Constrained emotion vs. unchecked reason in damage prevention
The other day during a BS session with my realtalk buddy, the topic came up of how intellectuals can support all kinds of destructive policies. I've been reading a book on the facial expression of emotions, so I just threw it out there -- maybe the cerebral types find no problem going for wacko stuff like that because they have low, almost minimal emotional reactivity.
First, here is a thorough post on the brains of liberals and conservatives. It's about a year old, but I doubt any more recent work will overturn what seems pretty solid so far -- that liberals have stronger analytical reasoning regions compared to conservatives, while compared to liberals conservatives have stronger emotional regions.
The author, a liberal, only sees the good side of the ability to generate propositions, forecast or deduce their likely consequences, and revise these in light of incoming information. And emotion is something that's only OK in small doses -- he issues the standard warning against emotion "getting in the way" of the reasoning process.
I searched the post and comments for "Damasio" and "Descartes" and came up empty. I realize that after awhile, all popular science books will see their take-home messages gradually evaporate, but I think that's especially true for Descartes' Error during the '90s through today (it came out in 1994). The upshot of his book is that emotion aids the decision-making process by attaching weights to the various outcomes that the analytical part can think up and forecast about. Neurological patients with defective emotional centers live incredibly screwed-up lives because they don't feel strongly to go this way or that, so they often decide on whim.
The past 20 years have seen a return to Renaissance Humanist, Enlightenment, Victorian, and Mid-century Modern faith in clarifying, path-clearing reason over blind emotion and baseless superstition. While the academics who research emotion have been making steady progress since Damasio's breakthrough book, there is very little audience today for a popular science book about the importance of emotion. It cuts against not only the faith in reason but also the craving of snark. Too bad he didn't write it around the time of Julian Jaynes -- that was the ripe time for those ideas.
For example, that whole Emotional Intelligence literature never caught on with the pop sci readers. That seems strange because those readers love paradigms that attack IQ research in the context of racial differences; it allows them to morally preen as racially sensitive white people. However, they turn out to love the IQ research on within-race differences -- it shows how superior the brainiacs are. The Emotional Intelligence program did not seek to over-turn "racist" tests, robbing the pop sci readers of the opportunity to show it off in public. Even worse, it argued that IQ isn't the be-all end-all of psychological differences, and that autistic nerds have their own suite of problems that empathetic people do not.
Rather, what sold like gangbusters was Howard Gardner's idea of Multiple Intelligences. The pop sci crowd really loved that because they weren't superior to the slobs at Wal-Mart in just one way, but in multiple ways! Please, Prof. Gardner, relish us with the details about all of the wonderfully different flavors of intelligence that we smartypants excel at. As it turns out, tests of the multiple intelligences all share a common factor, just like all other IQ tests.
Getting back to how the cerebral types can so easily corrupt and ruin a society, I see their emotional numbness playing two roles.
First, because they lack a strong sense of empathy, the suffering of their intended beneficiaries doesn't shock them out of their delusion. An autistic person does not change his ways upon picturing "a boot stomping on a human face -- forever".
Second, and more importantly, emotions are linked to basic bodily drives, so they can be satiated, and indeed be followed by a refractory period where the person cannot feel that emotion or act on it. This negative feedback loop keeps a person from eating and eating until they truly do eat a horse, or from punching and wrestling with someone until they actually do tear their head off, or from sleeping with one person and then another until they wind up fucking anything that moves.
Those idioms all show that the limits on our drives are not the result of our conscious effort, strength of the will, good intentions, etc. Emotions just were not designed to keep us engaged in those activities forever and ever, satisfying our desire with one example after another until all possible satisfactions became actual satisfactions.
This draws a narrow circle around the corruption, damage, fabric-fraying, and so on, that an emotional person can do. They want to punch someone, they pick a fight, maybe injure several people or at most a dozen in a bar-room brawl, and then they're done fighting. They want to scream real loud, they get in someone's face, they blow off steam, and then they mellow out. When emotions motivate some extreme behavior, the release during catharsis makes sure that they won't feel like doing so again for a long while.
With reason, it's the opposite. Subscribing to abstract principles, deducing their implications, and implementing them in special cases was not designed to slake a corporeal thirst. For most of our species' history, nobody's mind wandered near that mode of thinking. There is never a feeling of satiety -- you can always strive to instantiate your cherished principles in yet another real-world case. From the principles that human rights are inviolable, democracy falls under human rights, and that we ought to defend such rights, we get one special case after another of striving to Spread Democracy, usually with little success.
I don't think Vietnam or Iraq would've been possible without that kind of mind. An emotionally reactive, racist redneck might have gone over to Vietnam, kicked some ass in a couple bar fights, and then come back home satisfied from having busted some skulls. How many could he kill? Probably no more than 10, if he was a real killer type, and likely not even one. But when someone in the liberal establishment wants to aggress against Vietnam because it follows from the principle that Communism must be contained, then the lack of a satiety mechanism could keep them going until hundreds of thousands are killed.
That example shows how reason-based policies extend indefinitely not only across time but space as well. It's not enough to contain Communism in Vietnam but in all of Southeast Asia, and then Asia, and then the whole world, including such strategic lynchpin countries as Grenada. Damasio mentions that emotionally crippled patients often develop collecting / hoarding behaviors, and I wonder if there isn't a similarity in the cerebral types who have to implement their cherished principles in every conceivable locality, no matter how worthless -- searching half-senile old ladies at the airport, putting in a wheelchair ramp to a moon bounce, passing out condoms and sex toys to Yale freshmen, etc. The OCD completist cannot sleep until all the boxes are filled in their checklist, whereas the hothead doesn't have to kick everyone's ass just to call it a night and go hit the hay.
Anyway, thought it made sense the other night, and thinking it over has convinced me even more. There really is no telling how bizarre the cerebrals will wind up making our world. They do not feel satiating pleasure and cathartic relief, but instead are caught on an addictive, joyless treadmill.