Whom should we care about? Whom should we hold accountable, and whom should we defend? The answer lies at the heart of The Mind Club: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters. If you’re concerned about how people manipulate others towards genocide, or you’re curious about why we hold people accountable – or not – the answer lies in our perception of their experience and in our perceptions of their agency.
If you’re have an inner life, you’re filled with feelings and experiences. This experience matters. It separates the inanimate from the animate. We think of cows as having feelings and inner experience and therefore worthy of our protection. It’s one of the reasons that vegetarians choose to not eat meat—they can’t bear to consider that they’re causing suffering to the animals. However, they have no qualms about eating a turnip, a carrot, or a radish. These are vegetables, not capable of feeling or experience. This fundamental difference separates what can be eaten and what should not be eaten.
When we look at strategies to dehumanize people – for instance, in Moral Disengagement and The Lucifer Effect – we see that one involves making a group of people become unfeeling monsters. The effect of this is that we must no longer consider their moral rights.
While control is an illusion, we ascribe moral responsibility to those who have thought and therefore the perception of agency. (See Compelled to Control for control as an illusion, and How Good People Make Tough Choices for moral responsibility.) We hold accountable only those whom we believe have thought and agency. We don’t hold accountable the cow that knocks over the lantern and starts a fire. We don’t believe the cow had the mental capacity for thought and therefore had no ability to predict its behaviors would lead to fire.
Even in Las Vegas, a bad roll of the dice or a poor flop of a card in Blackjack isn’t cruel. Even with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, the perception of the cards and dice as being random eliminates all agency. However, when there is a sense of agency, the reactions are quite different.
Consider a random number generator that decides the split of money between two people. In even remarkably uneven splits, we don’t ascribe cruelty to the random number generator. However, if we replace the random number generator with a person, we’re quite likely to label them cruel if we believe that the split isn’t fair.
The only difference is the perception of thought, agency, or will. That’s enough for us to ascribe negative attributes to their character. (See Bonds That Make Us Free and Trust Me for more.)
I’ve talked about the problems with our memory in my review of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me). In short, we don’t have a static memory but rather reassemble memories from pieces. We can’t think of our memories like a perfect recording. Instead, they’re approximations of what we originally experienced. How Emotions Are Made explains how our current state colors our perception of our memories. Even in relatively non-emotional, work-related topics, our emotions change what we know. It’s one of the reasons why Job Aids and Performance Support tools are so valuable – they’re always the same, no matter when or how they’re accessed.
However, one of the implications of our imperfect and assembled memory is that it’s not all internal. We have notes, references, and people that we lean on to enhance our memory. In my post, Research in the age of electrons, I explained the process I use to take notes to intentionally support my memory with external resources. When I reassemble my memories – or try to follow a thread – I’ve got an anchor connected to reality that many don’t have. More importantly, I’ve got a capacity to connect with more resources to enhance my ability to remember.
I also, however, use my wife as a way of enhancing my memory, leaving social calendars and some anniversaries and birthdays for her to remember. This transactive memory aid allows each of us to focus on a subset of the overall things we’d need to worry about. This outsourcing of memory is one of the reasons why grief is so challenging – not only did we lose the person, but we’ve lost a part of ourselves as well. (See The Grief Recovery Handbook.)
The Uncanny Valley
Somewhere between human and non-human lies the uncanny valley. While we’re perfectly comfortable with humans and comfortable with non-human things, when things are too human – but not quite human enough – we are in the uncanny valley, and it’s unsettling to us. Because we don’t know where the edges are, we may find ourselves suddenly disturbed without knowing precisely why.
For instance, we’re aware that devices can detect chemicals in the air. We have replaced canaries with machines to measure air quality. However, we struggle to think that machines can detect vomit or grandma’s apple pie because these are inherently emotional smells. (And, hopefully, the second doesn’t cause the first.) When we start to mingle emotional characteristics with things that we believe aren’t emotional, it’s gets odd.
One in Pain is a Tragedy
Compassion is easiest expressed when we have a singular person whom we can consider helping. When we’re faced with faceless masses – or even too many people that we do know – we overload our capacity for compassion and often shut down. Instead of being eight times more compassionate when we discover eight people need help, we shut down. We can be compassionate to Baby Jessica, the child who fell down a well in Texas. We can’t be compassionate – easily – for the thousands losing their lives due to special military actions or genocides. We can believe that genocide is wrong – and still not muster the compassion for the persons and families impacted individually.
We tend to think about morals as right vs. wrong. We often fail to consider the influence of culture and beliefs. We recognize the morals of Muslims, who refuse to eat pigs, but will happily eat a hamburger made of cows. We acknowledge that Hindus will eat pigs but refuse to eat cows. Both religions have strong feelings about the sanctity of animals – just not the same animals. Our morals aren’t just shaped by the big-picture beliefs we have, but they’re also shaped by resource scarcity.
Consider the man who steals groceries. Stealing is wrong. However, many, when faced with starvation, will find a way to feed their family through stealing. That doesn’t make stealing any more or less objectively right, but it does change our perspective on whether it’s acceptable.
Chivalry as Benevolent Sexism
Too many lament that chivalry is dead. Men don’t hold doors for women any longer. They don’t open car doors for them. It seems as if we’ve lost the charming way that men used to care for women. Most women I know find these behaviors charming – even if they are, in fact, sexism. We don’t expect the same behavior when two men are out or when two women are out. That’s why we call chivalry “benevolent sexism.” It’s a way of respecting and honoring the other sex – as long as it’s welcome and appreciated.
Is Your CEO a Psychopath?
Psychopaths don’t care about the feelings of others. They also tend to be calm in the face of danger. Their ability to disconnect from the feelings of others seems to convey a greater sense of calm when facing danger – particularly interpersonal or relational danger. It seems that CEOs are four times more likely than the general population to meet the criteria for psychopathy. One can wonder whether it’s being the CEO that causes it or whether the calm that is conveyed allowed them to make decisions that led them to the CEO role.
Parasocial Stereotype Removal
We naturally feel connected to the celebrities that we see. It’s a parasocial relationship. That is, it’s a one-way relationship, where we feel connected with them, and they don’t recognize any connection to us. Because of the perception of a relationship and the perceived power imbalance, there’s a great chance that they’ll motivate our behavior. That’s why endorsement contracts are so lucrative. They work.
What if we were to take a situation where we have a negative opinion of a group of people – a negative stereotype – and we were to create characters that were real and likeable on a program that everyone wanted to watch? The result might be to melt the stereotype. This seems to have been the case in at least one soap opera designed specifically for this purpose.
There are, of course, limits. The story of Al Campanis and Jackie Robinson, as related in Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me), hints at the limits. Campanis could respect Jackie and, to a lesser extent, any black man. However, he couldn’t accept that Jackie would be a good baseball manager. There was no doubt he was a great player, but Campanis wouldn’t make the leap to other areas. In short, when it comes to changing stereotypes, even direct experience and relationship has its limits.
A grain of sand is one thing. A sand pile is another. However, when does a collection of grains of sand become a pile? Most can’t answer this question. It lies in a vague space between two seemingly distinct categories. This problem is why we can’t identify the line between those who are thinkers and those who aren’t – and why we’ll sometimes move the line to fit the circumstances.
It is the problem that Justice Potter Stewart used to describe the obscenity of pornography. He simply said, “I know it when I see it.” Even in the case of an important societal definition and a wise and considerate justice, there are sometimes no clear definitions.
As we seek to understand who feels and who thinks, we may find that the answer isn’t as clear-cut as we believe it to be.
Loss of Future
Sometimes losses take on more than the loss itself. When parents grieve a fetus through miscarriage, they’re not grieving the loss of cells. They’re not misunderstanding that, depending upon the stage of pregnancy, there is or isn’t feeling. Instead, they’re mourning the loss of a future. It’s the birthday parties, graduations, and grandchildren that they envision would result from the birth of their child. Sometimes, the way that we view things isn’t just from the present tense but from the potential futures that are lost because of the event.
Finding Meaning in Inherent Randomness
We spend a lot of time avoiding the thought of death, as The Worm at the Core explains. We also expend a great deal of effort to avoid the reality that the world is random. We ascribe control when we have none. When we have perceived control, the impacts are much smaller. (See Opening Up for more.) It’s no wonder that we seek to find meaning in the randomness of life. We’re looking for a way to control the situation. We’re even willing to accept that we could have controlled the outcome – but didn’t – rather than accepting that there’s an inherent randomness to life. The Halo Effect explains that we can’t process the randomness of life well – so we often ignore or avoid it.
Sometimes, this finding meaning pushes us toward finding blame. Other times, it’s a desire to find ways to protect from things that are so rare they’ll likely never happen again in our lifetime. If you accidentally run into a child while driving – because they dart out from between two vehicles without looking – you may find that you’re hypersensitive to parked cars and that you instinctively drive slower. The probability of another child darting in front of you is low – but the impact is high enough that you’ll expend energy to prevent it happening again. The real challenge is that even in a hyper-vigilant state, it may not be possible to avoid the same situation again. The good news is that it’s unlikely enough that you’ll never find out.
Belief in God is a bit odd. It’s odd, because those who are the most religious are often the most afraid of death – despite the purported belief in an afterlife. The wealthy are less likely to believe in God. The strongly-held belief in God (self-reported) correlates strongly with a suffering index. Importantly, the larger the society, the more powerful God becomes. Smaller societies have less powerful Gods. It’s as if they don’t believe that an all-powerful God is even possible in a world with so much tragedy.
Pascal famously decided that belief in God was the best bet. His argument was that if you didn’t believe in God and could live your life the way you want, you could perhaps gain a +1 for eighty years of life. If God did exist, and you missed out on an eternal afterlife, you’d be infinity. Therefore, the most logical thing to do was to believe in God. From the perspective of the thinking and feeling dimensions that pervade the book, God is seen as all thinking and not very feeling.
In the end, The Mind Club is a wonderful walk through philosophy that provides a framework for who we should have empathy for and who we should hold accountable – even if we often get it wrong.
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