of survivalism and intersubjectivity

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.

One truly alone human being - the pinnacle of cultural achievement

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.


9 thoughts on “of survivalism and intersubjectivity

  1. What about sociopaths? There are many examples of sociopaths who have been considered pillars of their society – they were not just charming, but also coached soccer for the neighbourhood kids, volunteered for good causes, had good jobs, and stable families. They also happened to travel to a different part of twon every few months and kill someone in cold blood for the pleasure of it. When finally caught, some express no remorse. This is not a perfect example – perhaps when you refer to interpersonal skill, you do not just mean a capability for working with people (which some sociopaths have in spades), but something related to empathy (which is sorely missing in said example). But merely being polite, friendly, well-respected, and good at dealing with others are not, in themselves, moral.

    However, I do like the idea of “the individual” being a social construction. Rather than projecting some sort of “state of nature,” I think looking to the animals we evolved from – group-centred primates – suggests that groups and survival might have come before complex ideas like individualism.

    • I think it’s interesting that psychopathy used to be called “moral insanity”. [edit: sorry historians, I know that’s an anachronistic way of putting it. Pretend I said something more sensible.] It isn’t clear to me that a psychopath is capable of making moral choices. Or at least, the disorder is characterized by problems in moral understanding. If that’s right, then to the extent that someone is psychopathic, they aren’t moral subjects at all.

      This applies not just to their relationship with others, but also to their relationship with themselves. Psychopathy is commonly associated with grandiose and unrealistic self-assesments, for example. The virtue ethics project of self-cultivation depends on at least somewhat real information about your state of development. If someone is robbed of that by biology, I tend to think blame and praise stop being the right way of thinking about them. It becomes a question of protecting people from them, and them from themselves.

      An interesting question, thank you.

  2. “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.”

    Could you spell out the reasoning in this crucial final section a bit more? The idea, I take it, is that treating people kindly is ‘integrative’, in something sufficiently close to the sense in which metabolising sugars and fats into ATP and cell membranes is ‘integrative’. Conversely, treating people badly is ‘dis-integrative’, and makes you ‘at war with yourself’.

    And this is meant to follow from the fact that each of us is ‘largely a collection of simulations of other people’? It seems like the first key step is the idea that if I develop my sense of my own personality through internalising an image of person P, and then act so as to harm person P, I’ll also be ‘harming’, or ‘putting myself in conflict with’, my own internalised image of person P. And then the second step somehow generalises this so that I need to be nice even to the people who didn’t raise me, who I have perhaps never met.

    But it’s not clear this is true. Often it will be, because the models I’ve internalised happen to be ones that exemplify altruism or fairness – but that’s contingent. For instance, imagine I’m Medici junior, and my parents have taught me carefully and well all my life to be careful, cunning, and ruthless. Eventually, their wits are dulled with age, and I manage to stage a palace coup and have them executed. With her last breath, my mother begs me to spare her life, and I feel ‘tempted’ to, pulled by a certain unbidden compassion and attachment. But I remember everything she taught me, and I remind her that to spare her life would be against all the precepts she inculcated.

    Here it’s precisely my internalised ‘simulation’ of the person who formed my psyche which compels me to harm the actual person.

    Consider another case where my parents teach me a super-strict moral code, doing so in a harsh way that leaves me with a lot of leftover resentment. But I sublimate that resentment and try to please them by exemplifying the code as highly as possible (that is, I resolve my ‘Oedipal conflict’). Then one day I find them breaking that code, in a large or small way, and so I mete out the appropriate punishment, in a large or small way (call the cops/tell the church/lecture them). Here I’m acting directly against the actual person, but in accordance with the internalised image. And it feels *GREAT*. The feeling of finally being able to look down on them, of finally ‘taking possession’ of that moral capital, by tearing it out of their hands, feels so good. I feel more integrated because I can now punish and hurt my parents.

    That’s not to say that these cases will necessarily be super-common. It’s just to show, by counter-example, that being at war with your internalised images need not correlate with being at war with the actual people who gave you those images. And if you can’t make that connection, I fear your argument doesn’t go through.

    • Once again Luke, you’ve put your finger right on it. That’s just the connection I want to make, but I’m not sure I can say exactly why I want to make it.

      Maybe the second criterion I put on virtue ethics, that we need a character which leaves us capable of making moral choices, can be of some help here. In the comment above, Nick Field raised the case of psychopathy. In the extreme case of someone who is totally unable to perceive the value of others, that person is in some sense not even in a position to make moral evaluations. The partial, broken models of other minds that you’re working with essentially leave them morally broken. To the extent that we are all unable to take seriously the happiness of others, we’re all similarly not even in the moral sphere.

      I don’t think that war with others is exactly the same as war with others, as though a person was literally the same as the culture they come from. It’s something more like being a complete person (the maximal ideal of virtue ethics, probably never achieved) requires having a compassionate awareness of other people. It doesn’t mean you always have to be making others feel good (a somewhat shallow notion of compassion), but something more like the ability to accurately model how others are thinking and feeling. Since you model other people on your own hardware, simply having that deep awareness of the other is sufficient to motivate kind behaviour towards them. Kindness kind of comes for free with seeing deeply into the other.

      I know that still stands in need of more support. I’m claiming (without proof) that accurately modelling someone else motivates the modeller to kindness, or at least a minimal moral regard. It’s not 100% clear to me that I want to discount the machiavellian prince as morally bad. Or at least, I can see the moral good in that kind of consistency. Does *appropriate* viciousness automatically mean someone is immoral? Perhaps that’s a bullet that the virtue ethicist could bite…

      • “In the extreme case of someone who is totally unable to perceive the value of others, that person is in some sense not even in a position to make moral evaluations.”
        That’s true, but what does it prove? Psychopaths are clearly an extreme case, and if we try to apply ideas about them to non-extreme cases…

        “To the extent that we are all unable to take seriously the happiness of others, we’re all similarly not even in the moral sphere.”
        …we get this claim. It might be true, it might even be true and profound, but it’s not plausible prima facie. Prima facie in fact it threatens to do away with morality altogether, because it suggests that I’m only in the moral sphere to the extent that I ‘take seriously’ the happiness of others. I ‘should’ do right only insofar as I already ‘want to’ do right; insofar as I don’t want to do right (don’t take others seriously) I’m not in the moral sphere so it’s not clear that I should do right. The gap between want and should closes up, and morality seems to become one desire among others. Prima facie.

        “I don’t think that war with oneself is exactly the same as war with others… It’s something more like being a complete person… requires having a compassionate awareness of other people.”
        But why? How does that follow from the notion of ‘completeness’? I mean, it’s not obviously as though the selfish or malicious person is 19 out of the 20 parts that compose a normal person (or if tjhey are, no more than a person without malice is similarly ‘incomplete’).

        “the ability to accurately model how others are thinking and feeling. Since you model other people on your own hardware, simply having that deep awareness of the other is sufficient to motivate kind behaviour towards them…accurately modelling someone else motivates the modeller to kindness”

        I think this is true. Empathy (in the sense of something that motivates altruistic behaviour) is indispensable for the cognitive task of modelling other people’s minds, indeed ultimately for representing them as really having minds.

        But it doesn’t *look* true. It looks as though a psychopath, or an ordinary vicious agent, can model the minds of others very accurately (even if we grant the Goldstickian analysis that Allan mentions, which I think has much to recommend it as an empirical account of the phenomenon). Moreover, it looks as though there are many agents who do have the basic capacity, and often actuality, for moral thought, but are very bad at modelling other minds (I’m thinking of research showing that autistic children and Down’s syndrome children have emotional tendencies that psychopaths lack). It doesn’t look as though the cognitive task of representing other minds and the moral task of caring about (“taking seriously”) other minds are strongly correlated at all.

        So this approach to ethics (grounded in empathy as a form of representation) will need some surprising argument. I happen to have my own attempt to give such an argument; it’s 80 pages long and boils down to treating immoral agents as covert solipsists who model others in a fictionalist way while deceiving themselves that they’re not. But that’s beside the point.

        The point is just that I continue to think that virtue ethics is not going to provide surprising arguments that will get around the apparent dissociation between accurately modelling others and caring about others.

  3. Cory the sort of position you suggest has some interesting parallels with various moral positions. Just because I happen to be most familiar with his position I can’t help but notice that Danny Goldstick take a similar position. For him the basic content of morality is in imaginatively placing oneself’s in the other place and he takes it that all lingual (and social) beings do this to some extent (he argues it is a capacity required for linguistic capability). Because of some of the discussion here I have to note that his book includes a chapter “consciencelessness” which argues that we should not interpret psycopaths as being without conscience (this is in aid of his justification of objective morality by denying a simple escape to that position) but rather (as some psychologists have suggested) being about lack of appreciation of consequences (to much living in the moment) and impulsiveness (which is a generally recognized symptom of psycopathy). Psycopaths are moral agents just worse at it even then normal human beings (who do not approach moral perfection either). In the identification of the content of morality (as opposed to the justification which in his case is a rather tricky argument that I am not sure I can do justice to) Danny admits predecessors most clearly and obviously Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.

    One basic issue of moral theory as a rational (or perhaps objective) enterprise is to have a way of saying honestly “If our positions were reversed I would do the right thing.” In the case where you are attempting to employ moral suasion against someone who is about to do what you judge to be the wrong thing. In order for such suasion to be rational and honest (as opposed to a merely psychological tool of fraud, seduction, bafflegab, extortion etc.) there must be some argument or truth implied that implicitly transcends the particular of the pleading interlocutor’s experience and temperament and speaks to some premises the two agents share implicitly or explicitly. Obviously Kant’s requirement that all our actions be universalizable is one suggestion for such a common basis, Bentham’s argument that we take into account all pleasure and pain is another. As a suggestion for what that common premise for moral argument is I think your proposal makes some sense.

    It is tangential, but I am also reminded of what little I know about Parfit, he argues that his attenuated view of personal identity and what actual matters about it allowed him a perspective he found positive: “When I believed my existence was such a further fact, I was imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.” _Reasons and Persons_ p. 281 [Actually got the quote from Wikipedia page on Derek Parfit, but confirmed it on Google books]

    It is worth noting that having a rational position form which to judge your (potential) actions is pretty important, there is much at stake in trying to figure this out. Even the egoist needs a reason to quit smoking and without a certain premise about what self-interest consists in they will not find it (why should I give up the current pleasure of smoking, so that a future version of “myself” does not suffer health problems, why do I care?). Also, if your actions are resistant to any rational consideration either as enforcement or deterrence it implies a kind of systematic doubt about yourself, a failure to achieve full commitment to your beliefs and goals maybe even existential nausea (?) that maybe is another example of a person in unstable turmoil. So this is part of the stake in moral theory.

    • That’s another good take on psychopathy, which can maybe help show the difference between what I’m suggesting and some other (perhaps more standard) pictures of morality. We focus on the conscience as the locus of moral judgement, but I think it’s questionable whether our conscience is all that effective in shaping our behaviour. If it really is the case that there are people with psychopathy who have a subjective experience of ‘having a conscience’ but it is totally divorced from their actions (they are impulsive, cannot but live in the moment) then I would take that to show that conscience and moral behaviour are at least in principle dissociable. In my pessimism, I would suggest that this is an extreme case of what is actually the general condition for most people, but to a lesser degree. We are all psychopaths to the extent that we are pathologically unable to behave according to moral principles we set for ourselves, or in response to pangs of conscience.

      To put it bluntly, I suspect that we aren’t yet moral animals. I think we aspire to morality, but it has not (in a practical sense) been invented yet. Maybe a few people have carved out a few rare spaces of genuinely moral behaviour. I am hopeful that we could become moral, as a society. Maybe we’re not moral animals, but rather the animal closest to achieving it.

      That’s a really sublime quote from Parfit, by the way.

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