Feelings of Shame: Biologically or Socially determined?

We’ve all had it. That feeling of being deeply disappointed in yourself. That feeling of knowing that you’ve done something wrong, even though you might not know exactly what. I’m talking of course about the feeling of shame. But what is shame? Is it nothing but a chemical response our bodies tend to have towards “embarrassing” situations? And if so, how do our bodies decide between embarrassing and non-embarrassing situations? And what role does our social context play in determining our feelings of shame?

Like any feeling, shame has developed to increase our procreation chances. If we wouldn’t feel any shame, we might have never become the social creatures that we are. Imagine that you would be a caveman hunting with your fellow cavemen. While you’re sitting in the bush, you decide to attack a very angry looking bear, even though the leader of the group explicitly told you not to do so. If you wouldn’t feel bad – feel “ashamed” – about this situation afterwards, there would be nothing to prevent you from doing this “stupid” behavior again. In other words: there would be nothing withholding you from endangering you and your group members again. Sooner or later you would end up being banned from the tribe or dead.

This example might be a oversimplification of the actual workings of our “shame mechanism”, but it should do the job in explaining how our tendency to feel shame has come about. Millions and millions of years of evolution have weeded out those not feeling shame; ending up with a population in which (almost) anyone has the ability to feel shame.

However, while our ability to feel shame is biologically determined, the content of our feelings of shame – that is where we feel ashamed about - is for the biggest part socially determined. And the reason for that is simple: if the content of our feelings of shame wouldn’t be socially determined, they would always lack “environmental relevancy”. What do I mean that? Well – to return to the example of the cavemen – if we would be biologically “tuned” to experience shame whenever we let our fellow hunters down while chasing an angry looking bear, this would imply the requirement a great deal of likewise shame mechanisms to prevent us from doing anything shameful/harmful in life. And because our society is ever-changing – at least a faster pace than our biological makeup – we would always remain tuned to a historical environment; an environment not relevant in sifting the fit from the weak in today’s world. That’s why the ability to feel shame is biologically determined, but the instances that trigger our feelings of shame come about (mainly) through our social context.

There are, however, some aspects of life more important in determining one’s procreation chances than others. The most prominent of course being our sexual capabilities. This could explain why sex seems to take such a prominent position in the whole realm of of areas we could be ashamed about; sex related events simply tend to have a more profound physical effect on us than non-sex related events. This might be why people have the tendency to feel ashamed about their weight, looks, sexual experience, sexual orientation etc.: all of these have – or have had in the past – a significant effect in determining one’s procreation chances.

These are my thoughts on the issue; what are yours?

Mr. Nobody: A True Philosophical Journey

I have just seen the movie “Mr. Nobody“, and I recommend everyone who is interested in philosophy to go see this movie. It’s by far the most philosophical and mind-boggling movie I have ever seen. The movie shows, among other things, the lack of control we have over the course of our lives. Each and every moment in life we “make decisions” that make us go one way or another, and this string of turns on crossroads is in fact what we call our life. The movie also shows a rather deterministic view on life. The butterfly effect, as explicated in the movie, is the prime example of this; even the smallest change in the course of history can make our lives turn out enormously different.

Each movie can be interpreted in multiple ways, and that surely goes for Mr. Nobody. However, I believe that from I philosophical point of view there is at least one issue very prominent, and that’s the struggle between free will on the one hand and determinism on the other.

What will follow might be hard to understand for those who haven’t seen the movie. Therefore I assume that, by crossing this point, you have seen the movie. At first sight, Mr. Nobody is all about choices. That is: what will happen in Nemo’s life given that he has made a certain choice (e.g., to jump on the train or not). The fact that there is this possibility of at least two different worlds Nemo could live (the one with his mother and the one with his father), appears to imply that Nemo had (in retrospect) the possibility of choosing either of the options. And this element of what seems to be autonomy (the “free will” element) returns often in the movie. Another instance of it is in his meeting with Elise on her doorstep. In one “life” Nemo expresses his feelings for Elise, after which they marry and get children. In another life, Nemo doesn’t express his feelings, and his future with Elise never occurs.

However, the true question I asked myself after watching this movie was: does Nemo in fact have the possibility to choose? Or are his “choices” predetermined by whatever it is that occurs in his environment? An example of the latter could be Nemo loosing Anna’s number because the paper he wrote her number on becomes wet and therefore unreadable. In other words, these circumstances seem to force (or at least push) Nemo in the direction of a life without Anna; a circumstance that results from an unemployed Brazilian boiling an egg; another occurrence of the butterfly effect. So although it might appear that Nemo has the opportunity to make choices, it might in fact be that “the world” (as in the environment he’s living in) has already made this choice for him.

The struggle between the seemingly possibility of free will on the one hand and the “true” deterministic nature of the world is just one among many philosophical issues raised by this movie. Another theme that is threaded throughout this movie, is that of the “arrow of time”: the fact that we cannot alter the past but can influence the future. It is this aspect of time (the fact that it moves in one direction only) that makes the free will versus determinism struggle so difficult (if not impossible) to answer. After all, if we simply could go back in time, and see whether we would have behaved in the same manner, irrespective of the non-occurrence of any (irrelevant) circumstances, we might get a much better feel on the nature of free will. Because if we would happen to act more or less the same, irrespective of the circumstances we would be put into, we would appear to have a free-will (or at least not be living in a very strict deterministic world).

Nonetheless, this is a very interesting movie that those interested in philosophy will surely enjoy. And to those who have seen it: what did you think of it?

Public Education: an Insult to our Intelligence

More than 30 years ago – in 1979 – Milton Friedman and his wise Rose Friedman published the book Free to Choose, in which they make a (compelling) claim in favor of returning authority to the free market by taking it away from the government. The arguments they come up with for defending this claim are profoundly grounded in empirical evidence, pointing at the inefficient and unequal spending of tax payers’ money on the “big” issues of society (healthcare, Social Security, public assistance etc.). I want to zoom in at the expenditures on public education, and in particular on the immoral and degrading effect this can have on citizens.

We human beings are intelligent creatures. Some are – without a doubt – better equipped (mentally) for dealing with the whims of the free market than others, but still almost all of us are reasonably capable of fulfilling our needs in life. We can go the supermarket by ourselves, deciding for ourselves what we want to eat for breakfast and dinner; the government doesn’t have to do this for us. We can decide for ourselves how we want to spend our leisure time, whether we want to go the movies or not; we don’t need the government to decide this for us. Not only because the government cannot know what each one of us wants – therefore inevitably being inefficient in the spending of its (read: our) resources – but also because we know that we are intelligent human beings, very much capable of making our own decisions in life.

And this intelligence of ours doesn’t have to confine itself to mundane decisions like how to spend our free time. We are equally competent in deciding for ourselves how we want to spend our money on more pressing issues in life: what hospital we want to attend, whether to assist our loved ones financially whenever the need arises, and what school our children should attend. These issues are so important for our well-being – and our children’s – that, instead of putting the government in charge of these decisions, we should be the ones choosing what we consider to be best for our – and our children’s – future.

In 1979, the Friedmans noticed an upward trend in the government taking control of so many of these decisions – decisions that have a relatively big impact upon our financial resources. The most striking example of this might be the public financing of (elementary, secondary and higher) education. In 1979, the average US citizen paid $2000 per child attending public education, even though not everyone’s child – assuming that you even had a child – made use of public educational resources. The Friedmans found this state of affairs harming to the right of each individual to decide where to spent his money at, including the decision to put his child at a privately financed educational institution.

Therefore they came up with a “voucher plan”, a plan in which every US citizen would – per child – get a voucher exchangeable for a certain amount of money ($2000, $1500 or $1000) they could cash in only if their child would attend an appropriate educational institution. This voucher plan would come in the place of the tax each US citizen was obliged to pay, irrespective of them having children and irrespective of their children attending a public educational institution. This plan would make sure that only the ones making use of pubic educational services would be charged, thereby excluding the non-using part of society.

The Friedmans made – primarily – financial arguments in favor of their voucher plan, saying that – on the whole – public educational costs would remain the same, and that parent’s would use their increase in autonomy for finding the school that best suited the needs of their children. The relatively free market that would be created on the basis of the voucher plan, would improve the quality of both public and private education. I believe – however – that one argument in favor of the voucher plan, and the free market in general, has not received the attention it deserved – at least not in the Friedmans’ Free to Choose. And that is the argument of human intelligence.

As pointed at before, humans are – for the biggest part – perfectly capable of deciding for themselves where to spend their money at. We wouldn’t want anyone else to do our groceries and schedule our leisure time for us – at least not for money. However, that is exactly what the government does when it comes down to public education. The government proclaims that – as Friedman explains – it is the only actor possessing the professional knowledge required for deciding what’s best for our children – thereby implying that they are indispensable in order for our children to receive a qualitatively good education.

What this claim comes down to is the government saying – or not saying – that we (“the crowd”) don’t understand what’s important and what’s not in regard to our children’s education, and that – because of that – they should step in and release us of this impossible duty of ours. We don’t understand what to do, but luckily they do. They are the father looking out for us, protecting us from doing harm to our children and to the rest of society.

I find this an insult to the basic level of intelligence the majority of the people has. We very well think to know what’s important in our children’s education – likely better than the government, since – in contrast to the government – we know our children. Thus besides all the financial benefits of the voucher plan, by returning autonomy to the Average Joe, a voucher plan is required for respecting people’s intelligence. It’s – just like driving a car – a right each parent should be endowed with, if only the necessary condition (the having of children, that is) is met. After all, we are no fools, are we?

What do you think?

The Inevitable Unfairness of the Free Market

I am reading Milton Friedman’s book Free to Choose, a plea for the free market. Friedman has some very compelling claims against government intervention in economic transactions – both domestic and international ones. Price is – as he claims – the most informative entity there is in communicating society’s demands and supplies of goods and services, and – in a capitalistic society – provides people with the incentive to act upon this information, thereby satisfying the needs of those that demand the goods/services and providing themselves with the resources required to live a decent life. But although the free market, as Friedman describes it, seems a beautifully simple and elegant construct, there are some “side-effects” of the system that might run against our intuition of the notion of “fairness“. Because while the free market is likely to be the best mechanism there is for releasing the everlasting pressure between supply and demand, it seems to require some (large) modifications in order for it to be compatible with our inborn – or socially conditioned – perception of fairness; modifications that come forth from our compassion with the ones less-fortuned, and modifications that strive to push us further and further away from the nice and clean “invisible hand” creating order in the chaos called economy.

It seems clear that the free market is the most efficient medium there is for maximizing the value of each of the persons involved. And that (the “maximizing of value of each person involved”) is, according to libertarians, what makes the free market a fair system. After all, if you want to sell a computer, and another person is prepared to pay you the price you charge, then it’s only fair to let this deal take place, isn’t it? There’s mutual consent between the parties involved, so what – if anything – could give a third party the right to intervene in this seemingly flawless transaction?

While there indeed might be nothing wrong with the free-market mechanism when it comes down to the exchange of value, it might be doubted whether it is fair to make this mechanism the only mechanism for exchanging value. Since while it’s no problem – and might even be beneficial – for those parties in a free market that possess the means to participate in this game of exchanging value, it might be harder for those that – by nature or environment – have been unfortunate in acquiring the means required for satisfying their needs.

Because what if you’re not as intelligent as the average person, therefore getting a relatively low-income job as a plumber, and because of that aren’t able to satisfy your needs to the same degree as – let’s say – bankers or lawyers are? Of course, a libertarian might say, the plumber can still participate in the free market, just like the banker or lawyer. But, even though the three parties might have the same needs (for luxury or otherwise), the plumber cannot satisfy as many of his’ as the banker and the lawyer can of theirs’; only because nature happened to endow him – in contrast to the banker and lawyer – with capabilities that apparently are less appreciated (since less demanded) in society. So the question is: is it fair to let nature – and thus chance – play such a drastic role in the ability of any person to satisfy his needs?

A libertarian can answer this question in either of two ways. Either (A) he admits that the extent in which we’re able to satisfy our needs is indeed – in the basis – determined by nature’s authority over our capabilities, or (B) he must come up with an ingenious invention of how to solve this negative side-effect of the free market without thereby endangering the libertarian heart of his plan. (A), although this is mostly ignored by libertarians, seems to imply a notion of “fairness” that I – and I assume many others – find highly questionable. On the other hand, it is a notion and, given that this truly is the libertarian’s view of a fair world, should be accepted for what it is.

The latter option – on the other hand – provides more room for discussion. Because how – if ever – could it be possible to solve nature’s capability-casino by means of a libertarian solution? There are of course many plans one could come up with, all of them mitigating the negative effects, but all of them being either (1) in conflict with the libertarian aspiration of a free market or (2) don’t get down to the root of the problem (that is, the unequal distribution of capabilities over mankind). It seems fair to say that (2) is a “kind of unfairness” that is inextinguishable – not by socialism and not by libertarianism. We after all cannot redesign our beings in order to endow everyone with the same capabilities. And even if we could do so, it’s high questionable whether this choice would be beneficial to society as a whole. But still: it seems we’re stuck with (1), pointing us to the possibly unfair consequences of libertarianism/the free market.

The above reflection shows that there seems to be an intuitively unfair “side-effect” of the free market; a side-effect that is unsolvable by means of the free market-paradigm itself. It either requires us to adopt the libertarian notion of “fairness”, or requires some sort of (government) intervention in order to compensate for nature’s “unfair” distribution of capabilities.

What do you think?

Depression: Thinking Too Much and Doing Too Little

Why do dogs never seem to be depressed? Why do they always seem to be happy, no matter what it is that they’re doing? Well, the answer might be very simple: because they are doing. They are always involved in one activity or the other. They always got their little heads occupied with all kinds of biologically induced juices – whether they (consciously) know it or not. And it is because they’re always “busy”, doing whatever seemingly irrelevant activity it is they’re doing, that they are happy. It’s because they’re always busy, that they feel the effects of that constant stream of dopamine, rewarding them for their evolutionary beneficial action: the act of acting itself.

Not acting frees the mind from the duty to allocate neural resources to the execution of actions. However, the mind cannot simply do nothing. In fact, doing nothing – as in thinking about nothing – might be one of the hardest things to do for the brain. And that seems very logical, doesn’t it? After all, not thinking about anything can hardly be beneficial to our – and therefore our brain’s – chances to survive. While we’ve got our brain, it’s better to use it, then to let it be idle, like an empty fridge waiting to be filled with postponed protein-intakes. Therefore the brain will do anything in order to try to be busy, even if there are no actions it has to be focused at. It is at those moments that the brain “thinks” it is good idea to use this “break” to think about your worries, your goals in life, your purpose and other fundamental questions. And it is at these moments that your mind explores the deepest purposeless of life, and triggers those feelings of depression.

So – in case we want to get rid of the seemingly unproductive (and surely depressing) reflections on life – we must keep the mind, and therefore the brain, busy. We have to make sure that there’s no time – or no capacity – for it to become filled with soul-searching thoughts. Because although a little soul-searching might be good, and might point us to what it is that we should do with our lives, too much of time it inevitably results in feelings of purposeless and depression. It is only by being busy, by avoiding boredom and by don’t risking to become drowned in the most existential questions of our being, that we can live a  “happy” life. It is only then that we can unleash the dopamine flows triggering those feelings of happiness we’re longing for. Or, to return to the fridge, it’s only by filling the fridge to the maximum, that we feel it was a worthwhile investment.

But what do you think?

Note: this article has been published at Rod Peek’s “Finding Personal Peace“.