This is Part 1 in our new mini-series on Morals & Guilt. When I was a teenager I began to suffer from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). The driving force behind my disorder was a huge, overwhelming weight of guilt that pressed down on me and manipulated every decision I made. Some seemingly ridiculous examples that come to mind include:
All societies follow the ‘Golden Rule’
- My landlord asked me to check that all the windows of the house were closed before I went to bed. I would check them, then be unsure if I had actually checked them all. As a result, I would end up spending several minutes rechecking the windows every night. In fact going to bed was hell – all my checking and other silly rituals would end up taking 20-30 minutes.
- I was obsessed with dirt. For example, I remember on one occasion dropping a chip on the pavement. I then started worrying someone would stand on it and then ruin their carpet when they got home. I was very religious at this time. If my action resulted in someone ruining their carpet, then in my mind I would have ‘sinned’. The idea that I had deliberately sinning triggered a whole set of other obsessive fears and worries. Theses obsessive thoughts always culminated in the possibility that I might go to hell if I did not 'truly repent for my sins.' I also spent inordinate amounts of time washing dishes to ensure no-one got ill from germs. If they did, then in my mind I would have sinned by making them ill. It's all a bit bizarre really. But anyone who has suffered from OCD will probably relate to this kind of abstract thinking.
In this series we will consider what kinds of traits contribute to being moral and to developing guilt. In his book, Moral Origins
, Christopher Boehm investigates 150 hunter-gatherer societies. Boehm believes that these societies now live in the manner that humans would have lived up until around 10,000 years ago. After this time human groups settled and began to cultivate domestic plants and animals. Click here
for my review of his exceptional book. (We will be giving away copies of Moral Origins
in the next few days - courtesy of Basic Books
. Sign up to e-mail updates to be sure to get Your Chance to Win a Copy!
Boehm found that all hunter-gatherer societies actively promote and expect members to follow the ‘Golden Rule’. This 'rule' is found in most major religions: Do to others as you would want them to do to you.
The following are examples of the kinds of behaviour seen in all hunter-gatherer groups:
- In hunter-gatherer tribes, when the hunters return from a hunt with meat, it is crucial that the kill is distributed to everyone in the group. All tribes have developed systems to ensure that no-one is able to monopolise food.
- In the case of the !Kung tribesmen in the Kalahari desert, the hunter hands his catch over to the other hunters. When he returns to camp, he then pretends that he did not catch anything, for fear that his ego might get too inflated.
- Anyone attempting to dominate or take more food for themselves is aggressively opposed by the other members of the tribe (see opening of Moral Origins book review for a vivid example of this process in action.)
In tribal groups, the Golden Rule is drummed into children from a young age. But are we any different? Humans appear to posses a remarkable ability to be indoctrinated with ‘moral’ rules. Boehm calls the human conscience a ‘…judgemental, trainable cultural sponge that is shaped early in childhood.’1
And unfortunately, whilst human societies typically attempt to shape the emerging child’s mind in pro-social ways, we also see the potential for the conscience to be shaped in ways that are anti-social. This kind of manipulation was seen in Nazi Germany and is still very much demonstrated in oppressive regimes existing today.
Some people are born more ‘rule-abiding’ than others
I believe we each inherit a different potential to follow rules. My extreme potential to follow rules meant that I ended up becoming a fanatical religious zealot when I was a teenager. Although I am no longer religious, my rule-following behaviour is still a prevalent aspect of my personality. Ask my girlfriend. Often when she asks me to do something I say to her ‘I don’t understand the rule!’ e.g. She recently gave me the following instructions. ‘Pour one bucket of water onto each flower bed, or three onto a larger flowerbed’. This raises a lot of questions in my rule-based mind: e.g. what constitutes a ‘large’ flowerbed? How many buckets do I pour onto the medium sized flowerbeds? I always look for very clear rules to follow and panic when there are exceptions to those rules. Hopefully my long-suffering girlfriend will obtain a large reward in heaven for her unending patience.
What do you think?
So I’m interested to know – how ‘rule-abiding’ are you? Do you have a tendency, like me, to follow rules to the letter? Or are you more flexible, simply doing what seems best in the moment, without much concern for any ‘rules’? Comment below.
: Try our Rule Abiding
quiz and find out how Rule Abiding you are - CLICK HERE
Part 2 - Is 'Social Embarrassment' hindering you?
In Part 2 of our Morals & Guilt
series we will look at how social embarassment and shame contribute to moral beliefs. Click here
for Part 2.
Photo: Bőr Benedek
Boehm, C. 2012. Moral origins: The evolution of virtue, altuism, and shame.
New York: Basic Books. P. 53.