Friday, October 23, 2015

STRANGERS DROWNING by Larissa MacFarquhar

Today we are exposed to the suffering of other people and the existence of a plurality of moral systems that are overwhelming in their effect on us.  In my seminary years one of the most useful professors was Don Browning, who taught ethical systems across their various ways of dealing with tragedy.  They could be based on rules, on the final goal being pursued, on one’s origins and therefore place in the universe, on the model of someone admired, according to the group to which one belonged, or through an individual evaluation of specifics: “situation ethics” or “pro-choice.”

Lately there have been a number of books that draw on the new brain imaging we can do.  I thought the idea that one has a “gut” reaction about what is right and then has to draw that into relationship with rational thinking-through was a new idea, but it turns out that the idea has been around for a while.  It’s just that now we can SEE it.

Charles Darwin speculated that human morality involves a combination of emotional intuitions and reasoned deliberation (Darwin, 1872/1999).  A growing body of research has linked vagal tone to neuro-visceral integration, which plays a central role in cognitive and emotional regulatory functioning.  The vagus nerves are part of the tenth pair of cranial nerves, supplying the heart, lungs, upper digestive tract, and other organs of the chest and abdomen.  It’s sort of the connection between what one is thinking and the subconscious but coinciding changes in the body that are monitored for a lie detector test.  The idea is that if you are calm, you've probably got your ethics under control.

Recent research has examined the psychological and neural systems that underlie deontological—which promotes rule-based mortality and often focuses on “rights” and “duties”—versus utilitarian—whose goal is to produce profitable consequences as much as possible, even at the expense of sacrificing a few moral judgments.  The two points of view sometimes clash, especially when the rule-making church is weak and contradictory, and the respect of the larger community rests on profit.

“Consistent with dual-process models, utilitarian judgments elicit greater activation in brain areas typically linked to abstract reasoning and cognitive control, such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and inferior parietal lobes (Greene et al., 2004). Moreover, people with greater working memory capacity make more utilitarian judgments (Moore, Clark, & Kane, 2008), as do people who tended to engage in more deliberative compared to intuitive thinking (Bartels, 2008; Nichols and Mallon, 2006).”  Translation:  The more you think things through instead of just reacting, the more “ethical” you will be.  But there's a problem.

“However, some evidence suggests that utilitarian judgments may result from a lack of emotional processes—particularly pro-social emotions. Several studies have shown that low empathy is linked with greater utilitarian judgments. Similarly, people with strong psychopathic and Machiavellian personality traits, which reflect the tendency to be emotionally detached and manipulative, report stronger utilitarian judgments. Furthermore, people with alcohol dependency, who are typically characterized by a deficit in emotional responses, make more utilitarian moral judgments. Taking together, it appears that greater reasoning and deficits in emotional processing both contribute to utilitarian moral judgments, whereas pre-potent negative affect and a lack of reasoning contribute to deontological moral judgments.”   

The "deo" prefix is related to the deity, who presumably created the morality.  The paragraphs above are saying the more you just obey God, the less likely you are to think through ethical issues.  Your ethics will be emotional.

“Recent developments [are] showing that there might be more than two processes guiding moral judgment. For instance, one influential review of the neural systems underlying dual process models of moral cognition actually described at least eight distinct brain regions, each of which implements a discrete cognitive process.” 

They had hoped to discover a way to uncover how people made moral decisions and physical evidence of how the brain and viscera reconciled.  All they found was that some people were at peace with their decisions and some were not.  “Cold” people relied on logic more and “hot” people went with their feelings, but that was where we started.  Neither could the information arrive at a judgement about which was better, what kind of people were better.

Much more interesting was a review in VICE ( by Harry Cheadle, entitled “The People Who Are So Good They Terrify the Rest of Us.”  It addresses our strange feelings about prominent do-gooders, that category being based mostly on suffering.  They challenge us to do as much good as they do.  The “alternative is to turn yourself into an open empathetic wound, perpetually contemplating the sum total of suffering on the planet and asking yourself what you are doing—or not doing—to alleviate it.”  

A female doctor said her “role-model” was Mother Teresa.  This is nonsense.  The upscale well-dressed wife and mother did NOT want to live in India with flies, no AC, dying babies, and nothing to wear but a cotton sari.  She seemed oblivious to the public knowledge that Mother Teresa hoarded the donations meant for those dying babies and had amassed a fortune in the bank despite need; and to the journal in which Mother Teresa described her lifelong suffering from depression and emptiness of faith.

Mother Teresa

We want our do-gooders and saints to be one-dimensional, impossible, because that excuses us from being like them.  They are unreal and we want them that way.  One of my friends is a do-gooder and a question he always has is “why is everyone so interested in me instead of being interested in the people I’m helping?”   It’s true.  No one writes stories about the children who were dying in Mother Teresa’s hospice -- we all want to know about the woman as a teen and her love life and whether she got along with her mother.  We don’t want to be like her, but we like to think we can understand her -- maybe be the only person who REALLY knows the truth about her.  Or, like Hitchens, one believes Mother Teresa is too good to be true and wants to rip off the veil.

Larissa MacFarquhar

The book, Strangers Drowning, is by Larissa MacFarquhar.  The title suggests the migrants who desperately try to cross oceans.  She says, “People have this notion that goodness is butterflies and bunnies. Good people are just as complex and strange and driven and relentless as bad people. I wanted to write a book that explored people who I wholeheartedly admired and who engaged with that complexity. And also, I sort of viewed it in some sense as an advertisement to novelists to say, "These people are interesting. You should write about them!"  . . .

"Children around the age of ten or 12 are often quite overwhelmed when they discover facts about suffering and poverty in the world. They want to help and they want to do something—and then they forget." . . .

"For do-gooders it's always wartime. They don't think that we're living in normal times."

“Most of us, for instance, knew that there was a refugee crisis in Europe but it didn't become vivid to most people until we saw that photo that everyone in the world saw of that toddler with his face in the water. Then, all of a sudden, we felt that suffering that we knew intellectually had existed before. But to the kind of person I'm writing about, that suffering is vivid without the help of photographs, without the help of moving articles, without the help of movies. They know it's there, and they imagine it so vividly that they are as moved to help as the rest of us would be if someone was drowning right in front of us.”

The least we can do is not be part of the problem.  If we can figure out how to keep our faces out of the water. 

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