Category: psychology

Is it possible to act selflessly?

The following is my attempt to answer a question posed to me recently.

When I look at the question, it seems to focus on the individual. So, I think the easiest way to begin this, is to start with the self. Since I’m no Derek Parfit or Bernard Williams, and the question seems to be focusing on moral sentiment and moral choice, I’m going to reduce the ‘self’ to just that part we always end up talking about, when we talk about choice: The Will. Lacking a more sophisticated understanding of consciousness, I’m going to cobble together a rudimentary theory of the conscious self from Schopenhauer (Freedom of The Will), Dennett (Freedom Evolves, Consciousness Explained), and Peter Ulric Tse (The Neural Basis of Free Will).

Schopenhauer’s basic sketch of the conscious self, while not scientifically accurate anymore, is vague and general enough not to conflict with the a simple “modular” or “functional” understanding of the mind (one theory currently being batted around in science these days). So, I’m going to take his model as read, with some technical embellishments: The conscious, motivated, active self is (for our purposes), a neurochemical process of the brain that gives rise to a sensual consciousness (awareness of the outside world), a self-consciousness (awareness of our desires and intentions), and a ‘will’ embedded within that self-consciousness, from which all intentions to act originate, and upon which all chosen intentions are acted by that self. 

Free will seems essential to this question. Schopenhauer, of course, argued against such a thing. But I don’t think his argument is conclusive. In short, if we’re looking backward in time, causal explanation chains are not necessarily evidence of causal necessity looking into the future (see Hume, on Induction). Further, it has been shown that sub-atomic indeterminacy can play a role in the way neurons function (see Tse, and Dennett). Thus, it seems there is room to suppose at a minimum, that absolute determinism is not a certainty (and, at best, that there is some sort of freedom of the underlying will that does not necessarily violate physical causation). Thus, I think we can tentatively accept the idea of an underlying will that is at least possibly free. 

But even if all that is wrong, Schopenhauer still gives us a get-out-of-jail-free card, for the purposes of the class. He defines a conventional notion of freedom at the beginning of his essay that he calls “negative” freedom; meaning, in a phrase, “I am free to do as I will” (regardless of whether the will itself is free). In short, I am unimpeded or uninhibited in the choices available to me, in the basic physical sense. Since this conception of freedom is enough to get us to the point where we have to start making choices, and value judgments about our choices, I think this might be an acceptable “plan B” for answering this question.

So, we have a conscious self that is free to choose to act or not, on the intentions presented to it by it’s will. The next question would be (restating the original question a bit) is it possible for this self to act ‘selflessly’? Here, I think we have a straightforward answer, in both the metaphysical and logical sense:

  1. The will is contained within the consciousness that corresponds to it’s identified self.
  2. The will cannot present intentions to any other self, than the one to which it corresponds.
  3. The self cannot act upon intentions not presented to it by its own will (I will expound on this point, below).
  4. Therefore, it is not possible to act selflessly. 

On premise three: Here, it might be tempting to ask, “but what about other people’s stated intentions? Can’t we act on those?”. To this, I would appeal to Schopenhauer’s conception of consciousness. If some friend is making an appeal to me (to act in some way), he would be presenting my sensual consciousness with a motive. The sensual consciousness would pass that motive to the self-consciousness, and the self-consciousness would report back the intentional desire to act from the will. At this point, I could choose to act on the impulse and respond positively, or I could deny the impulse and respond negatively to my friend. Even if I respond positively, I am still fundamentally acting from the self, because it is my will that gave rise to the impulse to act. This means (at least logically) that I could not possibly be acting selflessly. Therefore, all acts are selfish acts.

But this whole discourse from the raw metaphysical possibility seems a bit impoverished. Perhaps we mean to ask, “Is it possible to act purely from altruistic motives”? Or perhaps, “Is acting altruistically also acting selfishly”? These are much more difficult questions, I think. Mostly, because they’re intensely psychological. For the first question, I’d lean on my Schopenhauer again, and say yes it is possible to act from an ‘altruistic’ motive, because though we characterize the motive as “altruistic”, it is still fundamentally a motive experienced and intention exhibited by a self, thus it is necessarily (by definition?) acting ’selfishly’. 

The second question is more interesting, and more perplexing. It’s essentially asking how motives interact in the mind. Perhaps even, what are the basic nature of these two motives (altruism and selfishness). If these two are not mutually exclusive, what happens when they “mix” in the mind? Is it an additive mixture, or a subtractive one? However, if they are exclusive, what calculus is taking place to privilege one over the other? What circumstances or other motives might have an effect on that calculation? Is the mixture or calculus something we can reduce to a principle? If so, would that function as a moral fundamental (even if not THE moral fundamental)?

Arguing from the psychological, I would speculate that a kernel of selfish motive lies at the core of all actions, even those dominated by selfless motives. Logically speaking, this would still be an affirmative answer to your question (Yes, it is possible to act selflessly). However, perplexingly, I could also say, ‘no it’s not possible, because that kernel of selfishness is present’ — and both answers would be true, because both motives are present in my mind at the same time. But perhaps my speculation is incorrect? Perhaps only one motive can be present at a time? Somehow, I doubt that…

That’s what’s interesting about the psychological question. It’s not quite a paradox, because it’s not actually a binary. It’s like drops of black paint in a bucket of white paint. If there is a kernel of selfishness at the core of all my selfless acts, does it “pollute” my altruism? Am I being dishonest somehow if I don’t acknowledge it? Does my worry about being dishonest betray some “turtles all the way down” higher authority that I want to appeal to? Or is this more like microprocessor voltages (below 5volts of selfishness = altruism; above 5volts of selfishness = selfishness)? 

We might want to say this is where value judgments can help us out. Well, they may help us to clarify which of the two motives would dominate our intentions in some specific instance, but I’m not sure how that could get us to a universal principle (viz. Altruism Is Good, or Selfishness Is Good or Altruism is Bad or Selfishness is Bad). 

Bernard Williams, Moral Dilemmas, and Utilitarianism

It would be amazing if ethics courses would stop trying to put me into some kind of Antonio Banderas / Heath Ledger fantasy nightmare, and actually start teaching me how to work on real problems in the real world. Everyone talks of trying to do "applied" ethics, and trying to remove all the 'abstractions' and deal 'directly' with our moral intuitions. But these scenarios just seem to me to be driving us further and further away from that goal

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On David Hume And Susan Feagin

Note: This is an essay responding to a question about a chapter written in this book.

In what way, if any, is Feagin’s solution to the Paradox of Tragedy an improvement on Hume’s solution?

Introduction

Susan Feagin’s solution to the Paradox of Tragedy is not only not an improvement to Hume’s solution, it is not a solution at all. I will argue that Feagin fails to improve upon Hume’s solution for two key reasons. First, because her solution suffers from the same inscrutability as Hume’s solution. Second, because the extra complexity, despite being somewhat more self-aware than Hume, adds nothing to the solution due to its lack of scientific support.

II. More Mysterious Than Thou

Feagin warns us not to “substitute one puzzle for another” found in Hume’s vague notion of “movement” between passion and eloquence resulting in “delight”. She then immediately asks us to accept a substitute that is equally as mysterious and complex. First, she claims that we experience dual responses to art: The “direct” response is the emotion triggered by direct exposure to the content. The “meta” response is an emotion triggered by the conscious observation of the “direct” response. She goes on to explain that the responses and meta-responses can take virtually any form in response to any stimulus. This diverges from Hume’s theory, since his is limited us to one “direct” response to tragedy or “eloquence”, and one response to that response (pleasure resulting from the admixture of passion and eloquence). However, Feagin agrees with Hume’s criticism of Fontanelle, arguing that these responses and meta-responses are possible both when beholding tragedy in a fiction, and when beholding it in reality. What’s more, she argues that these responses are present not only in the beholding but also in the experiencing. Hume only describes his experience of Cicero’s retelling of a factual event, but Feagin implicitly argues that her theory of responses and meta-responses could be applied not just to the readers of Cicero, but to the judges hearing the case, Verres himself, and perhaps even Cicero.

Feagin’s approach suffers from the same vagueness as Hume’s, firstly because she asserts her response-metaresponse phenomenon without offering any real evidence in support of it. While she supplies a few plausible examples of when such a phenomenon might occur, she seems to expect the reader to take the truth of those examples from their sheer intuitive obviousness. However, it’s not so obvious to me that people are actually experiencing these meta-responses in the order she supposes. For example, in the example of the strip joint hustlers, it is trivial to imagine an experience of pleasure in the thought of overcoming my inhibitions, long before I ever even get to the red-light district. Likewise, it is just as possible to feel a sense of cultural pride in myself in knowing that I will be amused by Papageno or knowing that I will be horrified by Peter Quint, long before I ever get to the theater — and then, have my expectations confirmed or denied by the performance.

Secondly, like Hume, Feagin offers no insight into the source of either the response or the meta-response. She does an excellent job of providing a description of the phenomenon that is more amenable to the modern mind, and one naturally begins to search for experiences that might confirm Feagin’s description, but this evades, rather than answers, the core question. Namely, why do we have these experiences? This is a question that is begging to be answered by psychology, or neuroscience, or some cross-over research between aesthetic philosophy and psychology. If Feagin really wanted to answer it, this is where she should have turned.

III. Circles Within Circles

Hume’s original essay tries to account for an apparent phenomenon in the simplest terms possible in an attempt to arrive at a general theory. It suffers from its simplicity. But Hume lacked the insight of a more advanced psychological science to provide a more plausible explanation of the phenomenon. Feagin’s response to Hume is a sort of astrological adjustment of Hume’s Ptolemaic understanding of the human mind. Rather than resolving or replacing Hume’s vague and muddled explanation, Feagin has simply added a layer of Baroque complexity to it.

To start, Feagin decouples her theory from tragedy-as-an-art-form, expanding it to include all possible experiences. Additionally, she decouples the kinds of responses necessitated by specific kinds of events. In her theory, it is entirely possible for any combination of responses and meta-responses in the wake of any experience. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with suggesting such a possibility, it doesn’t actually answer the challenge of the paradox. In fact, it makes the problem much more difficult. If it’s possible to have any sort of response to any sort of event, then why do humans generally seem to share the same responses to all the same circumstances? If I can have any meta-response to any response to any event, then why have I not collapsed into a heap of neurotic confusion as a result of the infinite regress of reactions I’m having to those events and the reactions to those events? With as much focus as there is on self-regard and self-observation, how does this not impel me to narcissism, rather than empathy for my fellow man? How, exactly are pleasurable meta-responses “foreclosed” by a “continuing call” for direct responses?

Finally, it’s not all that clear how we are to get from this state of continuous self-observation to a state of pleasure. Feagin simply “suggests” that self-observation of the correct responses to specific circumstances yields this pleasure. But this doesn’t answer the question of why they are the “correct” responses, how we know they are the “correct” ones, and how that knowledge got there in the first place. In other words, Feagin is simply substituting Hume’s 18th century vagueness for her own 20th century ignorance of the relevant psychological literature.

Conclusion

Hume’s essay, though flawed and unsatisfying, is a quality piece of work because it is narrow-focused and thorough. Hume is humble enough to realize that he may not be able to answer his own question, let alone attempt to resolve all of the biggest conundrums of art in one sitting. He asks a very simple, though very difficult, question: Why do we experience pleasure in the depiction of painful tragedy? Feagin not only claims that she has discovered the answer to this question but confidently proclaims a resolution to the dispute between comedy and tragedy and announces a “new perspective” on the relationship between art and morality. Had Feagin spent a bit more time researching the science of emotions and their relation to aesthetics and art, and a little less time telling us all how “inappropriate” we were for laughing at tragedy, or worse, feeling self-satisfied for not laughing at tragedy, we still might not have gotten a complete answer to the paradox, but we may very likely have gotten an explanation that moved us a little closer to an actual answer.