Another Visit to the Acorn Forest

February 3, 2008


A while back I wrote a post titled From Little Acorns Twisted Trees Grow. My argument was intended to express my doubt of the idea that as adults we can be held responsible for the choices we make. I am not advocating this position. In fact it horrifies me. I am a very self-righteous person and I am quick to condemn people I am think are behaving badly. Nevertheless, I think the possibility should be faced and examined.

In a way, Christians acknowledge this by saying that we are all fallen and none of us can save ourselves; only Jesus can save us.

Renaissance Guy, for example, states, reasonably enough:

Well, the other side of the coin for evangelicals is that we human beings bear the image of God and we have a conscience and a moral sense. On top of all that is a will–we are not bound by any outside influences if we choose not to be.

As a secular person, however, I find difficulties with this argument. I won’t take them all out to play in this post, but I will let the argument I stated in that original post play in the yard a little more.

If I took a small child and raised him as a sociopath and “protected him” from positive influences and said to him when he was 14, Here is your coming of age rite of passage: kill that worthless peasant over there; that’s what we do in our brave and noble society, and then the next day an expeditionary military force from a less sociopathic country invades and says, That was wrong, you shouldn’t kill helpless people because of their social class; we hold you responsible for your terrible action, how can we expect the young boy/man to not do what he did, or even realize it was “wrong?” How can we expect him to realize it’s wrong when he’s a captain in his 20s or 30s?

My imaginary summary sounds a lot like what the ancient Spartans were accused of doing.

The ancient Spartans didn’t write down much about themselves, perhaps because they were worried they might be held accountable at a “war crimes” tribunal. However, they didn’t take into account that the National Security Agency would be monitoring Spartan radio broadcasts and Internet messages and passing what they found along to Herodotus. The information we get from him has to be at least as reliable as the information George Bush got from the CIA.

From what we know about them, the Spartans may have been one of the first cultures to deliberately create sociopaths as a civic ideal.

In modern times, guerilla armies often kidnap boys and force them to become soldiers, in part because they are so malleable.


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6 Responses to “Another Visit to the Acorn Forest”

  1. renaissanceguy Says:

    You’re making me think, which is always a good thing.

    Your theory doesn’t account for children who grow up in the same home but have vastly different philosophies and modes of behavior as adults. It doesn’t account for the individuals who rise up against the norms of their culture and challenge them based on a different set of mores within them.

  2. modestypress Says:

    That’s true. That’s why I stated my theory in terms of statistics. It is difficult or impossible to predict what any individual will do just based on their culture or their genetics or their family. (However, if we have interacted with an individual over a period of time, our prediction abilities improve a bit, though are still not perfectly reliable.) When we study groups of people, it becomes more likely we can predict what a certain percentage of them will do.

    Not that I understand quantum physics, but for metaphorical purposes I will advance this as a psychology/sociology analogy to how electrons behave.

    Some of us demonstrate something that looks like “free will” as individuals, but it’s more difficult to detect in groups. Beats me how this works.


  3. RenGuy — It’s arguable (and has been argued many times) that siblings have very different parents, even when they grow up in the same household with the same basic values. I know that my mother, the youngest of six, had significantly different input from her parents than her eldest sister did. The basic values were the same: hard work, self-respect,etc. The eldest sister was insane, and was arrested at several airports for trying to get people to lend her money so she could go to Tibet. My mother has never wanted to go to Tibet.

    Of course, that may have nothing to do with parental input. But based on how one sibling goes wrong, parents sometimes change their parenting style. Or based on how the first kid turns out right, they may get lazy with the next one.

  4. renaissanceguy Says:

    David Rochester, that’s an excellent point that I was not considering.

    I balk at the idea that outside forces shape us as much as Random Name is positing. I’m just trying to present something of a counterargument.

  5. pandemonic Says:

    Your last sentence, while being true, is the most disturbing.


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