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Instincts and Morals

Posted Nov 21 2008 4:27pm
Today's presentation by Shamil Fattakhov, at the Marianas International Baha'i Winter School, covered the subject of Instincts and Morals. I'll have to admit, that somewhere along the way, I think I missed something major, but here is what I got out of it.

Instinct can be defined as an inborn pattern of activity or tendency to action or a natural or innate impulse, inclination or tendency. Instincts are complex reflexes -- generally automatic actions. he asked the question, "What is the difference between the instincts of a human being, and those of an animal?" After some discussion, the participants agreed that at the level of instinct, there are no differences between the instincts of an animal and those of a human. Biologists have identified four basic instincts: the instinct for self-preservation/survival; the instinct for food; the instinct for reproduction; and the instinct for territory. All of these are related to survival, but each is a separate instinct that animals and humans possess.

So, then, what differentiates humans from animals? As a species, it would have to be the power of intellect. Humans have a higher intelligence that is an overlay onto the instincts. It's a sort of reasoning power, but also an evaluative power. It is this capacity for intellect, which is an expression of consciousness and an expression of the human soul, that allows for decision-making, free-will, and the emergence of values such as "right" and "wrong." Animals, lack this capacity of evaluating "right" and "wrong", "good" and "bad", "vice" and "virtue." And as such in their world, they are none of these. They simply exist and function at the level of instinct.

However, instinct is the source of morals, because every instinct, from the human perspective can be pursued in a way that results in either vice or virtue.

We went through an exercise of taking each instinct and coming up with the vices and virtues of expressing that instinct.

For example, the vices of "self-preservation" on an individual and a social level could include war, anger, lying, murder, exploitation, accumulation of excessive wealth, espionage, negative campaigning, backbiting, etc. While on the other side, virtuous or positive expressions of "self-preservation" could include such things as cooperation, resourcefulness, individual initiative, family, justice, hard work, good governance, and planning.

Vices related to pursuit of food could include overeating, exploitation of the environment, cruelty to animals, the proliferation of cooking shows (that one was my idea), withholding food as a means of coercion, and the like. Virtues could be health and energy, hospitality, means of sharing culture, bonding, pleasure, detachment and self-discipline, and expressions of generosity and charity.

Vices related to the drive for reproduction/sex are such things as promiscuity, prostitution, human trafficking, overpopulation, population manipulation through government policies (think "one child" policy), pornography, lust. Virtues might include love, intimacy, children, pleasure, faithfulness and fidelity.

Vices related to the territorial instinct would include nationalism, racial and ethnic discrimination, trade barriers, xenophobia. Virtues include sane patriotism, environmentalism, pride in ones culture and homeland, a sense of home and of sharing one's home.

This is just the stuff we came up with -- the lists could be endless, depending on how broadly you want to address each subject. Now, the job of the human being -- the process of "becoming moral" -- is to take each of these instincts which we recognize are natural, and to weed out the vices associated with them, and to nurture the virtues related to them.

(Like I said, I think I may have missed something major in the presentation, or else my brain hasn't yet made some seminal connection, but this is what I came away with).

I found this a helpful way to think about some of the social issues we now face in Saipan. For example, there is plenty of discussion surrounding this issue immigration and federalization. The territorial instinct is a natural one, however, it's expression can have two very different directions. The nationalism and xenophobia and racism that is becoming vocal is a negative expression of this instinct. I think most of the population recognizes that it's basically a perverted expression of the territorial instinct -- it lacks elements of morality.

The whole discussion bought to mind one of the purposes of life as delineated in the Baha'i writings: to acquire virtues.
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