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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Please and Thank You

Mind experiment: mental imagery which represents hypothetical events and outcomes, and usually without hypothetical explosions. Used by good physicists (Einstein) and bad psychologists (Freud) to respectively explain how the universe and the mind work.

Consider a world where nobody said please and thank you. Open a door for someone, and they will silently pass you by. Give a present to a relative, and they accept it without even a nod of appreciation. Help a little old lady across the street, and she will keep on going. Nothwithstanding places like New York city, it's hard to imagine living in such a place and remaining the mellow and virtuous selves we consider ourselves to be. Without please and thank you, I shudder at what the world could become. Courtesy and simple kindnesses would disappear, and mankind would revert to his primal and selfish nature. We would all become, in a manner of speaking, assholes. Balderdash, you say? Well consider an environment where we can't say please and thank you, the open highway. Drive slow in a parking lot and on a street, and we can see the whites of other drivers eyes. With a friendly nod, we allow other drivers to merge and pass, and feel somewhat good about it. But get a driver behind you or travel at higher speeds, and if a driver intends to pass you or drives up close behind you, he has only his horn and lights to signal his intentions. Without a please or thank you, the scene can degenerate into road rage, and slow torture is not good enough for the ingrate tailgater or speeder who has imposed on you without scarcely a nod.

Highways are not virtuous places because we cannot make the virtual transactions whose subtlety makes for virtue. Please and thank you denote reciprocity or 'thanks, bud, I owe you one'. It keeps the accounting slate balanced, even though we know that we will never be able to collect on the minor favor of courtesy. The point is, virtue is its own reward because human beings can tally in their minds the virtual rewards of being good. And goodness is good because we don't recognize that it really is the thought that counts. Evolutionary psychologists in particular find this hard to understand, and postulate (through mind experiments of course) ancient scenarios where altruism evolved as a genetic trait to permit human survival. But this is no different than associating virtue with God's will or man's laws since it ignores the fact that realities can be in many places, more often than not made up in our own minds.

Humans can tally the debits and credits of assorted kindnesses when they can model the minds of other people. This is called empathy, and it develops through learning, or our socializing experiences with other people. Grow up in a world where everybody is empathic, and you'll be empathic too. There is no divine spark, no instinctive cause, no legalistic mandate to virtue, it is simply behavior that is paid for by a nod, both actual or imagined, to a simple kindness. It derives no less from our imagination of our world.

1 comment:

Stefan said...