Saturday, August 7, 2010

More on moral perspective

Here is an exercise for your imagination.

Imagine you are holding a popsicle stick. Now take that popsicle stick by the ends and bend it a little. By bending it you are putting it under stress. Feel the pressure it takes to hold it there under stress.

That’s not hard to imagine is it? If you had a real popsicle stick you could get it and do that for real. But we don't need to because we know that the real experience would be more or less as we imagine it. You might find that the stick was either harder or easier to bend than you imagined but you’d get the experience right.

Now I want you to go further. Put it under even more stress but not so much that it breaks. You can do that can’t you? You could do it with a real popsicle stick.

Okay, final step, snap the popsicle stick with your fingers.

Now think of how easily we apply the idea of “stress” to ourselves. We say, “I’m under a lot of stress right now.” We might even say, “He was under a lot of stress and one day he just snapped.”

There is obviously something right about that image. When we talk about stress, everyone knows what we mean. But there is also something wrong about it.

What is wrong?

Well, consider this. Take a box of 1000 popsicle sticks and take them to a lab. With the right equipment we can bend those sticks and measure how much pressure we are using each time. If we do so, we will discover that all popsicle sticks bend about the same amount when a certain amount of pressure is applied. Push them further and we will discover that they all snap at about the same amount of pressure. There will be a little variance but not much.

Now think of how different human beings are. Some people can deal with very little mental stress some can deal with large amounts of it.

And here’s another thing. If you stress a popsicle stick until it bends you make it weaker. The next time you apply stress to it that popsicle stick will be less able to withstand stress. People aren’t like that. Some people get better at dealing with mental stress as time goes on. Others get worse.

When a human being snaps, therefore, it’s not at all like a popsicle stick snapping. Stress is not something that happens to us as is the case for the popsicle stick. As a famous formulation has it, “Stress is not the car that cuts you off on the highway, it’s your reaction to it.”

And you can control your reaction. You can learn how to deal with stress more effectively. And it is reasonable to judge people based on how well they have learned to handle stress. We might say, “Joe only snapped because he has always run away from problems all his life and when he ran into one he couldn’t run away from, he couldn’t deal with it.”

We can blame Joe for snapping even though we can see he had no control over his reactions at the moment he snapped. We blame him for that reaction even though we know he couldn’t control because we know he has been moral weakling for his entire life. If he had not been, he would have been able to deal with it.

My point is this: think of how misleading the language of stress can be. We take this concept from physics where it means something very clear and apply it to our moral lives and it doesn’t quite fit.

The same considerations apply to our use of moral perspective and I’ll get to that in a later post.


  1. There's something called the "kindling" effect,which has been demonstrated using CT and MRI of the brain. As I understand it, the "kindling" effect occurs when the accumulation of stressors over time causes people to go into a clinical depression. So while someone might have appeared to have handled each individual stressor well at the time each occurred, the brain is in a sense keeping score, and starting with the first stressor there is a change, however minor, in the synapses of the brain. Each successive stressor causes further changes in the synapses until it reaches the point of a full blown clinical depression.

    Then there are cases where people go through major life changes--divorce, job loss or job change, change of residence due to job loss-job change-divorce-foreclosure, death of a loved one--within a short time frame. Each of those individually creates a high degree of stress, and when they occur one on top of the other people have little time to recover from or adjust to one before they're hit with the next. When that happens they're on "overload," and the best case scenario in those cases is for people to be able to get out of bed in the morning, take a shower, go to work, and do the other things that are expected of them without "snapping" or doing self-destructive behaviors. Some turn to chemical substances to help them get through--either with a doctor's prescription or self-medication (alcohol, drugs), others to psychological counseling, others find strength through their Faith, others just function on "automatic." It can take several years before people are able to fully integrate all of it and experience any kind of "joie de vivre." I don't think this is a question of morality or moral strength, but rather biology. Its part of being human.

    Interestingly, I just read a new study that showed that people who grow up poor are better able to handle stressors like I just described than people who were raised in middle and upper middle class households, because they're always in a survival mode from an early age. The down side of that is that they also have less empathy for others and are more prone to committing violent crimes against others as opposed to non-violent crimes, e.g., shoplifting.

  2. Yes, this effect does exist and one of the prime examples, as you say, is when people get divorced. Being depressed day after day for a long time following divorce can cause permanent damage, presumably by altering brain chemistry. And we know that drug use can prevent this damage.

    (One thing we don't take as seriously as we ought is whether long-term recreational drug use might do serious harm too. If it works one way, it might do the reverse as well. Long term self medication may well leave us much less able to deal with life's vicissitudes.)

    My point above, however, is not that we cannot make a reasonable analogy between physical stress and mental stress or between optical perspective and moral perspective. We use the words and we understand one another when we do. The point, rather, was that we have to keep reminding ourselves of the limits of analogy.

    I'll give you an example from my days in university. In a Criminology class I took, the professor gave examples of how crimes effect people. Her point was that the effect of a crime can vary differently from person to person. One of the examples she gave was rape and she cited studies that showed that while some women's lives fell apart after being raped others recovered and some recovered very quickly. One of my fellow students became incredibly angry at this. She insisted that the impact must always be the same and that the women who seemed to recover were just repressing the effects that must eventually come out. And sometimes, of course, that does happen but the plain fact is that some people go through horrible experiences such as rape and recover very quickly.

    We are not like popsicle sticks. Popsicle sticks respond to physical stress in consistently measurable ways, people do not respond to moral (or Psychological if you prefer) stress in consistently measurable ways.

    I suspect we mostly agree here as your example of people who grow up poor being better able to handle stress is a good example. One question that we might ask ourselves is whether we might be able to consciously live in such a way as to strengthen our ability to handle stress too even if we aren't poor. That is what seeking virtue means.

  3. It has been proven that recreational drug use and long term self-medication can and does cause permanent brain damage. And I agree completely that some victims of crime--sexual offenses specifically--are able to process, integrate, and move forward, while others are traumatized and suffer the effects for the rest of their lives. And I too have encountered women--usually therapists or over-zealous prosecutors-who become incensed when this is mentioned, and respond much the same as your classmate did. My theory is that they are just ensuring their jobs, as long as there are victims they have job security, pretty virtuous eh!. In any case, we don't know why some people are more or less affected by abuse than others, it is probaly a combination of factors, but I don't think virtue or lack of it is one of those factors. Nor do I believe that people who do recreational drugs or chronically self-medicate are necessarily unvirtuous. My question is always what caused these people to start doing drugs or self-medicating in the first place? We are talking about very complex issues here, and if one uses an individual's ability to handle or cope with different types of stressors as a measure of their virtue, they do so at their own peril as I see it. My motto is "There but for the Grace of God could go I." Some of the most dishonest or narcissistic people can handle stress very well because they have no conscience. They set a goal for themselves and they do whatever it takes to acheive it, regardless of whoever might be harmed in the process, and nothing rattles them. On the other hand, people with Asperger's Syndrome, which is part of the Autism Disorder Spectrum, are noted for their lack of empathy toward others. Again, nothing to do with virtue, "there but for the Grace of God..."

  4. I think when you use virtue in this context--or maybe any context--it means doing the best that we can with what we have to work with. I've always tried to do that in my life, and at times have been more successful than at other times for a variety of reasons. I assume that everyone else is doing the same, the best that they can with what they have been given. So, when I'm tempted to judge someone I try to remind myself "there but for the grace of God go I," because it keeps my humble and grateful, and not in the sense of the Pharisee who said "thank you God that I'm not like them."

    Now, the people I deal with are generally not high-powered corporate executives who "cook the books," or intelligent people of means who had idyllic childhoods who are dishonest or manipulate others to get what they want. I hold them to a higher standard because

    "Of those who have been given more, more
    is expected."

    The people I deal with are mostly poor, some with abusive histories, some with disabilities, who are doing the best they can under incredibly difficult circumstances. I don't--can't--hold them to the same standard that I hold myself or others who have been given the gifts I've been given because its not a level playing field. So to that degree I guess virtue is relative.