Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Foundation of Virtue

I recently read Antonio Damasio’s “Looking for Spinoza,” which is of course about Spinoza (not all that much, really), but more about how feeling and emotions underlie our lives.

It might sound obvious that this is so, but it’s amazing how little science takes feelings into consideration. Take a look at a lot of modern economics (not a science, though), which is mostly about massive social engineering – do this to taxes, do this to the money supply, do this to government spending, and you’ll get this. The planners never get what they want, because what people feel isn’t taken into consideration.

More than anything else in Damasio’s book, pages 171 -172 jumped out at me. The author quotes Spinoza: “…the very first foundation of virtue is the endeavor to preserve the individual self, and happiness consists in the human capacity to preserve the self.”

While this might sound like a prescription for the self-centeredness and selfishness that plagues modern society, Damasio does not believe it is, and neither do I.

Damasio translates the saying thusly: I hold these truths to be self-evident, that all humans are created such that they tend to preserve their life and seek well-being, that their happiness comes from the successful endeavor to do so, and that the foundation of virtue rests on these facts.

He elaborates a bit further: “The biological reality of self-preservation leads to virtue because of our inalienable need to maintain our selves we must, of necessity, help preserve other selves. If we fail to do so we perish…”

In other to preserve our own lives, we must preserve others. As John Donne put it, “No man is an island.” All of us are literally connected to each other.

When I say, literally, I do mean literally. A person’s “self” (actually we have many selves) is created to relation to someone else. You can’t be a father or mother without a child; you can’t be a husband or wife without a spouse. That particular self is created in its relation to another’s self. So, you cannot maintain your “self” without maintaining the self of the other person.

In one way of looking at it, you are dealing with two people – and yet one person – at the same time, This sounds suspiciously like the Golden Rule, which, as C.S. Lewis noticed, exists in all cultures.

If you treat people the way you want to be treated, and they respond positively, you are benefiting yourself – and them. If they respond negatively, then you can “hurt” yourself because of the way they act toward you. This is a clear warning to stay away from them, If you give good to someone, and consistently get bad in return, what clearer sign can there be this person should be avoided?

But when it comes right down to it, you don’t have much of a choice except to try to benefit others, if you want to benefit your own life.

In college I took a Psychopathology class, which has always stayed in my mind. I even remember the classifications for many disorders; psychopath, narcissist, borderline, histrionic.

What all have in common is the attempt to maintain their selves by dominating, controlling and manipulating others. They are, of course, not treating people as they want to be treated themselves. They are treating other people as things to be manipulated, since those disordered as essentially bottomless pits of need.

In fact, they try to force the other people into giving what they want. The word “force,” I think, is important. When you translate this into the political area, force is the essence of government. Without force, there can be no government.

The opposite of force is freedom, and politically that would be the free market. In the free market, by benefiting others you benefit yourself.

With political force, can you benefit yourself by benefiting others? Sure doesn’t seem like it, because of the feelings involved. Forcing people to do what they don’t want to do breeds resentment and anger. You can benefit yourself in the short term, but since you’re not benefiting other people, sooner or later they will turn on you, since they feel oppressed and exploited.

I once spent an hour or so in a food stamp office watching the people. Almost all were sullen. Why? They were getting free food! It didn’t take long before I saw a man snap, when he spoke to the woman behind the counter: “I have to live on this while you’re making $40,000 a year!”

He didn’t want food stamps – I repeat, free food – he wanted a high-paying job. He was full of resentment and anger because he was being forced to do something he did not want to do. Feelings, obviously, do count.

Does the free market work perfectly? Of course not. There is no perfection in this life. But it works so much better than the force of government the comparison is not even close.

No comments: