Saturday, October 27, 2007

Emotions and Reason

Tibor R. Machan

One of the oldest topics in human thought is whether emotions drive us or
are we guided by reason. The ancient Greeks thought reason will rule if
we only engage it, while David Hume, one of the most influential modern
philosophers, believed that reason is the slave of the passions.

In today’s neuroscientific climate the Humean doctrine is more prominent,
mainly because the idea that emotions cause actions is easy to adjust to
the notion that everything must have a cause outside or within itself to
behave as it does. Emotions seem to fit the bill—they are deemed to be
such powerful aspects of our psychological make-up. Whereas reason is less
clear-cut as a candidate for something potent, powerful. When we reason,
for example, nothing much happens that can be seen or felt. Cognition in
general seems less potent than feeling.

Yet there are experiences people have that suggest very strongly that
reason is indeed potent and comes before passion, as it were. Take fear.
Only once something is recognized as dangerous, hazardous, threatening and
such does the emotion of fear arise. Well, one can also imagine danger,
hazards and threats but then, too, a kind of warped cognition is at work
to which fear is a response. Or take anxiety. It seems clear that
something must be recognized as upsetting before anxiety arises in most of
us. Indeed, the recognition of such upsetting or worrisome factors seem to
underlie anxieties in most cases.

I have recently been faced with the situation of fires raging through the
region where I live and my particular place of residence has been subject
to the threat of fire as well as its abatement, day after day, even hour
after hour. No sooner did I learn of the fires subsiding, my emotions
calmed down; as soon, however, as reports reached me that the fire is
coming closer to my area, I became anxious, fearful, upset.

This emotional roller coaster experience could very clearly be accounted for by
reference to the facts I became aware of, facts my reasoning capacity
could discern and understand. If the discernment and understanding
pointed to the bad prospect of our area being consumed by the raging fires
that had destroyed numerous residential areas of Southern California, my
emotional state responded accordingly. And I have noticed the same in my
neighbors, many of whom, evacuated as we all were, gathered at a huge parking lot about 10 miles from
our community. The emotional yo-yo experience clearly illustrated that it
was their reason that first put on record something important, such as a threat or its
reduction. When things looked bad, they turned anxious, upset, fearful,
angry, and such, whereas when things started to look good, they responded
accordingly, started to smile more, laughed (a bit nervously, of course),
made jokes, extended themselves toward others with friendly gestures, etc.

Of course, none of this manages to amount to a controlled experiment, so
maybe those who want strict scientific support for a theory will find it
unsatisfactory. However, science didn’t come before ordinary experiences
human beings had and used to make judgments about the world. Indeed, if
technical science fails to square with such experiences it is probably
wrong. We start with those and when we reach more specialized notions
down the line, it would be unwise to discard our starting point entirely.

Reason is what we use to recognize the world, to figure out what’s what.
Then, based on how we assess the impact of what we recognize on our well
being, we respond with our emotions. Of course the situation can get very
complicated so that it is difficult to figure out which is first, which
next in every case, but generally it is more likely the case that our passions follow
reason, not the other way around. When people do something out of a
strong emotion, what they do has to be informed by what their reasoning
shows them. Passions, desires, feelings, and such do not work as ways of
identifying the world since identification presupposes judgment and
judgments are made by the mind, by our reason.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fires start during a trip back east, and returning means joining the displaced

By Tibor R. Machan

When the Southern California fires began, I was in Alabama, ready to drive to Atlanta to give a talk at Emory University's School of Law. My adult daughter was back here in Orange County but didn't have the means for removing much from our house – my vehicle was in the shop!
Obviously I was extremely apprehensive. Living as I do in funky Silverado Canyon unavoidably leads one to think about the prospect of major fires, especially during as dry a year as 2007 has been. But I have lived around in California since 1962, and fires are fairly routine threats. I recall a major blaze in Santa Barbara, for example, which, if memory serves me right, nearly burned down half the city. Next to earthquakes, it is fires that most frighten Californians.

Because I travel a lot and for good spells of time, I am likely to be caught unprepared for the task of moving stuff out of my home, and that was true this time as well. So I tried very hard to keep abreast of the fires from afar, to learn as much from TV and radio as possible. But, to my frustration, all the news programs seemed to have in mind were indifferent spectators, not so much the direct participants. Of course, news organizations need to make a buck with what they decide to showcase but, still, it was a bit of a shock that they gave viewers so few specifics.

The world is made up of specifics, not generalizations, even if generalizations are vital for planning and such. But what I wanted to know is whether the fire had burned near my home, how near, how likely to be nearer soon, how soon, etc. And I am sure that thousands of others had those kinds of concerns.

Instead, what the news reports have kept stressing are "large" facts, such as how many hundreds of thousands were evacuated, how many major fires were burning, how many homes had burned, how many fatalities had occurred. After the 14th time I heard and saw that 13 major fires were burning in Southern California I wanted to shake the person on TV and implore him or her to list where these major fires were burning. But no, never mind such specifics. It seems only the magnitudes mattered; the details could be kept to the minimum.

It occurred to me that the news aimed to please spectators of spectacular events, not people who had a stake in those events. That's not really so surprising – within the audience relatively few would have a direct interest in the fires, whereas millions across the country would go gaga seeing all the huge flames and hearing the huge logistical numbers given out by reporters.

When, after I flew back to Orange County late Tuesday and had had a bit of rest at a friend's place, I called the Orange County Fire Authority, I was told the firefighters at Silverado Canyon – which wasn't engulfed in flames – might let me fetch some stuff from my home. Alas, when I arrived in the area to do this, a police officer gently and firmly told me, "No dice," or words to that effect. I was told I had to wait until the Fire Authority canceled the evacuation order. When was that likely to happen? No idea at all, none.

It occurred to me, though I am not confident about it, that perhaps some more hands-on help could have been provided at locations where the fire was only a threat, not yet an actuality. Why not lead a group of people back in to get some of their valuables, and then lead them out, if no imminent threat of being hurt existed?

But never mind. I cannot claim to have expertise about this issue, so I just speculate what could work better than simply shutting down places indefinitely.

For now I just wait, as do thousands of others. I may turn out to have been luckier than many but that, also, is too early to know.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Groundless Environmentalism

Tibor R. Machan

As one considers all the calls issued by environmentalist for people to desist from interfering with wild animals and plants, one may notice that something vital is hardly ever addressed. For example, a recent program on PBS featured supposedly endangered giant crocodiles and the narrator repeatedly insisted that there must be serious, worldwide measures adopted by governments to make sure that these huge animals remain alive and flourish, even if this means depriving many human beings who hunt them of their livelihood.

Even giant killer crocodiles are protected and elaborate bureaucratic maneuvers are needed in order for professional hunters to save people from them. One such bureaucrat on a program I caught insisted that the giant killer crocodile must not be destroyed, no matter what, never mind the danger it poses to the local human population (in Burundi).

Mind you, I am very glad that there are these animals. I enjoy learning about them, watching their behavior. I am even in favor of not endangering them needlessly, provided this does not intrude on the efforts to nearby humans to live and flourish. I am very much in favor, as a recent book of mine is titled, Putting Humans First (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004). Yet I have nothing against efforts to make sure that various interesting animals or plants are well taken care of by those who care about them.

What bothers me a lot is that I do not hear any discussion on the various programs that address endangered species just what criterion is appropriate when deciding whether a given endangered animal or plant species can be left to wither. After all, animals and plants come and go in and out of existence all the time. History is replete with this process of extinction and regeneration. The fact that in some cases the process involves decisions and actions by human beings seems to me entirely innocent. Such is life on planet earth. Unless it is demonstrated that something vital is lost when a species becomes extinct, I am not convinced that it needs to be saved. Mere sentiment cannot suffice as a reason for interfering with the human use of animals. After all, animals are routinely killed off by other animals or by various disasters that occur in the wilds with no help from human beings. Just what is to determine whether the extinction of some living species are part of the natural order or some kind of malfeasance on the part of human beings?

This is never discussed in these programs, although intimations are made that there is something necessarily bad about any extinction or even endangerment. But why is this to be believed? No one appears to address this issue and, instead, narrators keep suggesting that people who kill or endanger wild animals are evil and must be stopped from doing so. There appears to be very little but rank misanthropy afoot here, without a serious examination of whether what people who use wild animals are actually doing anything wrong.

It is no answer to say that such people are hurting animals, or even to claim, perhaps quite truthfully, that they are helping to extinguish animals or plants. As already noted, animals and plants are extinguished all the time, much of the time by other animals and plants. So when people take part in this process, it is not at all clear that they are perpetrating something evil or even environmentally harmful. The mere dismay that some people feel when wild animals and plants are extinguished or endangered clearly does not suffice to make a case for its being wrong to do so.

If it were entirely costless to carry out policies that stop endangering species of life, hardly anyone could complain. But it isn’t costless. Often it is the livelihood of many human beings that gets sacrificed in order to stop endangering non-human life. And that is what should be at the forefront of thinking about this topic—people matter more than other living things, generally speaking.

Of course it would be swell if nothing that is liked by various human beings became endangered. Reckless, wanton destruction is certainly something to be avoided. But that is not what’s at issue here. The misanthropy evident from many who express concern in most p0ublic forums about the environment—a loose term if there ever was one—seems to have no support at all other than sentiment. And such sentiment should not be permitted to undermined human life and flourishing.