In the comments on the last post, Luke Roelofs raised some interesting questions about my stab at thinking about virtue ethics. I was suggesting that when we’re thinking about ethics, we should really be thinking about what kind of people we want to be. And since being a person depends on (or maybe just is) a certain kind of self-unity, we can treat self-integration as a moral imperative that kind of comes for free with the virtue ethics standpoint.
Luke raised the very reasonable worry that this sounds less like a moral imperative, and more like an imperative to be kick-ass or powerful. The concern, as I understood it, was that moral monsters can be highly self-integrated, and so degree of inner harmony doesn’t have much to do with morality.
The line I’d like to push here is that sociability is too deep in us to deny. As a matter of empirical fact, we are constructed to be sociable, and tend to need others around to flourish. And further, being able to understand and interact with others is part of what it means to be conscious in the first place. If those two things are true, then I think we can safely say that intrapersonal integration is impossible without interpersonal integration. The idea is that as a sentient being, you simply can’t be complete and whole without considering others. And more than just noticing their presence, but being disposed towards treating them kindly, and with due consideration.
As usual, I’ll proceed more by assertion than argument1. But hopefully I’ll be able to throw out some ideas which make this way of seeing a bit clearer, and maybe even plausible. To start off, consider survivalism.
Actually, first consider the ‘state of nature’, as imagined by people like Locke and Rousseau. These political philosophers have us imagine that before we got together into societies, we all just roamed around free, living off the bounty of the earth. They admit, of course, we probably had families or whatever, but still want us to take seriously the idea that we were individuals before we were part of a society.
Now with that in the back of your mind, consider the story of Ed Wardle, the handsome man in the picture above. As part of a television series, he was dropped off in the wilds of Canada with little more than everything modern technology can provide a person to ensure their survival in the wilderness. He intended to stay for three months. But after 50 days he was too hungry and lonely to go on, and used his satellite phone to ask for extraction. Now how does that look against the image of the state of nature, where perfectly free individuals bound across verdant fields, picking fruit as it pleases?
What he lacked was probably training. If he had some good disciplined survival training, and a tough mind, he probably could have survived the three months out there. But that’s just to say that he needs more culture, more society in his process. The individual, if such a thing is even possible, is actually a cultural product. It takes years of parenting, moral education, social training and external regimens of discipline to make a person ready to make choices about their own values. That makes society prior to the individual.
Psychologically, there’s no doubt that we need other people. What is the worst punishment meted out to prisoners in countries like Canada? What is worse than being surrounded by angry, desperate, trapped criminals? Not being allowed to be around angry, desperate, trapped criminals. Solitary confinement, when extended enough, will reliably break a person’s mind.
I suspect this is a result of the way we’re wired. I hate to trot out the piece of pop-neuroscience du jour, but have you heard of mirror neurons? Of course you have. And here’s a video about them anyway.
It’s not completely clear that there are a certain set of neurons that we could call ‘mirror neurons’. But the evidence is reasonably good that we’re constantly running simulations of each other, and doing it with the same hardware that we use to run ourselves. And as Ramachandran suggests in the video above, it’s entirely plausible to suppose that it isn’t just a matter of modelling others based on ourselves. We’re almost certainly modelling ourselves based on others. We are, quite literally, in each other’s heads.
Ok, I hear you saying, let’s suppose all that is true. We’re interdependent or whatever. Does that really mean we have to be nice to each other?
I think it does. Because a totally self-integrated person is not at war with themselves. That is the asymmetry between treating others kindly, and treating them badly. One is integrative, and the other is not. And if you’re largely a collection of simulations of other people, being whole and complete means living in harmony with your outside world as well.
1. I love the internet.