Drowned Rats and Mad Dogs: Terrible Things That Have Been Done to Animals to Learn about Human Nature

Drowned Rats

In the 1950s Curt Richter was doing experiments on stress responses in wild and domesticated rats when he accidentally came across a strange phenomenon.

The experiment involved putting rats into large jars full of water and measuring the length of time the rats would swim in water of varying temperatures before they drowned. He was able to show that there were temperatures at which rats survived for longer, and temperatures at which they drowned sooner. (Don’t ask me about the use of this experiment.) The problem was that there were outliers with large variation in the results. Some rats swam for 60-80 hours, while others, particularly wild rats, would drown within minutes.

This variation reduced the significance of Richter’s findings, so he wanted to work out why some of the rats drowned almost immediately. Having ruled out some other factors, Richter worked out what was going on by considering the whole situation the rats are in. He writes:

“The situation of these rats scarcely seems one demanding fight or flight—it is rather one of hopelessness; whether they are restrained in the hand or confined in the swimming jar, the rats are in a situation against which they have no defense. This reaction of hopelessness is shown by some wild rats very soon after being grasped in the hand and prevented from moving; they seem literally to “give up.”

Next Richter finds a way to prevent the rats from literally just “giving up.” He does this by training them in the idea that their situation is not hopeless. As he describes it:

“Support for the assumption that the sudden death phenomenon depends largely on emotional reactions to restraint or immersion comes from the observation that after elimination of the hopelessness the rats do not die. This is achieved by repeatedly holding the rats briefly and then freeing them, and by immersing them in water for a few minutes on several occasions. In this way the rats quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless; thereafter they again become aggressive, try to escape, and show no signs of giving up. Wild rats so conditioned swim just as long as domestic rats or longer.”

Let’s just note for now that the rats who learned not to become hopeless in this way didn’t necessarily survive the experiments. They simply stop messing up Richter’s experiment by being hopeless outliers. Ultimately they were still participating in an experiment to work out how long a rat normally struggles for in a tank of water before it drowns. The difference is that after having been given hope they then died of exhaustion rather than hopelessness. (I’m sorry if that sounds gruesome. It is what it is.)

Let’s also note for now that Richter thought these experiments were relevant to human beings. He suggested that the immediate drowning (“sudden death”) is comparable to so-called “voodoo” deaths – instances of “mysterious, sudden, apparently psychogenic death, from all parts of the world.” But he also thought it might be comparable to patients dying in hospitals, not from disease or unsuccessful operations, but simply from fear of an operation. He also cites instances of soldiers dying in good health during the second world war.

Richter’s hopeless rat experiments have become famous for their simple message: look at what the simple presence of hope in the mind makes possible! The physical endurance of a rat in a water tank is greater by a factor of hundreds, just due to a simple mental ingredient: hope!

What strikes me as interesting though, is the picture one must have of the kind of universe we inhabit, if these experiments are meant to be meaningful to our situation. Presumably the experimental set-ups would need to reflect our environment in some way and the things that happen to the rats and dogs would have to be comparable to the kinds of things that happen to human beings.

Is a rat struggling to stay afloat in a water tank suitably similar to life on earth for a human being?What of the experimenter holding the rat briefly and  then freeing it? What about immersing it in water for brief periods of time at first? Is life meant to be like that – short periods of captivity, pain and struggle followed by momentary relief giving us hope that there is point in struggling on? But what for? Only to be able to withstand longer periods of struggle and then drown anyway?

I know that the experiment by necessity is a simplified model of reality. But this experiment is said to deal with concepts like hope, death and survival. And all this in an environment where there is no meaning and no vision of the good (or even just the good life for a rat) apart from survival itself? What are these rats who are not hopeless meant to be hoping for?

And what is the experimenter who gives the rats a careful taste of freedom every now and then in order to make them hopeful? Is it a God in our universe? A cruel God? Or is the experimenter just trying to recreate a situation where painful experiences alternate more or less randomly with less painful, neutral or even positive ones while we make up our own minds about the meaning in it all?

What if the rat experiment had been carried out in an entirely different framework of thought, say in one where death was seen as liberation from the necessary suffering that is life? What if the end of life for a rat was seen as an opportunity for re-incarnation as a different, less ratty, life-form or a chance to enter into nirvana?  Then the rats that drown first aren’t in fact losing hope or giving up, but simply letting go, no longer clinging on to life under the misguided notion that it is worth clinging onto?

Then the experimenter who gives hope to the rats by holding them briefly, then letting them go, or by putting them into the water tank briefly, then taking them out is not giving them hope, but rather strengthening in them a tendency to grasp, to believe that it is possible, if they just work hard enough, to fulfil their cravings, to be free of struggle and suffering.

Mad (Sad) Dogs

About fifteen years after Richter’s rat experiments, Martin Seligman and colleagues did some influential experiments with dogs.

They gave electric shocks to a group of dogs who had access to a switch with which they could make them stop. They also gave electric shocks to a group of dogs who couldn’t make them stop. Later they put the dogs into a cage where they received electric shocks but could move over a small obstacle to a different part of the cage where they wouldn’t receive shocks. The dogs from the first group found out quickly how they could avoid the shocks and largely did so. The dogs from the second group just suffered the shocks. The conclusion: These dogs had learned helplessness.

Seligman was immediately interested in the implications for human suffering and wellbeing. He says the animals who had learned helplessness looked “downright depressed.” And it was the implications of learned helplessness in dogs for depression and other mental illnesses in human beings that looked interesting.

But again, there are some outliers. And the outliers begin to look even more interesting than the normal cases. As Seligman writes:

“It all stems from some embarrassing findings that I keep hoping will go away. Not all of the rats and dogs become helpless after inescapable shock, nor do all of the people after being presented with insolvable problems or inescapable noise. One out of three never gives up, no matter what we do. Moreover, one out of eight is helpless to begin with – it does not take any experience with uncontrollability at all to make them give up. At first, I try to sweep this under the rug, but after a decade of consistent variability, the time arrives for taking it seriously. What is it about some people that imparts buffering strength, making them invulnerable to helplessness? What is it about other people that makes them collapse at the first inkling of trouble?”

Seligman’s experiments provided the foundations for a new school of psychology. Positive psychology focussed on helping people lead happier, more effective lives, rather than on removing psychological diseases and weaknesses. Some of it focussed on the characteristics of those outliers who refused to learn helplessness, assuming that these could help others. This led to the insight that it helps to view bad events as temporary rather than permanent and specific rather than universal. These non-human and human animals apparently have hope. Hope again emerges as a key factor, this time not only in longer survival but in wellbeing and happiness.

But What Does It All Mean?

The experimental set-up again contains some ideas about what life in this universe is like. Some individuals may experience phases in life where they are unable to control the painful events (electric shocks or other) that they are exposed to. From this experience they may conclude that it is pointless to try to avoid painful events in later life phases and surrender to them. They no longer struggle against painful events or look for ways to avoid them. They continue in this resigned state, even in later phases of their lives when they could avoid painful events

But how is the universe and human life really set up with regard to painful events? Is it more like having a switch with which we can make them stop or more like not having one? Is it more like being able to move from a part of a cage where we are exposed to electric shocks to another part where we aren’t?

The kinds of painful events human beings outside of experimental settings are exposed to are more diverse than electric shocks. And there are other things we can aim for in life than the avoidance of pain. What if the painful events are on the path to a greater good that makes them worthwhile? (To be fair to Seligman, he fully recognises that purpose, meaning, pursuing a greater good are key to happiness. In that he seems to have left the dog experiments well behind.)

Another experiment, more of a “thought experiment,” comparing a dog’s life to that a human being’s, stems from around 2000 years before Seligman. It’s that of an ancient Greek Stoic philosopher who says that a person’s relationship to fate is like the relationship between a dog strapped to a cart and his master. The master will get the dog to pull the cart from A to B. It’s the dog’s choice whether he goes willingly, or whether he gets beaten by the master every bit of the way.

Note how the assumptions about man’s (and dog’s) ability to avoid pain are different in this example from the assumptions in Seligman’s experimental set up. By necessity, we have to undergo the experiences predestined for us. ( How painful they are depends not so much on our efforts to avoid them. Quite the opposite – the ride becomes less unpleasant if we adjust our mental attitude to undergoing them willingly.

Clearly the strength of our belief in our ability to avoid events that are bad for us and move towards those that are good for us influences how hard we try. So a belief that we can change things for the better and that some events are under our control can be a positive thing to have.

What I’m less sure about at the moment is what happens to hopeful people when it turns out that events really aren’t under their control. (Making the assumption that such events are an inescapable feature of the human condition in this universe.) Do more realistic people then fare better – in that they waste less time struggling unsuccessfully? (Think about the fact that in the universe Richter creates for them all the rats drown in the end.) Or in that they are better, like the Stoic dog, at embracing the journey and submitting to it, thus at least not compounding the pain of painful events with the pain from thinking that things should be otherwise and struggling against them.

Useful Concepts – #12 – Happiness Again

The other day I met up with a former colleague. I say “former colleague” but maybe “friend” would be a better word. Not that he’s a close friend. I know very little about what goes on in his life. But I’ve worked with him for long enough to know his strengths and for him to know my weaknesses, our views of the world overlap to a significant enough extent and we can tap into each other’s sense of humour easily enough. He’s one of those people who are very good at being rude (honest) to me but with enough underlying sarcasm and politeness that it’s easy to take. So  I wasn’t surprised that he suggested somehow that I probably spend too much time blogging and promoting my blog on social media.

I gave my usual explanation, that I just wanted to get into a regular habit of writing, that I’ve spent too much time reading and thinking and not enough writing, and so on. He responded: “Really? I just thought you wanted to help.” As I couldn’t work out whether he was making fun of me or whether he was getting at the truth, I decided he was probably doing both. (Who says Socratic irony is dead?). “Help make the world a better place?” I asked. He confirmed that that was indeed his take on what I was trying to do. We both smirked at the hopeless idealism and immodest ambition in that alleged motive and I changed the subject.

But yes, I guess in truth I would like to help. Ideally, if I’m honest, I would like each of my little blog posts to be a “transformational object” for its readers. And one of the ways I would like to help is by getting at happiness and what that means for human beings. It was probably no coincidence that my first post was on the subject of happiness. There was a time when I was obsessed with the concept and given my personality type and preferences that meant getting at it intellectually rather than through practice, trial and error. I first got into it by studying ethics and learning that there are lines of inquiry that are not so just about working out what the right actions would be in given situations, but about having a vision of the good life for human agents and giving them a way to navigate their way through a hazardous world where much is out of their control.

A bit later I worked as a civil servant on sustainable development. And as it happened, this work again brought me back to my obsession with happiness, wellbeing, the good life, or quality of life. (Happiness was given other names in order to make it respectable for government to show an interest in it.) I was able to play a minor role in developing government indicators of wellbeing, funding research of people like Professor Paul Dolan who has since published his bestselling “Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life” and participating a bit (always at a slight distance as a grey-suited civil servant)  in Professor Tim Jackson’s work for the Sustainable Development Commission which led to his classic “Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow.” (How little he enjoyed his interaction with government is the subject of a new preface to the second edition.)

In the early part of the millennium there was a bit of a happiness boom driven by behavioural economics and positive psychology. And a part of why I was so angry and upset about the retreat of philosophy from the public sphere was that I felt that it was giving up on its tradition of having meaningful things to say to people about the important things in life and the big questions.

I remember for example being at a philosophy seminar where the lecturing philosopher described a psychological experiments that measured what activities contributed to people’s happiness. He described how people were given a pager that would send them a signal at random times of the day, at which point they were asked to record the activity they were engaged in and how happy they felt on a scale of one to ten. The lecturer’s voice trembled in anticipation of how amused his audience would be at this experimental set-up. And he was richly rewarded with sniggers from an audience full of senior academics.

Of course there is plenty that a philosopher could question about this, to give just a small number of questions as an example:

  • isn’t happiness too multi-dimensional to just rate it with a simple number?
  • how does someone’s happiness in the moment relate to their overall happiness in life or their evaluation of their happiness from a later point in time, say from their deathbed?
  • is an individual’s assessment of their happiness reliable or could they be deluded?
  • how do we deal with the fact that this experiment will only give us statistical correlations between happiness and activities, rather than causal explanations?
  • isn’t this idea of using technology to ask real people questions about things they do in everyday life a bit vulgar? Hadn’t we better rely on literature and a bit of thinking undertaken in the library?

But at the same time you could read things in philosophical literature that showed that philosophers could have done well to engage a bit more seriously with this kind of research. For example, in a book that I love and hold as one of the great works of philosophy, Rosalind Hursthouse relies on the fact that it is obvious to an outside observer whether we are enjoying ourselves. She writes:

“I need a shorthand description for the indications of enjoyment – that things are done with zest and enthusiasm, anticipated and recalled in certain tones of voice with certain facial expressions, and in a certain vocabulary, and so on – so I shall call them `the smile factor’.”

Relying on outside sings of enjoyment to draw conclusions on an inner state (the “smile factor”) is a tricky business but Hursthouse is not wrong to do so. It is similar to the idea that our subjective estimation of our happiness would mirror the judgement of other people as to how happy we are and would correspond to something real, namely our happiness. But while Hursthouse just uses a list of indications of enjoyment and assumes that they are as accessible to ourselves as they are to others, the economists and psychologists have done their homework and collected evidence: They undertook studies, for example, where they asked an individual to rate his happiness on a numeric scale. They then asked people close to that individual to rate his happiness. The ratings of the individual matched the rating of that individual’s happiness given by their friends reliably.

Or Professor James Griffin proposes a list of things that one might want in one’s life: accomplishment, the components of human life (autonomy, liberty, limbs and senses that work, the minimum material goods to keep body and soul together, etc.), understanding, enjoyment, deep personal relations. I’m sure I was at a lecture where Professor Griffin said that his list may show a slight bias to the things that academics might value but he thought it was pretty comprehensive. We could rely on such lists much more, if we compared them with the factors that look important when we look at studies of the wellbeing of tens of thousands of people world-wide.

On the other hand, it is depressing to read in Professor Lord Layard’s great and influential book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science dismissals of Aristotle of this kind:

“It differs, for example, from the approach taken by Aristotle and his many followers. Aristotle believed that the object of life was eudaimonia, or a type of happiness associated with virtuous conduct and philosophic reflection.”

“For Aristotle, ethical behaviour was largely a matter of good habits, which create discomfort when you behave badly and reinforcement when you behave well.”

“However Aristotle made one serious mistake. He included in his concept of happiness only that happiness which is associated with a life of virtue (including contemplation). This was to confuse the means with the end. Virtue may be the means to create a happy society, but the end is the greatest happiness and the least misery in the society. And much of happiness comes and should come from purely private pleasures. Is painting virtuous, or playing the piano to yourself, or enjoying bingo? Virtue doesn’t seem the right word to describe these things.”

Any serious engagement with philosophy could have cleared up some of the false assumptions here. For example the misunderstanding that, for Aristotle, happiness (eudaimonia) results as a consequence of virtuous actions, rather than that virtuous actions and having virtuous character traits are constituent parts of human flourishing. Aristotle wouldn’t have a problem with the idea that bingo (played virtuously) could contribute to the happiness of human beings. Or for an other example, the idea that habits which create comfort and discomfort in response to behaviour are the mechanics that links virtues to happiness. Virtues for Aristotle are more than a question of good habits and good behaviour. They are more like character traits that govern emotions, reliable and stable ways of acting, sensitivities, reasoning and so on. Nor is Aristotle’s happiness a sum total of momentary comforts and discomforts, but a notion related to the characteristically good, flourishing life for human beings.

Would there be a difference if Layard (whose work has been influential in shifting public policy and government spending priorities) had paid more attention to Aristotle, rather than dismissing him on flimsy grounds? I don’t know. But the vast array of studies that have found correlations between various activities and subjective ratings of happiness of the people who undertake them could be enriched. Correlations have been found for example between happiness and all three of the following: commuting to work for a shorter time rather than a longer time, being married, and attending church regularly. It seems to me that if you want to move from mere correlation to causation, it will be important to ask, for example, how commuters could make better use of their time commuting to engage in valuable activities, rather than just waste it. Or you need to ask yourself whether it is being in possession of a marriage certificate that makes married people happier, or whether it could be something about their ability to enter into deep personal relationships and long-term commitments (things that unmarried people can cultivate in different ways too, by the way). And you have to ask yourself whether it is being in a church at certain times that is making people happy, or the social aspects, putting time aside to reflect on the human condition in its relation to the divine, or enjoying beautiful music and language. Otherwise you might end up prescribing the wrong things for happiness (get a different job closer to home, even if your current job gives you a great sense of purpose, get married even if you’re not sure it’s for you, go to church) and miss the point.

So yes, I will hopefully write a bit more about happiness. (Looking back it looks like all of my blog posts so far are in some way about happiness.) And in some way or other I hope we will get at its nature, or at least stay close to it.

Useful Concepts – #9 – Experience Machines

Quite possibly the first use of the adjective “superduper” in philosophical literature occurred in the mid-1970s in this paragraph by Robert Nozick:

“Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? If you are worried about missing out on desirable experiences we can suppose that business enterprises have researched thoroughly the lives of many others. You can pick and choose from their large library or smorgasbord of such experiences, selecting your life’s experiences of, say, the next two years. After two years have passed, you will have ten minutes or ten hours out of the tank to select the experiences of your next two years. Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening. Others can also plug in to have the experiences they want, so there’s no need to stay unplugged to serve them. (Ignore problems such as who will service the machines if everyone plugs in.) Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?”

Nozick gives three answers:

  1. We want to do certain things, rather than just have the experience of doing them. (But even Nozick asks, but why?)
  2. We want to be a certain way, to be a certain person. If we plug in, we’re just an “indeterminate blob.” Nozick asks, is the person in the tank courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? How could we know? How could they be?
  3. Plugging in “limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated.”

The experience machine has created a whole literature, not to mention any number of sci-fi films. People have worked out variants, for example where you never emerge from the machine until your biological death, in order to get rid of the idea that you could ever become conscious of spending a lot of time just being a body in a tank, and so on.

People argue over whether Nozick got the right reasons to reject the machine. Some people may also take pleasure in the intellectual bravado of saying that they would plug in, that they see no reasons not to. That would be a typically annoying undergraduate posture to take up. (I’d know, I did for a whole afternoon. It was many years ago.)

The ongoing discussion just shows how great a concept the experience machine is. But the rejection of it, for most people who aren’t undergraduates in philosophy, is immediate and from the gut. (Not every belief or conviction that is instinctive and intuitive is necessarily right, though this one is.)

Experience machines exist, of course, and many of us plug ourselves in quite willingly. Some of those superduper people, for example, can help us flood our brains with a  bitter, white crystalline purine, a methylxanthine alkaloid that is chemically related to the adenine and guanine bases of deoxyribonucleic acid and ribonucleic acid. This blocks the action of adenosine on its receptor in the brain and stimulates the autonomic nervous system. It makes us less drowsy, more alert, physically faster and better co-ordinated. It can increase our heart rate and pulse. You’ll be aware of course, that we don’t have to plug into electrodes and float in a tank for this. And the superduper people aren’t neuropsychologists, but more likely baristas. This experience machine is just a regular cup of coffee.

But physical symptoms and mental states are a two-way street. Research has shown, for example, that, even when you feel you have no reasons to, you can smile for a while and your mood will improve, or you can clench your fist for a while and that can make you more aggressive. And so this experience machine can give us the impression that we’re well rested and refreshed (not in any way drowsy or tired) or that we’re facing an amazing, interesting experience (alertness, fast pulse) or a fight-or-flight type situation (heart beating faster, sudden alertness) even when it’s just a routine Monday morning and we’re on our way to the day-job.

There is, of course, also the type of organic compound in which the hydroxyl functional group is bound to a saturated carbon atom. This is an experience machine that can give us the desirable experience of being socially less inhibited, much more certain that other people find us entertaining and generally convinced that we’re all round great people. It can be ingested in pleasant-tasting drinks like wine and beer.

And anyone who has ever seen a small child on a sugar rush may also find it easy to believe that sugar provides a desirable experience of enjoyment and mental energy, not least by activating dopamine in the brain in a way that is similar to stronger drugs.

I’ll call things like coffee or alcohol  “mini experience machines.” After all, the effect lasts a much shorter time than a session in the superduper neuropsychologists’ floatation tank experience would. And it gives us not so much a whole set of new experiences that are wholly separate to what we’re doing and who we are, but it puts a little layer of, say, additional (alternative) reality, over and above that reality.

I’m not saying that coffee, alcohol and sugar are therefore bad things or that we need to reject them with the instinctive vehemence with which we would reject the idea of plugging into an experience machine. But it probably helps to be aware of the “experience machine light” effect of such things.

I also find some of the tools some of us work with are a bit like experience machines in that they give us an interface to interact with the world in a way that, as much as possible, reduces reality to things that pop up on a screen. So I know that people want to give me some information or want me to do something in something like the following way (that’s not my real inbox, by the way):

I  can have conversations and exchanges with lots of people and all the while I’m just “plugged in” to a screen.

So, in fact, there may be lots of mini experience machines that interact in various ways to put layers of differing experiences across “real” life on a day-by-day basis. And although we may not have the same reasons to reject these mini experience machines – after all, they are more time-limited, localised in terms of their effect and less intrusive in the way we can link up to them – maybe we should aim to be suspicious of them, particularly if we’re veering to more extended use (both in terms of timing or in terms of range of experience), so if one or more of the following are true:

  1. We use them in high doses, frequently or on a daily basis.
  2. They give us experiences that we worry we wouldn’t otherwise have enough of in our lives – excitement, connection, attention, confidence, mental energy.
  3. We would be forced to live our lives differently, if we didn’t have them.
  4. We couldn’t function properly in our daily lives without them.

But since I’ve declared so many things mini experience machines, would we even know whether we’re using them too much?

First of all, it is possible to take stock of the mini experience machines we use. We can then try not using them. Or, if that is too difficult, we could ask, what would the consequence be for the way I live my life, if I didn’t plug into this experience machine? How would I have to deal with the tiredness or the lack of challenges in my reality if I didn’t have coffee to simulate alertness? Why am I so inhibited when meeting people that I need alcohol to have its effect? What energy rush or feelings of enjoyment would I like that I currently take from sugar rushes?

And presumably, finding out about these things is what lots of people do these days when they sit down and pay attention to their breathing, to their mind and their thoughts with minimal stimulation from mini experience machines or communication technologies (particularly first thing in the morning when the body has processed all the ingested experience machines from the previous day). Maybe then they can listen to the real experience and find out if the like it, or not.

Or it may be away from screens in green spaces and in nature surrounded by other life forms who are less prone to plug into experience machines. Or it may be something we do while deeply involved in community, voluntary or religious activities. (These practices, by the way, have all been demonstrated to increase wellbeing.) They may also all help us to access the things in Nozick’s three reasons for rejecting experience machines:

  1. We may gain a better understanding of what we are doing in our lives, rather than just having the experience of doing them.
  2. We can ask ourselves and learn about what kind of person we are or want to be (rather than being an indeterminate blob).
  3. And we may even access a world that is deeper or more important “than that which people can construct.”

 

 

Useful Concepts – #8 – Just Going for It

The first thing to be aware of is the so-called “paradox of choice.” This provides the background for some useful concepts for making decisions. The paradox is that we expect more choice to be better for us and to make us happier but it doesn’t. Psychologists have found that once we have too much choice, say 24 flavours of jam or types of breakfast cereal rather than 4, we become less able to choose, more worried about the consequences of our choice, more likely to be stressed out about making the choice, potentially even anxious about whether we’ll regret it, and eventually less happy with our choice in retrospect.

Of course there are strategies and techniques for dealing with the problem of too much choice. For example, there’s the distinction between optimising and satisficing. Optimising is a strategy whereby you keep considering further options until you’ve convinced yourself that you have the best one. Satisficing is a decision-making approach whereby you set yourself some criteria that have to be fulfilled, and as soon as you find an option that fulfils them, you go for it. So, if you’re dining out and choosing a main course from a menu, you might set yourself the criteria green, vegetarian and rich in carbs and as soon as you arrive at the spaghetti al pesto, you look no further.

Beyond the strategies and techniques, there are useful insights from the philosophy of practical reason. This looks at what it means to have reasons for action or to act on reasons. When I read certain philosophers on this subject, I can’t help having the image in my head that we are like characters in one of those video game where you walk through an environment and jump to avoid a hole in the ground, duck to avoid flying objects, or swerve to collect objects for bonus points. In those games, if you fail to take the right action, you may lose a life. If you take it skilfully, you get bonus points or reach the next level. Much like real life then.

Let’s accept then that as rational animals we just are responsive to certain features of the world we live in which are reasons for action. They are not in any way magical entities. Having a bottle of water available when we are thirsty could be a reason to drink it.  Seeing someone who looks lost or distressed may be a reason to help them. Wanting to improve our health and fitness may be a reason to go to a gym.

But here’s a minor difficulty: our environment is a bit more complex than that of a video game. That’s partly because there is no reason to believe that the world is designed in such a way that in any given situation there is just one reason available to us that is the right one for us to act on. There may be many reasons available to us and some of them may be reasons for actions that are mutually exclusive.

So, say for example, that in the past I promised to visit a friend on a given day. That is a reason to make a visit. But – assume I’m also a tennis obsessive – at the same time suddenly and surprisingly someone gives me a ticket to see the Wimbledon finals. Now I have a reason to do that. So now I have a dilemma. Some people might say that the reason provided by a promise I made trumps the prospect of the relatively selfish pleasure of watching a game of tennis. (But you could imagine that my visit could be easily re-arranged, that my friend had alternative things to do and is quite happy not to be visited, that the tennis was going to be the last public appearance of a great player…) And the dilemma could just as easily be between two strong moral reasons for doing something.

These dilemmas caused by competing reasons can be large, serious and to some extent painful. But they can also be positive. Once or twice people have come to me and said things like: “I need advice. I really don’t know what to do. I’ve been offered a new job, but then my current job is also getting really interesting and there may be an opportunity for promotion here…” The first thing to understand is that these are not desperate, overwhelming situations in which it is necessarily the case that one choice is right and the other wrong. When seen in perspective a positive dilemma is actually a relatively pleasant situation to be in. It is a mistake to think that just because we are asked to choose between alternatives, one must be right and the other wrong. Or just because we have several options, they can be ranked in order of goodness and one is clearly the best. The strength of the reasons available to act upon may not even be measurable by the same yardstick. Again, there just is no reason to assume that the world is organised for us in such a simple way.

So maybe what we need is some useful concepts to help us with the fact that reasons for action can pull us in different directions at the same time. Here are some of them.

1. Just doing something: This is a favourite of mine. Once we understand that the world is not organised in a way that guarantees that there is always a right choice and only ever exactly one, and once we have acquired a feel for what it’s like to be in such a situation, it is easier to just do something. In philosophical literature this is sometimes inelegantly described as “plumping” for a choice. This is definitely valid for times where we run out of further criteria or reasons to choose one way over another. (It may be more advisable for relatively trivial choices.)

2. Paying attention to the ‘remainder’ and dealing with it: There may be situations in which we have to make a choice, or take an action, from which we just don’t emerge particularly well. (The situation of being double-booked and having to cancel one commitment springs to mind.) Again, where someone is caught in a dilemma, the existence of a choice between several options doesn’t guarantee that one of them is the right action. In those situations it might help to understand that there is a “remainder” to deal with. That is to say an expectation that regret is felt and expressed, an apology, some kind of restitution or compensation made willingly.

3. Character – the kind of person I am or want to be: In her book On Virtue Ethics, Rosalind Hursthouse provides a very serious example of a dilemma:

“Suppose (just for the sake of an example) that whether to ask the doctors to continue to prolong one’s unconscious mother’s life by extraordinary means for another year, or to discontinue treatment now, would be an irresolvable dilemma in some cases.”

She then considers two very different people in that situation:

One might be a doctor herself, someone who had always striven to think of the human body as a living, and hence mortal, thing, not as a machine to be tinkered with; she knows that, if her mother were her patient, she would advise the discontinuation of treatment. The other might be someone who worked with apparently hopeless cases of mental disability, someone who said of herself ‘I never give up hope; I couldn’t do the job if I let myself.’ Faced with some such decision as the one outlined, it seems that each might act differently, each believing, correctly, that she had a (…) reason for favouring the action she elected to take.

And while the situation involved and the possible outcomes just are such that it may look wrong to say the both took the right action, as Hursthouse remarks, it is plausible to describe them as having acted well –

courageously, responsibly, thoughtfully, conscientiously, honestly, wisely – and not just describe them merely as having done what was permissible, which any cowardly, irresponsible, thoughtless, heedless, self-deceiving fool could just as well have done in the circumstances.

So my biography, my standards, my ideals, things that have always been important to me are valid pointers to which competing reasons I should act on. (I always thought that mottos inscribed on coats of arms may function in that kind of way.) This could also help in more trivial and positive situations than the one described by Hursthouse. Choosing from a menu for example, I could say to myself “I like being adventurous, so I will order something I’ve never had that looks a bit unusual.” Or I could say “I know what’s good and what I like, so why shouldn’t I have the same I had last time. After all, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

As someone said, choices when repeated over time become habits, habits over time become character. And character can in turn become a guide to the choices we should make.

 

 

 

 

Useful Concepts – #3 – Zero Thoughts

This post starts with a discussion between philosophers. That’s not as bad as it might sound to some. One of the philosophers involved is Bernard Williams (who made a cameo appearance in my previous post about psychopaths). The other one – to whom I owe this useful concept – is Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher who thinks and writes about things not many philosophers find worthy of great thought. His bestseller is the book “On Bullshit” which has made him a sought after authority in recent political discourse. But he also has published articles and books about love, not a topic that philosophers naturally gravitate towards.

But back to the discussion… Continue reading Useful Concepts – #3 – Zero Thoughts