NON TRIVIAL PURSUITS

 

The Progressive Income Tax





Home
Political Analysis
Economic Analysis
Ethical Analysis
Blog
 

 

Questions?  Comments? inquiries@nontrivialpursuits.org

 

 

On this page, you will find a lot of my ideas on a number of philosophical topics, most of them connected to human nature, ethics, and epistemology.  I have not had time yet to put the following material into a more readable format, but I wanted to make it available for those who are interested in the topic.  It first appeared in an internet dialogue almost two years ago.

If you are interested in this kind of analysis, just keep the words "unified theory of human nature, motivation, & ethics." in the back of your mind as you read....                    -------James Kroeger

 

Relativism vs. Objectivism
Egoism vs. Altruism
Deontological vs. Consequentialist Theories



Philosophical discussions of Ethics usually end up addressing one or more of the “disagreements” listed above.  It is possible to reconcile these opposed positions if we bring into the discussion an assumption that human beings have a fundamental and intrinsic need for Approval (the approval of others).  It changes everything.  With such a need it becomes clear that egoism no longer conflicts with altruism, that deontological theories must yield to consequentialist explanations, and that relativism no longer makes any sense.  All of this is possible because our fundamental need for approval finally explains why human beings are ever inspired to act in ways that we normally describe as “unselfish.”

Why do human beings do nice things for others?  Why do they make sacrifices for others? Let’s say you see someone suffering. Maybe you can “feel his pain.”  Maybe you can even imagine the relief the person would feel if you were to help him.  Why would you be inspired to help that person obtain relief? How could it possibly give satisfaction to you?  Why would you enjoy seeing that person become happy?  You say it makes you “feel good?” Why would it do that?  The answer is that, if it were not for our fundamental need for the approval of others, it would never have occurred to any of us to do anything that might benefit another human being.  Seeing another human being’s smiles of approval and gratitude would have no more impact on us than noticing that yet another leaf had fallen from a tree.  We would be utterly indifferent. Why would something that happened to someone else make you feel good?

When we see that others approve of us, it satisfies a “mental” need that can also be accurately described as an emotional need.  This need for approval is certainly unique when compared to our purely biological needs.  It is apparently an "open-ended" need since there is no point of homeostasis at which the need is finally satisfied.  We can enjoy approval from every imaginable source all day and still be hurt by disapproval at the end of the day.  More approval received always continues to “feel good.”  It is a need that has positive and negative aspects, which distinguishes it from many of our purely biological needs.  It’s not just a lack of approval that causes emotional pain, even though that eventuality is certainly painful in its own right (loneliness).  Expressed disapproval seems to dramatically “aggravate” the need, sometimes inflicting acute emotional pain (embarrassment, ridicule, rejection).  But it’s not just a need to avoid disapproval. Expressed approval feels so good, we are always eager for more.  It is because we have this need for approval that we are “selfishly” motivated to be kind to others.

The moral value that deontological philosophers like Kant have always assigned to unselfishness is based on the intuitive recognition that we all seem to benefit when we all act to help each other (otherwise, why would it be “good?”).  But it’s also been intuitively apparent to philosophers that connecting this “ironic truth” to an individually possessed need for approval would confront us with the “curse” of emotional vulnerability (if I have a need for the approval of others, then others have the power to hurt me with ease).  My claim is that this fear is the reason why deontologists have always sought to purge moral motivation of any self-serving intentions.  They were afraid to admit that they have a very sensitive need for the approval of others so they simply declared unselfish behavior to be “good” without actually saying that we need it in order to be happy.  Kant’s theoretical treatise leaves us implicitly inferring our own benefit from such behavior; my analysis points out that “unselfish” behavior benefits us [selfishly] in a cause and effect manner.  Kant was able to ignore the important role in ethics that our need for Approval plays by simply portraying duty-fulfillment as an irreducible end-in-itself.  In fact, duty-fulfillment is really only a means-to-an-end, the ultimate end being the emotional need-satisfaction that is generated by approval received from others).

We are so accustomed to viewing selfishness as “bad” we are somewhat uncomfortable with the realization that we are doing ourselves a favor when we seek to satisfy the needs of others.  Indeed, recognizing our fundamental need for approval makes it clear to us that the only way for us to maximize our own personal happiness is to seek always to satisfy the needs of others.  If we all want to obtain an optimal satisfaction of our emotional needs, we must all constantly seek to become sources of need-satisfaction (especially emotional need-satisfaction) to each other by trying to earn each other’s gratitude (approval).  Gee, wouldn’t that create the ideal loving world we have always desired?  But then, such a world would have to be considered a moral abomination because of our selfish motivation, wouldn’t it?


The deontological assault on selfish motivation has been responsible for an incredible amount of unnecessary mental anguish.  Individuals have been encouraged to behave "unselfishly" but have been given no personal reason to do so (motivation) other than because such behavior is considered praiseworthy (approval).  But then they are told that if they are motivated by their desire for praise, their actions must be morally condemned because their motives deserve only contempt.  This creates an internal conflict that confounds ordinary logic. With these definitions the only way one can hope to become ideally worthy of praise is to become truly indifferent to praise.  The skewed logic of the deontological moral perspective forces pious individuals into a perpetual state of self-loathing.  This is because they intuitively recognize their desire for praise while at the same time realizing that their enjoyment of praise is the one thing that must---by definition---deprive them of the praise they desire.  So they end up hating their desire for praise in the hope that they’ll become more deserving of it.

People have been encouraged to castigate others for a selfish motivational nature that neither can be nor should be overcome by exertions of will.  In truth, people should never be criticized for their selfishness but only for being “stupid-selfish” instead of “smart-selfish.”  If you are smart-selfish, you will always act to become a source of need-satisfaction to others in order to earn their gratitude.  And you will understand that simply expressing gratitude for the kindnesses visited upon you by others satisfies their need for approval, which makes you a valued source of need-satisfaction in their eyes, which in turn earns you the approval you desire.  If you are smart-selfish, then you will understand that expressing approval is one of the best ways to earn approval.  If you are stupid-selfish, you will be oblivious to the importance of your emotional needs and will not have any good reason to not take advantage of others.  If you pretend that your fundamental need for approval does not exist, it discourages you from being kind to others because it ultimately reveals that you have a “weakness” that others could possibly take advantage of.  It’s interesting how displaying one’s humility becomes yet another performance that serves to hide one's vulnerability by convincing others that a need for approval does not exist.

With recognition of this fundamental need for approval, it can be seen that there are positive, reward-oriented reasons for "being good". The oppressive weight of moral "obligation" is not necessary.  Fear of punishment is not the only reason why a person should want to be Good.  We will all benefit greatly if we come to realize that it is not necessary for us to be miserable in order to be good.  One of the important results of recognizing our fundamental need for approval is discovering not only that we can be both happy and good; we cannot possibly be happy without being good.  The day we are finally able to free ourselves from the psycho-pathological grip of ironic moral reasoning, we will be able to begin discovering just how joyful life can be.

 

Nice analysis!

I don't have a lot of time, so I will say briefly that while I don't disagree with the idea that approval may be a motivation to perform apparently "unselfish" acts, it may not be the only one that can be held as a fundamental. For example, performing any act always carries with it the risk of eliciting disapproval from others, so there can exist a selfish motivation against taking such a risk just to perform an "unselfish" act. This kind of complication seems to make the "approval of others" theory more difficult to confirm.

Also, your theory seems to be mainly a theory of motivation for the performance of certain kinds of acts, and not a theory about what, in general, makes acts "good". So, I'm not certain how it could clear up the "difficulties" that you mentioned at the beginning of your post. In fact, it seems to introduce a "new" perspective from which additional questions about our motivation to do what we believe is "right" or "morally justifiable" may arise.

jpbrooks

(Note: This response by jpbrooks initiated a rather lengthy dialogue between us.  To save space, I'm only presenting my responses to his comments & questions .)

 

Hi JP!

I don't have a lot of time, so I will say briefly that while I don't disagree with the idea that approval may be a motivation to perform apparently "unselfish" acts, it may not be the only one that can be held as a fundamental. For example, performing any act always carries with it the risk of eliciting disapproval from others, so there can exist a selfish motivation against taking such a risk just to perform an "unselfish" act. This kind of complication seems to make the "approval of others" theory more difficult to confirm.

If I understood your comments correctly, you were pointing out that in spite of the desirability of approval that is expressed as gratitude, we might still be persuaded by our fear of disapproval to not act in an "unselfish" way. I’m not really sure how this complicates things. One is either motivated to perform a “selfish” act by a desire to experience the pleasure of a need’s satisfaction (approval) or is motivated to not perform the act because one fears that doing so might bring about the need’s dissatisfaction (disapproval). In either case one is responding to the same need for Approval. No?

Also, your theory seems to be mainly a theory of motivation for the performance of certain kinds of acts, and not a theory about what, in general, makes acts "good".

You are correct. The psychological egoism of my ethical theory simply points out that people always act selfishly even when they might otherwise appear to be acting selflessly because of our need for approval. This does not mean that I believe people ought to simply do that which receives the approval of others. Expressed approval can be used to encourage both moral and immoral behavior. I define moral behavior as behavior that all members of a community are expected to carry out in order that all might benefit. Immoral behavior is behavior that all members of a community are expected to eschew in order that all might benefit.

So what kinds of actions are moral? My definition: an action is moral if it would produce favorable consequences (need-satisfaction) for everyone, if everyone were to act in the same way. (Note how this differs from Ethical Egoism) This is similar to Kant’s formulation: "Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." Kant’s wording avoids the suggestion that one might want to act morally in order to experience a personal benefit. My formulation emphasizes that consequences are the ultimate determinant of what is right/wrong. Can you see how these definitions establish morality as objective rather than subjective? Actions that would benefit everyone if everyone were to do the same are the only kind of actions that can possibly enjoy universal approval. If one group (or person) would benefit from an action at the expense of another group, then the action is not moral and it will not enjoy universal approval.

That’s all for now...

 

Yes, you are right in pointing out that the motivation, in either case, would be approval (in general). But approval in general is not (if I am understanding your position correctly) what you are proposing as a motivation for action. Your theory concerns, more specifically, the approval of others. The complication thus arises around the issue of whose approval, one's own or someone else's, is considered most important in each decision to act. In some cases of making a decision to perform some "unselfish" act (versus its selfish alternatives), where one decides that one would not want to risk bringing about any disapproval from others, one may still choose to act rather than to do nothing at all. And there is nothing in the theory that would preclude, in that case, choosing any of the "unselfish" act's "selfish" alternatives. But in so choosing, one would be, in effect, placing one's own approval for deciding how to act above that of others in importance. But that would seem to be contrary to the idea that decisions to act will always be made on the basis of the approval of others. Perhaps all this means is that the theory may contain some truth, but may not be as complex or as "nuanced" as it could be.

In spite of the great importance I place on this fundamental need for the Approval of others, I acknowledge that there are other variables involved that we take into consideration when we choose to act (or simply react according to “instinct”). This truth is highlighted in those situations where one faces a moral dilemma. If you are in a street gang and you are being pressured to act immorally, you face a situation where you stand to receive approval from “an audience” no matter what your ultimate decision is. It may ultimately be that in these situations one’s choice is primarily influenced by an evaluation of the perceived “quality” of each audience’s approval. Which group’s approval appears to be more desirable? Under this heading, one might take into consideration which of the groups one is more likely to be around in the near or long-term future (in this case, we’d take into consideration our projections of “probable approval/disapproval” over a future time period). Or perhaps one might simply consider which group tends to envy the other more or which group seems to be “happier.” (We have a powerful drive to imitate the behavior of others, which might ultimately be derived from a fundamental “urge to experience” activities that do not appear to be too threatening.)

The approval of others matters to us a great deal, but it is not the sole determinant of our actions. My contention is that when we decide to act morally in the face of group disapproval, it is not because we have decided that our own approval is “better than” the approval of others; it’s because we believe that the moral option we’ve chosen to pursue is “inherently” more deserving of approvable than the alternative endorsed by the group (i.e., we believe that if everyone understood all of the relevant facts, everyone would agree that the moral option is the one that is most deserving of their approval). How do we decide such a thing? There are, of course, many examples of flawed moral reasoning that is used to justify behavior that is ultimately immoral, but when an act is truly moral everyone would benefit if everyone were to act in the same way. If everyone would benefit from a particular action (if everyone were to act the same), then we would expect that "everyone" would deem the action approvable (especially if they compare it to the alternative) if they were all aware of the impact of all the relevant variables.

What of self-approval? I make the claim that human beings do not have a need that self-approval can satisfy, at least not directly. I suggest above that the reason people will act in defiance of group disapproval is not because the approval they give to themselves is able to satisfy to any extent their need for approval-in-general, but only because they believe an “audience” exists, or might exist, that would perceive their defiance as more approvable than the action encouraged by the immediate audience. (They might value the “other audience’s” approval more than they value the immediate audience’s approval for some of the reasons I mentioned above.) Their decisions to act defiantly in the face of group disapproval are therefore ultimately determined by their desire to be worthy of the approval of some audience they have in mind. (Even if the audience they have in mind is God and those “good beings” He surrounds Himself with, the motivation is still to enjoy the approval of others.)

Self-approval (self-esteem) does have some value as a means-to-an-end (the end being other-approval), but it cannot give satisfaction to a need directly. For example, self-approval is sometimes able to elicit the approval of others because most people depend on us to tell them how they ought to regard us. If we appear as though we expect others to approve of us (apparently because we have experienced it previously), then many of those whom we meet will assume that we are deserving of it. Why else would we be expecting it? So of course self-esteem would have value in this way as a means-to-an-end. But if an individual were to give himself large doses of self-esteem before walking into a certain social situation, only to find himself the target of unrelenting group derision and mocking contempt/laughter, then the value of any self-esteem he might have been able to give to himself during the encounter would add up to exactly nothing because it would not negate the emotional pain inflicted by the group disapproval.

One might be able to endure the emotional pain experienced in such a situation, but nothing is going to stop the pain from occurring or lessen its severity. (We can endure the pain of disapproval for a period of time, sustained by a hope/expectation/confidence in our ability to “turn things around” or “come out on top.” Such confidence is possible when one has learned, for example, how to feign indifference with a smile while launching a devastating counter attack. But such “confidence” cannot be maintained if its continuing effectiveness is not evident. If one’s emotional adversary is equally skilled in “repartee” or if one is facing an aggressive supermajority, the hope/confidence in future need satisfaction will fade and one is left with only two option: get angry or “make peace.”) More on this later...

Perhaps I'm wrong, but it seems as though holding the need for the approval of others to be the most fundamental need is what the theory would prescribe as the most important consideration in choosing what acts to perform.

Again, our Need for Approval may not be our most fundamental need in that its demands will always supersede any and all demands made by our other “needs.” What I am saying is that this Need for Approval is very, very important and that its demands are responsible for most of the emotional pain and joy that we experience in our lifetimes. How important is this need for approval? Well, millions of soldiers have risked death and severe pain in order to avoid the pain of disapproval (the shame of being perceived a coward) while also hoping to earn approval for acting heroically. Fear of embarrassment (fear of group disapproval) makes some people terrified of public speaking for a lifetime. Millions of people get married every day because of their need for approval. Millions of people have committed suicide because they become convinced that they have no hope of experiencing the approval they desire. Millions of people have killed others (or have wanted to kill others) because of the disapproval they were experiencing. I guess I would call it the single most important factor in human behavior/relations and ethics, although I admit that it is not the only factor involved.

That's all for now...

(We have a powerful drive to imitate the behavior of others, which might ultimately be derived from a fundamental “urge to experience” activities that do not appear to be too threatening.)


Or it may be that the activities that would be perceived as "threatening" would be perceived that way because they would be seen as being the result of behavior that deviates from the "norm". That is, the perception of "safety" regarding an activity, may be a consequence of the drive to imitate the behavior of others rather than a motivating factor. The drive seems to function without much conscious effort on our part.

Actually, I think that perceptions of safety/threat are primary. Children learn early on to read the faces of others for signs of fear or happiness or curiosity. They can tell “threat” from “non-threat.” If they see another human being (especially a peer) doing something they’ve never tried before and the “other” shows no sign of fear, their imitation of the behavior is pretty much automatic. I think you were referring to the wariness that people have of “outsiders” external to one’s own familiar group, weren’t you?

But doesn't the ability to decide among alternatives despite the lack of approval from any existing group, in such a case, itself suggest that the approval of others may not be the most fundamental motivating factor of behavior even in cases where decision making seems unproblematic? One's preferences in decision making seem to be more fundamentally grounded on what pleases the individual who is making the decision(s) than on the opinions and attitudes of others toward those preferences.

What is it that you are suggesting might be more fundamental than the approval of others, JP? One’s approval of oneself? Or are you thinking of something else?

What would preclude the apotheosis of oneself? The approval theory seems to rule out of consideration anyone who may tend to be self centered or self focused in his or her decision making.

I guess it would depend on the decision that needed to be made, wouldn’t it? I would think that—because of our fundamental need for the approval of others, because we can be made either happy or unhappy by the behavior of others—it is a matter of self-interest that we contemplate how our behavior will impact others, because experience teaches us that they will respond to us in ways that are going to make us happy or not. I really don’t know how it is possible for someone to be so self-centered that she ignores the social environment. I wouldn’t so much call such a perspective “self-centered” as I would call it “blind” or “foolish.”

Well that's all for now...

 

Let me go back to when you said:

But doesn't the ability to decide among alternatives despite the lack of approval from any existing group, in such a case, itself suggest that the approval of others may not be the most fundamental motivating factor of behavior even in cases where decision making seems unproblematic?

I think I can see now that you and I are thinking of two different things when I’ve said that our need for the approval of others is “the single most important factor in human behavior and ethics.” I’m quite sure that you have been focusing on the absolute [comparative] ranking of those “motivating factors” that determine human behavior. From this perspective you have appropriately noted that there is good reason to question an assumption that this need for the approval of others always dominates all other variables.

I should have probably made it more clear from the beginning that when I say that our need for the approval of others is “the single most important factor in human behavior and ethics” I am not saying that its demands are so great, it will always dominate all the other “motivating factors” that might come into play during a moment of decision-making. I agree with Maslow that certain primary needs must be regularly satisfied before human beings give much attention to their Higher Needs (I think it is clear that this need for the approval of others is a Higher Need). From this perspective, I suppose I should be saying that this fundamental need for the approval of others has become the single most important motivating factor in the Modern Era because we have collectively done such a good job of getting our more fundamental needs satisfied.

Yes, human motivation is very complex. There are many times when our needs conflict with each other. We find that in order to get certain Higher Needs satisfied, we often have to choose not to get some other needs satisfied (think “urges”). With so many different needs making their demands on us, it is usually possible for us to think of situations where one [usually dominant] need would not dominate all other needs/factors. But this complexity should not discourage us from seeking to make useful generalizations. The exceptions are always interesting and important in their own right, but there is also great value in the generalizations we make, if they prove to be useful in helping us to conceptualize the challenges we face (most of the time) and to identify courses of action that will improve our experience of life.

So I would concede that this need for the approval of others may not be the “most fundamental motivating factor of behavior” even while still insisting that it is “the single most important factor in human behavior and ethics.” What makes it the “most important” is not that it has some kind of ability to dominate all other considerations (it may not); it’s the most important need because 1) it is responsible for nearly all of the emotional pain that human beings experience [and inflict on each other] in their lifetimes, and 2) its demands are such that we have the ability to act together to arrange for this need’s optimal satisfaction. I would probably not consider it to be the “most important factor” if I believed there was nothing we could do about emotional need deprivation. The emotional pain that we suffer might not be a good thing, but it wouldn’t be very important for us to give it any attention if the only thing we can do about it is to accept it.

Well, that's all the time I have right now...

 

...If so, then you may be correct in holding that the approval of others is the most important factor in human social interaction, though I admit that I need more time to examine this matter from the more specific social standpoint to develop my own arguments.

Perhaps you will find the following helpful, JP...

The significance of this need for approval in ethics starts to become more apparent when we see the influence it has on human behavior in groups. Why we do what we do is important when discussing what people ought to do.

In social environments, most human beings employ certain strategies/tactics to protect themselves from emotional pain that are “intuitively inspired.” That is to say in the absence of an awareness of more sophisticated options they tend to rely on the simplistic “reasoning” of their biologically programmed instincts. For example, the Anger Instinct is a biologically programmed response to pain that encourages us to “hurt back” any identified enemy object that is perceived to be a source of inflicted pain. If you happened to stub your toe on some inanimate object and this caused you to feel a great deal of pain, your Anger Instinct would encourage you to hit the offending object to “pay it back” for hurting you. The ultimate goal of the Anger Strategy is apparently to bring an end to the experience [or threat] of pain by inflicting pain on your “enemy” until he stops hurting [or threatening] you. It may not be a sophisticated strategy based on a thorough understanding of the nature of the threat but it nevertheless has its own “logic.”

There is another key instinctive response to pain that has a major impact on the way humans treat each other. It is activated when we [intuitively] recognize that we have a [physical or emotional] vulnerability. Noticing that we have a vulnerability arouses within us an instinctive fear. When our Default Program recognizes that we can be hurt by disapproval, it encourages us to hide that vulnerability from the view of any potential attackers, lest they be tempted to exploit it. The simple logic of the instinct: if others can be persuaded that we cannot be hurt by their disapproval, they may be discouraged from daring to launch any kind of emotional attacks on us. It ends up being a pretty effective strategy because all individuals are quite aware of their own emotional vulnerability and most people tend to believe the performances that they see. We intuitively recognize that we definitely have something to fear if others are not as vulnerable to disapproval as we are. And so we learn to mask our vulnerability behind “fronts” of feigned invulnerability.

Humans have an ability to “pretend” [at least for a little while] that they are not experiencing any pain even though they actually are. Instead of showing tears or fear when facing another’s disapproval, many learn to show something different. In “civilized” social environments, some individuals learn that it is effective to display a confident smile when they’ve been criticized. This basic Denial Strategy becomes even more effective when it is combined with painful counterattacks. Some individuals become so impressed with this combined strategy, they begin to launch pre-emptive strikes to warn off any who might be tempted to criticize. In civilized circles, these pre-emptive strikes usually take the form of humor. Having fun at another person’s expense lets all observers know that you have the capacity to inflict a lot of pain on them if they make the mistake of criticizing you. Those who become especially fond of this strategy find themselves instinctively led to single-out individuals who appear to be “easy targets.” (I.e., who show some fear or shyness or a reluctance to engage in emotional combat.)

In less civilized environments, bullies target those who appear least capable of defending themselves, but they are also willing to go beyond humor and will threaten physical violence in their pre-emptive strikes and counterattacks. The willingness of bullies to use physical violence provides ample evidence that they actually fear the emotional pain caused by disapproval more than they fear the possibility of physical pain. After all, “fightin’ words” are nothing more than expressions of disapproval that are so painful the Anger Instinct takes over and urges the one being criticized to try to force his enemy to stop inflicting the pain. Bullies typically see all others as potential threats and are only comfortable when those potential threats show enough fear of the his capacity to inflict pain that he no longer perceives them as threats. It is a defensive strategy that seeks to protect the Bully from the very thing that he is inflicting on others. In civilized circles individuals are normally inhibited from resorting to physical violence (by fear—they’ve got too much to lose), but the Anger Instinct is still aroused in a “controlled” way whenever our counterattacks and fronts do not seem to be effective in persuading others to stop hurting our feelings.

DISTRACTION is perhaps the most effective of the defensive strategies that human beings employ to protect themselves from emotional pain. We seem to intuitively understand that we are less likely to be attacked if we can keep the attention of others focused away from our own emotional vulnerability. There are innocent ways to do this: keeping everyone's attention focused on various innocuous activities (the task at hand) or on certain "safe" topics of discussion. But all too often people learn to focus the group’s attention on the emotional vulnerability of some other person in the group. The payoff is clear. When the attention of others is focused on the emotional vulnerability of someone else, it is not being focused on your vulnerability. Inflicting pain on others can thereby provide a measure of “security” in an environment that otherwise puts you at significant risk of emotional pain. Your image of personal invulnerability in the eyes of others is enhanced because group members tend to recall the smiles they saw on your face and the fact that you didn’t show any of the fear that they saw on your victims' faces.

Within a social setting, humor is often used to distract attention away from one’s own imperfections. With a smile on your face, you can claim that your hurtful comments aren’t “serious” and that no person who isn’t flawed should be upset by a little joking around. Even though humor can be quite friendly when good friends “play with it” (somewhat apologetically), it is more commonly used as a pre-emptive strike. People learn that the best way to avoid being victimized by the humor of others is to do it to them first before they have a chance to do it to you. And thus do we end up with the ultimate irony of this strategy: when everyone employs it, we all end up constantly trying to hurt each other with pre-emptive humor in order to protect ourselves from the pain of pre-emptive humor. (It is noted that some forms of humor do not depend on victimizing others. Johnny Carson would be a good example of someone who perfected self-effacing humor.)

The intent of most of these strategies is simply to avoid the emotional pain that is inflicted by disapproval. But our fundamental need is not just to avoid the pain of disapproval but also to experience the positive rewards that the need can bestow. From within our culture's current perspective, those who have perfected their use of these strategies end up being perceived as “winners” on the emotional battlefield. Our fundamental instinct to imitate then comes into play. Upon noticing that some people are Winners and some people are Losers in emotional exchanges, our Imitation Instinct encourages us to “get close to” the Winners and figure out what it is that has enabled them to become winners. They become valued as models to emulate. These emulators identify with the Winners and celebrate their successes because they personally hope to be able to achieve the same for themselves. Thus are even bullies able to receive something that seems to approximate approval. But is it really approval?

The “approval” that Bullies receive from their followers is related to the type of “approval” that is sought by those who seek to elicit the envy of others. When envious people exhibit smiles of approval after having been exposed to the possessions/circumstances of The Envied, what is it they feel approval of? The Envied? Not really. It is true that some may feel a measure of approval for the people they envy as models, but the emotion that envious individuals are far more likely to feel for the people they envy is hatred, which is the opposite of approval. There can be little doubt that envious people approve of the experiences that The Envied are privileged to have, but they are also quite capable of feeling hatred for the people they envy at the same time.

At the root of envy is the instinctive urge to experience any experience that another person appears to be enjoying. Hatred becomes a part of the Envy Experience after the Anger Instinct becomes involved. The Anger Instinct is triggered: 1) when we perceive an “enemy” that appears to be responsible for the pain we are experiencing (or the threat we perceive), but also 2) when an "enemy" appears to be thwarting our opportunities to experience what appears to be a pleasurable experience. A ten-month-old baby, for example, will strike another baby who picks up a toy that the first baby wanted to “experience”, without having ever witnessed such behavior previously. When envious people hate the people they envy, it is because their Anger Instinct assumes that The Envied are responsible for their need-deprivation.

In group environments, our instincts encourage us to deal with our need for approval in ways that end up creating many victims. As noted earlier, some individuals discover that they can provide themselves with a measure of emotional security in a group setting by focusing the attention of others on someone else’s imperfections. They victimize others in order to keep themselves from being victimized in the same way. But this strategy also provides some additional benefits to those who are willing to victimize the meek. If a single member [or sub-group] of the group is singled out for expressed disapproval, then all those who were not included in the indictment are able to infer their own approvability in the eyes of the most vocal victimizers. Members of the “audience” find that they enjoy the implicit approval that is being expressed for them indirectly.

If the distribution of victimizers in a group is such that all the members are equally skilled in waging emotional warfare (i.e., if there are no easy victims to exploit) then victimizers will find the group environment far less enjoyable, since they are all going to be “taking it” as well as “dishing it out.” But if the members of such a group were to find suitable targets outside of their group, then they would all be able to enjoy the indirect self-praise that they'd all be heaping on themselves with every disparaging comment they make about the outsiders. It is a very appealing "strategy" because people are able to praise themselves without the group's attention being focused on them, personally. Group members who verbalize criticism of the outsiders can become quite popular individuals, valued as sources of need-satisfaction (for their ability to make the other group members feel good about themselves). Members quickly discover that it feels good to praise themselves indirectly by mocking non-group members; all one has to do is express disdain those who do not belong. If face-to-face encounters with those who are being ridiculed can be avoided, group members will be able to praise themselves in circumstances that are essentially risk free.

Given our individualistic cultural attitudes, it’s quite natural for people to highly value their membership in outwardly-focused groups. (Even those who are normally victimized by other members of their group are able to feel like Winners and are able to enjoy the implicit approval generated by group comparisons.) Bashing outsiders ends up being a major part of the “good time” that the group members enjoy. Simply having some outsiders to “feel superior to” becomes very important to those who are immersed in the individualistic perspective. Certainly part of their enjoyment comes from the indirect approval they heap on themselves, but another part of it is simply the relief of knowing that they are not among those who are the targets of the group’s ridicule. The more savage the criticism they express, the more “fortunate” they feel about their membership in their approvable group.

People in groups will use anything they can think of to distinguish themselves from outsiders in a favorable way. Some groups focus their attention on the economic resources their members have at their disposal that outsiders do not have. The advantage that group members believe they have can be real or it can be completely imaginary. Sometimes groups simply proclaim themselves to have a collection of personality traits that are generally considered [at least from within the individualistic perspective] to be virtuous, or admirable, or enviable. It really doesn’t matter (in the short run) if group members actually have the character traits that they are celebrating. What matters is if they all (or at least a majority of them) support the flattering expressions of indirect approval that are being voiced.

This instinct-driven dynamic has a powerful influence on the behavior of human beings in groups. Just about any example of group victimization of “other” groups that we could point to can be traced to 1) the Anger Instinct, and 2) our powerful need for approval. Indeed, all immoral behavior is ultimately “motivated” by our biological instincts. Our “nature” encourages us to hurt each other. The good news is that we have minds that are capable of identifying moral behavior options (ways to behave that would benefit everyone if everyone were to carry them out).

Well, I guess that’s all for now...

 

Thanks for your exposition. Before delving in, I would like to ask whether you arrived at your theory primarily as a result of reading psychological literature or sociological literature? This is not an important issue; I was just curious.

Actually, my theory wasn’t derived directly from either psychological or sociological literature, but rather from my own “independent” perspective. At a certain point in my youth, it became clear to me that the psychological and sociological theories I had been exposed to provided no “answers” or explanations of any significant value (that I could actually use to improve my life experience). However interesting these theories were, they utterly ignored the most important questions that people could ask about their social and personal experience of life. For example, why are some people being mean to me? What exactly is the nature of the threat I’m facing when I’m dealing with other people? Why is it that we don’t all get along with each other? Why is it that two people who start off their marriages as “best friends” so often end up being in a relationship between “worst enemies?”

Over a period of time I achieved some distance from the theories I had read about and eventually decided that I would have to find the answers to these kinds of questions, myself. At first, I was content to simply find out what was true about me. But once I started coming up with those answers, I also began to notice that what was true about me was also true about everyone else. I could see what was really going on inside of people that accounted for the different ways that people behave. With the explanations I was coming up with, everything I was seeing in people began to make sense. As I questioned the answers I was coming up with, looking for The Flaw that had escaped me thus far, I found that I could answer every objection. Maybe you will be able to help me identify The Flaw, JP? I certainly do appreciate your help in this matter...

...At this time, my attempts at criticism may be premature, since my ideas on this topic have not been fully examined. However, there are points in your analysis that I am having difficulty accepting, which I admit may be due entirely to a lack of understanding on my part.

...I agree. If it turns out, for example, that a particular behavior pattern is based on a fundamental characteristic (such as a need) of human nature, then it would seem safe to assume that it would be wrong to rule out all possible expressions of the behavior as immoral. I'm not sure, however that the behavior that we are discussing falls into that category. The emotions themselves (discussed below) do seem to be instinctive, existing also in animals that don't possess our level of sophistication in analyzing social situations. But the choice as to what person or group would serve as the object of the anger or fear does not appear to be instinctive. (I will address the issue of how choice relates to instinct later.)...

...But is this way of responding to the experience of pain instinctive {my emphasis}? When we touch a hot object, for example, we may experience an automatic impulse (or "reflex"?) that causes us to withdraw our hand. An instinct to "hurt back" the thing that is causing us pain would seem to be in conflict with the automatic impulse to withdraw from the source of pain. And it is difficult to ascertain how this conflict in motivating factors could have any survival value.

... Again, I agree that the emotions of anger and fear are instinctive. And both responses appear to be based on traits that are generally in accord with the drive toward survival. But of course, these two types of responses do not exhaust the possibilities. One might, for example, choose to walk away from the threat or source of emotional pain, or simply remain totally unresponsive while ignoring the threat or source. Or one might alternatively seek to dissipate the animosity that the person who is attempting to inflict the pain might have toward one by responding with love and concern for the psychological well being of the offending person or social group. (There may be more possible lines of response, but these are all I can come up with at the present time.) As you seem to be suggesting, none of these strategies/ways of responding, considered individually, work all the time. Social situations are (again) often complex enough to require a combination of strategies to assuage the experience and/or threat of emotional pain.

... Another question that might arise in relation to this kind of analysis is, are these strategies expressions of behavior that are (or appear to be) common to everyone in every society and social group or only to certain people in certain social groups and time periods (e.g., contemporary western civilization)? That is, is there evidence to support the claim that this assessment of human behavior applies to humans in general? If not, then this might make it difficult to discuss how any of this assessment relates to what humans categorically ought to do.

Our anger response may often (always?) be in conflict with our fear response (fight vs. flight), but I can’t see how that fact endangers the assumption that anger is an instinctive response. All we need is to understand why and when the anger instinct is sometimes inhibited or dissipated by other motivational variables.

I conceptualize the emotions Fear and Anger as primary instincts that are actually very simple, independently functioning, input-output “programs.” Anger is triggered by perceptions of threat (of pain or denied pleasure); fear is triggered by experienced pain, perceptions of threat, or by certain other experiences/perceptions (e.g., “the unknown”). In many situations, both instincts are activated at the same time. For example, in very high-stress situations (like combat) humans will find themselves alternately feeling fear, and then anger, and then fear once again as environmental conditions change. Which emotion ends up dominating at a given point in time depends on the changing situation and also upon certain other variables, e.g. individual “habits of mind” that were developed previously following some prior experience. (It is also notable that the emotions Fear and Hope/Desire are also often experienced at the same time---alternating in dominance---leading us to “conflicted feelings” and mood fluctuations)

But there is also another major variable that comes into play: knowledge. Whether or not we end up “acting on our instincts” depends in part on our minds’ perceptions (knowledge) of possible response alternatives [to the flight/fight responses inspired by Fear/Anger]. Consider the instinctive fear that human beings experience when they have been suddenly startled by a very loud noise. Because of this instinctive fear, small children are understandably terrified the first time they experience thunder. But over time—with more experience and some reassuring words of explanation from parents and others—children learn that it is not the thunder that poses any threat, but only the lightening, and that the lightening is only a threat when one is not protected by adequate shelter. When repeated experience validates the explanations provided by adults, the child’s Fear Instinct gradually becomes “reassured” and ceases to generate the unpleasant feeling of fear. Indeed, many children will eventually develop a confidence in their personal safety whenever a storm approaches.

Although it is an “automatic” emotional response to perceived threats (of pain or denied pleasure) the Anger Instinct can be either inhibited by fear or “dissipated” by knowledge that has been acquired by the mind. Knowledge is able to do this when it provides a more accurate understanding of the nature of the threat that is being faced. For example, an individual could be mocked and ridiculed by others but still not be provoked to either tears or anger if he had learned from previous experience that another sort of response would have a good chance of producing a more desirable outcome. Maybe he’s seen that a display of confidence, a “disarming” smile, a healthy dose of flattery, or even a stinging humorous retort can “turn such situations around” in his favor. The Anger (and Fear) Instincts are “reassured” by such understandings, delivering the host from anxiety and alarm.

That's all the time I have right now...

 

Hey JP!   I only have time to address one of your questions today...

I agree that our biologically based emotions may sometimes motivate us to be cruel to others. But again, I'm just not certain why cruelty would be biologically based. Why can't our biological motivation to act in social situations simply be morally neutral? The idea that we are biologically "programmed" to be cruel to one another leaves us without an explanation for how the very first basically cruel human beings could have originated values that are incompatible with those that a cruel individual would actually hold in the process of arriving at the first set of moral principles. It's easy to assume that humans who are biologically "programmed" to be cruel can just as easily adopt values that are incompatible with cruelty (that can enable one to arrive at moral principles) as they can adopt disvalues, but if this were true, then on what basis could we have arrived at the idea that humans are biologically "programmed" to be cruel in the first place?

When I said that human beings are cruel to each other because they are biologically programmed to be cruel to each other I did not mean to suggest that we are simply cruel beings that haven’t the capacity to be anything other than cruel beings (and that the appearance of morality was therefore some kind of inexplicable miracle). We have had a tendency in our culture to promote the myth that there are some people who are inherently evil, who are so thoroughly disposed to being evil that they cannot be anything other than evil. Children are taught that “there are good people and there are bad people.” Only later do they discover that life is a lot more complicated than they were led to believe previously. Every mass murderer and every schoolyard bully has instincts to be good and kind to others. (People are frequently amazed to hear that some “evil monster” who committed an atrocity had also been moved at other times and in other circumstances to act with sympathy and generosity and kindness. Human beings are able to “compartmentalize” their experience in a way that allows them to be very good persons in some environments (usually public), while in other circumstances they can actually be quite evil.

What I see is that our biological programming is—to use your words—morally neutral. It is neutral in the sense the instincts that urge us into action do not seek either a ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ outcome. They simply seek to protect the host from perceived threats and/or help it to experience those experiences that appear desirable. The Mind is a variable that is “built on top of” that motivational substrate. Our instincts exist as the default program that will be executed in the absence of any superior strategy conceptualized by the Mind. Some of the strategies conceptualized by the Mind are moral because of the consequences they would produce. Without the influence of our Minds, our instincts would lead us sometimes into good actions and sometimes into bad actions, depending on our circumstances and whether or not we felt threatened. So according to this account, Socrates/Plato had it right when he said “no one does wrong willingly.” If those who do wrong had been aware 1) of the undesirability of the consequences of their actions, and 2) that there are alternative ways to act that would bring about a more desirable outcome, they would never have done wrong. (Addiction an exception?) Generally speaking, one is able to become a Good Person by obtaining wisdom [of moral alternatives]. This does not mean that we would always be evil if not for the intervention of our Minds. (Sometimes our instincts do urge us to act in ways that are good when we are not feeling threatened, e.g., sympathy.)

So no, I do not think that moral principles/values were originally generated from an “essentially cruel nature” but rather from the Mind. Another post that I made to another thread might be helpful here in explaining the functional relationship I see between the Mind and the Body (brain):

I think it is useful to consider the possibility that minds = souls are spatially distant from brains. Daring to suggest such a concept is, of course, an automatic sign of mental impoverishment according to many people, but I offer it nevertheless. Where might a Soul-Mind exist if it is physically separated from the body it is linked to? Who knows? I’m not really sure that it matters. One thing I do know is that it is not necessary for us to answer that question in order for us to answer many others.

With the arrival of the computer metaphor, we are now able to conceptualize the linkage of two physically separated input/output mechanisms that are able to respond to each other, even though the only “physical” connection between them is energy (= electromagnetic radiation). There are computer robots on Mars today that enable us to see what they are seeing and receive other data that inform us about their surroundings, even though we are physically separated from them by millions of miles of empty space. Using our imaginations, more sophisticated space robots in the distant future could be sent to distant planets where they could theoretically encounter “intelligent life.” It isn’t too difficult to imagine alien observers wondering if the robots aren’t perhaps a form of intelligent life, given that they appear to be act purposefully and are responsive to their surroundings. If one of these robots were to be destroyed, it would be fair to say that its “soul” back on earth survived its death since its existence was never dependent on the machine it used to interact with the alien environment.

Within this conceptualization, there must be some point of interface between minds and bodies. The cerebral cortex would seem to be a logical guess. Since all of the body’s sensory data are reduced to electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain, and since we know that data representing sounds and images can be transmitted through a vacuum via electromagnetic waves, a data-sharing type of interface is imaginable. Perhaps the mind and brain are able to interface with each other on a level of "coherent" energy, perhaps similar to the way that two computers are able to interface with each other from remote locations. A necessary assumption would be that the soul could “read” the sensory data that exists physically as energy “patterns” in the brain.

Continuing with these assumptions, we can conceptualize the interface “relationship” to be such that the mind perceives the same sensory data that the brain sees and that the brain can “see” the “thoughts” of the mind. Imagine a place within the brain where all of the body’s sensory input is sent and “displayed.” Different “emotional response mechanisms” (part of the biological program) are able to monitor this display of input, each one initiating a response (fight/flight/approach) if certain threatening or appealing perceptions are recognized. At this point of interface (imagine an electro-chemical ‘soup’), the separate mind would also be “watching” the input display. The interface would have to be so complete that the mind mistakenly perceives the body’s perceptions to be its own. It would feel both the pain and the pleasure that the body feels. While the mind is trying to figure out what to do about the pain and pleasure it experiences, the body is running its own default program. If the mind comes up with a more sophisticated response alternative to the basic fight/flight program, the body’s emotional response mechanisms will “see” the mind’s thoughts, be “reassured”, and will ratchet down the fear-alarm level to more moderate levels. In this way, the separate mind is able to “influence” the brain and override instinctive (programmed) responses.

Another type of mind-body interaction would be the body’s response to “mental fears” or “mental pain.” There seems to be good reason to think that the mind has its own needs, needs that are not “purely biological.” The need for approval, for example, or the need “to understand”, or the need for logical consistency. When these purely mental needs are not satisfied, mental pain or dissatisfaction or angst is felt by the mind. The body does not perceives the mind’s thoughts to be separate from the other input data it is reviewing, so when it perceives the mind’s pain/fear, it believes there is a threat and that triggers the biological fear response mechanism. For example, a certain individual may feel a quite visceral, gut-wrenching fear when she thinks about the possibility that life might be utterly meaningless and that all of her sacrifices and investments have been completely futile. It is not input from the senses re: the environment that establishes the “threat” of futility, but the body nevertheless responds by triggering the physical sensation of fear.

Perhaps William James’ theory that emotional responses precede mental “feelings” is partly true. With the mind-body interface I am conceptualizing, it makes sense that we would sometimes physically experience an emotion like fear before mentally comprehending that we are afraid, e.g., when we are suddenly terrified by a very loud and unexpected noise, like a clap thunder. This is what happens when our default responses (instincts) are automatically triggered. But there are other times when our mental apprehension of some fearful abstract prospect seems to precede the visceral sensation of fear. When the only causal event that takes place, that triggers the fear response is a certain stream of thought. If minds have their own NEEDS, then they will experience mental/emotional pain/discomfort when they go unsatisfied.

If the body is “seeing” the mind’s experienced pain, and cannot recognize a distinction between the mind’s perceptions and the body’s own sensory data, it would logically respond to the mind’s “input” in the same way it would respond to the body’s normal sensory data input. Perhaps minds do not actually instruct their bodies to get up and walk across a room; perhaps it is the body that sends instructions to the limbs after having perceived the mind’s “thoughts” that the anticipated action might make a desirable experience occur. The biological program: see something desirable/stimulating/capable of satisfying a need --> instruct limbs to take host there. According to this account, even though the mind and body are completely separate entities that are capable of independently existing without each other, each is still able to cause the other to perceive certain things. It is by changing the body’s/brain’s perceptions that the mind is able to affect the body’s behavior. The body/brain always follows its biological programming; but the mind is able to affect the body’s responses by affecting the body’s perceptions.

In terms of memory, it would seem that the mind/soul has its own memory (long-term) that is distinct from the brain’s memory (short-term, plus?). Causal & Effect [and other] associations are noted by the brain and stored biochemically. The greater the number of associations made, the easier it is for the brain to access those files. It is on the “unconscious” level that the brain makes these associations and stores them. But then there is the mind’s own memory. When a mind is mulling over some topic it remembers and “tries to remember” some particular word or concept or connection, its biological computer—the brain—is monitoring the mind’s thoughts (without knowing that it is, of course). As the mind projects a new thought/word/idea onto the input ‘display, the brain “sees” it and searches for associations, producing them if it finds some “hits.” We could perhaps say that the brain is a sort of “servant computer” that helps the mind with storage and retrieval.

One nice thing about this account is that it allows for the possibility of a Free Will. If the mind is merely an epiphenomenon of the brain then it is not logically possible for the mind to initiate non-determined actions. Perhaps the only compelling “evidence” we can point to that defends the assertion that people actually do have a free will is the amazing ability human beings have to choose not to get a primary need satisfied. What biological drive could be more fundamental than our urge to eat food? It would seem to be so fundamental and powerful that no human could resist the urge to eat when hungry. But then there are the hunger strikers who have actually starved themselves to death. How can a biological mechanism that is primarily designed to sustain survival also possess some “code” that prompts it to kill itself, or to stubbornly refuse to give into a strong biological urge?

If the mind and body are separate entities, then will-driven decisions to forego primary urges are possible. Let’s suppose that the mind has its own purely mental needs that cause it to feel mental pain whenever they are satisfied and pleasure when they are satisfied. The suggestion here is that the satisfaction of some of these higher needs can appear so desirable to us, we are able to choose to not satisfy even primary biological needs in order to obtain their satisfaction. Why is a soldier able to ignore his fear and futilely charge the machine gun position upon command? It’s because his mind fears the disapproval of others more than it fears death (and because it sees the possible reward for demonstrating his courage—ultimate approval—to be worth the risk of pain or death). The hunger-striker’s mind perceives the price (pain/death) to be worth the reward (the approval he expects he will earn by defining his life/purpose/existence nobly in the eyes of others, or in the eyes of God). The brain/body simply accepts the mind’s identification of what is most to be feared because that is what it sees “displayed” on the sensory data input display. Or perhaps the fear of losing out on the opportunity to define one’s life in a supremely favorable way can be stronger that our programmed fear of the pain of starvation or death. Ultimately, the brain is persuaded by the mind’s fear of mental pain that the physical pain it is enduring will lead to a satisfaction that is worth the price.

Maybe the reason why we, as minds, have always seen ourselves as distinct from our bodies is because that is actually the case. Where our souls might actually be (if not in our bodies) is an unanswerable question that is actually irrelevant. What does matter is if we can conceptualize how it might be possible for the mind and body to exist independent of each other. If that conceptualization does not contradict what we know from observation to be true, then we are fools not to grant it at least give it further consideration. The number one question we need to ask is: “Does it help to explain our experience?” I believe it does...

 

 

(The dialogue below was with a different individual)

...one thing that might be considered an interesting feature of your theory (whether it turns out to be a flaw is an issue that will have to be settled later) is that it seems to suggest (so far) that humans are not only basically selfish (which was a point that AFAIK was not in contention in this thread), but also basically adversarial and even possibly antagonistic to one another.

Yes, I do believe that human antagonism is motivated by biological instincts, most especially the Anger Instinct. Human beings are cruel to each other because they are biologically programmed to be cruel to each other. I think the “Dark Side” of human nature is ultimately attributable to biology. So much for the Noble Savage idea. The neat thing about humans, however, is that they have Minds that are able to “intervene” and “override” instincts in the manner I’ve described. It is our “salvation” in this life. With our Minds, we are able to conceptualize certain “types” of behavior that are moral and other types that are immoral. We recognize that if we all restricted our behavior to only moral behavior, we would all be better off. If we were all to practice immoral behavior, we would all be worse off. Morality is a conceptualization of the Mind that enables us to “control” the instincts that would have us victimize each other. In other words, with our Minds we are able to recognize alternative ways to respond to situations that displace our “natural’ inclinations.

In that regard, I think boneyard bill's comment about the perspective introduced by Buddhism deserves some merit. Admittedly, I am not familiar enough with Buddhism to present an apologetic argument for it, but it does seem that our choice to limit what we call a "self" to our own bodies (or to a part of our bodies) seems somewhat arbitrary. If we arbitrarily choose instead to expand the boundary beyond what we normally call our "selves", we might get a number of different definitions for terms like "selfishness". In any case, there doesn't seem to be anything in your theory that rules such redefinitions of the "self" out of consideration.

I’ve always liked Buddhists, but I have to say that I cannot make any sense of the “extended definition” of The Self. To me, The Self is nothing more than that which perceives, thinks, feels, and remembers. I know that another person’s thoughts are not my thoughts. I can see that I am one of many “thinking things” (Descartes). I can’t make any sense of the idea that the Perceiver and the Object of perception could somehow be the same thing. The content of a bucket may be water, but the bucket is not the water. I may not be able to conceive of The Self in any substantive way, but that doesn’t mean that we are free to annihilate its only meaningful definition. But maybe I just don’t understand the concepts clearly. Maybe boneyard bill can help me to understand them better?

It doesn't (again, so far) seem to take into account the responses of individuals who may have been "enlightened" by theories such as yours and may have adopted a less adversarial/antagonistic disposition in their personalities. What does the theory predict will happen when such an "enlightened" individual, who, over a period of time, has developed a habit of being concerned about how his or her behavior might negatively affect other people, enters a social situation among "enlightened" and "unenlightened" people? Is the theory capable of accounting for the kind of complexity that this situation and similar ones might introduce?

I’m running out of time, but I think a lot of the answer I would give you is found in a response that I gave to a different question in the same thread in a different forum. I’ll just copy it and paste it below to see if it helps at all...

Could you clarify for me a bit how this emotional vulnerability feeds into morality? Most of your examples seem to ring true for me--I can think of countless times in my own life when I have used pre-emptive humor or denigrated outsiders, but what is there to do about it? I recognize my own emotional vulnerability and also that all others have it as well, but the thought of somehow eliminating all the sorts of actions and types of interactions that spring from this vulnerability is dizzying to me. It seems that we would be left with nothing.  Are you saying that it is immoral to act on the basis of such vulnerability in bringing others down?

Yes. Recognizing this fundamental Need for Approval not only helps us to account for the behavior we see, it also leads us to an important “new” application of moral reasoning. If we understand that an action is moral if everyone would benefit if everyone were to act in the same way, then we are led to the conclusion that it is immoral for us to “bring others down.” If everyone were to universally embrace the victim-generating defensive strategies I’ve mentioned, we would all be quite unhappy, constantly victimizing each other. What we notice is that there are both moral ways and immoral ways to “deal with” this need for approval. If we ponder the implications for a while, it starts to become clear that if we all were to act morally with respect to our emotional need for approval, we would all end up greatly enhancing the enjoyment of our existence in each other’s company.

If so, is it really possible to live one's life without doing this?

Yes, I do think it is possible for us to live our lives among each other quite differently from the way we have been for so long. When people choose to embrace moral behavior it is not simply because someone has threatened to punish them. At least on some level, people realize that they would be personally better off if everyone were to do the same kinds of moral things. It might make me “feel good” on a visceral level to simply kill the people who piss me off (venting is supposed to feel good), but if everyone were to do the same thing, then I would live in fear most of the time. When we choose to be moral it means that we are only allowing ourselves to behave in ways that would not make everyone worse off if everyone were to behave in the same way.

For those who have come to rely on victim-generating humor and distraction strategies and group comparisons in their interactions with others, this sort of “moral burden” might seem to be unwelcome at first. As Winners, they would be likely to think that “being moral” might deprive them of an important source of need-satisfaction. After all, aren’t they happy when they are laughing and enjoying themselves at the expense of others? (Why can’t they be free to persecute others without some do-gooders trying to make them feel bad about it? Don’t their victims deserve their persecution?) But all moral laws generally require individuals to abandon certain behavioral options (like stealing) that might benefit them personally at the expense of others. What people find is that there are still ways for them to obtain the happiness they desire even though they’ve circumscribed their behavioral options. Instead of stealing, you can often earn the money you need to get many of the things that you desire. Maybe you can’t kill the people who anger you, but life still has a lot to offer in spite of that restriction doesn’t it?

One desirable consequence of abandoning victim-generating behavioral options is receiving the approval of others for doing so. If all [or most] people were to embrace the ideals of emotional honesty, it would be possible to look into the eyes of a stranger and know that you never need to fear another human being. “All” of the people you meet would be eager to earn your approval in morally acceptable ways. The “old” ways of having a good time at the expense of others might not be available any more, but there is a lot to be said for the other, compensating types of pleasure (like freedom from fear) that moral behavior would provide. If most people become aware of these choices, I think they will choose the moral option for one reason: they will see that they would personally benefit from doing so.

Perhaps I am so wrapped up in this type of interaction that I cannot see outside of it, but then wouldn't most be as well?

Of course. At the present time, a majority of people are unaware of these facts about their behavior. Upon their first exposure to this explanation of Human Nature, they would be likely to be quite skeptical because it contradicts much of what they had always taken for granted as “reality” in their social experience. Even after absorbing it, they might find it difficult to project as a “new reality” because they can’t see people changing their behavior so radically. We humans develop certain “habits of mind” that we act on quite “reflexively” in our social encounters. We are acting on “instinct.” Adopting a moral attitude regarding such moments in our lives constitutes an interruption in our “mental flow.” It’s a “disturbance” of sorts. Logic, however, is difficult to ignore. If we had all been exposed to the same logical explanation (if we had all just finished reading the same book) and were to begin discussing its merits, I think the vast majority of people would feel compelled by the logic and by their realization that everyone else sees the same logic to simply start doing the logical thing. So the key to radical change is simply an educational effort.

This seems like an all-or-nothing proposition.

Well, yeah, I suppose so. It’s difficult to see how we might want to both embrace immoral behavior and moral behavior at the same time. If people want to act morally with respect to their need for approval, then they will need to eschew victim-creating behavior. If they don’t want to bother themselves with such matters, then they will still need to deal with people who are encouraging them to be moral in their emotional behavior. The logic of this proposition leads us eventually to a level of thinking where we begin to think in terms of a “moral crusade.” If we can see that we would dramatically benefit from a universal commitment to moral behavioral options, then it would be understandable if we started becoming somewhat enthusiastic about the idea of “enlightening” others re: The Moral Choice. Should others be encouraged to abandon victim-generating behavior?

If everyone would up and admit their vulnerability to everyone and cease using each other to fortify themselves at the same time, then the world might become a much more beautiful place. But if just a few people were left out of this agreement, we'd all be left defenseless against them and they could wreak havoc. I suppose then that my first impression of your ideas is this: a fascinating and keen observation with little practical applicability.

Actually, no one who embraces the ideals of Emotional Honesty is left “defenseless.” Just because you have admitted your emotional vulnerability to others does not mean that you have lost your capacity to inflict emotional pain. If you admit your emotional vulnerability to “the world”, you are no more vulnerable than when you were when you tried to hide it. But you don’t need to make such an admission fearfully. You can admit your vulnerability with a confident smile, knowing that what you have admitted is true about everyone else. It’s actually a very simple matter to expose the vulnerability of anyone who might be tempted to ridicule you. You have the power to ridicule him. You actually have an advantage over those who are emotionally dishonest.

This is especially true when those who are emotionally honest are clever enough to make sure that the “numbers” are always in their favor. People are natural majoritarians. They always look over their shoulders to see what everyone else thinks. If you, as an individual, were to try to explain the emotional facts of life to a group who had heard nothing of it before, you might not be able to get very far. But if a single individual is introduced to The Emotional Facts of Life by two or more people who are in favor of it, then the individual will listen. The larger the majorities, the more persuasive the message. By always making sure that the numbers are in your favor, it is possible for a minority position to grow into a majority position (assuming that the position is logically sound).

Far from being defenseless, people who are “emotionally enlightened” and who want the world to change for the better will find that they possess a great deal of power, collectively. Those who want to continue to victimize others will not be able to “wreak havoc” if those who are emotionally enlightened act collectively to heap derision on those who would threaten others with their victim-generating strategies. It is a moral act to ridicule those who have ridiculed immorally. (Why? Ridiculing others in most cases is immoral because we would all be worse off if we all ridiculed each other as a way to get attention off of ourselves. But if everyone were to ridicule only those who ridicule others immorally, then we would all be better off.) After they have been isolated for a while, they will gradually begin to see the desirability of joining others as a non-threatening member of the group).

Gotta go...