Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Are we born to be good?

In arguing that we are born to be good, psychologist Dacher Keltner has in mind a particular definition of what it means to be good. In his book “Born to be Good” he views goodness as synonymous with the Confucian concept of jen: a person of jen “brings the good things in others to completion and does not bring the bad things of others to completion” (p. 4).

The author’s aim is to enable the reader to see human behavior in a new light. He presents evidence supporting his view that we have been wired by seven million years of hominid evolution to practice emotions like compassion, gratitude, amusement and wonder that are associated with bringing the good in others to completion. “We have neuropeptides that enable trust and devotion, and a branch of nerves that connects the brain, the voice and the heart that enables caretaking. Our capacity for awe has given us art, a sense of the sacred. We have genes, neurotransmitters, and regions of the brain that serve these emotions as we serve others. These emotions are the substance of jen” (p 269).

Keltner does not deny that we are also wired to pursue self-interest. His claim is that this is “half the story” (p 11). His research suggests that rather than just one reward circuit in the brain that is activated in response to any kind of pleasure, different neural circuits are involved in different kinds of positive emotions such as sensory pleasure, pride, compassion and awe (pp 265-267). He suggests that in our search for happiness many of us have tended to focus excessively on sensory pleasure and to lose sight of the emotions associated with, for example, “subtle cues of embarrassment, playful vocalisations, the visceral feelings of compassion, the sense of gratitude in another’s touch to your shoulder” (p 15).

The main reservation I have about the book relates to the author’s tendency to equate self-interest solely with pursuit of sensory pleasure and to contrast this with the other positive emotions associated with bringing good things in others to completion. At one point he writes: “Ironically enough, compassion may be a prerequisite to the pursuit of self-interested happiness” (p 249). It seems to me that this is only ironical if one takes a very narrow view of self-interest – a much narrower view than that taken, for example, by neoclassical economists who incorporate the happiness of others in the utility functions they use in their theoretical work.

As discussed in an earlier post, it seems to me that there is a lot of good involved in self-actualization that does not necessarily involve bringing the good in others to completion. Being good also involves such things as the human capacity to distinguish between wanting and liking and to defer gratification that are also the result of evolution. In addition, Gregory Burns seems to me to make a strong case that evolution has also wired humans to meet personal challenges: “The sense of satisfaction after you’ve successfully handled unexpected tasks or sought out unfamiliar, physically and emotionally demanding activities is your brain’s signal that you’re doing what nature designed you to do” (“Satisfaction”, p xiv).

The book omits what seems to me to be the strongest argument that can be advanced in favour of the view that humans have evolved to be good, namely the evolution of the concept of self. As philosopher Daniel Dennett has pointed out, evolutionary processes have supported the evolution of minds powerful enough to capture the reasons for things and make them our reasons: “ We are not perfectly rational agents, but the social arena we live in sustains processes of dynamic interaction that both require and permit the renewal of our reasons, making us into agents that can take responsibility for our acts” (“Freedom Evolves”, p 287).

Despite these reservations and my critical comments in earlier posts about Dacher Keltner’s portrayal of Adam Smith’s views and his apparent attempt to argue that social cooperation cannot emerge from self-interest, I found this book to be highly informative. I am not competent to judge the quality of the author’s research findings, but he is obviously an authority in his field. The book makes a strong case that humans have been wired by evolution to experience positive emotions when they seek to bring the good in others to completion.


Thought Bubble Ten said...

Ah ha, so that's what jen is :)

Winton Bates said...

Yes TBT, that gives you the gen :)