Letter from Nathaniel Branden on Morality


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> I think it is especially the legal issue that is the central point here [Dragonfly]

But there is already a thread on this site for that.

-This- thread was started specifically to discuss the questions Nathaniel Branden raised in his letter. If you think the moral issue is already cut and dried, at least let those of us who don't discuss it here anyway...instead of cloning multiple threads on politics rather than ethics (socialism, what role government has to compel on this issue, what the law should be). It's as if someone were discussing whether it is moral to be selfish or honest or just and somoene else comes along and say, no, what I want to talk about is whether the government should enforce this.

This is an important issue to me because over on RoR people are constantly hijacking threads to continue whatever topic they are most energized about. One reason I come over here is (so far) people are more respectful and one can have a fairly concentrated and on topic discussion. If that no longer remains the case, then there is nowhere to go.

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Nathaniel's argument misses the point that it takes more than one meal to help an abondoned, starving child. What would the man do, feed the child and then walk on, knowing that the next day the chil

Michael,

Sorry I jumped into the politics. My enthusiasm often overwhelms my discipline.

I would like to step back and refocus. I don't want to jump on any further tangents. Can you say any more about the particular element of experience you are trying to isolate and identify? Is there any resonance with what I said in an earlier part of this thread about integrating empathic experience with Objectivism or am I barking up the wrong tree?

This is a wonderful spirit to approach such a hot issue. I am pleased to be a part of what you are building.

Thank-you,

Paul Mawdsley

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Dragonfly:

I think you'd better study evolutionary psychology [to find the source of the moral sentiments involved].

Do you have an evolutionary psychology type mechanism in mind that you think would account for the urge to assist a stranger's abandoned child? Biological kinship with the child isn't being hypothesized, so what benefit might saving the child be thought to confer on the perpetuation of the adult's genes?

Ellen

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Quoth Ellen:

Biological kinship with the child isn't being hypothesized, so what benefit might saving the child be thought to confer on the perpetuation of the adult's genes?

However, in support of a broader evolutionary angle, I think we could find animal evidence of a tendency to rescue the distressed young of the same species, and sometimes even across species. It would by no means be a universal tendency, but in some species it would be strong.

I hope you all will bear with me while I quote from Mencius, a major thinker in the Confucian tradition:

Even now-a-days, if men suddenly see a child about to fall into a well, they will without exception experience a feeling of alarm and distress. They will feel so, not as a ground on which they may gain the favour of the child's parents, nor as a ground on which they may seek the praise of their neighbours and friends, nor from a dislike to the reputation of having been unmoved by such a thing.

I'm with Mencius on this. Why it should be so, remains a good question.

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The source of moral sentiments? Dragonfly suggests that we look in evolutionary psychology rather than philosophy.

I want to unpack this a bit, then offer a suggestion for further exploration.

Sentiments are emotions, right? Feelings about things. If we grant that Branden's theory of emotions is correct -- that emotions, desires, aversions arise from evaluations -- then we know that moral sentiments about emergencies are the product of assessments of people in trouble, people who refuse to help people in trouble, etc.

It is good to value other human beings in general, because generally speaking they are like oneself. It is good to act, as appropriate, on that value. In emergencies, it is good to help others if one can do so non-sacrificially.

Based on these values, which most people internalize while they are growing up, a normal, healthy person is going to experience empathy for (identification with) a person in trouble, and automatically apply his internalized value for human life to the situation, and then automatically experience an emotion, a desire to help.

Now, is this a philosophical analysis -- an evolutionary psychological analysis -- or what?

There has been a lot of talk lately on various psychology lists (including evolution-psychology on yahoo) about "mirror neurons." These supposedly are the basis of empathy, understanding other people as being like one -- probably also of understanding animals (especially pets) as being like one. There's much more to the issue than this, but the relevant point is that there appears to be a neurological basis for empathy and the desire to help others when appropriate.

The implication is that, for whatever reason, some people lack any (or a sufficient number) of functioning mirror neurons. Perhaps they were born with a defect that blocked the development of mirror neurons, or their early experience was so irrational or destructive that those neurons atrophied instead of properly developuing, or who knows what.

Such a lack, though, may be the basis for sociopathic personalities -- those who do not experience others as being humans like them, but instead things to be used as means to some end. It may also be the basis for those who would callously turn away from people in need, even when it would be little or no skin off their backs, so to speak.

So, in discussing these people that some would criminalize and that most would morally stigmatize (I certainly would), it would be good to bear in mind that they might not be able to help it. They might be victims of bad brain chemistry or physiology.

This doesn't mean that we should forgive and "tolerate" sociopaths, and it especially doesn't mean that we should refrain from punishing them when they violate rights. Mad dogs can't help trying to bite people, but we still put them to sleep when they get rabies. The same should be true of those sociopathic humans who "can't help it" when they commit crimes.

But what about when sociopaths (or their kissing cousins, the egocentrists) simply fail to respond to appeals for help or to people in danger? Our emotion/moral sentiment of outrage toward them won't go away, just because we think they are clueless because of their biology or their bad moral education -- nor should it.

It is important to judge evil -- even non-volitional evil -- as evil, and to trumpet it to others as a warning about the evil one. People need to have information about those who cannot be trusted to view one as a fellow human being, whether one is in distress or simply at times a vulnerable person who can be taken advantage of by a non-empathetic "prudent predator."

The only question that remains in my mind is whether this recent spate of attention about mirror neurons really plays a significant factor in the kind of situations we have been discussion. I'm sorry that I do not have at hand the internet material I recently read on this subject. If anyone has time to research this and share their findings with the group, or at least point us to specific websites or published works, I for one would appreciate it very much.

REB

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I haven't had time this a.m. to fully digest all the thoughtful

replies, but I did take a pretty good glance.

Here's what I did:

I figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to talk to an informed outsider, but someone out of the philosophical circuit we operate in. Basically I was looking for fresh thought and a different angle.

So, I asked my friend of over thirty years. He's just a regular guy, albeit a pretty wise one.

I laid out the original hypothetical, and explained how far I thought we had funnelled it over here, which to me is down to "where does moral conscience come from?"

He said, in a nutshell, that the reason most normal people would tend to help the kid is because it is our nature to be life-affirming. We grow things. We have children. That when left alone, all things being level, human beings just naturally gravitate to the nourishing of life. Nature/nurture, break it down however as far as point of origin, but the bottom line is that is what people do.

Not a bad way of looking at it.

EDIT, minutes later:

I would be remiss in pointing out that, of course, being of a religious mind, this particular angle completely supports my own position. In my case, the question "where does moral conscience come from?" is answered by saying "Spirit." God is within, and without. Within, it looks back at Spirit, while Spirit looks back. But this is only my individual consciousness, and there are innumerable ways, as many as there are people, of experiencing the same thing, sans theology, for instance.

rde

Reason, tolerance, freedom. And pluralistic!

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Ellen:

Do you have an evolutionary psychology type mechanism in mind that you think would account for the urge to assist a stranger's abandoned child? Biological kinship with the child isn't being hypothesized, so what benefit might saving the child be thought to confer on the perpetuation of the adult's genes?

I think we are on this list all amateurs in this domain, so we can at most speculate a bit and I won't pretend to know the answers, but I think that John has a good point:

However, in support of a broader evolutionary angle, I think we could find animal evidence of a tendency to rescue the distressed young of the same species, and sometimes even across species. It would by no means be a universal tendency, but in some species it would be strong.

I was also thinking in that direction. I may in certain situations be evolutionary advantageous to care for the young even if they are from different parents. Or the prewired program that causes parents to protect their offspring (which certainly has an evolutionary advantage) is not sophisticated enough to distinguis their own offspring from that of others and may even have effects across species: we tend for example to be far more protective of animals with relatively big eyes (like seals), which gives them a baby-like expression, than of others like rats or cockroaches.

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Dragonfly:

[...] I think that John has a good point:
However, in support of a broader evolutionary angle, I think we could find animal evidence of a tendency to rescue the distressed young of the same species, and sometimes even across species. It would by no means be a universal tendency, but in some species it would be strong.

I was also thinking in that direction. [it] may in certain situations be evolutionary advantageous to care for the young even if they are from different parents. Or the prewired program that causes parents to protect their offspring (which certainly has an evolutionary advantage) is not sophisticated enough to distinguis their own offspring from that of others and may even have effects across species: we tend for example to be far more protective of animals with relatively big eyes (like seals), which gives them a baby-like expression, than of others like rats or cockroaches.

That sounds like a plausible evol-psych-style hypothesis. I have read of studies which indicated that there are cues -- from the relative size and shape of the head compared to body proportions, and of the eyes -- which result in sketches of animal (especially mammalian animal) forms being described as "cute" and eliciting nurturant attitudes (especially in females). I've also read of studies in which some species of mammals would be protective not only to their own young but also to that of other species members, and even of other species. (On the other hand, there are species in which the offspring is marked by smell -- or recognized by a particular cry -- e.g., penguins recognizing their own infant amongst the cacophony, to human ears at any rate, of a flock of penguins -- and any other offspring except their own will be neglected or even killed. But I think we can safely assume that humans aren't that type of species.)

Ellen

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Well, there is that empathy component that the have scientifically pinpointed. If I recall it triggers mainly visually.

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Speaking of penguins -- just a quick tangent; don't get worried, Phil ;-) -- if any of you haven't seen and get a chance to see the movie "March of the Penguins," I recommend not missing the chance. What a marvel of evolution the life cycle of those penguins -- the Emperor penguins -- is!

Ellen

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Hi folks:)

First off, the hidden premise of Dr. Branden's email is: With respect to a helpless child, NOT HELPING is the moral equivalent of ACTING MALIGNANTLY.

When presented in this way, it becomes clear that is not so. What then is the source of this intense moral indignation?

Almost all of us identify with, say, a starving child. Why? There have been times when we have been hungry as a kid and not fed promptly.

That identification serves as a conduit to block the full context of the situation and transform the stranger into our father (or mother)! This is also easy to do. There have been times when our parents hurts us as kids, simply because they made some mistakes, if nothing else. As kids, we felt an emotional certainty that it is *wrong* for our parents not to attend to our needs. That emotional certainty becomes our current intense moral indignation.

The proof lies in a simple thought experiment I created--I invite you to try it yourselves. I imagined first a starving child approached by a stranger who has 2 apples in a bag. The stranger could give an apple to the child but chooses not to. Result: instant moral indignation.

Then I let myself experience my own younger self, maybe as a baby, hungry and not fed promptly by my dad or mom. I let myself feel the righteousness of it. I know my parents are wrong about this.

Finally I switch back to the original visualization. Stranger with bag of 2 apples approaches starving child. Stranger looks at child a moment and then walks on. MY OWN MORAL REPUGNANCE HAS DISAPPEARED! I don't like that stranger. I wouldn't like to know him or her. But I don't regard the action as evil either.

One final thought: one poster mentioned that if you came to a country where starving was a general condition then he or she would contribute nothing to anyone--it would not help. I see this differently. If I came to such a country, I would look intensely at the eyes of different children until I found one with whom some kind of inner chord, an empathy, was struck. I would devote my charitable resources solely to that child. Doing so would be upholding my deepest values.

best wishes all,

Mike

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My Dad once said to me when I was a teenager, "Everything a kid does is because of or inspite of his parents." I disagreed then. I disagree now.

Your final thought I am more in agreement with:

One final thought: one poster mentioned that if you came to a country where starving was a general condition then he or she would contribute nothing to anyone--it would not help. I see this differently. If I came to such a country, I would look intensely at the eyes of different children until I found one with whom some kind of inner chord, an empathy, was struck. I would devote my charitable resources solely to that child. Doing so would be upholding my deepest values.

Paul Mawdsley

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Hi Paul:)

I agree with you. Everything is not inspired by one's parents!

Is extreme moral indignation in this case inspired by one's parents? That is the question, amigo.

Did you try the thought experiment I suggested?

best wishes,

Mike

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Parents can, fortunately, guide children into tolerant morality, even through all the mistakes they will make doing it. Even when they fail and occasionally don't walk the talk.

But extreme moral indignation? The real kind, not, say, the pseudo indignation of a freshly-trained fundamentalist?

Assuming no serious pathology, I think it is because man is part of life, he is part of the universe. Assuming no serious pathology, such a man has a reverence for life, he looks upon it fondly, and likes to get up in the morning. I don't think it's that far of a stretch for such a man to get hacked off when he sees unnecessary pain in his world- he's going to feel that in his being, and a purposeful man is going to act on that.

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Work report.

I decided to write a short story about this. I want a person (good guy) who actually believes in the right to leave a child starving be put to the test. I am having one hell of a time making this guy's moral convictions seem believable once we get to the action.

I will keep you all posted.

Michael

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John,

LOLOLOLOLOLOL...

Thanks for the suggestion. Actually it was quite a good one. (But I want my character to mull over things and be bothered by them like we are doing.)

One of the problems Kat is having with this whole approach to morality is that her son Sean has an autistic spectrum disorder. She has to be VERY CAREFUL what she teaches him in terms of right and wrong because he might literally do it someday.

Michael

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Mike J.,

I did try your thought experiment. I don't think I got out of it what you might have hoped but it did trigger a line of thought.

Is extreme moral indignation in this case inspired by one's parents?

I'm quite sure it can be a factor but it is not necessarily so. Your question, as does my Dad's question, make's me think of the Freudian Superego. The idea that one's parents values can become embedded in one's psyche definitely has validity. I know that's not exactly what you are suggesting. Instead, I think you are suggesting our value responses, in the context of our parent's behaviour, is embedded in our psyche. While I think this can be a factor, I think one's values, by adulthood, can evolve well beyond a causal connection to one's responses to one's parents.

I think our values can evolve independent of our parents, even our deepest values. When I disagreed with my Dad on this subject, I pointed out there is another force at work in determining our actions. I thought of it as an independent will that generates my own genuine perspective. Today I would say it comes from my own experience, my independent understanding of the causation operating in the world, my genuine organismic response to that experience and understanding, and my personal, rational value system. My independent understanding of the causation operating in the world and my personal, rational value system have continued to grow considerably since my parents had much influence.

Extreme indignation comes from an extreme emotional response to my understanding of the causation that lies beneath my perception of the world. It is raised to extreme moral indignation when this emotional response is in alignment with my personal, rational value system.

Paul M.

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Michael:

Work report.

I decided to write a short story about this. I want a person (good guy) who actually believes in the right to leave a child starving be put to the test. I am having one hell of a time making this guy's moral convictions seem believable once we get to the action.

It isn't clear to me from your description which "guy's" moral convictions you're attempting to dramatize, and what belief you're attempting to test. John's reply sounds as if he's taking you to be attempting to present a character who might come across as sympathetic, even though leaving a child starving. And I'm not sure if that's what you intend to try or not. I think that unless you're clear in your own mind about the difference between what's right and what's A right, in the sense of a legally enforceable obligation, your story won't work to dramatize what you want it to.

Ellen

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Ellen,

That is clearer to me than anything. However your phrase, "what's right and what's a right" is kinda cool, so with your permission, I might use it when the guy is thinking to himself.

He is getting more and more believable as I work, but this concept is a hard one to present as a virtue for a well-meaning person. When it's all talk, that's one thing and he's easily believable. But once the doody hits the fan action-wise, it's hard to pull off. I'm getting there, though.

For a villain, it's a dream. Unfortunately, my story is one of discovery.

On moral convictions, his main conflict is during a situation where he will have to choose to act between the right (like Bill of Rights right) and the morally right.

Michael

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Michael:

[...] your phrase, "what's right and what's a right" is kinda cool, so with your permission, I might use it when the guy is thinking to himself.

You have my permission. I just hope that you have my meaning right -- yet a third meaning. And then there's right as distinguished from left. Unfortunately, I'm left -- different meaning of "left" -- still unsure if you see the difference, since if you do, it isn't clear to me why you'd have written:

this concept is a hard one to present as a virtue for a well-meaning person.

What virtue?

On moral convictions, his main conflict is during a situation where he will have to choose to act between the right (like Bill of Rights right) and the morally right.

You mean between a right (like Bill of Rights right) and the morally right? (I can think of situations where a person might have to choose between those; generally, respecting rights -- like Bill of Rights right -- I'd consider morally right but not always.) I think it's unfortunate that "right" as in "morally desirable" and "right" as in "enforceable claim" are the same word in English. The two meaning's sharing a homophone leads to many confusions.

Ellen

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Michael -- make it a college kid, who is battling with the process of growing out of his teen-age egocentricity, which is exacerbated by the aspects of Objectivism that encourage him to be "self-centered" or to pursue "selfishness." He struggles to learn that his real goal is to be "reality-centered," and that the circle of his self and his values can expand to include others, even strangers in need. This, to me, is a more interesting struggle than the conflict between what is right and what is A right.

REB

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Ellen,

Thanks. Wait a minute! I think I was spelling it all wrong. Isn't it WRITE? (Like write and wrong, Bill of Writes, morally write?)

//;-))

Roger,

That's actually a good idea. Have you ever written a story? Wanna try? That's a terrific start.

My other thing is already sketched out, so I am going to finish it. You know my work enough to know that I cut deep in the soul. I'm not much of a pamphleteer, so don't worry about long speeches after making love.

Frankly, I think you will enjoy it (Ellen too, er... OL too... I mean THE WHOLE WORLD!!!!!!!!!)

ahem...

Michael

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Hi Paul:)

Absolutely! Our adult values may be very different than those of us as a kid or of our parents'.

If you were a Freudian analyst, and you saw me picking apart a spider at, say, age 8, and then I became a surgeon as an adult, you would conclude (given psychic determinism) that I was simply acting out my sadistic impulses in a socially approved manner as an adult!

About the maintenance of our personalities: I agree with George Weinberg about this. (See "Self-Creation" by Weinberg). We have many habits and unknowingly recapitulate our personalities every day by giving into habitual urges that lead us to do the same old things:)

As I understand your ideas about making of personality, this would mean making rational choices even though they might be scary, effortful, stressful, or involving change. Is this essentially what you mean, Paul?

best always,

Mike R.

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