Tag: moral

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Attention, Liberals: You can’t reason with a Reptile, the abridged version

by request, here’s the 750, more or less, words version.

By Morgaine Swann

The human brain evolved in 4 layers. First came the brain stem which controls breathing, metabolism, all the functions that don’t require conscious thought. Scientist Carl Sagan called the next layer the Reptilian brain, or R-complex. A reptile has only fight or flight responses. It goes forward to food, flees from an enemy or fights to the death. Its only emotion is rage. Its only function is survival. When threatened, it bites.

Next is the Limbic, or mammalian, brain. It contains instinct (feeding, fighting, fleeing, fu*king) and emotion. It’s social – mammals raise their young, unlike reptiles abandoning their eggs, and they live in groups to increase their chances of survival.

Paul D. MacLean, creator of the Triune Brain model, said that everything in the limbic system is either “agreeable” or “disagreeable.” It isn’t capable of higher functions like logical reasoning, it only feels and reacts.

The newest part of the human brain is the Neo-Cortex. This part of the brain that has nuance – logic, creativity, speech, reading, spatial concepts, sensory perception, conscious thought. These functions create art, culture, literature and it’s the part we train with formal education.

Remember that the R-Complex can override all higher brain functions. A normal human will revert to Reptilian response when threatened. There’s no logic at this level – there’s just the innate urge to survive.

For the purpose of this discussion, I’m over-simplifying the complex subject of moral and ethical reasoning, defined by Lawrence Kohlberg as 6 stages of Moral and Ethical development that I’m dividing into 3 levels of 2 each.

Level 1 is the Approach/Avoidance, Fight-or-Flight instinctual response of the R-Complex, found in small children and reward/punishment obsessed adults.

Level 2 follows an external moral code – the bible, the law, family, cultural or social expectations – without question. This embodies the Limbic System’s ability to be social for survival. Everything here is either agreeable or disagreeable – good or bad, black or white, familiar or foreign. This level is often described as Fundamentalism, and groups at Level 2 demand conformity to the code and enforce the code with violence – spanking, hatred, excommunication/abandonment, rape, oppression/inequality, prison, hate crimes, war.

At Level 3 the Neo-Corte approaches problems with logic, questions authority, uses reason. Level 3 may disagree with its social group, reach its own conclusions, can comprehend complex ideas and positions.

Most Americans get to Level 2 around the age of 8 and stay there. They never explore a religion/belief system/culture beyond the one they are born into, they follow local laws, conform to their peer group. Higher functions – abstract thought, critical thinking – become possible at around age 16 but only develop in certain environments that encourage questioning moral codes.

Any belief system can manifest at any level. You can be a Fundamentalist atheist as well as Christian or Muslim, or be a very religious person with an open mind who loves new ideas and other cultures. The Difference between Level 2 and Level 3 is the level of certainty. Level 2 thinks their way is the one true way and questioning their beliefs gets a violent response. It takes absolute certainty to disown a child, throw a bomb, torture or wage war.

Level 3 knows logically that there is no objective right or wrong in matters of religion or culture. It allows for consensus, but leaves room for doubt. The Religious Right in America, a fundamentalist movement, despises the “moral relativity” of the Left, calling Liberals “elitist” because they associate Liberal tolerance with higher education. (Ironically, Republican leaders are the actual wealthy elites, tied to the corporate military industrial complex.) It’s not just a difference in ideology – it’s a different level of intellectual development. Level 2 doesn’t speak logic because it has no language – it only feels. When Level 2′s sense of absolute certainty is challenged they regress so the Reptilian Brain overrides the higher brain functions. Remember the only emotion at Level 1 is rage. The reptilian brain has no capacity for critical thought, so trying to reason with it just creates frustration on both sides.

The challenge for Progressives is: How do you pull a majority of the population into a higher level of moral and ethical development? Level 2 doesn’t have logic and its beliefs are static and often circular.

Republican elites have financial interests in keeping the status quo, and they understand limbic/reptilian response. They are extremely adept at manipulating people with good intentions but poor educations. If we want change, we have to speak their feelings and morality.

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