Monday, March 5, 2012

Altruism: The Right Action Choice

My old friend and teacher, John Heider, was a card-carrying member and proponent of the Human Potential Movement. Growing out of the seminal works of such psychological theorists as Fritz Perls, one of the cornerstones of HP is the taking of personal responsibility for one's actions. Put simplistically: 'you make your choices . . . and you take responsibility'. The consequences -- good, bad, or otherwise -- are yours. But what drives us to make responsible choices? Do we all have the same 'moral (or human) potential'? Are there (genetically) good folk . . . and bad?

I have long been fascinated by psychopathy. Defining this disorder as 'a pervasive pattern of disregard for, or violation of the rights of others. . . [characterized by] the lack of empathy or remorse, false emotions, selfishness, and deception' (online definition), it paints a lovely picture of depravity and moral bankruptcy. There is little question that such individuals exist -- and that many of them are in jail (or perhaps ought to be). The issue of whether this is the appropriate placement, however, has been debated a little more heatedly in recent times. The work of Bob Hare (the psychologist most often associated with advances in this area of study and identification), as well as advances in neuroscience and brain scanning, has determined that psychopaths are, in fact, as much born as made. That their brains work a little differently from those organs that the rest of us rely upon to direct our day . . . and our choices. (And God did not create all Amygdalas equal.) And so the question of whether it's fair to incarcerate someone who evidently has no choice but to behave in the way he (mostly males . . . sorry guys!) does, has begun to surface a little more often.

The above quandary, in part, is predicated of course on the larger question of free will versus determinism. If there's no choice, if our behavioural patterns are cast in genetic stone, then how can we put someone away for merely following his cerebral, pre-wired inclinations? Equally, we find ourselves more or less at the other pole from my mentor John's teachings -- I make my choices . . . but I don't have to take responsibility, because it's not my fault! I'm just the Adult Child of a (fill in the blank).

Fortunately for all you devoted followers of this weekly ramble, I'm able to direct you to some definitive answers on this ages old philosophical question. This weekend's Globe contains a review of an interesting (scientific) treatise (Who's In Charge? by Michael Gazzaniga) which, rather than trying to resolve the free choice / determinism debate, reframes the issue: what are the consequences of failing to make folk responsible for their choices? To quote: 'in the absence of punishment, cooperation [in society] cannot sustain itself. In the presence of free-riders, cooperation collapses. (Defining 'free riders' as those who cheat, lie, steal, kill, etc. for their own benefit, thereby taking advantage of everyone else's cooperation, without paying the price of cooperating themselves -- sound familiar?) And so it becomes an issue not of choice or no choice; but one of providing a little firm guidance to that subset of society that, for quite accepted reasons, is a bit responsibility-challenged!

A second piece that I ran across that speaks to the same question appeared in this week's New Yorker. Jonah Lehrer looks at the evolutionary origins and support for altruism -- historically considered, even by Darwin himself, as a flaw in his theory of natural selection. If we define this 'highest of human ideals' as one's readiness to sacrifice self for another, for a greater cultural good, how could individuals with 'large helpings of selflessness' continue to survive? Throwing oneself in front of the bus to save the little old lady crossing the street is not likely to extend one's lineage -- and so another altruist buys it, progeny-less. Lehrer's article, in considering the scientific evidence for altruism across species (i.e., not just in us great apes), manages to reconcile this apparent paradox. It seems that acting in ways that will benefit the greater good of the colony (at least amongst leaf-cutter ants!), is just as selfishly driven as opportunistically swiping the pie cooling on the window sill when aunt Milly isn't looking. The group survives, I survive; the colony dies, I die (if we can anthropomorphize Mr. Ant and his pals for the moment.) To return briefly to Mr. Gazzaniga, 'punishment by incapacitation [plunkin' the buggers in the slammer - ed. note] resulted in temperaments being selected [out] for that which makes us more cooperative'. . . and responsible.

Within the realm of mindfulness practice, Right Action, the fourth step of the Eight-fold Path in Buddhist tradition, informs us at these critical choice points. Sylvia Boorstein is quoted on the topic in the following:

"Codes of ethics are most often associated with prohibitions: Don't do this; don't do that. . . all the don'ts elaborate on the awareness that if we are not alert (or in jail -- ed note), our naturally arising impulses of greed and anger might lead us to do something exploitative or abusive. The fundamental rule is: 'Don't cause pain'. Right Action use[s] the terms 'moral shame' or 'moral dread' [conveying] the sense of awesome responsibility they are meant to convey. . .that every single act we do has the potential of causing pain, and every single thing we do has consequences that echo beyond what we imagine. It means we should act carefully. Everything matters".

And so allowing that 'we don't have a choice' . . . maybe we do. To cultivate a fully present awareness of the responsibility that attaches to 'every breath you take'.

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