Morality in groups versus individuals

When people strongly identify with a group, they will also tend to strongly base their moral decisions on the norms of that group.

In this respect, group identity can dull moral sensibilities. At its worst, this sort of moral deference to group norms can take the form of “my country right or wrong” or “whatever is best for us is the right thing to do.”

When people do not strongly identify with a group but rather view themselves as autonomous individuals, they will tend to be more responsible and thorough when making moral decisions, assuming they are concerned with morality at all.

By providing general, ready-made answers to moral questions, groups remove the need for their members to think for themselves. Indeed, most groups stifle conversations and thoughts that go beyond group norms.

Most Americans, for example, do not question the sources of their news or the biases of the people presenting it to them. Similarly, most conversations in so-called polite society do not stray far from established values and interpretations.

When change happens in groups it usually comes from the top down or is due to a concerted efforts of single-issue activists. Both sorts of change reveal the hierarchical nature of virtually all groups. Top-down change is by definition hierarchical, while activist change generally always succeeds because it threatens a hierarchy or forces it to accept a new moral idea.

Gay marriage is an example of this phenomenon as activism caused the hierarchy of standard US moral culture to change and much of that change was also brought about by changes at the top of the hierarchy.

Of course, all people need groups. We learn from them and they support us in matters we don’t know much about. But groups also hinder us after we have learned what they have to teach us. This is especially true of large groups with many members who do not know each other personally.

Standard American culture, even with its many subgroups, is such a group. So is Christianity, academia, rural culture, etc. When we cede moral decision-making to the group(s) we identify with, we weaken our moral sense, and in weakening that we also weaken our intellectual and emotional responsiveness to the world around us.

In traditional Chinese Buddhism, most monks were expected to spend their formative years studying at one monastery until they were ordained at around the age of twenty. Then they were expected to travel alone or in pairs to see the world, teach, learn, and visit other monasteries. Sometimes they stayed for long periods of time in a particular monastery and sometimes they traveled for years, sojourning in a variety of temples. The underlying idea was to not become attached to a single group’s view of the world, but rather to explore and learn to rely on one’s own senses and sensibilities for the moral and intellectual decisions that lead to mental clarity and enlightenment.

FIML and Symbolic Interaction Theory

Symbolic Interaction Theory, also called symbolic interactionism, provides the best large-scale framework I have found so far for explaining FIML practice.

Three basic premises of symbolic interactionism are:

  • “Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things.”
  • “The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society.”
  • “These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters.”

These basic premises have been taken from the Wikipedia article linked above. I tend to agree with most of the general framework, as I understand it, of symbolic interactionism and believe that FIML practice can reasonably be understood as a method that can fit fairly comfortably within that framework.

FIML differs from symbolic interactionism in that FIML is much more a form of interpersonal psychotherapy than a sociological theory. FIML is a communication technique that focuses on meaning as it arises and is apprehended during short periods of time. FIML’s focus on very small units of interpersonal communication is what allows partners to understand how their sense of meaning intertwines with their emotional responses.

From a FIML point of view, society does not appear very well structured in many of its contexts, especially interpersonal contexts involving emotions, friendship, and intimate bonding. From this point of view, a great deal of social structure appears to be a substitute for authentic interaction between individual minds.

FIML seems also to show that a great deal of human suffering arises from the paucity of meaning that can be exchanged between individuals in most social contexts. Indeed, even in intimate contexts, most individuals, if not all of them, have great difficulty in attaining profound mutual understanding. This happens because our perceptions of our selves and others—due to how we use language and semiotics—are too crude and vague to allow for communicative complexity equal to the complexity of our minds/brains.

FIML corrects this problem by focusing on the details of interpersonal communication. Incidentally, FIML theory/practice can be falsified by having many couples do FIML practice and measuring the results. A criticism of symbolic interactionism is that it is not falsifiable. FIML differs from symbolic interactionism in that it is a practical technique that uses objective data (agreed upon by both partners) to optimize communication and improve psychological well-being.

I am pretty sure I will have more to say about symbolic interactionism in the days to come. A friend just sent me the article linked above, so I put down a few thoughts after one reading. FIML partners may find that symbolic interactionism helps with a general understanding of FIML practice.

Some depressing thoughts about the evolution of human intelligence

Firstly, human evolution is typically not survival of the fittest, but rather survival of the average. Outliers are misunderstood, envied, feared, killed or harmed. This happens to the less intelligent as well as the more intelligent.

The reason this happens to the intelligent is humans are envious and violent and prone to misunderstanding people who are smarter than them. This leads to violence toward, obstruction of, or not helping those who seem more intelligent.

It’s hard to escape a black ghetto because you will be perceived as “acting white” and attacked for that. It’s not very different in white “rural ghettos” (or urban) where intelligence is perceived as a threat. In many societies, average people cannot or will not lend support to their more intelligent members because they know, or imagine, that such behaviors will eventually lead to them being “lorded over” by the person(s) they helped.

Just a few generations ago, Italian American communities were famous for discouraging higher education among their children because it threatened the social structure if sons, let alone daughters, attained better careers than their fathers.

I am sure there are many other subcultures within the USA and throughout the world that have similar attitudes. Siblings often envy and decline helping each other, to say the least.

In the more distant past, violent death at the hands of other humans was a very common way for people to leave this vale of tears. Today the killing is less, but I doubt the harming is all that much less. Nowadays people use rumors, lies, poison, and many sorts of hindrance to prevent intelligent people from rising above them.

In a gruesome but very realistic way, this all makes sense because, evolutionarily, why should an individual help a genotype that is different from their own? This is probably why so much extant human intelligence, such that it is, is devoted to deceiving other humans, outsmarting them, out-competing them, getting ahead of them. Humans do better in a capitalist system because capitalism allows them to compete by virtually any means they can get away with.

Some strongly hierarchical societies, like China, do tend to help intelligent people if they are well-connected or have already risen to the top of a hierarchy. On the way to the top, though, the internecine fighting can be as bitter as anywhere else in the world.

In times of war or perceived threat, many groups will help the smarter ones of their own, but compensate by harming other groups even more viciously that usual. You can see this behavior in some cults, cliques, and secret societies within the USA today. Sometimes they help their genotype and sometimes they help their ideological types by that sort of behavior. In a sense, groups like that are just acting like individuals on a larger stage; they are selfish and violent as a group, but not too bad to themselves.

Having spent so much time with FIML practice and its considerable social and psychological implications, I don’t feel sanguine about the statements above. Isaac Newton helped the whole human race because somehow he was both left alone and helped. Had he spent time in public houses just being himself, he probably would have been beaten, and thus returned through brain damage to the common lot. Had he not been helped, he probably would have done nothing, and certainly much less. My guess is England probably had hundreds of potential Newtons, but just that one survived to produce great science.

Archimedes was murdered by a Roman soldier. Socrates was poisoned. Newton survived. These are the few we know about. I am sure there are many thousands more who were destroyed before they ever did anything to cause us to know about them.

My guess is the Buddha meant something like the above when he described the Four Noble Truths. Notice, that his formula provides no way for societies (large groups) to escape suffering en masse, but only a way for individuals or small groups.

Large groups can become more comfortable but, it seems, always at the expensive of even larger groups that are exploited by them. Maybe computers and machines will fix this problem in the future, but there doesn’t seem to be much hope today. Multiculturalism will very likely make things even worse, except for the few groups that dominate the others. Not much different, except in scale, from a normal bad neighborhood today.

Cultural semiotics – whatever works is the rule

Cultures are made of and held together by semiotics. They are formed and exist within self-referential semiotic networks or matrices.

Semiotic cultural matrices exist solely because they work. This is why virtually all of the world’s cultures are based on falsehoods.

It doesn’t matter if something is right or wrong as long as the people within a culture keep buying the story. Once they stop buying it, the culture disintegrates or changes.

Disintegration has been the fate of almost every culture that ever existed and there is little or no chance that any culture in existence today will survive for long.

Some culture can reasonably claim contiguity with an ancestral culture dating back thousands of years, but the two are never the same. In that sense, all of us can claim contiguity with “our” cultural pasts, just as we can claim genetic contiguity with the past. It is unlikely, though, that you would recognize any of the cultures of your distant ancestors, let alone want to be part of them or even like them.

The simplicity and falsity of culture can be seen in almost anything that communicates to large numbers of people, but especially when the thing being communicated is emotional.

An example in today’s USA might be the use of the word “offense” or “offended,” as in “I am offended by what you just said.”

If the speaker said something clearly offensive, like cussing out your mother, most of us would dismiss them as drunken fools and be done with it. Some of us might want to fight, but I bet no one would say, “I am offended by what you just said!”

Being “offended” is a semiotic that carries a special meaning and a special charge. It usually comes as a surprise to the speaker, causing them to hesitate and wonder what they have done wrong. It almost always seems to require an apology and the admission that the “offended” party stands on higher ground.

But how can you “offend” without doing so knowingly? I might not like it when you stepped on my toes, but I would be a fool to feel offended if you did it accidentally.

The truth is when most people claim to be “offended” they don’t really mean it. What they mean is “you failed to show me respect in the way I demand.”

That is a very different semiotic. It often works like an ambush or a trump card that gives the listener control of what has happened and will happen next. Reason should prevail in these instances, but it rarely does because the “offended” thing works better.

Rather than “offend” anyone by illustrating this point with some recent examples from the news, please recall your own. Imagine occasions when you have heard or read about someone claiming to be “offended” by what someone else said or did. Short of direct insults, which are rare, the “offense” will almost always reduce to “failure to show respect” for some code of speech or behavior that the speaker did not know.

Being “offended” is a powerful charge that amply reveals the tackiness of cultural bonds, for it works even among people who otherwise think of themselves as reasonable.


Humans are fractals of their societies

The microcosm of the individual human is made of the same stuff as the macrocosm of the society to which it belongs. The two are a fractal set displaying similar patterns.

This makes sense since both individuals and their societies use the same networks of semiotics to communicate.

In many ways, societies are less complex than individuals. In the sense that a society is an assemblage of many individuals, society is more complex. But in the sense that a society is held together by a network of communicable ideas, or semiotics, society is frequently less complex than many of the individuals living within it.

For example, most societies have very simple “biographies” (their always slanted histories), while many individuals have nuanced biographies that encompass change, growth, and contradiction.

A recent study of people’s attitudes towards atrocities points to this truth by showing that “…the way people’s memories are shaped by selective discussions of atrocities depends on group-membership status.” (Source)

In-groups forget bad things they have done—or “morally disengage” from them—while clearly remembering bad things that out-groups have done. This is a major element of all group stories.

I bet you cannot name a single society that has anything even approaching a fully nuanced view of itself on almost any matter, let alone its history. Individuals often “morally disengage” from their past acts, but it is not common for them to do so to the same extent as the societies they live in.

It hardly matters, though, if the social story is about atrocities or trivia. I have actually witnessed fairly heated arguments over who first invented pasta, the Chinese or the Italians. And another one on who first invented dumplings, Poles, Jews, or Chinese. Beer is another subject that can get people going.

It makes sense that societies’ stories about themselves be as simple as they are false because they serve as lowest-common-denominator social bonds. Indeed, it probably even helps that these stories be knowingly false as the bond will then require an even deeper level of commitment.

Of course, some of the energy for falsification and simplification comes from one group’s story needing to counter another group’s story. Yes, we did that to you, but you did this to us first.

In that, societies further resemble individuals because that’s what we do as individuals, too. Only individuals who are very well disposed toward each other and who try hard ever overcome the need for false stories between them.

FIML practice provides individuals with a means to observe the smallest fractal details of their individual stories and correct them where they are wrong. FIML partners would do well to take what they have learned as individuals and apply it to the stories told by the society in which they live. You will surely find a macrocosm of yourself in the absurdities of whichever group you “identify” with.

Maybe people in the future will be better able to see how ridiculous our stories are and better able to deal with the complexities that lie beyond them. For now, maybe we can at least start getting a fuller, truer view of what is happening in and around us.

I doubt we can do this on a societal level any time soon because the LCD stories will always reassert, but as individuals with a good partner I believe we can. This is probably a main reason that monastic and reclusive traditions have been practiced all over the world. Groups are ignorant, violent, and crazy. Individuals simply have a better chance at going beyond their simple patterns by acting on their own.

The fractal of the individual is generated by society but it is prone to being trapped by it as well.


Edit 6/13: When good people do bad things. We all know that people in groups can behave badly. This article is about a study that uses a plausible fMRI method to measure some of the basic processes underlying immoral behavior. In my view, the situation is not much different when the group is a large culture, rather than a small number of participants in a laboratory experiment. Cultures not only permit bad behavior toward out-groups, but they also numb us to what our in-group is doing.

Meaning and existential networks

The FIML approach to human psychology considers humans as existential networks of signals, some internal and some external.

A core concept in FIML is that cognition relies on semiotic networks. Semiotics are meaningful or communicable signals.

The purpose of FIML practice is the optimization of interpersonal communication. An important part of this process involves removing what we usually call “misinterpretations.” Some synonyms, depending on context, for misinterpretation are neurosis, emotional suffering, emotional confusion, disordered thinking, wrong views, and so on. The main point is that the sufferer of a misinterpretation is making some sort of mistake in how they perceive, cognize, or react to the world around them.

Misinterpretations are fundamentally rooted in meaning. A misinterpretation is not fundamentally emotional, but meaningful. From the mistaken meaning flows emotions, perceptions, reactions, psychological confusion.

A friend sent me a fascinating Wikipedia entry on ideasthesia. Ideasthesia

is defined as a phenomenon in which activations of concepts (inducers) evoke perception-like experiences (concurrents). The name comes from the Greek idea and aisthesis, meaning “sensing concepts” or “sensing ideas” and is introduced by Danko Nikolić. The main reason for introducing the notion of ideaesthesia was the empirical evidence indicating that the related term synesthesia (i.e. union of senses) suggests incorrect explanation of a set of phenomena traditionally covered by this heading. “Syn”+”aesthesis” denoting “co-perceiving”, implies the association of two sensory elements with little connection to the cognitive level. However, most phenomena that have inadvertently been linked to synesthesia, in fact are induced by the semantic representations i.e., the meaning, of the stimulus rather than by its sensory properties, as would be implied by the term synesthesia.

Note this line from the section above—“However, most phenomena that have inadvertently been linked to synesthesia, in fact are induced by the semantic representations i.e., the meaning, of the stimulus rather than by its sensory properties, as would be implied by the term synesthesia.”

If ideasthesia happens with simple perceptions, imagine how often it happens in our existential networks of cognition, semiotic perception, semiotic response and interpretation.

By correcting the core meanings of core misinterpretations, FIML practice corrects maladapted  existential networks, thus relieving suffering while optimizing communication.