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Morality and Accountability in Social Beings

Living in America, it is quite possible to hear the claim that the Bible is important since it offers a guide to proper behavior, including morals and values. This is rather odd since there are certainly many cultures in the world over the centuries that were never exposed to the Bible. Where did those cultures get their guide for morality?

There are other intelligent social beings on Earth. I recently had the pleasure of reading two excellent books, Our Inner Ape by Frans de Wall and In Defense of Dolphins by Thomas I. White. The subtitle to Our Inner Ape is 'a leading primatologist explains why we are who we are' but the investigation into dolphin behaviors adds even further insight.

The book Our Inner Ape compares behaviors of humans with those of our closest genetic primates, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. We share with them a common ancestor only a few million years ago, with the gorilla and orangutan having common ancestors with this line much longer ago. The recent discovery of another human ancestor, nicknamed Ardi, suggests the lineage might be a little more complicated than at the time of this book but that finding does not affect the comparisons being drawn. (My summary of both books will be brief and I recommend anyone interested in this topic should read the books.)

The chimpanzee community is dominated by a male chimp who gains and maintains his position of dominance through intimidation. Violence is also often involved especially when a new chimp assumes the role. It is not unheard of for a new alpha male to kill the offspring of his predecessor. The chimpanzee community has its social organization and grooming is a tool for maintaining relationships. The dominant male exerts his dominance for the females that will provide his offspring.

The bonobo community is managed by a dominant female bonobo, often the oldest in the group. The important group of females often decide how the food is distributed among the group. Conflicts that arise in the group are typically resolved by genital contact among those involved, whether they are male and female, two males or two females. The 60s chant of 'make love not war' finds itself realized in the peace loving bonobo community. The community tends to the offspring in the group and, in the obvious difference with the chimpanzees, the father of any baby is probably unknown to the group.

The human community is characterized by the nuclear family, where the monogamous couple rears their children initially and during adolescence the community typically (in larger human communities) takes over this role using schools. This difference (noted in the book) is advantageous over the alternatives observed in the other two primates. The nuclear family ensures, in our patriarchal society, the father knows who his offspring are and is not required to fight with other males in keeping his one devoted spouse since the union is recognized by all. This family unit within a larger group of families is also beneficial to the community. This development enables the specialization of labor within human communities.

The domains of the three species is certainly different. The bonobo have the smallest range but their peace loving nature probably tends toward managing the well being of their community. The chimpanzee has a much wider range of central Africa. One could theorize that an alpha male unable to achieve dominance in one community might look for another community to rule but apparently outsiders can have a difficult time integrating into a new group. Humans have covered almost the entire globe, where history has innumerable episodes of explorers and soldiers looking for new lands to discover and plunder, to the detriment of the previous occupants.

The similarities among the three species are interesting. Human behaviors seem to fall in the middle somewhat, where the power and dominance of the chimpanzee is certainly clear to all (like big business and military leaders or abusive husbands) but also the inherent empathy of the bonobo for others is evident as well. There is even the observation that an infant of one day could hear another crying in the nursery and so begins to cry as well; this is not a learned behavior at that age. On a similar subject (which attributes are people born with?), I have read a number of books by Noam Chomsky and his writings about linguistics have suggested that people are apparently born with an inherent framework for dealing with a language; during the early years of dealing with their actual social environment the person learns how the local language fits into that framework. Another observation is that a female bonobo, when nearing sexual maturity, will leave the community and merge into another, thereby somewhat avoiding the genetic inbreeding problem. The bonobos probably do not explicitly know about possible genetic or health problems associated with father-daughter babies so the behaviors from instinct help with the survival of the species. How many behaviors of humans are based on our instinct, rather than being learned?

The dolphin community also seems to be somewhat patriarchal, with males having dominance over females. Dolphins are also a very social creature with frequent physical contact between everyone, male or female. Dolphins are exceptional in that they seem to relate to humans even though we are a very different species, including the anecdotal evidence of their helping people who have been tossed in the water and would not have survived if not for help from a dolphin. The dolphin's environment has nurtured a very different intelligent social animal than primates, like humans. Dolphins live with sound probably more than sight, where they can distinguish size differences of less than a millimeter at more than 30 feet.

Dolphins are apparently ALWAYS part of their community, whereas people for example can go behind something physical (like a wall) for privacy. There are no partitions in the ocean. Sound in water travels much more efficiently than in air and so dolphins can also hear what is being communicated or being located by all the other dolphins in the vicinity.

Human language has been suggested as the natural extension of understanding another person's facial expressions and hand/arm motions. A dolphin has no facial muscles for such clues of attitude nor does it have any hands. Sound serves several purposes for dolphins, including communication, echolocation and even as as tool (their focused high decibel sounds can be used when hunting to herd the school of fish). Scientists have yet to solve what information is being shared among dolphins within their sounds.

Dolphins appear to be more of a pure social creature than any of the primates. Dolphins have been caught when fishermen are netting tuna and it has been suggested that the dolphins were not smart enough to escape. A possible explanation is the dolphin has no clue about its individual right to survive, by that escape, but instead is always evaluating the group's survival which might be hindered by one leaving a smaller number behind. Perhaps this social nature is a disadvantage to dolphins, such as when they are massacred by people (dolphin drive hunting). A dolphin is self-aware so it understands individuality. Several dolphins were even able to learn the concept of a simple language in well structured experiments. The book about dolphins noted above reveals so much about dolphin intelligence and behaviors (as well as recommending dolphins be treated better by humanity than they do now).

Dolphins seem to have an intelligence driven by their social nature whereas in people the tendency (at least in a Christian culture) seems toward emphasizing a person's individuality and the social aspects are minimized. (Regardless of whether this web site is successful with its intermittent attempt at pointing it out to the reader, Zen tries to get a person to recognize that inherent connection with the person's world that can be lost by social conditioning depending on that disconnect (divide and conquer applies to so many situations, when someone seeks control of a group whether it involves children, students, workers, etc., but most especially with Western religions and their concept of the separate soul and a promise for a blissful eternal after life).

There are (at least) two conclusions that can be drawn from learning about the behaviors of these other social creatures.

The first is that our social nature itself helps define what is considered acceptable behavior in any human community. People do not need to have a rule written on a stone tablet to know that killing others is wrong. Social creatures have an inherent empathy for others that could be lost only during the social upbringing.

The second is that our social nature is also conducive to bad dominant behavior, where the leader no longer acts in the group’s interests and the group must somehow deal with the situation. When the dominant male chimp becomes a bully then the entire community rebels forcing the male to change or he can be replaced. In any human group, the final check on bad behavior must be from the group itself (such as when laws or their enforcement have not succeeded to control that bad direction). If the group itself has no mechanism available then the dominant minority has lost any accountability for its bad behaviors. Every democracy is founded with the expectation there are adequate built-in checks on the abuse of power. An example is the American Constitution gives only the collective body of Congress the power of declaring war, rather than the single person at the head of the executive branch, the President. This attempt at preventing the concentration of significant power in one person has practically failed as most of the recent Presidents have assumed much more power than the Constitution had intended.

It is truly sad that our latest American Presidents (both Bushes and Obama) seem to have little problem with the death and destruction being brought to innocent people in the Middle East (Clinton brought it to the remnants of Yugoslavia). Political power can easily pre-empt moral values, like the normal aversion to such things as causing murder and suffering.

The American evangelicals that push the Biblical world view are basically saying that they understand how to interpret the books in the Bible and everyone should follow what they say. In the book by John Dean, Conservatives without Conscience, some religious leaders are noted as seeking power, more than seeking to advise their listeners. Within our social natures, some people are driven to lead while others are not. Christianity is so deeply entrenched in this country because children are told to believe it starting at such an early age, before they are mature enough to rationally evaluate the concepts in the context of the rest of their education. This means there is never a sufficient cohesive group within any religious organization to question the leadership.

In the 19th century, during the start of the Industrial Age, the major manufacturing companies forced their workers to endure long hours under unsafe conditions while the executives at the top reaped their wealth. Workers that complained could be fired because there were other poor people willing to take the positions. Only the widespread demonstrations and strikes by the worker unions could finally bring an end to those conditions. That was a long difficult struggle since the government typically sided with the company, such as sending in local police to help the company under siege (aiding the source of political power generally takes precedence over any group of citizens).

In recent years, the large companies are evading such inconveniences (which now include environmental concerns, not just worker conditions) by moving those jobs to third world countries, where the people are too poor to turn down jobs at low wages under unsafe conditions and where their leaders are willing to use those people as fodder for their own enrichment and power. When large companies use international borders to avoid any restrictions on their bad behavior, any accountability has been lost.

Perhaps this is too naive of an economic concept but when a company is formed it is something of a social contract between the company and its workers and its community (especially as one company's success aids other companies in the area). In a way this is something of a marriage (but not between two people; it is between a community and an economic entity so the rules are inherently different), where the workers have made the company successful and they deserve or are entitled to a benefit from their efforts, not just a daily wage but the assurance the company remains in the community. For a company to move some or all its operations elsewhere is to break that contract and, as in a marriage, any dissolution of that contract entitles the disadvantaged party compensation for that contract being terminated.

America has a representative democracy where the electorate votes into office someone that will represent their concerns. Practically at the national level, those getting into office are beholden to the corporate interests that sustain their election campaigns, not to those that case the votes. As the electorate recognizes this situation, the intent of accountability intended within the system is lost. The electorate cannot pick a suitable candidate because he or she will not have the funding to compete. Our system now makes it difficult for anyone other than from the two major parties from competing and so alternative candidates are sabotaged there as well.

Before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were many huge demonstrations around the world trying to prevent it. The American administration was apparently intent on this attack from at least mid 2002 and that bloodshed continues to this day.

Protests against the Iraq War

At various econonic conferences, especially here in America, and party conventions (Democrat or Republican) there are often public demonstrations against the participants.

For example:

Demonstrations against corporate globalization

2004 Republican National Convention protests

2008 Republican National Convention protests

The obvious pattern here is the government is trying very hard to prevent large demonstrations against the people in power. When no demonstrations are allowed, after this persecution and harassment has prevented anyone from attending to weather the storm, then truly all accountability for the people in the government is gone.

The form of American government must evolve into something more accountable or it will inherently fail, like everything does when it is 'out of control' as can be seen historically by so many dictators and military states (though of course the Roman Empire took many years before finally succumbing).

Though I have certainly been influenced by libertarian authors, I am not satisfied that such a system has the necessary accountability. The free market in the early years of the Industrial Revolution reveals what would happen with a pure libertarian society - the few, most efficient business leaders would dominate society with the poor multitude surviving on such wages under such work conditions that were the minimum acceptable within the business market. Any economic system based on unrestricted greed will inevitably see the consequences of that behavior. To avoid a replay of worker unrest of the 19th Century in the 21st Century, companies now play their current workers against other less fortunate possible workers in other states or in other countries to get concessions.

Capitalism must evolve into something more accountable or it will inherently fail. With the economic disaster of 2008 with its huge bailout of money from taxpayers going to big companies due to their severe mismanagement practices that were allowed to persist with no government oversight, that has already been noticed by many. The major media companies (large businesses in themselves) offer minimal oversight over unethical companies or their collusion with government.

To make suggestions on alternatives will just come across as being subversive (and in any case I am not an economist). I leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions whether there is justice for all when only a few reap the benefits of our current society, especially at a time of so much misery in the world.

created - Oct. 2009
last change - 10/05/2009
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