What Intelligent Life is Made Of

Thoughts from Studio MBK on what it is to be an intelligent being.

The Beast Within

The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality…mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests…morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides of positive-sum games…this line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature

As my passage through the challenges of my life continues, I am learning the power of the beast within each of us to do things that just don’t fit with any concept of ethics or morals that sits right with me. That is because we are at best barely in charge of our behavior, and at worst, not in charge at all.

In May of 2012 I gave a talk at the New York Society for Ethical Culture entitled “Fear, Desire and Free Will.” I wanted to explore the concept of free will, which I started out believing was at the center of being able to conduct oneself ethically or morally in the world. If you can’t choose good over evil, right over wrong, then how can you conduct yourself in an ethical or moral way? I discovered in writing and presenting that talk that scientists generally don’t believe there is free will. Certainly not as we like to think of it, and probably not at all. Instead, our behavior and actions are driven by instincts that are animalistic, programmed into us and eons old. That we can believe we have conscious control of our actions is the result of a conscious mind that is largely in the dark about its unconscious animal self and, therefore, what motivates it.

This should have been a reason to dispair for me, but because of a book by Steven Pinker entitled “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” I came to realize that making choices to improve upon the human condition is possible, but it operates at the social or collective level, not the individual level. The ability to imagine different, develop codes, and ultimately, to change the way we behave, is contingent on the development of a shared idea of a better way to behave. That is, we do not have the power to develop and manage codes of conduct individually for ourselves. If we attempt to do so we will find, if we really think about it, that they are justifications for what we do to obtain the objects of our desires. We are universally selfish in the process. We develop what works for ourselves, which is often at odds with what works for those around us. Only when we speak our ideas about these things to one another, receive critique, adjust accordingly and enter into compacts to behave in certain ways, can our behavior be governed and we be changed. Furthermore, it requires a recognition that we are better off in community than alone and that we can be deprived of that community if we violate those compacts. When we discuss our ideas with one another and they become the ideas of the community, the ideas begin to separate themselves from animal instincts. We can therefore enact and enforce rules that curb the beast within.

Related articles


Managing Crazy

Twenty children dead. Six adults. Eight adults if you count the shooter and his mother. National hand wringing and morning is in full swing. My liberal friends have rushed to the ramparts to assail the NRA and demand gun control. My conservative friends have done the same to defend their constitutional right to bear arms. Its possible that this could be the tragedy that puts us over the top to making laws that keep weapons of quick destruction out of the hands of crazy, but I am not optimistic. When the theater shootings happened in Colorado just 6 months ago I was one of those liberal gun control believers that immediately posted to Facebook that we need gun control now! My conservative friends blew me off. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. The conversation became entrenched and made little progress beyond the yes and no’s of the gun control debate.

This time I did something a little different. I posted the following:

Still trying to wrap my mind around the tragedy. Not possible really. If I were a parent I would wonder what can make my kids safe in school. It doesn’t seem possible to crazy proof the world. Do we have armed security guards at the doors of all our schools? Do we arm all our teachers? Do we homeschool all our children? What about our kids and ourselves in the mall or anywhere else we may want to gather with our community? Do we arm ourselves to the teeth and let the best man/woman/kid win? What kind of society is that to live in?

Wherever we gather in numbers we are vulnerable to crazy. What exactly is the antidote to crazy?

An interesting thing happened. A much less heated conversation about the full spectrum of managing crazy ensued. All the same players, much less passion. And those on the second amendment rights side admitted that keeping guns out of the hands of crazy was a part of the management solution. We talked about moral values. We talked about the state of mental health resources in this country. We talked about the full spectrum of managing crazy.

My take away from my little sampling on Facebook? If we shift the focus of the conversation away from a debate on gun rights, and onto what we are really trying to manage, crazy, full spectrum conversation ensues and all options are on the table to be thought about.

It is the absolute truth that guns don’t kill people. People kill people. It is also true, however, that people will use the best tools they can find when they want to accomplish something. The better the tool, the more people get killed. So, from the perspective of managing crazy, it makes sense to keep crazy away from efficient tools for quick decimation. There are probably many ways to do this and not all of them are bans of weaponry. So when we talk about managing crazy, we talk about all the ways we can keep them from the tools of destruction.

But that is not the complete story. Even if we restrict the tools, we will still have crazy. So we also need effective means for detecting crazy or the potential for crazy and intervening before it gets out. Yet we have consistently undermined our ability to do so by slashing budgets for mental health programs at every turn. In 2011, after the Tucson shootings, PBS News Hour ran this item:

Over the past ten days, the story of 22-year-old Jared Loughner, the alleged gunman in the Tucson shootings, has unfolded on news outlets throughout the world. It’s a dark tale of a troubled young man who was growing increasingly out of control — yet it seems neither he nor members of his family realized he needed treatment from mental health professionals.

Until two years ago, there were a number of programs in his community that would have been available to Loughner and his family if they had sought help. Like many places around the country, Pima County had mental health programs for people through both Medicaid and at community health centers. But now those programs have been cut because the state of Arizona is wrestling with a massive budget deficit.

Arizona has long offered mental health services, such as case workers and prescription drug coverage, to residents who don’t qualify for Medicaid, but also don’t have private insurance that covers mental health services. But since 2008, the state has had to slash a whopping $65 million from that program, affecting as many as 28,000 people last year.

State Budget Cuts Slash Mental Health Funding

More funding for mental health programs and better insurance coverage of mental health treatment will certainly help.

Even when detected crazy can be hard to contain. Strong laws protecting individuals from attempts by family members to commit them unreasonably make it hard to manage the crazy we detect appropriately. So, in addition to restricting access to the tools of destruction and increasing our efforts to detect and treat crazy, we will need to revisit laws that may have gone too far in protecting the rights of individuals at the expense of society in general.

Crazy is a full spectrum problem. We make a mistake when we run immediately to the ramparts of the battle over gun control. It overtakes the real issue and radicalizes people who might otherwise find agreement if they were talking instead about managing crazy.

%d bloggers like this: