Skepticism

AI: Modern Morality

There’s a BBC series called World’s Strictest Parents in which “delinquent” British kids are sent to live with super-strict families in various countries for two weeks to see if they can become model teenagers. I believe the show was exported to the USA, so know doubt you know the one I mean.

The kids are usually 16 or 17 years old, and their delinquency generally manifests itself as excessive drinking, partying, smoking, sex, swearing, getting pregnant, getting expelled or dropping out of school, etc. The normal teenage stuff but amplified a little. None of them are criminal or violent, that would be a different show entirely. The families they are sent to have included one in a very strict Jewish community in Israel, one in a very strict Mormon community in Utah, one in a very strict Muslim community in Beirut, and so on. Yes, the ‘World’s Strictest Parents’ are all heavily religious. What’s interesting about the show is that in the first few days, the teens have screaming hysterics because of the rules imposed such as wearing modest clothing, no make-up, no smoking or drinking etc, but by the end of the two weeks have so far without exception had a breaking-down-in-tears-realising-they-have-low-self-esteem-issues moment, some sort of epiphany about their behaviour that results in them thanking the religious family, and an apology when they get home for having been so horrible to their parents.

So, the kids’ behaviour is at one end of the scale, and the new parents’ moral code is at the other. Culture shock makes great TV. But when I watch it, I do get frustrated that the morality imparted into the kids is religion-based. Be a good person for God and you will be rewarded. Love your fellow man and treat him right, and you will be rewarded. I am a moral person, for no reward. I’m not saying that’s better, but I am curious to know if the experiment could or would work with secular morals (mine are less concerned with what you wear and more concerned with not stabbing other people in the eye cause it’s not very nice).

My moral code is derived from empathy and experience. Some of it has much in common with religious moral code, for example “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a very good way to feel happy, in my experience, so I try to live by that. Don’t steal stuff, cause I don’t like having my stuff stolen. Be nice to your parents, cause you owe them a lot (unless they’re bastards, which is where my moral code beats the Bible). I also recall learning a lot of basic morality from fiction as a kid. Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, LM Montgomery, all the classic children’s authors wrote about good deeds being rewarded and bad deeds being punished, and although real life isn’t necessarily like that, I do remember aspiring to be Queen Lucy or Anne of Green Gables or Taran the Wanderer, and those are not bad role models to have at all.

Where do YOU get your morals from?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

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53 Comments

  1. I seem to have a certain ability to get people talk to me about their lives, often to the most intimate details. That has “taught” me things, like we tend to be the same across cultures and social/monetary positions. Also, that many people have a different concept of justice than their own morals and somehow they cannot grasp this fact.

    So I came to settle in “what is right under the circumstances” and as far as it is convenient (ie: my beloved are not at risk). I tend to act in good faith, I stop by to help others and when I can I give, generously. I tend to avoid conflict and tend not to retaliate, but these are all general traits.

    I think I could call it a “personal code”, but the only difference with “universal code” is that other people don’t like to admit it out loud.

  2. Ah, the question always asked of atheists. “If you have no God, by what higher authority do you base your moral code.” Great question, you always get such interesting answers.

    For myself, it’s faith. Not religion. Organized religion is merely a political commonwealth without land. Faith is what we believe without proof.

    I have faith in justice, mercy, truth, personal responsibility, and the innate goodness of mankind. Of course, I have no proof of any of that. But I believe in it and so I work towards it. My faith dictates that these ideals should make themselves known by my actions.

    But what happens if I lose faith? If I have no faith in any ideal, then I would be a sociopath and the difference between right and wrong would be the least of my worries.

  3. I agree that the golden rule covers most morality very well. The most I have thought about morality recently was listening to John Cleese read The Screwtape Letters. There is a veneer of Christianity over the work, but surprisingly much of it is quite thought provoking and not particularly religious.

  4. I have had this discussion with my very devout non-practicing Catholic friend (paradox noted). He asks how I can possibly be moral when I have no “fear of God’s punishment.”

    I reply that I am far more moral because I do not need a god to threaten me. I choose to be moral because it is the right thing to do.

    My morality is pragmatic. I don’t kill because that signals to everyone that I think killing is all right. Someone will then decide it is OK to kill me. Bad for me. I don’t steal so that others will not consider it OK to steal from me. And so on…

    My restatement of the Golden Rule is simply, “Do unto others so you can get them to do the same to you.”

    The Old Testament is really a very pragmatic statement of rules for survival. Don’t eat pork because we can’t refrigerate it and the wormy things will kill you. Don’t kill your neighbor because you need him to help protect you when the “others” attack. Don’t screw around because we don’t have antibiotics yet.

    The problem arose when somebody said, “Says Who? Who made you the expert?” The easy answer was, “Um, God. Yeah, God said all of this and more. I’ll tell you all about it later. But if you don’t do what I want then, um, God yeah that’s right God will get you.”

    It only went downhill from there.

  5. From your description of the show, it sounds more like these take a few weeks to figure out whatever they have to say to get out of there. Not really something you can take as a basis for long-term child rearing.

  6. @Bookitty: I don’t know. I don’t particularly feel that faith is required in morality. I think you’re confusing “believing without need of proof” and “believing something in the absence of evidence”. For example hypothetically: I catch someone trying to rob me. I can let them go, or I can call the police. If I believe strongly in being merciful I may let him go with only a warning if, however, I know that he’s robbed other people before me then things change. With the knowledge that he is a serial robber, showing mercy might be the wrong decision. Showing mercy will likely allow him to continue robbing people. With objective knowledge, moral problems cease to be matters of belief and become questions of greater or lesser harm.

    I draw my morals from the knowledge that we have a shared biology. Human beings have a shared view that certain things are intrinsically good or intrinsically bad regardless of their context. Some examples of intrinsically good things are happiness, freedom and being alive. Intrinsically bad things include sadness, psychological or physical imprisonment and death.

  7. I like and respect myself. I want to keep liking and respecting myself. I don’t like people who rape, murder, or hurt people unnecessarily. I don’t respect people who steal, cheat, or cut in line. So I am moral because I want to maintain my good opinion of myself.

    I think it is better, or at least more mature, to be moral for no reward. Religious people who behave well because God is omniscient and they want to go to Heaven haven’t progressed beyond the first morality we teach young children. We start teaching children how to behave by punishing bad behavior and rewarding good behavior. We should continue by teaching them to do the right thing when no one knows is watching, but religion instead changes the watcher from the parent or teacher to God.

  8. @mrthumbtack: I like what you have said, but I don’t feel you have finished your thought. Your examples are what I would call, reactive morals. You have shown a fine set of deliberations based upon what to do with (how to react to) this robber.

    Can you give some examples of proactive morals. What process do you go through when you are the instigator of a particular activity involving others?

  9. Notions of interpersonal and social justice, liberty, empathy and morality in general seem to be the most functional and useful rules for society. Humans are pragmatic and averse to suffering which seems to have led to adaptations that support healthy social interactions and morality which are not only important but essential for human societies to continue in the manner we seem to want. I’m fine saying my ethics and morals are the result of thousands of years of human social development which for a limited period of time involved notions of religion. I also think religion was as much of a hindrance in the ongtoing development and evolution of human ethics and social behavior.

  10. WWCKD? What would Clark Kent do? Comic books. When I was a fledgling little derd I read a lot of comic books, several a week if I could get my hands on them. And almost all of them were little morality plays. The hero did what was right because it was right. None of them ever sighted a religous reason, god wasn’t spoken about in the comic books of the 1970’s and if it was I missed it. The villians acted out of greed and the heroes did the right thing because it was the right thing. You helped who you could, you didn’t take advantage of people because you were bigger, stronger, faster or smarter. My morality grew out of that simplistic world view. Help who you can help, don’t take advantage of someone just because you can. Do the right thing.

  11. @Old Geezer: Well it seems to me that most moral choices are reactive, to greater or lesser extent. Proactive choices such as the choice to give money to charity is a reaction to the problem being addressed by that charity.

    Leaving that point aside though, I acknowledge that there are many important things to be proactive about. There are however, only a certain number of wrongs in the world that I can do something about. “Ought implies can” as my philosophy professor said. Moreover, there are only a certain number of causes I can be involved in without sacrificing myself to such an extent that I lose my personal freedom. I have a moral obligation to do some good in the world but not to the extent that I do harm to myself.

    I am involved in skepticism because it is promoting things that are intrinsically good: psychological freedom, health, and more. Because I enjoy being involved in skepticism I am simultaneously promoting my own health, freedom and happiness.

    Skepticism, of course, is not the only thing that is important to me. Depending on the situation, sometimes too much skepticism in the wrong way will actually do more harm than good. Sometimes empathy is more important and skepticism must be put on a the back-burner.

    Of course this is a rational justification for how I feel I should act, not how I necessarily do in every circumstance.

  12. @zapski: Do no harm is not enough. Helping others is a large part of morality, whether it has costs to you or not.

    Giving others the benefit of doubt it also high – it is shown in game theory to be the most winning strategy – tit for tat, starting with positive action.

    A lot of life can be a win-win situation. Seeking that out actively is also morality for me.

  13. As a convinced Nietzschean I create my own morality at every moment. Nietzsche wasn’t kidding when he said his is a strenuous philosophy.

    @Old Geezer: The reason pork is forbidden has nothing to do with meat going off. Pork goes off no faster than any other type of meat and has no higher level of human parasites. And even in the ancient era people knew about salting and drying meat to preserve it.

    The whole “meat going off” thing is Sunday School BULLSHIT. The real reason pigs are “unclean” is because ancient abrahamic peoples you literally are what you eat and the food the pigs love, the food they go mad for, that they find most yummy is human shit.

    And pigs were used to dispose of human shit (the mountains of pig shit that generated what did they do with that, I’ve often wondered myself) pretty much throughout the ancient world, but for some reason it was only in the middle east who thought that made them unfit to eat.

  14. Taran Wanderer! Those books were fantastic. As a kid I wrote to Lloyd Alexander a couple of times and he was always so nice to send back a personal note.

    Anyway, I would say my moral code comes largely from my parents. From not teaching me about Santa so that I would be grateful to the real people who gave me things, to making me question myself when I did something not so nice, I learned what it meant to be a responsible and compassionate person, and the value of respecting other people.

    I suppose some of my moral code does come from the lessons learned from Judaism, since I did go to Hebrew school for a bit, and there learned that there is no heaven, there is no hell, there is only this life and we should make it as good as we can for ourselves and others. (I just get rid of the “and it will make God happy” part of it for myself.)

  15. @mrthumbtack: Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I wasn’t thinking of acts of charity when I spoke of proactive morals. For example, if I hold the door open for a man on crutches, that is reactive. If I hold the door open for someone just because I want to make it easy for them to walk through the door, I am being proactive. I think that society does not give enough consideration to proactive morality.

    I got the news today that our next door neighbor is going to die very soon from lung cancer. Of course we will be available to his wife and out-of-state daughters for anything they ask for. In addition, my wife and I sat down and discussed what we will be doing for them without their having to think about it (no not casseroles) so they can pass through this experience a little more smoothly. I will mow his pasture when the time comes, not because he is dieing but because he does not need to think about it right now. I guess that’s both reactive and proactive.

  16. @russellsugden: I’m not sure of the reference you use to call BS. Leviticus bans the eating of pork “…because it has a split hoof but doesn’t chew its cud…” although no reference is made to pigs eating shit. Maimonides makes specific reference to trichinella as a source of dietary laws, but then he probably didn’t have your source materials to work from.

    The general point of my statements above was to point to the fact that the desire to control peoples’ behavior was often based upon environmental or social factors that were turned into “commandments” or “laws” from “God” in order to give them authority that was not otherwise at hand.

  17. OP by Tracy King: “I do get frustrated that the morality imparted into the kids is religion-based. Be a good person for God and you will be rewarded. … I am a moral person, for no reward. I’m not saying that’s better, but I am curious to know if the experiment could or would work with secular morals”

    Yeah, but this is a Catch 22 — If you’re moral enough to function without the imagined supervision of God (or gods, etc), then obviously you don’t need it.

    However people with low empathy or low self-control often function better in society when they are told “There’s a big strong invisible guy watching you every minute, and if you don’t behave he’s going to kick your ass. If you do behave, you’re going to get a lollipop.”

  18. @russellsugden: The reason pork is forbidden has nothing to do with meat going off. Pork goes off no faster than any other type of meat and has no higher level of human parasites.

    My understanding is that pigs because of their diet and habits are higher in parasites. You can’t, for example, get trichinosis from a cow. It just stands to reason that omnivores and carnivores are exposed to more parasites that are pathogenic to humans than herbivores are.

    I agree that modern pigs, factory raised on pig chow, are remarkably parasite-free. They are also almost tasteless.

  19. I guess that my morals are the logical development of my exploring my plans and perceptions as they lead to reason. Far from saying that my morals themselves are reasonable, they result in my being a reasonable person. Without morals, I would be nothing but blind ambition – truly what many religious persons seem to think atheists are like.

  20. @Vengeful Harridan (Elexina): Of course, cows and chickens these days are often eating food that is not their natural healthy diet, and may be fed pieces of their own kind, even, depending on the factory farm and regulations… Blechh.

    I hear you. Most of my diet these days eats only sunshine and this makes me happy for any number of reasons.

  21. I’m not fond of the Golden Rule as a moral principle. If I used it to guide my behaviour I would come across as a colossal asshole (or perhaps more of a colossal asshole, depending on who you ask). I find a lot of social niceties confusing and irritating, and the Golden Rule would lead me not to use them on other people, which would generally annoy them.

    I think a superior rule is the “Second-Order Golden Rule” which could be rendered as “Have regard for the preferences of others to the extent that you would wish them to have regard for yours”.

  22. Tricky.

    I’ve tried to address morals skeptically. To me, this means trying to look at morality as descriptive, rather that proscriptive. In a very, very, very basic and not at all comprehensive or worth arguing about sense, I see things that generally decrease the available resources-per-person as “evil”, and things that increase the available resources per-person as “good.”

    There’s also meme theory: the actions that you put into the world reverberate. They come back to you. If you drive like a jerk, you will live in a place where people drive like jerks.

    Emotionally, this is a tough idea to internalize, so I fall back on basic human empathy: put yourself in the other persons place and attempt to behave accordingly.

    Of course, I’m not a perfect person, either. It’s hard to be empathetic when you’re adrenaline is engaged. So I fall back from there to: try not to hurt people, and if you do hurt people, be prepared to make amends, and if you can’t make amends, pay it forward.

    So far, that’s all I’ve got. But I’m still working on it.

  23. I agree with Bjornar; my experiences and upbringing guide my moral compass. I always ask myself how my actions would affect anyone else, which I admit is the basis of Taoism. Honestly, many of similar “right & wrong” ideas in religions have it right, they just have a tendency to screw up the rest of it.

    Using rewards or punishments with whatever God you want to look at has not really been successful historically as far as I can tell, especially since there are loopholes for the punishments, and most people question their faith at one time or another. When God is the guiding reason for doing the right thing and a person thinks they can be forgiven, or that the God may not be there, that guidance has no meaning. Besides, teaching people that the main reason to not do something is that they may be caught instead of why they should not do it in the first place does not teach people to do be good, but instead to be sneaky about being bad.

    Showing kids the consequences of their actions, how what they do impacts others, would be a better long term tactic.

  24. Growing up in the late ’50’s & early ’60’s my exposure to morality included the Lone Ranger, Superman, Zorro, Captain Gallant & a bunch of serial heroes rerun as cheap tv fodder.

    Did a much better job than religion would have.

  25. @sethmanapio: So I fall back from there to: try not to hurt people, and if you do hurt people, be prepared to make amends, and if you can’t make amends, pay it forward.

    ——–

    I feel I should put the caveat in here that I’m talking about emotionally hurting people.

  26. I work on the “That shit ain’t right” principle. If I look at something and my first reaction is “That shit ain’t right”, chances are it’s immoral.

    Seriously, though, my morality tends to be rooted in the golden rule (and my own desire to be a hero). I draw a lot of inspiration from Superman, actually, though I’d say my moral sense was more directly informed by my parents.

  27. I agree with sethmanapio but phrase it differently. I see interactions as being positive sum (where both parties are better off), zero sum, where one person’s gains are at the expense of another person’s loss (as in gambling), and negative sum, where one person’s gains are at the expense of another person but there is also stuff that goes to waste and is destroyed (as in theft where stolen goods are sold as scrap at much less than replacement cost).

    The first type of transactions are good, the second are less good or neutral, the third type are bad.

  28. My morals originally did not come from fear of a god rather from fear of my parents. You do wrong, you got a spanking. Later it was more the Golden Rule approach to things with no fear of anything for doing wrong, just the desire to be treated right. Two other things that have influenced me are “As long as you are not hurting someone, including yourself, do what you will” and “The more you have, the more you have to give”.

    I was heavily involved with religion at one time but it taught me to mistrust and hate others. It made me think I had the right to hurt others. I was not a good person during those few years. I’m a better one without it.

  29. A person that behaves out of a fear of hell or a hope of heaven has never cared one bit for their fellow human beings.

    Additionally, the “Golden Rule” doesn’t work on the privileged class. Consider a wealthy and powerful person that states, “I will give you nothing and never ask anything of you, now please do the same to me.” – what they have done unto others they ask to be done unto them.

    As for morality – comic books and Star Trek are far better than any bible.

  30. Is anyone else bothered by this example of exploitation of what are some pretty vulnerable teenagers for the purpose of entertainment? I have serious problems with a television network taking advantage of teenagers with some serious problems, and invading their privacy in such a way for the purpose of making money.

  31. I got mine from The Big Book of Manners & Morals for Terrestrial Inhabitants, probably written by Isaac Asimov, as he seems to have written on every subject.

    Seriously, mostly from my parents. My father was a proponent of ‘doing the right thing’, a logic-based situational ethos. [Sort of “do what thou wilt, an it do no harm” coupled with an overlay of altruism.] Albeit a member of the clergy, he wasn’t big on hellfire and brimstone. [Hell, he wasn’t big on God.] He also warned me, at an early age, that, when one is a green monkey living amongst brown monkeys, one must appear to do what the brown monkeys do, whilst following one’s personal morality.

    Many behaviours we call “morals” are just rational: Homicide is out, it’s counter-survival; stealing, perjuring oneself, etc., for the same reasons – not every “commandment” was a bad thing. Those prohibitions are necessary for basic human survival. OTOH, the mores of individual societies tend to be less rational, and mostly about sex. Those I didn’t buy into, as they made no sense whatsoever.

  32. @sethmanapio: Of course, I’m not a perfect person, either. It’s hard to be empathetic when you’re adrenaline is engaged. So I fall back from there to: try not to hurt people, and if you do hurt people, be prepared to make amends, and if you can’t make amends, pay it forward.

    This is most similar to how I feel about my morality as well. Especially paying it forward. I am aware of how fortunate I am, and find it rewarding (altruism discussion, anyone?) to pass my time and effort along for others. However, I think this is not always good, because it’s hard to make me realize when I’m being taken advantage of. There is “too nice,” I suppose.

  33. @Gabrielbrawley: ABSOLUTELY. What I didn’t learn from my parents, I learned from books & TV. There is a reason much of fiction is good guy/bad guy stories… that is how society teaches us what is good and bad. It is much less harmful to society if you can learn about the evils of murder without anyone actually dying. STORIES ARE IMPORTANT.

  34. @sethmanapio:
    try not to hurt people, and if you do hurt people, be prepared to make amends, and if you can’t make amends, pay it forward.

    That pretty much sums up my views as well, although I might not consciously practice it.

    I will also point out being given too much change at the supermarket for example, because not doing so would hurt the teller, but if my electric bill has a calculation error, I’ll keep silent, because the electric company is known to be really difficult to get through to when they’ve made a mistake in your disadvantage. I.e. I know some people who’ve spent lots of time and money trying to get a misunderstanding resolved, or in the end being told that, “sorry, that’s how we do things, now fuck off” (although they tend to use the legalese version of “fuck off”). In other words, they deserved what’s coming to them, and it’s not hurting any particular individual.

    So I’d add that in some cases, I’d append sethmanapio’s rule with “unless they deserve to get their comeuppance”. I think poetic justice is something to treasure when it happens, because as someone who doesn’t believe in fate, I know the odds are slim.
    I would not easily take matters into my own hands though.

  35. I distinguish between “personal” and “social” morality:
    Personal=Golden Rule: This is the moral code *I* follow, but which others may (or may not) follow.

    Social=Social Contract Morality: This is the morality agreed upon by the citizens of a culture or society; it is capable of amendment and is more fluid than a personal code. (Laws or rules agreed upon by dint of a social contract, without which there would be social chaos).

    I try to follow both for the sake of myself and others. No gods needed.

  36. This discussion reminds me a lot of A Clockwork Orange.

    Alex is a horrible character (Oh but I love him so) and he’s pretty much forced to act in a way that society deems appropriate. For those who read the book and didn’t just see the movie, in the end he pretty much grows out of the violence and starts becoming a better person because he wants to and not because he was forced to.

    I think society as a whole does provide a lot of our built in morals but it’s because as individuals we have an underlying desire to preserve the species?

    I don’t know, I’m just rambling. I pretty much get my morals from the desire be treated how I would treat others.

    Oh and to reference the SGU — I LOVE Roddy McDowall! :-P

  37. @coreyjf: I’m not sure I accept the concept that behaving in a moral way is simply an expression of “…fear of the social group….” That said, if that given is allowed to stand, I guess the fundamental difference is that there is a tangible force in the social group as opposed to a smokey concept of someone out there who is someday going to do something if you don’t do what I and only I know He wants you to do.

    You may seek the approval of a social group, not out of fear, but because it is a way to insure that your own needs will be dealt with in a positive manner. If you do act solely out of fear, then the removal of that fear would result in the removal of any compulsion to act in that manner. If you act out of an understanding that something that you do improves the lot of those around you as well as your own self, then when you move to another social group you will be inclined to act in the same way until you discover whether your actions are helping or hurting those around you, making your new social group more or less inclined to help you.

  38. @Old Geezer:
    I’m basing that on your words -“My morality is pragmatic. I don’t kill because that signals to everyone that I think killing is all right. Someone will then decide it is OK to kill me. Bad for me. I don’t steal so that others will not consider it OK to steal from me. And so on…” My assumption of course being that your typical person would be afraid of being murdered and/or robbed…

    Whether the term “fear” is entirely descriptive, or not, ultimately it is still coming back to a selfish idea, your actions are motivated for the betterment of self – “but because it is a way to insure that your own needs will be dealt with in a positive manner”

    I’m not disagreeing with the pragmatics of your logic, only in your assertion that you are ” far more moral because I do not need a god to threaten me. ” As you outlined your motivation is inherently selfish.

  39. @coreyjf: I can clearly see why you would interpret what I said in that way. It was not meant wholly in that way, although there is something to be said for that interpretation. I think that the survival instinct requires that all decisions that we make are in some way couched in a “hmm…will I live through this?” framework. When you decide not to step in front of a fast-moving bus, it is not out of a fear of busses, but out of a healthy respect for the laws of physics. When you encounter an organized group, it is prudent not to poke the leader in the eye. This might be out of fear, or it might be out of the realization that, by not poking anyone in the eye, there will be a tacit understanding that eye-poking is not a desirable trait. Soon, we will all consider this to be an ethical norm and I will not have to protect myself from eye-pokers. The energy I save might be turned to building a shelter that makes us all more comfortable the next time it rains.

    My point in saying that I am far more moral because I do not need a god to threaten me is simply this: If I choose not to steal (kill, maim, whatever) because I recognize the harm it will do to others and choose not to inflict that harm, that is far more moral than to be possibly blind to the harm and choosing not to do something simply because someday, somewhere other than here, someone more powerful than the guy standing in front of me, will do something terrible to me as a consequence. The former is a decision based upon an evaluation of MY actions by MYSELF. The latter is a gut reaction to FEAR based upon SOMEONE ELSE ‘s interpretation of what could cause me harm.

    Put more pragmatically, I won’t steal because I see the harm it will do to you and I don’t want to signal to you that I think it is wrong to steal from me. My neighbor up the road won’t steal because the Ten Commandments from God say he will burn in Hell.

    Which is more “…inherently selfish?”

  40. @Old Geezer:

    I don’t see them as inherently different. It is all reward/punishment. The only difference is you can empirically show that if you poke someone in the eye – on average x times out y their will be negative consequences. Or you can study group dynamics as show the cooperation leads to greater success for all. But the punishments/rewards of an afterlife can’t be shown empirically. Ultimately it doesn’t show you to be more or less moral, only more driven by empirical data.

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