DavidOdden who argued that determinism can't be a scientific hypothesis because it is not falsiable. It actually has to rest on axioms, that once you assume are true, you can't prove them false.

(Fixed typo-sNerd)

Edited by softwareNerd
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Okay, well then wouldn't you and I be arguing the same thing. That there is a human nature of self-preservation, but the man-made human ideal of self-interest is what must actually be the basis of morality? Thus it isn't a natural morality, but a man-made one.

Of course morality is man made. The whole idea of morality only exists in men, without cognative recognition and evaluation, we would merely be following base instincts and no longer belong to the confines of our moral system. To quote Peikoff

An action not deriving from ideas, i.e., from the cognitive/evaluative products of a volitional mental process, would be the reflex of a deterministic puppet or of an animal; it could not be subject to moral judgment.
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I don't think that genetics determines any dispositions, but it does determine some traits. One example is that my blonde hair is genetically determined (though I could mask it if I wanted with food color). Another example is the gene that has to do with the crucifera-receptor on the tongue: it is a trait of some people that broccoli engenders a physically bad reaction, so they have a "disposition" to not eat broccoli. I don't know what other "dispositions" you have in mind, but many of them are learned, so I suggest being concrete about these genetic facts. One controversial example is homosexuality, which some people have claimed is involuntary (I don't believe it, but can be persuaded by good science). Do you think that your compulsion to check for a "cheap" Mac is genetic? Maybe it's just volitional behavior whose basis you don't understand, perhaps based on a not clearly thought out impression that a Mac is possibly of some value. The discussion of introspection in the appendix to ITOE might help. Probably there are some factors that you just have forgotten about or aren't focusing on that explain why you have chosen a "cheap" Mac as a particular value for you.

I think the issue heres go a lot deeper than this. In OPAR, Peikoff claims that the fundamental reason why people make the choices they do is unanalysable. It could be that 2 people feel the same urge in the same situation, yet one acts on it and the other doesnt. Why? Well, because they chose differently. But if all things were equal, why did they choose differently? Well, they just did. You cant ask for more reasons, thats the whole point of volition. Explanations have to come to an end somewhere.

And its unclear how 'influence' or 'disposition' can fit into this picture. If 2 people with the exact same genetics and enviroment can make different choices, then I'm not sure what it could mean to say that the genes 'influence' the choice. How do they do this? Is it like a feeling in your head, nagging at you to choose X rather than Y? But even if you have this feeling, you can choose to ignore it and go for Y anyway. What makes a person choose to ignore the nagging urge? Well, I suppose this is fundamentally unanalysable, you cant ask for reasons here. Is the choice to ignore the nagging urge further influenced by another nagging urge (a meta-urge, as it were)? And what makes a person choose not to ignore that urge? And so on.

Perhaps we could phrase things in a purely statistical manner - x% of people with gene G perform action A in some situation. And this sort of information may be useful. But it doesnt tell us how, in any particular case, the gene influences the choice (statistical descriptions do not explain the causal nexus).

Edited by Hal
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In OPAR, Peikoff claims that the fundamental reason why people make the choices they do is unanalysable.

I would like to read more about this "claim." Where -- on what page of Objectivism -- did Dr. Peikoff make the statement you attribute to him?

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I would like to read more about this "claim." Where -- on what page of Objectivism -- did Dr. Peikoff make the statement you attribute to him?

I'm sorry, I dont have a copy near me otherwise I'd have cited the page in my previous post (its at my parents house along with the rest of my books). However, I'm fairly sure its in the section titled "Volition as Axiomatic". There is a paragraph where Peikoff discusses how the basic choice (focus vs not focus) is fundunamentally unanalysable.

edit: I'd also argue that this is implicit in every theory of volition, not just Peikoff's (although he makes it explicit). If 2 people can be in the exact same situation yet make different choices (or equivalently, if a person could have literally chosen different), then it follows that the person, at the moment of making the choice, is unconstrained by anything which science could possibly discover (since all the possible facts are not sufficient to determine the choice). Of course, this isnt an argument against volition (its just a restatement of what volition means), but I think it is an argument against the idea that choices can be 'influenced yet not determined' by physical processes, at least until we have a clearer idea of what 'influence' means.

Edited by Hal
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In OPAR, Peikoff claims that the fundamental reason why people make the choices they do is unanalysable.
I'll wait for the quote. The point in Volition as Axiomatic is that volition is axiomatic. I'm perfectly capable of analyzing why I chose to do what I do for a living and why I'm not, say, a vacuum-cleaner salesman or corporate executive. So I find it hard to believe that Peikoff would say that I can't. What he does say is that we have volition, which entails a denial of determininsm -- let's not get confused about the distinction.
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Thank you for your responses so far. This is a bit off topic but now that we are speaking of volition, you might already know that I think the terms determinism and volition don't describe what humans have and I think it is just a philosophical squabble over whether life has meaning or not. However, now that you mention that Peikoff MIGHT have said disposition is unanalysable it got me thinking. Objectivists believe that all knowledge is gained from experience of reality (environment), and that all that exists is material including your mind, and that you act based on your knowledge. In a sense aren't your genetics and your environment the only inputs to the output of action? For instance you can't raise your arm (using volition) if you either lack the knowledge of what an arm is and how to raise it or you lack the genetics that code for an arm.

There is no real point there is suppose, but I am just curious if you have any ideas about whether those statements are true or not.

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Thank you for your responses so far. This is a bit off topic but now that we are speaking of volition, you might already know that I think the terms determinism and volition don't describe what humans have and I think it is just a philosophical squabble over whether life has meaning or not. However, now that you mention that Peikoff MIGHT have said disposition is unanalysable it got me thinking. Objectivists believe that all knowledge is gained from experience of reality (environment), and that all that exists is material including your mind, and that you act based on your knowledge. In a sense aren't your genetics and your environment the only inputs to the output of action? For instance you can't raise your arm (using volition) if you either lack the knowledge of what an arm is and how to raise it or you lack the genetics that code for an arm.

There is no real point there is suppose, but I am just curious if you have any ideas about whether those statements are true or not.

I think that volition is simply that, volition. We may define volition more, we may eventually determine what characteristic of the human mind actually gives rise to volition, but that does not change Objectivism or how we derive morality. If I am not mistaken, Rand stated she is not a scientist or cosmologist, she does not know exactly how to explain existence, only that existence exists. To me volition is simply that apparently unique ability humans have to set aside reality and think and act irrationally. I am curious what makes it happen, but it changes nothing in the philosophy.

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