News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Facing the Animal In Us

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Facing the Animal In Us

An example of the way that theories of human nature impact our lives and predispose us to see life in a certain way, coinciding with stereotypes of human behavior, came in an ordinary way the other day. I am trying to introduce my dog into a home where an older dog has made its home for many years. The owners of this dog believe that their pet will simply accept my dog, acting like the wonderful pet it has been for some time. Unfortunately, that has not been true.

As many people will know, domesticated animals easily adapt to their human owners' way of life. This adaptive behavior is upset, though, when the pet acts in ways that exhibit the genetic predisposition built into them. When a dog, for example, turns from friendly companion to vicious turf defender, owners are not only surprised, they also make numerous excuses that try to cover up the "indecent" behavior exhibited by friendly Fido.

Of course, in my tortured brain these events align with some things I have written about concerning Milgram's experiments into authoritarianism and Wittgenstein's attack on theory. That is, genetic make-up taking over and undermining domesticity of the family dog exhibits strange parallels to how humans act against even their most cherished values in such conditions as authoritarian hierarchies and rationalized societies.

I'll try to describe how I see some of this thinking working itself out. The following comments are obviously hastily written and would require augmentation in many ways.

One of the fall-outs of the Milgram experiments is that people often act against their own ethical and moral principles. That is, even though someone might oppose cruelty to other human beings in theory, when it comes to performing acts commanded by authority figures and as part of some "objectively" structured situation , they often perform acts that contradict what they say are their most cherished beliefs and values.

In his work on sociology and theory, Wittgenstein and the Idea of a Critical Social Theory: A Critique of Giddens, Habermas and Bhaskar, Nigel Pleasants notes that liberal sociologists and liberals in general often reject Milgram's findings because they contradict an assumed theory of human nature that sees human nature as inherently rational and disposed to do good. To over-simplify, Pleasants understands this rejection of Milgram's research as a predilection for theory according to which all things human must coincide.

Pleasants explains that Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical analysis undermines this theoretical bias. Instead of theorizing about human action, Wittgenstein talks about describing things that are so obvious that we simply ignore them, though their power to dispel illusions and "philosophical" questions is overwhelming. One thing that militates against the "simple" explanation is that it's so common and so "Doh." Yet, this very ordinariness, when seen in its interrelatedness with other similarly ordinary things and events takes on a truly awe-inspiring grandeur. In a world with a predilection for spectacle and the sexified, such ordinariness does not captivate enough.

Without going into the full range of Pleasants' and Wittgenstein's arguments, I must admit that I often understand their points intellectually. While I've had some experience with the way that a non-theoretical approach to dispelling self-delusions works, I had some problem with the Milgram experiments. This is not to say that I haven't seen the psychological mechanism described by Milgram at work, but it does mean that I have not drilled down deeply enough into my psychological make-up to see how the mechanism works in my own everyday actions.

What Wittgenstein talks about simply comes in the flow and stream of life. To pull oneself out of it, so to speak, is exactly what thinkers like Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and Heidegger meant when they discuss the distorted view about reason's role in making decisions. That is, as Heidegger puts it, we only attend to the world in a rational way when things begin to break down. In the course of living life, we simply live it, embedded in its practices and language in a way that makes living possible.

The wish to theorize and impose a theory onto what we actually experience runs very deep, even in those that do not practice philosophy "officially." This common propensity to formulate and impose theoretical models onto reality is something that Wittgenstein's work deals with. While many see his work as just applying to professional theorizers in the sciences--as it surely does--it also applies to people in general. The desire to come up with a theory that explains it all for you, so to speak, is the source, I;d venture, for many phenomena that includes conspiracy theories to ideology.

The idea that humans are genetically related to animals, and monkeys or apes in particular, repels many people it seems. This observation has been exploited by numerous authors recently on several sides of the political spectrum. Some on the Right, for example, see disgust as a natural instinct that should form the basis for what called natural law. Others, on the Left, see many facets of disgust as socially conditioned.

The problem with these theories is that they attempt to explain large swathes of human behavior as only related to disgust. The appeal of an emotion like disgust for politically oriented thinkers is that it is a hidden psychological process that seems to control and define our behavior. The scientist--or politically motivated philosopher--can use this discovery about a hidden mechanism to seemingly explain human nature. The appeal here is obvious: it gives the illusion that I can explain why humans do what they do. It's especially appealing to those who wish to find eternal truths that cannot be overturned by contingencies.

Have we reached bedrock--as Wittgenstein would say--with an emotion like disgust? Is it, instead, a mainly socially conditioned response in an otherwise open human ability to create and sustain a personality over time? The notion of a theory itself is in question here. While it seems true that disgust is a powerful emotion, it seems too much to say that it is eternal in any sense and must or should form the basis fora personal ethical understanding of life. Instead, we might do well to stay at a more profound level whereby we resist intellectualizing the emotion and remaining aware of those times when we experience disgust and reflect on whether the emotion is just or not.

In the same way, though, we should remain receptive to situations wherein others exploit and marshal the emotion to promote unjust "solutions" to events that might best be reflected on and discussed in more rational terms.

At the same time, we must remain vigilant for the animal that sits at the door of our actions and waits to drive us to ravine and fear and compel us to act in a way other than the human.

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