Week 8:  Understanding Values

Course Guide

      Read and respond to John Stuart Mill, "On Nature." This will be a difficult essay for you to read if you do not scan the essay first (jump from paragraph to paragraph to pick up the thesis or topic sentences) and scan to the end.   For example, Mill does not even state the purpose of his essay until the top of page 11:


The examination of this notion is the object of the present Essay. It is proposed to inquire into the truth of the doctrines which make Nature a test of right and wrong, good and evil, or which in any mode or degree attach merit or approval to following, imitating, or obeying Nature. 

   There is a reference late in the essay to a highly preferred human attribute--interpersonal consistency. Quote his specific language (sincerity) in your response to the reading assignment.

Reading Assignment instructions

Be sure that in this homework submission you make make clear references to the reading assignment. You can copy and paste a short  passage that you like into your journal document. I know that the Mill essay is long and sometimes difficult (there is a summary at the end) but, along with the thesis (page 11), find something in it, some insight, that is memorable and useful to your thinking.  This goes for the other reading assignments as well.  Also, choose quotes that are relevant to the week's topic.  Clear reference and relevance are worth as much as two out of the ten weekly points. Finally, some of you may be losing  a point each week on English grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation errors.  Be careful.  Check your work twice before you send. 

Sample Writing Assignment

            I found some literature on the web that talks about how Evolutionary Psychology involves psychological adaptations that are universal among humans.  The goal of Evolutionary Psychology, then, is to discover and describe the functioning of our psychological adaptations, which are the mechanisms that cause our behavior.  Evolutionary Psychologists argue that our psychological adaptations cannot possibly be designed for modern life because this complex adaptation is a very slow process, typically requiring hundreds of thousands of years.   Instead, they must be designed to solve the adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. 

Throughout history, human cognition has undergone selective adaptation.  Skills and values that were important during the time of hunter-gatherers survived, while other non-useful elements were weeded out.  So, in essence we can assume that the qualities of human nature that we possess today must have held some importance in the distant past.  The next step is to identify those tendencies, and determine what purpose they served at that time, and how to best use them now. 

One example of an emotion I see in my life that remains from the “cave man” days is a certain resentment I have towards attractive women.  I consider myself to be a nice-looking girl, so I shouldn’t harbor ill will towards other pretty females.  However, so often I find myself scowling at the vivacious gorgeous blonde who walks by.  I think that this results from the competition that was involved with finding a mate.  I need to be ready to be the first to jump at a good male prospect, and prepared with certain hostility to defend myself should push come to shove (or scratching or pulling hair). 

Integrity is important to survival because survival is easier when you are in a group.  If you are consistently honest and sincere, and your actions coincide with your moral convictions, then others will trust you and stick by your side.  On the same token, humans need to be able to detect who is trustworthy in order to protect themselves from being tricked or taken advantage of.  For this purpose, I think humans have the skills to detect fakes or scams.  However, I feel that this skill has diminished somewhat over time as other elements of our world have been introduced (police, lawsuits) that provide more cushion.  We no longer have such a fine-tuned instinct, like the wild animal that can sense fear in its prey. 

It is true that humans are homeostatic in nature, maintaining stability and equilibrium in the social aspect of their lives.  Anytime we step outside this zone of homeostasis we create stress.  So why are we so fascinated with the extremes of the world?  Why are there hundreds of magazines devoted to exploiting the lives of big celebrities, who in no way represent the average person?  I believe that it is part of human nature to be fascinated with seemingly unattainable things.  I don’t believe that I will ever be a movie star, and I may not want to be, but I can’t avoid the fact that the movie star life fascinates me.  At the same time, the news is always informing us about the horrible conditions of poverty-stricken people in poor countries.  Humans need to have people with which to compare their lives.  Most people realize that the big and fabulous isn’t the norm, so they don’t expect their lives to ever be that way.  They can also be thankful that there is always someone who is worse off than they are.  As C. H. Spurgeon said, “It is not how much we have, but how much we enjoy that makes happiness.”  Somehow they realize that where they are is the best place to be.