Saturday, March 05, 2011

Legislative Walkouts Are Not Good Democracy

I support the right of government workers to unionize. I think they are as likely to be exploited by their employers as private workers are. I think the attempt of Republican governors to break the public unions is wrong.

I also think legislators should stay in the legislature and fight political fights there. That is the democratic way. The right way to stall a vote to buy time to change public opinion is through the filibuster. "Filibuster by flight" is wrong.

If you lose the vote, then you lose. You reorganize and come back to fight the next election. You make your opponents' wrong-headed policies the main issue of the next election.

All the legislatures should get back to work. We'll take our lumps this time. The other side will reap the whirlwind next time.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Social Animal 5: The Main Point

The main point of David Brooks' The Social Animal is that our emotions and connections with others are the core of our being; the conscious, reasoning parts of our beings are better understood as servants of that core than masters.

Moral reasoning does not lead to moral behavior. Instead, we are more guided by intuition than reason. Our intuitions have supremacy but not dictatorship. We can encourage good moral habits, and sometimes we can consciously direct our actions even despite our moral responses, though it takes much work.

To be more moral, our best help is to interact more, to be more social, not to reason more. Our social interactions lead us to become part of institutions, which we did not build. When we inherit institutions, we feel like debtors to them and want to be stewards of our inheritance.

I will give Brooks the last word:

“The cognitive revolution demonstrated that human beings emerge out of relationships. The health of a society is determined by the health of those relationships, not by the extent to which it maximizes individual choice.”

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Social Animal 4: Limerence

The most useful word I learned from David Brooks' The Social Animal is "limerance" - intensive love toward another with a strong desire for reciprocation. What we most desire is connecting with what we love. This is even more rewarding than completing the connection. The mind is geared more toward predicting rewards than the rewards themselves.

“So a happy life has a recurring set of rhythms: difficulty to harmony, difficulty to harmony. And it is all propelled by the desire for limerence, the desire for the moment when the inner and the outer patterns mesh.”

He reads limerence as melding together in harmony. It is not simply the fact of matching our map of the world, our information, with another person's that we value. We coat information with meaning, with emotional value. He cites a controversial theory that love is not an emotion, so much as a motivational state.

And what turns limerance at the individual level into a source of social structure is that we compete with others in order to connect. We can see this most clearly in the competition for mates, but it applies very broadly. We compete in patterned, predictable ways. These patterns are also information that we coat with meaning and emotion.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Social Animal 3: Good Character Comes from Right Perception

David Brooks' premise is that we are moved primarily by our emotions. This is especially important in understanding how we can come to have good character.

Most models of character focus on either the will or the reason. Neither work very well. They are not strong enough to overrule emotion.

Instead, the crucial step in building good character is the first one: how we perceive the situation. This is where our emotions are first engaged. Perceiving and judging are the same act.

People of good character perceive the world the right way. This makes it possible for their reason and their will to channel action in the right direction.

How we perceive the world the right way is a mystery, the result of a million good influences. The most important influences come down to:

  • Being in a virtuous community;
  • Seeing virtuous action; and
  • Doing virtuous action

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Social Animal 2: Marriage as Map Meld

David Brooks starts The Social Animal with a marriage and a baby. This lets him describe marriage as a "map meld," where two people gradually meld their maps of the world together.

The map meld, in turn, lets Brooks describe the minds of mammals in general as growing through "mindsight." We intertwine our lives with the lives of others. This applies to husband and wife, and to parent and child. We learn to feel what others are feeling by mirroring their actions in our minds – even if we do not mirror them in our bodies (this is the theory of "mirror neurons"). We mirror what others are feeling by interpreting the meaning of their actions.

I especially enjoyed Brooks' contention that humor is a tool we use for bonding with other people, and is itself the reward for getting our minds in sync with theirs.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Social Animal 1: Reason Lightly Guides Emotion

I have been favored with an advance copy of David Brooks' forthcoming book, The Social Animal: A Story of Love, Character, and Achievement. It is a substantial and interesting book about having a fulfilling life. Brooks makes his theoretical argument engaging by framing his philosophical ideas and empirical theories around the story of the fictional couple Harold and Erica.

Brooks' overarching idea about how people work is this:

“The central evolutionary truth is that the unconscious matters most. The central humanistic truth is that the conscious mind can influence the unconscious.”

One of the scholars Brooks draws on is University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt expressed this idea metaphorically. Our emotions are an elephant, and our reason is the rider. That gives some idea of the relative power of the two forces in our psyche.

I like Brooks' way of putting it, because it does equal justice to science and philosophy. Our bodies have strong tendencies, which is why sociobiology is so helpful in understanding our basic instincts. But our culture has also found ways to train our habits to direct our bodies in helpful ways.

Brooks puts the reason vs. emotion argument in a way I had not thought of before. In the story he tells in The Social Animal,

“The French Enlightenment, which emphasized reason, loses. The British Enlightenment, which emphasized sentiment, wins.”

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Teaching Justice to the Privileged Youth

Last summer in Theory Camp we read Michael Sandel's Justice, based on his famous Harvard course of the same name.

This month I have been helping teach a Sunday School course on justice, using videos of Sandel teaching that course in a large auditorium.

Both book and course start from very individualistic conceptions of justice and work up to the communitarian argument. In the end, Sandel argues, we should see that we also have obligations of solidarity to groups that we did not simply choose.

Something I saw from the video, that I had not noticed in reading the book, is that this course is designed to bring accomplished and privileged young people, especially young men, from their natural starting point - I am an individual responsible only for myself - to the more mature position that they are responsible to a much larger whole. Indeed, accomplished and privileged young people - Harvard students, for heaven's sake - have greater responsibility to society than other people do.

Though Sandel is teaching an enormous class, he does call upon students in each class. His assistants run around with microphones, so the students can be heard responding to the challenges he has posed for them. Sandel always asks the students' names. And again and again, the students making the individualistic arguments are men, and the students groping toward some sense of communal ethics are women. These are not all white people - this is 2011, and Harvard draws excellence from the whole world. But there is a gender skew in who makes what kind of argument. When you are watching for it, it gets almost comic.

I had a further thought as I noticed the trend of "Justice," the course. I think the whole discipline of teaching ethics is designed to get people with the fewest responsibilities to others - smart, privileged, leisured, single young men - to work their way up to a sense of their connections with the larger social world. This was true when Socrates was walking around talking to leisured bachelors, and is true today.

The practice of ethics begins with community; the teaching of ethics begins with individuals, who need instruction to understand community.