1. The Roots of Behavior
There are two opposite means of conditioning behaviors: negative and positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement provokes anxiety and fear, stimulating the amygdala and associated brain regions in conjunction with release of the neurotransmitters adrenaline, glutamate and GABA, a neural event that triggers the hippocampus and additional brain subregions to translate the feeling into a long-term memory regulating thoughts and actions, ultimately with influence on the psychology of decision-making. Positive reinforcement induces release of dopamine into the nucleus accumbens, which initiates the brain processes responsible for a sense of well-being, also capable of exciting the hippocampus and imprinting the psyche with long-term memories, affecting decisions no less strongly. The amygdala, nucleus accumbens and hippocampus are located in the midbrains of Homo sapiens.
Every experience judged positively or negatively lies on a continuum of relative impressions made on thought, linked closely with memories that grant us expectations varying at least slightly in each moment of our lives. Merely the anticipation of fear and anxiety excites the amygdala et al conglomerate in consort with the hippocampus, and likewise with well-being and the nucleus accumbens, inclining us to avoid or seek aspects of our environment, preempting the direct experience of a stimulus according to our idiosyncratic histories and recognitions. All but the most extreme events, such as perceptions of severe and immediate threat, an object hurtling towards the head for instance, or intensely addictive sensations, the effects of chemical substances like drugs being an example, do not generate an absolute feeling of anxiety, fear or well-being, but rather consist in the meaning of an event relative to what preceded it. In the majority of cases we feel “more” or “less” well-being in relation to a positive stimulus, or “more” or “less” anxiety or fear in relation to a negative one, better or worse, with sustained changes to environments or the unconscious body and brain resulting in our conscious minds recalibrating to these new conditions.
Feelings can be complex, but it is fairly simple to understand the fundamentals of their evolutionary function. In evolutionary terms, their role is of course tied to reproduction and survival. Human conception is a unique synthesis of frontal lobe activity with the rest of the brain, and their is plenty of variation between individuals, but we have reflexive responses to sudden, salient stimuli — dodging, flinching, wincing, grimacing, smiling, scowling, lunging, balancing — that are not only universal to our species but found in the rest of nature as well, particularly noticeable in closely related species such as mammals, birds, as well as many reptiles and amphibians, the behaviors of which our anthrocentric intuitions provide some insight into. So the frontal lobe, especially the prefrontal cortex’s involvement in personality and long-term planning, is a salient difference, while the midbrain and also the hindbrain are a similarity, as most humanesque species — two eyes, four limbs, a backbone, affect — have well-developed arrays of midbrain and hindbrain organs. It is elementary then to associate them with activities these organisms hold in common, what has traditionally been called ‘instinct’ and perhaps more aptly can be called ‘core behavioral function’, necessary for all of these organisms to remain alive.
We know from a study of anatomy that the midbrain is a sort of central station in the production of voluntary behavior. Most nerve signals from the body converge first on the base of the brain (hindbrain) — pons, medulla oblongata — where involuntary activities such as heart rate, intestinal contractions and unconscious breathing are regulated, then proceed to the midbrain where affect is generated along with corresponding impulsions to approach or withdraw from stimuli, simultaneously sending messages along to the cerebrum and cerebellum from which higher-level decision-making exacts its effects. This aggregate of causes is exceedingly complex, for neural flow bypasses its most common routes under many conditions: conscious regulation of breathing and intentional control of emotions by the suppression of affect are a couple of the innumerable examples. Nevertheless, we can say that human emotions like anxiety, fear and well-being with their conceptual meanings respond to, act upon, complement more visceral affect, this whole apparatus of experience having its rough equivalencies in different species, interfacing with other bodily systems as well as an organism’s environment via basic perceptions.
Perception is not well-understood scientifically, our theories still being rather primitive, but we know that almost any percept mediated by core brain structures (“core” from the point of view of voluntary awareness and what it experiences as in its orbit) — the frontal lobe, amygdala and additional regions — can be overridden by repetitious input from the “outer” body, for example nerve endings, sense organs, skin, limbs, mouth, or stomach. A light, comfortable massage, the repeated rubbing of our muscles, stimulates a mild feeling of well-being; repeated tapping on our skin or harsh, glaring light gives us a mild feeling of irritation, or if potentially threatening — a stranger tapping us on the shoulder unceasingly, the direct and sustained approach of a car’s headlights at night — a more intense experience of anxiety or fear. This effect of accumulating sensations is not simple; we repress the perception of a stimulus with habituation, react variantly to different patterns in the frequency of a stimulus, and respond to stimuli in ways that vary in each case and at each moment, but given enough persistency or severity our behavior will become completely absorbed in coping with them, revising our memories, engrossing our thoughts, and affecting what we decide to do on a long-term scale.
Perception is subtle, protean and incalculably complicated, but nonetheless involves a limited array of sensations, chemicals, cells and orientations in interpreting the environment, which are finite, stable and well-adapted enough that we can intuitively associate perceptions with two concepts expressed by the words ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’. Pleasure is what tends to give humans satisfaction and fulfill desires, and pain is the discomfort and hurt experienced. Anatomically and chemically, the processes that contribute to pleasure and pain are occurring at the same time, and so transitions can confuse our intentional minds, which are just one localized facet of the brain. What is pleasurable at one moment can seem painful at another and vice versa, which is probably true for a plethora of additional species as well. But if conditions are universal, especially conditions of juvenile development, the structural properties of human minds, already similar by heredity relatedness, will adapt in similar ways, and individuals can have rather uniform experiences of pleasure and pain. This is the basis for order in society, where negative reinforcement as punishment and positive reinforcement as reward are systematized so a society’s members have comparable enough reactions to stimuli that large-scale solidarity is possible.
Looked at from the viewpoint of overall organization, this standardization of pleasure and pain is of course necessary, giving us the capacity to engage in mutual behavior and obey laws, but the freedom to differ is also a benefit to the human race’s cultural development and perhaps biological evolution as it enables individuals to conceptualize in diverse ways, with variant perspectives on phenomena that are held in common, but which admit of alternative behaviors, procedures, methods, knowledge, reasoning, awareness. The history of human values, currently in civilized contexts, has been a history of this tension between the pursuit of unity via sameness and the pursuit of progress via difference, a struggle amongst influences of convergence and divergence, and theories of this dynamic are pivotal to the future of the species as we strive to construct the best possible societies and prevent social calamities.
2. A Framework for Theorizing Human Values
In understanding human values and their intersection with the historical development of behavior and culture, those resulting from a compulsion towards self-preservation must be distinguished from those that do not. Anger has clear survival value as a motivational force in life or death battles and rivalries for access to resources like territory and mates, so it is easy to surmise how it would have been naturally selected almost inevitably in the context of environmental and population pressures typical for Earth’s lifeforms. Cruelty, on the other hand, provides no easily discernible benefit to survival, being merely pleasurable excess, perhaps related to self-gratification of the hunting impulse in predator species, which usually involves repeated infliction of pain or fear at the expense of whatever organism is unfortunate enough to be a placeholder for prey. All behavior has its basis in biology, related to interactiveness with real situations and usually material conditions, but not every behavior is strictly practical from the perspective of ecological function, physically, psychologically, spiritually, or in any sense. Motivation and meaning in the most cognitively self-determining organisms are typically a sublimating of core behavioral tendencies into finely balanced high conceptualizing, the executive role of which can be existentially discomposed on occasion as intense experiences propagate beyond constraints of immediate need, simply an intrinsic outcome of ample consciousness. Since humanity’s complex conception is buffered via cultures of technology from the usual claimancies of biology (even hunter-gatherers are quite technological), it gives rise to many behaviors with attendant perceptions, thoughts and profusions of elaborate beliefs that have not been honed by natural selection for survival value and on the surface seem, well, crazy. Like a wolf howling at the moon, one’s at risk thrill-seeking, obsessions, phobias, or belief that a bird spirit created the world by shitting it out of its ass are not always maladaptive, just plain strange if you really think about them.
The first psychological theorists like Freud and Jung had plenty to say about the most bizarre human mentalities: hysteria, neuroses, delusions of all kinds came to their attention. Suggestive power that the human mind wields over the body is fascinating, in some cases seeming to make a complete break with the rest of nature. This topic is unintuitive, content for a trained psychoanalyst to describe and explain; what follows will not be concerned so much with all the idiosyncrasies possible for the individual psyche while it matures and finds its niche as features apposite to the structure of institutions, which are near universal and affect the fate of the entire species.
Culture is largely an evolutionary extension of family dynamics that are fundamentally a means of preserving human life, involving perceptions and feelings associated with kinship. Most parents have compulsive desire to care for their children and often a solid commitment to reflecting upon their methods, also a sense of pride wrapped up with the fate of offspring as both a kind of empathy and representation of their own value in the context of social groups, producing an eclectic mixture of self-sacrifice, intrafamily tension, interfamily jealousy, and occasional hostility at moments when parenting is difficult. Children must preserve their own lives by securing nourishment, care and status with some degree of competition from brothers and sisters, so intrasibling tension is common, though not guaranteed as strong empathy can easily arise in bonds created by deep awareness of mutual interests, dispositional similarities and reciprocal experiences; the inseparability of some identical twins is a good example. Parents are peacekeepers of the family; they resolve disputes between children when immature selfishness surfaces, and in healthy families teach children to share and take into consideration each other’s needs. As very young children grow, they go through multiple stages: thoughtlessly and impatiently trying to procure what they want, then working at meeting parents’ expectations of self-restraint yet still feeling pangs of self-preservational desire in “that’s not fair!”, and eventually, if skillfully raised and unimpeded by misfortunes of injury, illness or syndrome, equipped to advocate for their family and fill a productive role.
The original means by which to achieve these developmental ends, however, was anything but pacification. We can get an initial sense for why negativity of punishment prevailed over positivity of reward in the crafting of early human relationships and ways of life by comparing incentives to each. Extrinsic rewards as structured systems of positive reinforcement require a large investment of time to construct as well as excess resources to administer consistently, as a reasonable strategy for making behaviors likewise organized as habits. Basic punishment, on the other hand, is simply pain-infliction or the withholding of benefits, which requires no extra resources and much less planning, assuming the recipient is sufficiently subordinated physically or socially, as are young children or those relegated to inferior status. Punishment is also often gratifying to the inflicter in what was defined as cruelty, a discharge of aggressive affect, surpluses of which can build up as anger or malice at times of frustration, disappointment or contempt, even when the source is merely harmless incompetence of a student to one’s methods. Physical or emotional pain also supposedly toughen up the recipient, regarded as essential for circumstances of violent conflict, and the traditionality of war to even prehistoric society provoked convictions that punishment is an essential tool in safeguarding the survival of one’s culture. Simply put, conventions of negative reinforcement, what we call punishment, seem superior to naked intuition, much easier to conceptualize and implement.
Of course the meaning of pain-infliction and the withholding of pleasure is more complex than only this. To start with, pleasure and pain are built into human sociality; simply a smile or a thousand similar visual, chemical, conceptual subtleties can positively reinforce, inducing shades of pleasure, and a frown or a thousand like phenomena can negatively reinforce, eliciting shades of pain. Unconsciously, the human psyche has a vast conglomerate of signals that reinforce or discourage socializing, and consciously, every individual constitutes their personal standards by which to judge those they interact with, accomplished by analyzing one’s experiences, imbibing culture, and making all kinds of generalizations. The boundary between conscious and unconscious awareness is not fixed of course, as the unconscious can become conscious, the conscious can become unconscious, and social experiences as well as much else can also be a combination of both.
As discussed in section 1, there are behavioral functions that select for the evolving structure of organisms on the scale of both individual lifespans and multigenerational timespans, so that a living creature becomes essentially a congregate of modules that are either adequately functional and thus tending towards stability, growing more functional, or trajecting towards extinction due to obsolescing function:
1. Avoidance of diminishing health, the immunity and healing modules
2. Acquisition of energy and nutrients, the metabolic modules
3. Protection, the combat modules
4. Mating and birthing, the reproductive modules
5. Communication, the symbolic and linguistic modules
6. Recognition of surroundings, the perceptual and conceptual modules
7. Growth and maturation, the developmental modules
All of these modular structures and their subcomponents, however defined, are mutating, interacting, changing both independently and synthetically in the context of selection pressures acting upon them; if they lack efficacy to be selected within their conditions, they are displaced, diverted, atrophy or even vanish.
It must be remembered that this is reifying the conventional paradigm of emergence amongst the particularity we know as ‘matter’, superimposing a common method of generalizing upon a reality of unfathomed depth to render causal intuitions more lucid, more tangible. It cannot give us an indication of what existence absolutely is, but provides a framework for conceptualizing the way cognized domains of activity are both sets of same-plane modules and a vertically nested structurality of different scales, existing as congregates of spatial and temporal vectors exerting simultaneous but disproportionate influence on each other.
Spatial causality has been intuited for millennia — Plato’s concept of the forms, which he spun into a derivative philosophy of geometry, exemplifies the gist — but robust conceptualizings of temporal vectorization came later, at the beginning of the 19th century after a deep searching, first for rational principles of historical continuity, then for knowledge of the more arational conditioning over time imposed by unconscious contexts. This is the seminal Hegelian idea of spontaneous generation and propagating synthesis, elaborated into the Darwinian idea of natural conditions as an ecological scale of influence, the Marxist idea of material conditions such as those of economies as a technological scale of influence, the Nietzschean idea of cultural conditions as a memetic scale of influence, the Freudian and Jungian idea of conditions of the mind as a psychical scale of influence, the neuroscientific idea of neural conditions as a scale of influence more finely grained than Freudian-inspired concepts of the psyche, and the quantum physical idea of even more finely grained energized forms of matter underlying even neural conditioning. Arriving at the 21st century, we have generated this set of theoretical spheres of influence, taken together they can be considered parallel layers of relative causal scale, that extend from the subatomic all the way to the largest size that has any relevance for distinctly human history, the planetary and interplanetary scales. Every scale that could possibly apply in assessing the human self’s structural history is likely available to us, so we should try to define this entity, “ourselves”, in its complex depth and historical vastness.
The interplanetary and planetary scales have indirect pertinence to epistemic progress as our very distant history; they give us notions of how the matter we seem to be made of came into existence and our relative location. They have taught us that we are one small speck in a vast universe, but this universe does not exist on a different plane than our own existence; the cosmos we have always witnessed — twinkling stars, wandering planets, a blindingly bright sun, a seemingly large moon, years, seasons, days and nights, and everything terrestrial — is not fundamentally isolated, as what lies beyond it can be a subject of human knowledge, and we may be able to push beyond our current boundaries one day with more powerful science and perhaps space travel, also countering possible catastrophes such as meteor strikes as well as the uninhabitability of our planet due to an expanding sun predicted to take effect in a billion years. Still, organic life on Earth is quite distanced from the originating chaos of our universe and solar system, as well as buffered from the rest of the galaxy, and human life is almost unimaginably new in evolutionary terms, so that our immediate environment and past are much more germane to an examination of human nature for purposes of social planning than anything beyond present-day Earth’s forms of influence.
At times, the neural scale gives us deep insights into behavior that can controvert our intuitions, especially as we scrutinize the impact of accidental or rare injuries, lesions and additional abnormalities that isolate or alter regions of the brain, revealing individual and combined functional roles by comparison to normal subjects. With fMRI machines, we can generate images of brain activity in real time, correlating brain structure with mental and behavioral function in ways that are inaccessible to nontheoretical conception and its lack of high technology. Nevertheless, we have much to learn about how brain structure corresponds to mind; for instance, the more controversial aspects of human maturation revealed in psychoanalysis are nearly untouched by neuroscience. Neurology thus far has given us knowledge of averages, as well as anomalies interpreted in a way that aligns with mainstream ethical sensibilities, but there is much more than this to account for. In its currently underdeveloped state, brain science can be no more than a sporadic supplement for defining the human self, not so much in the context of the self’s structure — for example, an understanding of the midbrain certainly clarifies our model of affect — but with regard to its ontogenesis and phylogenesis. We have not yet modeled changes over extended periods of time in the single subject let alone lineages, nor do we have even the beginnings of procedures for doing so.
As was previously discussed, application of quantum mechanics to biology holds great promise for modeling perception and additional qualitative experiences in physical terms, for the mind very well may be an interaction of thermodynamic chemistry with the brain’s electromagnetic field mediated by quantum effects, perhaps all situated in some kind of nonlocal substrate. However, this area of research is still speculative, being in its earliest stages, so does not as of yet have solid contributions to make towards an understanding of behavior, its mental or even biochemical correlates.
The natural scale increases in relevance the closer we get to the origin of Homo sapiens, with theoretical accounts of changing ecosystems, ancestral characteristics, and selection pressures on and within social groups all contributing to models of how humanity’s traits came into being, in the current context of analysis with a focus on behavioral traits. Some of these characteristics are universal enough that any diagnosis of institutions must address their history and present causality.
With the start of early hominin existence and its eventual evolutionary divergence into the lineage of Homo sapiens roughly two hundred thousand years ago, technology took on an increasingly significant role in determining the nature of behavior as well as social structure, and archaeological artifacts give us much information about this factor. The first technology was simple, stones crudely cracked into sharper pieces for cutting and chopping, graduating to more precisely fashioned stone implements until finely crafted knives, spears and arrows became the standard. Harnessing fire enabled the cooking of meat, counteracting spoilage so that hunting could be based out of an entrenched, defensible location. Salts kept meat palatable for longer, and territories with roving camps could become stable settlements where the first permanent housings were erected. From roughly thirty thousand to ten thousand years ago, due to these and additional innovations, the population of Homo sapiens was exploding, filling all available land, so that negotiation was necessary to moderate conflicts over territory and resources. Hunter-gatherer social groups began to mingle in religious, political and probably economic ways, leaving evidence of regular convenings as large expanses of artifacts of which some are apparently ceremonial, most of this currently underground, where hundreds if not thousands of individuals must have congregated.
As provision for basic needs grew more secure, time came available for thoughtful experimentation, and these early denizens of larger scale culture began to master farming and herding, the domesticated breeding of plants and animals, which enlarged food supplies, transitioning the species to an even more settled lifestyle with still greater population growth. Humans also began experimenting in many additional areas, making rapid material advances in architecture and tool-making that improved city planning, crop yields, the general standard of compact living, as well as introducing all kinds of new products to be distributed from workshops of specialized professionals. Humans also engaged in purely conceptual inventiveness as well, founding religious, legal, economic, educational and intellectual standards for behavior. This grew into enduring civilization, a competitive but also cooperative lifestyle of congress between large populations fueled by technology, complex division of labor, the exchange of ideas, and trading of goods.
As civilization evolved, recurrent complications such as wars, inequalities of power distribution with consequent unrest, scarcities of resources, dangers due to climate fluctuations, natural disasters and exploitative excesses all came to the forefront. Many became absorbed in social planning, reflecting deeply on how to best organize society and cope with these problems. This was the beginning of institutional rationality, the construction of social structure by an analysis of precedents and the imposition of systems intended to be maximally effective modes of thinking and behavior. Thus, humans planted the seeds of objectivity, decision-making with both material and so-regarded “immaterial” or spiritual conditions of collectives in mind, a culture seeking optimization of method in all spheres of human existence, concerned to articulate truth in the context of issues that in their generality, arcaneness or newness presented serious difficulties. If these notions were not always expressed in universal terms, ponderers at least pursued the most practical formulations they considered possible.
So the growing technical prowess of humanity conjoined with desire for effective social planning to birth a tradition of careful observation and objective analysis engendering an ever more capable perceiving of patterns in natural and social environments as well as the theoretical modeling of these patterns as causal mechanisms. But of course culture is much more than this; many of our ideas are not technical, procedural or explicitly practical, but of some alternate type. This is the aesthetic side of culture that is more recently developed than tool-use, a distinctly human blend of artistry, pleasure, pain, thought, and rich funds of individual memory and meaning acquired over lifespans. The personal orientations of human beings at any given moment can spread to the wider population as ‘memes’, creative conceptualizings with effectively infinite potential for expressive novelty that elicit experiences in additional individuals. Increased ability of humanity to transmit ideas and information via developments such as media and internet makes memetic effects pivotal to all coordination of human behavior, and we are still trying to get a handle on how to manage these cultural forces modifying likes and dislikes, opinions, beliefs and ways of life.
This brings us to the core phenomenon that must be addressed in any grasping of human behavior — the human psyche — and theorizing it is a demanding task. As we have seen, it is located in a context of technical and aesthetic influences that mold it over time, leaving only a partial record of this past in academic, artistic and material mediums like philosophy, technology, painting, music, drama, dance, literature, written correspondences, essentially remnants of memetic dynamics in bygone eras. It has innate features universal enough to the species that almost all individuals can come to a workable understanding of intention and its emotional implications as expressed in every culture by a manageable amount of description (psychological research performed by Americans with indigenous tribes among much else suggests this), yet the exact subjective quality of someone else’s experience is always somewhat foreign as the human brain is extremely intricate and labile, with unfathomably complex neuronal connectivity. Subtle differentiation pervades the spectrum of brain compositions, but higher-level thought has enough plasticity that culture is able to coax the mind’s conceptual/perceptual apparatus towards not just functional but structural convergences, making our experiences even more intelligible to each other by way of likenesses in neuromaterial form than they would be initially, and this includes the collective meanings of behavior. Human minds can meld to each other under conducive conditions, in various ways not yet scientifically well-understood, such as chemically, linguistically and mimetically, an adaptiveness that makes our combination of creative reasoning and social solidarity exceed any known species.
Rational social planning previously discussed is one of the primary collective techniques for achieving high levels of solidarity, the difference between populations of hundreds and many millions. But before the species began welding into large-scale civilizations with their multicultural commerce, divergent evolution in practices and beliefs of separate cultures had taken place, contributing to the unintuitiveness of inaugural integration efforts. Additionally, humans have engaged in intervals of warfare stretching back to distant prehistory, at least hundreds of thousands of years and maybe millions; chimpanzees have similar tribal rivalries, gorillas are known to forcibly usurp control over troupes from each other, and bonobos are avid social climbers. A tendency towards pursual of exploitative power and the violent conflict it instigates may be ingrained in the biology of anthropoid species. Humans also do violence to themselves, with piercing, bloodletting, foot-binding, self-starvation and self-flagellation being common to many cultures and subcultures, indigenous and civilized. Progress towards spiritual and psychological maturity is often closely tied to ritualized pain, suffering, even agony.
With the centrality of violence to the psyche and its cultures, manifesting in eons of war and self-inflicted pain, it is only to be expected that the first moves toward civilization frequently utilized violent conflict to achieve their ends. Violence was one convention almost all societies had in common, and of course those who could not muster even defensive capabilities were either crushed militarily or required to pay tributes, submitting them to the agenda of an overlord culture. Thus, civilization began as a gigantic competition for superior arms, tactics and strategy. Trade was also a prime motivator, as it probably had been on a smaller scale for prehistoric ages, and militarily preeminent cultures could make sure the lion’s share of economic benefits in whatever form were their own, an unequal distribution of wealth that would engender class-based societies. Upper classes applied paradigms of domination in times of peace to maintain control of what had been conquered, with the result being a gradually more systematic collection of regulations supervised by bureaucracies that utilized threats of punishment, the promise of power, and also sometimes notions of spiritual supremacy to maintain order. Social authority had been institutionalized as enforced political systems, administrative hierarchies upholding gradations of privilege with their penalties and incentives.
There was much variety in how burdensome governments were to subjects; some regimes were paragons of efficiency, amassing prodigious wealth and mandate, while others virtually preyed upon the citizenry. Every political system went through periods of unity contrasting with descents into corruption characterized by severe injustice, and when decadence took hold, as it frequently did, populations rebelled against rulers or became anarchic, with a variety of outcomes. In the Athenian city state of ancient Greece, repeated overthrow and expellation of autocratic leaders known as “tyrants” eventually led to a democratic system with almost full participation. In ancient Rome, a famous slave revolt led by Spartacus was brutally crushed with well-trained legions, having no appreciable political effect despite the assembling of a hundred thousand man army. Also in Rome, domestic turmoil in response to logistical complications and class conflict led to transition from the Senate-governed Republic towards a more dictatorial system. Ancient Chinese empires repeatedly collapsed at the deaths of occasionally competent leaders, at which time thousands of square miles would once again sunder into rival regions with chaotic, widespread warring. And the Mauryan dynasty of antiquity united all of what is currently northern India under a talented administration that for a time made it one of the most stable and honorable civilizations in world history. Human beings were often uncertain about the future and rogue ambition was always looking to hit the power jackpot, but with repeated upheavals and disintegrations it became apparent to all that standards of fairness as reliable laws and legal systems were necessary to keep the peace and secure even the upper class’ position in society, so that rationality-based tradition grafted to power-based tradition in institutions, moving towards more conscientious oversight of human behavior.
As already alluded to, at large scales the negative reinforcement of punishment is much simpler to invoke as a motivational tool than the positive reinforcement of reward, and in cultures where violence was so endemic it was only natural to accept the method of enforcement with pain or deprivation. Early civilizations did not have highly developed economies where minimum wages, complex promotional pay grades and insurance against misfortune were everywhere possible, nor could citizens be compensated for malfeasances and logistical complications that can inconvenience or even ruin them. At antiquity’s stage of legal development, if there was any justice to be had it was in response to injurious wrongdoing by someone within or below one’s own class, and the standard repercussion was injury or deprivation structured as a balance between respect for an offender’s social status, proportionality to the wrong committed, effectiveness as a deterrent, and commonly the need for supplies of cheap labor as convicted criminals were forced into servitude with minimal standard of living. Life was hard, and so were the expectations placed upon human nature by societies.
As progressing technology brought humanity into the modern era, life grew increasingly comfortable, value associated with the acquisition and exchange of resources could be distributed with greater efficiency via complex financial systems, making wealth more egalitarian, and new resources or applications for existing resources were discovered that expanded economies and put more citizens to work, which lessened the incentive for technologically advancing warfare and its devastations. With better standard of living, Earth’s population began to grow exponentially, but as the world develops economically, becoming industrialized, commercialized and better educated, even this complication dissipates; individuals become more fiscally conscientious and families remain smaller.
It is increasingly possible to structure society as a system of positive incentives that reward citizens for achievement, compensate them for misfortune, and rehabilitate their weaknesses into the strength of competence and productivity. Where disabilities make occupational independence and financial contributions impossible, we can still afford to give these disadvantaged citizens the support they need to live with dignity. Yet many ancient conventions atavistically recur; wars, coups, unjust lawmaking, exploitation of the vulnerable, complacency about both the prospects of our neighbors and the future of humanity are all unremitting. We must question how we can overcome these problems and why they keep resurfacing. Central to this effort will be an analysis of human nature seeking understanding of the self to the furthest extent possible, a process which is nowhere near definitiveness, but at our current stage of knowledge allows for some suggestive ideas. This theorizing will draw from all the modules of behavioral function in their natural, technological and cultural contexts with auxiliary support from biology and neuroscience to give some indications of how the psyche interacts with institutions, both from a historical perspective and in the present, where civilization is heading, and ways to improve life while averting disasters. Hopefully this can offer some contribution to the comprehension of behavior and an updating of values for the 21st century.
A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below. Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.