Last month, I urged avoiding reliance on rules or principles, which can confuse the reasoning process, but I also recommended a triad combo of compassion, acceptance, and courage as a guideline (rather than actual rule) in cases where the data for reasoned decision-making may be lacking. Today I want to talk about other instincts and where they fit into morality.
The most important thing to remember about our other instincts—ALL our other instincts—is that they are morally neutral. They are not good or bad. Your gut is neither righteous nor wicked. Your fear is neither vile nor saintly. The only human instinct that offers MORAL information is empathy. The rest of them are just trying to keep you alive, and are sometimes better adjusted for the world we live in than others.
None of them are inherently good.
None of them are inherently bad.
NONE OF THEM
You see, for thousands of years, at least in the dubious grouping of cultures we call Western History, human beings with privilege have been telling other human beings that their emotions and instincts are useless and bad, and that they must suppress them in order to be moral and civilized creatures.
This is silly, impossible, and simply incorrect. It’s also kinda morally reprehensible, but a useful way to keep the population quiet and controlled. As long as the oppressed feel bad about themselves whenever they lose their tempers, it’s a bit harder for them to get a good riot going, to tear down the unjust establishment.
Here’s the reality though. Whether you like it or not, your feelings and instincts affect every single thing you do, think, or say. You are always biased, and you are always acting like a monkey, even when you think you’re being coldly logical. Cold logic isn’t a real thing the human brain can do. But it can TRICK the user into falsely BELIEVING cold logic is taking place, which is when the decisionmaking process gets really, really dangerous.
You’re not rational. No one is. Stop trying. It’s not a thing.
But … reason is so useful!!
It really is, and I highly encourage its cultivation and use. But you can’t use reason if you don’t start by understanding yourself to be inherently unreasonable. Reason is a tool that can only be properly applied by those who know how very, very hard it is to use.
You see, our reason-touting philosophers throughout history have been starting from the assumption that humans are not animals. Based on this foundation of ridiculous opposite-day nonsense, they went on to determine that if we act like animals, this is bad. Civilization, they assume, comes from being above animals, ruling over them.
This is a great excuse for exploitation and cruelty—infinitely expandable to include whatever people you’ve decided to oppress or conquer this week: women, neighboring countries, poor people, other religions, those who look different … whatever you want! Those people are no better than animals! We’re the truly civilized ones.
Yeah, sorry. That’s not a thing either. None of us are better than animals. Everything about us is wet, messy, and bestial. And the less you’re willing to admit that, the worse your behavior is likely to be.
Okay, so let’s say we’ve accepted that emotions and instincts are both unavoidable and morally neutral. They’re still really disruptive influences when it comes to rational thought and action. How do we focus on compassion, courage and acceptance, when our instincts are pushing us to be selfish, cowardly, and judgemental?
Well, first of all, that’s one reason I emphasize empathy so much. It’s inherently human, inherently ape, and very instinctive. By concentrating on your empathy, honing it, spending more and more time doing compassionate things for others, really working to understand others’ points of view, you can quiet your more potentially disruptive instincts—by letting empathy drown them out.
However, there are other good tricks to use. I’ll go into some of them in a later post, when I talk about the conscience and “feeling the Force”, as it were. For now, though, here’s the bottom line:
We humans are not that different from dogs. They’re not primates, but they’re pack-minded apex predators like humans, and they’re familiar enough to make a good example. In the case of dogs, you get the best behavior by accepting the dog as a dog, and communicating to the dog in a way that the dog understands. It takes time, attention, patience, and education.
If you beat the dog and mostly leave the dog locked in a cage in the back yard, you get a mean, uncontrollable dog. If you communicate to the dog in ways the dog doesn’t understand, you get an anxious, neurotic dog. These are more or less the same outcomes you get if you treat yourself in those ways too. If your inner ape is kept chained deep in your psyche and beaten with cruel criticisms every time you notice its presence, it’s gonna make you a scary mean bastard every time it manages to surface. And if the only way you ever talk to your inner ape is with reason and logic, your reasoning mind might understand, but ape-you is just lost, and increasingly neurotic with every passing crisis.
Me, I have two neurotic dogs at home, so I can hardly claim to be a master at any of this, but I think I’m slightly better at speaking to my inner ape than I am to my furbabies. And here’s the thing: the scolding and criticism don’t work. Producing the behaviors I want in my life requires me to understand a) what instinct is causing the unwanted behavior, b) how that instinct is trying to keep me alive, c) how I can trick that instinct into feeling like it’s doing its job without causing unwanted behaviors, and d) what new behavior I want and why.
The inner ape can only be tamed through compassion and understanding.
Because we’re animals.
Thursday, May 20, 2021, 11:30:06 PM
Here, I talk about our non-empathy instincts, their inevitable influence on us, and how to be decent anyway.