About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Concerning Hobbits, Habits and Our Highest Hopes
A wild light came into Frodo’s eyes. “Stand away! Don’t touch me!” he cried. “It is mine, I say. Be off!” His hand strayed to his sword-hilts. But then quickly his voice changed.“But you must understand. It is my burden, and no one else can bear it. I am almost in its power now. I could not give it up, and if you tried to take it I should go mad.
—Frodo Baggins, The Return of the King
Throughout our daily lives, even moment to moment, each of us experiences a multitude of different types of drives, many of which can be and often are in conflict with one another. If we take the time to introspect and reflect on what’s happening, it seems like they originate deep “inside” us, beyond the reach of any conscious control. Just like our thoughts, they happen to us. I like the word “drive” because it denotes a class of impulses with a peculiar strength and compulsion to them — they have the seamless and intransigent feel of habit. But what exactly is a drive?
Boston University philosopher Paul Katsafanas cites Schopenhauer’s conception of a drive as a “pre-rational structuring of thought and affect,” and states that a drive is a disposition that “induces an evaluative orientation” in us. In other words, our drives color our perception of the world; they turn our minds into a kind of Instagram app, equipped with a kaleidoscope of existential filters. The difference between Facebook’s Instagram app and our own mental filter system is that the former is completely under conscious control while the latter isn’t — or not necessarily: being the self-reflective animals that we are, though, we can become aware of our drives and alter them in some ways, or at least divert their energy — or weaken them, mitigating their effects.
Katsafanas also explores the distinction between drive-induced values that we consciously endorse and those we don’t realize we hold, those that are pre-conscious, we might say. What we normally think of as our values — our highest hopes — are mainly the result of our drives; and the values we hold are the main drivers of our behavior. With respect to my drives, it’s perfectly possible that I can become aware of a strong power drive in me and still consciously endorse it. For example, if I believe that Nietzsche is correct that life is essentially “will to power,” where power is defined as the ability to overcome life’s challenges, and that true happiness or pleasure or flourishing or whatever you want to call it is always the consequence of an increase in power, then I could consider myself fortunate that I have a strong power drive because it means that I will experience much happiness, etc. Accordingly, I would therefore seek out opportunities to exercise my power drive whenever possible.
So the more I think about things like human behavior, personal identity, values and moral responsibility, the more I think it is our own personal inventory of drives that defines us. If we consider a person’s character as being primarily the expression of her values, and her values as being the result of her drives, then it’s drives all the way down.
I. Concerning Hobbits
If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings, or have seen the movie trilogy, then you know about Frodo Baggins, the diminutive Hobbit who is tasked with taking the One Ring into the land of the enemy in order to destroy it. This Ring was created by the Dark Lord himself, and so possesses a significant measure of his power and evil influence. As Gandalf informs Frodo: “It is far more powerful than I ever dared to think at first, so powerful that in the end it would utterly overcome anyone of mortal race who possessed it. It would possess him.”
And that’s precisely what happens to poor little Frodo: in the end, he doesn’t directly destroy the Ring; he claims it for his own just as he is about to drop it into the fires of Mount Doom. Fortunately the Ring’s former owner, Gollum, attempts to take it back from Frodo, and in so doing accidentally falls into the fire with the Ring, thus destroying it. As Frodo says to his companion, Sam, at the end: “But do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end.”
Hobbits were unobtrusive creatures and loved “peace and quiet and good tilled earth.” They had a general aversion of adventures or even grave news from the larger world outside their own; though it’s true that Frodo was a bit different in that regard, having been raised on the tales of his uncle Bilbo’s famous but unexpected escapade. And though he loved living in the Shire, he studied the ways of the enigmatic Elves, familiarized himself with the histories of Dwarves and Men and other races in Middle-earth, and befriended the wandering wizard Gandalf the Grey.
So we can describe Frodo’s character as follows: he pursued a simple, peaceful, honest life, full of creature comforts and good relations with friends and family; but at the same time he was driven by a level of inquisitiveness mixed with a good bit of wanderlust. When he became the reluctant hero of the Lord of the Rings story, his character changed even further: not only did he voluntarily but unwillingly take on a quest to save the world, he began to be negatively influenced by the potency of the Dark Lord’s ring of power, damaging his personal relationships and jeopardizing the quest itself. Frodo found himself increasingly in the position of Paul the Apostle: For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Frodo’s character and his behavior were the result of his values, which in turn were determined largely by his peculiar bundle of drives. However, it’s natural for us to ask where these drives came from.
II. Concerning Habits
I mentioned above that drives have the force of habit. But the drives I’m thinking of aren’t of the same kind of habits like being a coffee drinker versus a tea drinker, or always brushing your teeth after a meal, or preferring to use a disposable razor to an electric one. I think there’s a distinction between superficial habits and deep ones. The deep ones are less amenable to change; and, like I said at the beginning, they may not even be the object of conscious reflection. Oftentimes I think we don’t even realize why we value what we value — or that we may not even realize that we are valuing something. This is what interests me most — as well as how distressing it is to realize how little control we have over our behavior when under their sway. If Schopenhauer is correct that our drives structure our very thought, then the choices we normally believe are freely made are actually determined at an entire step before we even consciously deliberate about them. And memory is a covert and quick conspirator in all this, too. Once a decision is made, memory instantly brings to awareness previous similar scenarios, with all the previous evaluations still attached to them, so a feeling of unassailable confidence accompanies our judgment. The whole process is really biased toward not investigating and discovering what’s really going on when we value and choose. It turns out that our Existential Instagram App has certain default modes, and this is how most of us get by in the world.
In the Shire, Frodo spends most of his time lazing about, reveling with friends and relations over ale, pipe-weed, and a cornucopia of the Shire’s characteristic gastronomy. This is how his ancestors lived, and this is the norm of the culture in which he has been raised. These are incontestable values for Frodo, and they are the result of very powerful drives. He values those things partly because it’s in his blood, and partly because they’re reinforced by his culture. But after the dilemma of the ring of power is thrust upon him, his “wanderlust drive,” we might say, kicks in. At the council of the representatives of all the races of Middle-earth, Frodo volunteers to be the “ring-bearer” and lead the quest to destroy it.
During the quest, however, the One Ring slowly but increasingly comes to influence Frodo. His Existential Instagram filters are tweaked: his values are altered, and this in turn affects his behaviors. The Ring’s power excites but mutates his wanderlust drive. Toward the end, as shown in the quote at the beginning of this essay, Frodo nearly kills his best friend and quest-companion. But since Frodo is a Hobbit, and Hobbit’s are a relatively obdurate race, he becomes aware of the Ring’s influence and his core drives remain in place — for the most part. He is able to mitigate the damage the Ring does to his relationship with his dear Samwise, as well as the success of the quest itself — at least for the time being. But at the very end, Frodo’s love of the Shire — arguably his highest value — is violated by a drive for and valuation of power. And not just any power, but the power over all races and places of Middle-earth, which is what the Dark Lord himself wants. The Ring represented the promise to turn Frodo into the new Dark Lord of all life. A very seductive power indeed.
III. Concerning Our Highest Hopes
We don’t like to think that our highest hopes are the result of pre-rational, pre-reflective, pre-conscious powers. We like to think that we are the fully-aware, completely powerful and obviously free choosers of our own characters and destinies. We each like to imagine ourselves as a little Lord of Light — as opposed to a Dark Lord, of course. And it’s true that not all of our hopes and values are pre-reflective. We all have consciously-endorsed values: we value personal freedom, good relationships with friends and family, beauty and truth. But none of our values are pulled out of thin air. As Nietzsche noted, we are compelled to value. We have no choice in the matter; we value merely by virtue of existing: for example, in order to continue existing we must value sustenance. In Twilight of the Idols, he says that “life values through us.” From a naturalistic standpoint, this is undoubtedly true: there is no god or other supernatural force that is trying to accomplish some inscrutable end through us.
Whatever the “Self” may be at the neurological level — whether it’s “an online model generated by neurocomputation” or something else — at the psychological level the Self as personal identity is commonly considered the sum of a person’s values. If someone values murder and mayhem, they are considered dangerous and bad — or evil, if you like. We think to ourselves, that’s who he is, and we are severely skeptical that he will ever be able to change into a good person. So my general formula for the psychological Holy Trinity of human existence — personal identity, consciousness and agency — is as follows:
drives => values => behavior
Drives determine values which in turn shape behavior. Our drives have their origin primarily in our genetic inheritance and the most deeply-entrenched cultural mores in which we’ve been steeped since childhood. Our values can be either consciously-endorsed or subconscious — that is, when asked, we can either give rational reasons for them or be baffled as to what our interlocutor is even talking about — as if we were just jolted out of our somnambulism. Our behavior is driven by our values, but the final form in which they are manifest varies greatly depending on circumstances. In other words, if I value increased power — as defined earlier — and if there are many opportunities to achieve an increase in power, my end actions will ultimately be determined by the operant web in which I find myself at any given moment. For example, achieving an increase in power in the workplace may be too costly: I may receive a reprimand, a pay cut — or even lose my job altogether. On the other hand, seeking an increase in power in grappling with the problems of philosophy, or in mountain climbing, or even in a game of chess, may be the most fulfilling because my actions there will likely be subject to reinforcement instead of punishment. Arguing with others — whether dead white men or blog commenters — is reinforcing because an increase of power is achieved by virtue of engaging in argument itself.
Our sense of who we are and how we are perceived by others is dependent upon our personal inventory of drives. Our consciousness can play a role in their expression, but there’s no guarantee that it will. And while we may consider ourselves to have a certain level of autonomy when we consciously engage with our drives, when we act on values we don’t realize we have then we’re anything but autonomous agents. Also, our appreciation of our own moral status — whether we consider ourselves to be morally good or bad — as well as others’ evaluation of our moral worth, is tied to both the values we hold and the values on which we act — consciously-endorsed or not.
So in the end we’re all in Frodo’s predicament, and that’s why The Lord of the Rings speaks to us. We genuinely believe we’re good people, with well-defined values, and we believe that we’ll do the right thing when called upon. But our drives are often more powerful than we realize, just like the One Ring Frodo carried all the way to Mount Doom. If it weren’t for Gollum — a vile, morally corrupt creature — Middle-earth would have been lost to evil. So how do we evaluate Frodo? Was he morally good or morally bad? How would we evaluate real human beings in roughly analogous situations? How would we evaluate ourselves?
 I say that values are the “main” drivers of our behavior because our drives aim at certain general ends, but how those ends are precisely accomplished is largely determined by the consequences of behavior; that is, if good consequences follow our behavior, that behavior will be strengthened and increase in frequency, for example.
 I’m purposely avoiding the issue of whether this hypothetical misanthrope consciously endorses his values or not; the debate between retribution and rehabilitation, between punishment and containment, between conservative and progressive societal values, is another whole hornet’s nest!