By John Lussier
A recent post from my friend and mentor Dr. Paul Louis Metzger reminded me, incredibly, of the British empiricist philosopher David Hume. In his post “We Vote Our Loves and Fears” Metzger wrote about how, in my own words, we vote with our gut. Our actions come out of what motivates us -- whether that be fear or love, pride or humility, the need for justice or a self-preoccupation. Reason can play a role here, but it comes secondary to our affections. If we exist in a constant state of fear, worrying about our selves and our community, it’s very difficult to maintain a reasoned and responsible dialogue with political opponents.
Hume explored similar notions in his Treatise of Human Nature. Unlike Metzger, at the core of Hume’s work was an empiricist theory of the mind that accounted for the work of the mind with a minimal amount of empirically warranted parts and divisions. Hume distinguished between impressions (or what we might call perceptions, feelings, emotions, and desires) and ideas (which are secondary, based off of impressions, and in the domain of reason).
One variety of impressions are the passions (like joy, fear, grief, etc.) which are caused by experiences of good or evil, i.e. pain or pleasure. These passions in turn cause our will to move, which leads to action. What then of the role of reason? Because reason is restricted to considerations of connections and causes among impressions and ideas “reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will” and even more importantly “can never oppose passion in the direction of the will”. What reason does is give us information, and considers causes and correspondence. Action must come from the passions, and cannot be initiated by the reason. Our reason is servant to our affections.
As one recent (admittedly extreme) example goes: last week Microsoft released an AI chatbot named Tay on multiple social media platforms. Tay was one among a number of other bots that human users are able to interact with and receive almost-human-like responses from. But here was the twist: Less than 24 hours after being on the internet Tay had to be shut down.
Her programming reflected what was given to her. Tweets from Tay became incredibly racist, misogynistic, and pro-Hitler. Internet users had figured out her ability to learn from the things sent to her, and were using this to make mayhem. Being programmed to "will" responses based on what she learned were human loves and interests, she began to answer in kind. This is a fairly pure example of Hume's description of psychology. In one sense, Tay's "reason" only created connections among the inputs given to her, while her "will" was the ultimate factor--something had to be decided upon, and we as an internet society taught her all the (horrible, disgusting) things to desire.
We are what we love to behold.
Metzger gets at this reality of the affections being the motive behind actions as he reflects on Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory. The moral foundation systems of harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity, liberty/oppression, etc. seem to picture intuitive ethical systems grounded in the affections. What we love informs how we view the world, and what we consider right and wrong action. In a community that agrees on these values and affections we presumably have very few problems. But in a pluralist world these different loves and fears, prides and prejudices, lead to conflict among communities. In the midst of an incredibly divisive political season, with sporadic violence at political rallies, feelings of insecurity, potential doom, and emotional language at its peak, now more than ever we need to consider what shapes us, and what world we’re making out of that.
[The above is part of a series on sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and the nature of the mind by Master of Divinity student, John Lussier. In this series he will be asking some pretty big questions: How might biology inform our sense of the moral? Where do emotions and reason come in? Who are we and what were we made for? Definitive answers are often hard to come by, but sometimes becoming informed is just as much about learning to ask the right questions. We hope you will come alongside him--and us--on this intellectual journey! ]