It has been known for a long time that we are strongly influenced to conform to the group to which we belong. Early experiments showed that, even in a small group, an individual will abandon his natural, and – as it happens – correct judgment in the face of opposition from others. This has been tested under many different circumstances, and more recent studies, involving brain scans, have suggested the mechanism. It appears that when we act against group consensus the brain gives an error signal to whip us back into line. That is, we are naturally wired to learn from the judgment of the group.
Why are so many decent people quite content to see babies killed in the womb? The law signifies what is acceptable in our society, and this is reinforced by growing public opinion. Our brains follow suit and the result is grotesque. It is no surprise that the word “moral” is rooted etymologically in the concept of “customs”.
Of course customs and culture are inevitable and necessary. For the most part we need to conform to our own culture so that society can continue comfortably, minimising conflict and promoting mutual understanding. But the dangers are apparent. The growth in Germany of belief in the superiority of Aryan culture occurred at great speed and spread comprehensively throughout society. There were even Aryan mathematics and Aryan science. Young Germans today find it hard to believe how it happened, little realising that, in the same circumstances, most of them would have taken on the Aryan mantle too.
Broad cultures contain sub-cultures. Teachers in a school may have a subculture breeding common attitudes; so may members of a business. The educated will have a different culture from the uneducated. There is even, ironically, a sub-culture of those who habitually disagree with establishment authority. In practice we are likely to belong, either tangentially or directly, to several cultures, and unconsciously switch our behaviour according to the company we are keeping. Erving Goffman’s classic, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, provides splendid examples of how people can switch their whole stance instantly, as they move from one sub-culture to another.
Catholic culture is founded on belonging to an ekklesia which holds that we have been redeemed by Christ, through whom we attain the purpose of our lives in attaining salvation. It is delineated by its structure which unifies it, and it is publicly expressed through the Mass. While it exists within secular society, its nature obliges it to view society critically, and carefully to protect itself against aspects which may diminish or extinguish its principles.
But within its radical unity many sub-cultures are to be found. The hierarchy and the laity inhabit different cultures, a distinction recently re-emphasised by the Pope. There are those who accept the lightest word from a clerical source, to those who evaluate any such words before deciding to accept or reject – and many gradations in between. Since we naturally spend much time with those whose culture is close to our own, we are programmed to accept its values, and are often oblivious to, or ignore, other sub-cultures. We seek to confirm our identities and our priorities by continuing to absorb, and indeed to promote, the values of our own sub-culture. Nevertheless, culture in itself can never be taken as a certain source of truth. Realising that our brains are constructed to affirm cultural values, we have to stand back from time to time and verify or reject what habitually has seemed to be right and good. And standing back is hard because we are revolting against our own biology, and so moving out of our comfort zone.
Lawrence Kohlberg, an eminent specialist in moral development, listed the stages of moral development from the selfishness typical of infancy up to the moral heroism of, say, Martin Luther King. There is a cardinal point in his schema where an individual begins to subject the moral standards he has absorbed from his culture to his independent personal judgment. Many people do not progress this far, so the ability to stand back and review their moral judgments will not be possible for them.
Others must be ready to mature further. They might be helped – and this is in line with the kind of suggestion Kohlberg makes – by looking at attitudes taken for granted in history, sacred or secular. For example, slavery was not only taken for granted but seen as natural and necessary. Our view of the equality and rights of women today would have been seen as bizarre only a few generations ago. The tag “error has no rights” (a philosophical solecism indeed) led to the assumption that no one was free in conscience to reject the Catholic Church. So indurated was this idea that many would have taken it as infallible teaching, until it was reversed in Vatican II. Pope John Paul II once claimed that the Holy See “has always been vigorous in defending freedom of conscience and religious liberty”. There are a few heretics who would raise a scorched eyebrow at that.
We may understand the context in which such ideas were commonly accepted, but they put us on warning that we need to have a critical eye for what is taken for granted now, just as these were taken for granted in their time. As George Santayana famously said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
“I am a loyal Catholic; you are a liberal dissenter; he is a downright heretic.” Where do you stand on the scale? And which orthodox attitudes do you take today, secular or sacred, will history repudiate?
O O O
While I didn’t want to be too hard on the ordinary, and dear, Catholic Herald reader, I thought that users of Second Sight were resilient enough to take the thought that anyone who could not think of any views taken for granted today which might, and perhaps should, change in the future, are probably brain dead. Prove me wrong!