Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A New Year's Re(S)&(V)olution

David Seaton's News Links
We live now in a curious, "lull before the storm", interlude. What seemed normal only a few months ago, now seems strange, silly and sinister. Those who were thought to be wise have been shown to be fools and what seemed granite fortresses have turned out to be so many cobweb constructions.

More is on the way: new myths to be exploded and new fools to be exposed. We call this a crisis.

A crisis in our system -- more a momentary interruption of its smugness -- at least holds out the opportunity to question what we are doing and why we are doing it.

For reasons of financial esoterica, reasons that are very complex and difficult to follow even for those trained to understand them, millions of people are going to face real hardship and many others in the economic twilight of the third world will literally starve to death or die of untreated diseases. We seem to have woven ourselves into some kind of hell.

At the bottom of this appears to be greed and selfishness and a tangled skein of institutions grown up to express and protect them.
As the cartoon character, Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy and he is us". Obviously we have gotten entangled in a labyrinth of our own devising.

Many people repress their inner qualms about our system because they don't want to be seen to be unrealistic and impractical, but scientific research is showing that it is the system itself that does not conform to human nature. We are caught in something that, although created by humans, is manifestly inhuman and a violation of human nature.

What could be less realistic and practical than that?

Is this who we really are?

In a synthesis that I think we shall see becoming common in future years, fact based scientific research is coming to confirm the ancient intuitions of humanity's spiritual traditions. Both science and religion, unlike the financial and political sectors, put the highest value on truth and strive to find it. At some point they might bump heads in the dark.

Before examining the science let's look at the spiritual traditions that date back thousands of years.

Judaism's most revered sage, Rabbi Hillel once said,"What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Law; the rest is the explanation; go and learn". A few decades later, Jesus of Nazareth announced the Golden Rule, "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets." and "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

Christianity's first chief executive officer, Saint Paul wrote,"owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, 'Thou shalt not commit adultery,' 'Thou shalt not murder,' 'Thou shalt not steal,' 'Thou shalt not bear false witness,' 'Thou shalt not covet,' and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."

In sociology this is known as the "norm or ethic of reciprocity", it is ancient and universal. With abundant help from Wikipedia, let's look at some samples of the legacy:
The Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus who taught that human beings have a duty of care to all fellow humans, said, "What thou avoidest suffering thyself seek not to impose on others."

The Buddha said, "One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter".

Confucius said, "Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself."

In the Hindu tradition, the Mahabharata states, "One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one’s own self. This, in brief, is the rule of dharma. Other behavior is due to selfish desires."

The Prophet Muhammad said, "The most righteous of men is the one who is glad that men should have what is pleasing to himself, and who dislikes for them what is for him disagreeable."
Is this some sort of amazing coincidence? Probably not: science is discovering that it might be printed in our DNA. The question could be, does matter proceed from spirit or does spirit proceed from matter? And the answer might be Deng Hsiao Ping's, "black cat, white cat, as long as it catches mice it is a good cat".
Last year Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, proposed in his book “Moral Minds” that the brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language. In another recent book, “Primates and Philosophers,” the primatologist Frans de Waal defends against philosopher critics his view that the roots of morality can be seen in the social behavior of monkeys and apes. Dr. de Waal, who is director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, argues that all social animals have had to constrain or alter their behavior in various ways for group living to be worthwhile. These constraints, evident in monkeys and even more so in chimpanzees, are part of human inheritance, too, and in his view form the set of behaviors from which human morality has been shaped.(...) Though human morality may end in notions of rights and justice and fine ethical distinctions, it begins, Dr. de Waal says, in concern for others and the understanding of social rules as to how they should be treated. At this lower level, primatologists have shown, there is what they consider to be a sizable overlap between the behavior of people and other social primates.(...) Dr. de Waal believes that these actions are undertaken for the greater good of the community, as distinct from person-to-person relationships, and are a significant precursor of morality in human societies.(...) “Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are,” Dr. de Waal wrote in his 1996 book “Good Natured.” Biologists ignored this possibility for many years, believing that because natural selection was cruel and pitiless it could only produce people with the same qualities. But this is a fallacy, in Dr. de Waal’s view. Natural selection favors organisms that survive and reproduce, by whatever means. And it has provided people, he writes in “Primates and Philosophers,” with “a compass for life’s choices that takes the interests of the entire community into account, which is the essence of human morality.” New York Times
Apparently this moral "compass" is heavily reinforced. Read this from the Washington Post:
"You gotta see this!" Jorge Moll had written. Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.(....) The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.(...) The results -- many of them published just in recent months -- are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.(...) What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots -- such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman's experiment -- that have been around for a very long time. The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize -- even experience vicariously -- what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior. And it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions of right and wrong, says Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago.
Let's underline one phrase from that article, "The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy": to "walk a mile in another man's shoes" to experience vicariously what another creature is feeling is probably the most human experience there is and one the most pleasurable or painful experiences that life has to offer.

Empathy is the basis of great dramatic art, especially the most popular of all dramatic arts, the art of cinematography. What is a movie star, but a person with a unique ability to inspire empathy?

Think of the world's, but especially America's, obsession with the movies and with movie stars. Americans literally worship movie stars: they spend an enormous part of their lives and billions of dollars seeking to empathize with them. They sit on their sofa's or in darkened movie theaters having stories told to them like sleepy children,
rooting for the good guy, during an amazing proportion of their waking lives.

So science and even Hollywood prove that we derive great pleasure from doing good and observing others doing good. This pleasure makes cooperation and solidarity attractive and these qualities have made our species the most successful of all the animal kingdom.

If this is who we really are, the most imperative fields of inquiry in the coming years have to be, how did we get into such an impossible situation and probably much more important, how do we get out of it?

The answers to the last question, whatever they finally may be, will surely entail empowering our
humanity and downgrading all the structures or value systems that make empathy a solitary vice. DS


stunted said...

Thank you for this gorgeous post, and for News Links in general. All the best in the coming year and please excuse my brevity, but I've got to go out and hug somebody after reading this. You are the man.

rachel-bartlett said...

Awesome post.

"We are caught in something that, although created by humans, is manifestly inhuman and a violation of human nature."

This is what I am telling everybody at the moment -- humans are inherently good, and we can and must change our economic and political system.