The achievement of the West and what’s hopefully ahead

Recently I’ve been thinking about Aristotle’s insight that “too much of a virtue turns into a vice. I believe this principle, when it comes to human norms and experiencing outside groups following different norms, has in the past often led to inter-group conflict.

Imagine, for instance, that your tribe has a traditional value (or moral norms) of honoring the family of one’s spouse during the time when two people decide to share their life together (a version of today’s marriage) by bringing daily gifts to the spouse’s family for one full moon (month). Over time, your tribe’s territory expands, and at some point you will likely find another tribe in the territory you’re expanding into. Their traditions differ (surprise!), and given your traditions have served you well (values!), you are convinced you do things right (moral superiority), and so you then feel righteously empowered to proselytize them, up to and including using armed conflict.

That is where God and religion come in: for people to continuously act in ways that–from biological, cultural-, and economic-exchange perspectives–can be considered harmful (being willing to threaten and kill other humans simply over one’s values) requires a “good reason”, and what works better than thinking that this is all based on rules laid out by the Creator of the Universe who has given you (and you alone) the right way of living!?

One big achievement of the West is to recognize that all traditions that evolution sustains over generations contain, at their heart, a (positive) value. Honoring a spouse’s family with gifts can increase community bonds between the families for years to come, for instance. And even a tradition we reject as barbaric and self-destructive–honor killings–may attempt to support a value of not treating romantic/sexual relationships as casual but rather as a source of deep meaning–at the cost of other values, chiefly among them the life of the women, something we find is much more important!

In other words, our Western culture has, over time, recognized that the best way to deal with the fact that values themselves clash–setting up one value as the top priority over all others (i.e. a vice) means those values at the bottom may not be actualized enough to live “the good life”–is not to fight this out between groups (warring between tribes over different values), but rather to incorporate this battle into the individual.

Enlightenment asks human beings to not let virtues (values) turn into vices (warfare) and turn into mono-motivational agents in which a single “cause” (no matter how good) turns into a form of value-despotism. Instead, through millennia-old wisdom (see Aristotle) and reflections in newer religious tradition–what Jordan B. Peterson calls the Christian ideal that being imbued with a fragment-of-God-containing soul means we are “of God”, and thus the focus of attention must lie in individual salvation–we have at last come to a point where values can be balanced within the self.

So instead of an external (omniscient and omnipotent) God whose rules and guidance we are asked to follow, we can experience God (balance of all values and virtues) inside of us, that all we need to do is pay enough attention to all the values we can experience–which, BTW, in Nonviolent Communication is called the manifestation of needs (values) through feelings, in which unmet needs lead to unpleasant and met needs lead to pleasant feelings.

Unfortunately, history is currently making a little detour: our cultural learning has brought back virtue-to-vices identity politics (tribal thinking along with setting certain values paramount). How did that happen?

It is a very old flaw in our evolutionary setup. The function that, within individuals, alerts us that our thinking and acting in the world is not in line with all of our values (negative emotional states, that is feeling bad when we think or act in ways not in harmony with all of our values and needs) requires attentional shifts. Whatever we are doing is interrupted when we feel (emotional) pain, so that we can actually stop what we’re doing, and we re-adjust our behavior to reflect the missing value.

However, this mechanism (attentional shifts towards emotional content) also works when emotions are elicited by externally provided virtue signaling, in which an out-group’s behavior is marked as morally (or normatively) wrong. Previously, it was more difficult to generate this attention to out-groups’ behavior in a sustained fashion–the highest frequency until about 70 years ago was maybe twice a day, when papers had a morning and evening edition. Now we are constantly bombarded with “news” about how other groups or their figureheads “misbehave”, and people have begun sorting more and more rigorously back into tribal units of various kinds.

In the US we have tribes that are “pro-life”, “pro-gun”, “pro-environment”, “pro-social-justice”, “anti-immigration”, etc. Each of these tribes defends their (primary) value against the most opposite-experienced tribe. And this is reflected in many aspects of life, culminating in party ideologies that bundle the spectrum of virtues-turned-to-vices into two broad ideological sides: conservatives (people who believe that the way things are is best, and that a strict order is needed to live the “good life”) and liberals (people who believe that the way things are needs to change as long as people suffer, and that this change requires that the other side give up their current way of life).

And the irony of it all is that, in order to achieve their goals, both conservatives and liberals have turned back to the very mechanism that Western culture tried to leave behind: inter-group conflict based on tribal warfare over different top-priority-values.

My hope is two-fold… First, that Western cultures can evolve one step further, by recognizing the pernicious role that externally elicited emotion (over individually experienced value-based emotion) plays in inter-group conflict via attention–this would ruin the business model of news and social media, but I hope our love for Facebook, Twitter, and cable news stock price will not prevent this rebuke of ideological propaganda’s effect on attention. And second, that the tension we’re currently experiencing, within our nation but also between nations, old human tribal instincts (and religious zealotry) flaring up, is the necessary wake-up call, and that people will wake up sooner rather than later, before we spiral down into a self-destructive mode from which it will be much harder to recover once a sufficiently high number of people will have died from the inter-tribal violence of “who’s right?”

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