PHIL 181: Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature
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Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature
PHIL 181 - Lecture 6 - The Disordered Soul: Thémis and PTSD
Chapter 1. Aristotle on Happiness and Harmony [00:00:00]
Professor Tamar Gendler: So we have quite a bit to do in lecture today, but there are two main things that are going to happen. The first is that I finish up the discussion of Aristotle’s views on happiness and harmony, and the second is that I want to introduce you to the topic of the disordered soul. And for the second part of the lecture, we’ll be using our clickers. You do want to make sure you have them out within the next, I don’t know, eight minutes or so.
So as you may recall, what we were talking about in the last lecture was this ancient idea that there’s a certain sort of thriving that’s available to human beings. A certain sort of flourishing, a certain sort of what the Greeks called eudaimonia, available to people whose souls exhibit a certain kind of harmony.
And you recall that the ancient picture as articulated in Plato and taken on in many ways by Aristotle, was that we have reason, rationality. We have spirit, a set of emotions that are concerned with things like honor. And we have appetite, which are concerned with things like the consumption of food and the procreation that allows our species to continue, and the procreation for the sake of doing procreation.
And that the person who is in a position to thrive or flourish is the person whose instincts in the domain of appetite and in the domain of emotions are in line with his or her reflective commitments. That is, somebody who acts automatically in the way that he or she would like to act reflectively. The person who instinctively sits down and does her reading when she’s committed to do her reading. The person who instinctively avoids the chocolate cake when she’s presented with the chocolate cake, if that’s what she’s committed to do.
So what Aristotle tried to do in the segment of the Nicomachean Ethics that we read is to give us a formula, a strategy, a method, for getting to the point of having our soul in order. And just to remind you where this fits in the context of his argument, the claim that Aristotle makes is that there’s one sort of thing that we pursue for its own sake, and it’s exactly the thing that I just referred to. It’s this flourishing or eudaimonia. It’s this feeling that one is living up to the greatest one can be.
And Aristotle points out that the sort of flourishing that we’re interested in here is not the gratification that comes from satisfying one’s lower appetite. It’s not the gratification that comes from satisfying the demands that honor or spirit give us. But rather, it’s the gratification that comes from making use of our capacity as reflective beings.
And you have an argument for that which I went over at the end of last lecture, which is that for each object, there is something that is special about it, something with respect to which it has properties that the rest of the objects in the world don’t. And the special function of a human being, says Aristotle, is the expression of reason: “The soul’s activity that expresses reason,” in one of the standard translations.
So the human good on the Aristotelian picture has got to be the thing about human beings that sets them apart from other sorts of creatures. The other sorts of creatures have the kind of lower appetites that we’ve described. In fact, almost every biological being seems to have something like what Plato would call an appetitive part of the soul. And it appears that a number of non-human animals also have what Plato and Aristotle would call the spirited part of the soul, at least in some ways. They have emotional connections that seem to be manifest in their behavior.
But the best and most complete distinctly human virtue, says Aristotle, is the capacity to engage in reason, and the capacity to engage in reflection. And the capacity, then, to structure one’s life in such a way that spirit and appetite fall into line with reason.
So virtue on Aristotle’s picture is being such that your instinctive responses fall into line with your reflective commitments. It’s being such that what happens to you in moments where you’re not paying attention to your behavior is the sort of behavior that you would look back on and say, “Wow, I’m so glad that in the moment of crisis, what I did was help that child”. Or, “what I did was avoided that temptation that would have led me to do something that I would have disavowed.”
So the question that Aristotle’s concerned with, in the pages that we read, is a question of what that virtue looks like, and how that sort of virtue might be cultivated. The virtue, to remind you, is exactly the virtue that Plato called the virtue of justice. It’s the virtue of there being a certain kind of harmony among what they call the parts of the soul, and that harmony being such that it’s a harmony we would reflectively endorse.
Now I’m going to go relatively quickly through the next two slides, exactly because we’re going to come back to this issue in Aristotle two more times in the next three lectures. In lots of ways, this unit of the course is an attempt to provide an exposition of Aristotle’s insights. This is attempt number one to introduce it to you, and you’re going to get it twice more.
Aristotle distinguishes between two kinds of virtue: there’s virtues of thought and virtues of character. Virtues of thought are things that grow through straightforward pedagogical instruction. So it’s a virtue of thought to know that six times seven is forty-two. It’s a virtue of thought to know facts about the periodic table, or to know information of a particular kind about the political structures around you. Those are virtues of thought, and the way that virtues of thought are communicated to others and cultivated in others is through a process of traditional pedagogy.
But one of the crucial themes of the ancient philosophical tradition is that in addition to virtues of thought, there are what Aristotle called virtues of character. Virtues of character aren’t things that you process rationally and come to acquire as the result of somebody telling them to you. They are things that you process in the spirited and appetitive parts of your soul as the result of a kind of cultivation of habit.
Aristotle says of these virtues of character that they arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. What does he mean by that? Well, suppose I was trying to train my glasses to stay in the air when I let go of them. Would I have much success? I could keep rewarding them every time they stay in the air, and I’ll scold them every time they fall on the ground. No matter how many times I try to train my glasses to stay in the air, they will fall to the ground. It is against their nature. It is impossible to change the relation between my glasses and the gravitational force in the world. Aristotle makes the point speaking of a stone. It’s impossible to change the character of the glasses.
By contrast, if I take a pumpkin seed, and I put it in some soil, and I put water in it, and I put it out in the sunshine, then even with no intervention on my part, the pumpkin seed will give rise to a pumpkin sprout that will come out of the soil and move towards the sunlight in such a way that eventually it will form a pumpkin plant. So if I plant the pumpkin seed, then by nature, it will become, without my intervention, a pumpkin plant.
Virtues of character lie in between what a pumpkin seed does for a pumpkin plant and what trying to train you glasses does, given gravity. They arise in us neither by nature–they don’t grow out of us naturally in the way that our height grows out of us naturally, or our hair grows out of us naturally. Those are things that happen in the due course of things. Nor are they against nature. They aren’t like training ourselves to be able to float in the air, or to be able to stay up for seventy-two weeks at a time with no sleep, or to do with no food for a decade. Those would be things that are against nature.
“Virtues of character arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them. They are things for which we have the capacity. And they are completed in us through habit.”
So what does this process of habituation look like? Well, Aristotle points out in one of the most famous quotes in the Nicomachean Ethics that we learn to do things by doing them. “We learn a craft,” says Aristotle, “by producing the same product that we must produce when we have learned it. We learn to be a builder”–how? By reading a book called How to Build a House? I read something called “How to Put Together a Table” by IKEA, and it did not result in a table. What resulted in a table was my excellent twelve-year-old son, who obviously is a builder innately, coming and showing me how to put together the table. I thereby learned to be a builder. I become a builder by practicing the art of building. I become a harpist by practicing the art of playing the harp.
How many of you play a musical instrument? How many of you learned to play a musical instrument by reading a book called, How to Play the Piano, but never touched any of the keyboard? 0? OK. How many of you learned to play a musical instrument by practicing the musical instrument? How many of you learned to become a pianist or harpist or flautist by playing the piano or harp or flute? All right.
So Aristotle’s point is that the way we become that which we hope to be is acting like that was what we already were. In the same way as we learn to play the piano by playing the piano, we learn to be just by doing just actions. We learn to be temperate by acting in temperate ways. We learn to be brave by doing brave actions. The way that we cultivate habits is first by consciously structuring our lives in such a way that the habit that we wish to cultivate becomes part of our behavioral repertoire, and then doing it over and over again until it doesn’t require our concentration anymore. It’s exactly like any habitual skill you have ever acquired in the domain of music, in the domain of sports, in any domain where you have first consciously, and subsequently instinctively, learned to practice a particular pattern of behavior, you have performed the program that Aristotle describes for the cultivation of virtue.
So we’ll come back to this again in a couple of lectures. I want to conclude this section by bringing out to you one of the most famous parts of the section of Aristotle’s discussion.
So Aristotle points out that there’s a danger here. There’s a danger to learning to play the piano badly, because the habits that you cultivate when you keep your fingers flat instead of curved are habits that ingrain themselves in your behavior in the same way that good habits do. It’s not as if we have an automatic filtering mechanism for practice that says, “oh, when I practice, only the good habits will stick, and the bad habits won’t.” Whatever it is that you practice doing will become habitual to you. These actions, these actions of practicing what you aim to become, “are the sources and causes both of the emergence and cause of virtues and of their ruin.” Practicing brave, you’ll become brave. Practice, in the same context, being cowardly, and the cowardice will instill itself in your habitual behavior in the same way.
So, says Aristotle, for each of these states, we need to attend to the fact that it is possible to do what we’re aiming for either too much or too little, and aim for what is famously called the Aristotelian middle way. The virtues of Aristotle, he says, tend to be ruined by excess and deficiency.
So suppose you are confronted with a risky situation. There are two false extremes that you could be drawn towards. You could respond to it in a way that is cowardly, or you could respond to it in a way that is reckless. Between these extremes, says Aristotle, lies the virtue of bravery.
Suppose you are presented with a social situation. You could respond to it with hostility. You could respond to it by being ingratiating. Between these, says Aristotle, lies the virtue of friendliness.
Suppose you are confronted with a situation where something is being asked of you. You could be stingy. You could be ostentatious in what you do. Or you could be, in the wonderful translation that we have in the Irwin, “magnificent”–that which lies between stinginess and ostentatiousness.
Suppose you are studying for the SAT and you’re confronted with a situation where you can be either pusillanimous–or vain. What would fall between them? Between them falls the virtue of magnanimity.
Suppose you’re confronted with a situation where the possibility is to be either self-deprecating or boastful. Neither is what’s called for. What’s called for is the truthfulness that lies between them.
Suppose you’re presented with a joke. You can be either dour–or buffoonish. Or instead, you can be witty.
You might be quarrelsome. You might be ingratiating, again, or, between them, you might be friendly. Huh. There I have that twice.
The general principle here is that there are, with respect to each of the Aristotelian virtues, two extremes: an extreme of deficiency and an extreme of excess, and between them lies what is famously called the Aristotelian mean.
So you remember when I showed you that famous Raphael painting from the wall, “The School of Athens,” where Plato is pointing to the sky, referring to the form, and Aristotle’s hand is in the middle of his body, facing flat. And I said to you, there’s two ways that that has been interpreted. One is with respect to Aristotle’s rejection of Plato’s idea of the forms, and the second, I said, is that it’s sometimes read as a sort of embodied articulation of Aristotle’s idea of the mean. So here, for your pleasure, is Aristotle’s idea of the mean. Again, we’ll come back to this in two lectures.
Let me close this section by quoting for you Aristotle’s picture of the virtuous circle of habit formation. And right after this is when we’re going to need our clickers, so if you don’t have them out yet, you should take them out now.
“Abstaining from pleasures,” says Aristotle “makes us become temperate.” And once we have become temperate, we’re more capable of abstaining from pleasure. It is similar with bravery. Habituation in standing firm in frightening situations makes us become brave. And once we have become brave, we are more capable of standing firm.
There is a circle to this kind of practiced behavior. And what we will read three classes from now is a contemporary articulation of this idea in the form of something called cognitive behavioral therapy.
Chapter 2. The Relationship Between Elite Universities and the Military [00:18:50]
OK. So that closes what we were taking from last week’s lecture. And what I want to open with and cover in the last twenty-five minutes or so that we have is the topic for today. So let me just give you the punch line right now. The punch line is this.
You remember from the opening pages of Book II of Plato’s Republic that the character Glaucon poses a challenge to Plato’s character Socrates in the form of the claim that behaving justly, behaving in accord with one’s reflective commitment, behaving in accord with the norms of morality, is something that we do only for instrumental reasons. There is nothing intrinsically valuable to the ordered soul.
Today’s lecture is about two incredible stories. One, the Iliad and the Vietnam war, as read through the writings of Jonathan Shay, two, the experiments of Stanley Milgram, done here on this campus in the 1960s, both of which give us a window into what human experience looks like in Glaucon’s dream world.
Glaucon said: What we want is to be able to run wild with no consequences to our actions. What we want is to be able to violate the norms of morality. Given the chance, anybody would do that.
The stories that Shay and Milgram tell us, the descriptions they give of what human experience is like in these moments where the soul runs amok, suggests that maybe Glaucon is wrong. It suggests that for whatever reasons, there appears to be, at least in these domains, a need on the part of human beings for a certain kind of structure and order. And in the absence of that kind of structure and order, the world seems to fall apart.
What I want to start by doing in this lecture, however, is by pointing out to you what an unusual time you live in. So could you answer this question? Press one if you have served in the military, two if you have not served in the military but you plan or expect to serve in the military, and three, if you have not served in the military, and you do not plan or expect to serve. So one if you have been in the military, either in the U.S., or some other country of which you’re a citizen, two if your plan is at some point in the near future, to enroll in active military service, and three, if you have no plans to do so. OK. So let’s look at the numbers on this–OK.
So it looks like 1% of you have served in the military. 5% of you have the plan to do so, and 94% of you have no expectations that military service is something that you will ever do.
Next question. Think of the person you know to whom you are closest who served in the military, and let me know whether that’s somebody extremely close, a sibling or a best friend. If so, push one. Somebody relatively close, like your first cousin or a school buddy, somebody that you are on a team with, that you feel relatively close to. Or three if the closest person you know who served in the military is like a kid from your school, or a neighbor, or somebody that you don’t know very well. And let’s see how the numbers come out on this. OK.
So almost none of you have a sibling or best friend who is in the military. Roughly half of you know somebody reasonably well who is in service, and fully a third of you have no one in your immediate social circle who has performed military service.
Let’s go back a generation. I’m asking you about your father because we need a one to one. If I ask you about both parents, we’d be doubling the sampling set. So of your father, please answer one if he served in the military, two if he didn’t.
OK. And let’s look at the numbers here. So you look different from your father. About 5% of you have served or are planning to serve in the military. About 20% of your fathers did. Let’s go back another generation. Paternal grandfather, again, because we need one person. One if he served in the military, two if he did not. Paternal grandfather. That’s your father’s father. Did he serve in the military?
OK. 54% of your grandfathers served in the military. So we went from 4% in your generation, 20% in your father’s generation, 55% in your grandfather’s generation.
You are living in an extraordinarily unusual time. The social distance between American elite universities and the U.S. military is greater now than it has ever been in the 200 years of this country’s history. And the architecture that surrounds you gives lived voice to the way in which your experience is unusual.
How many of you recognize this building? [Image of Memorial Hall] It’s about twenty feet from here. Every single hand in this room should be going up. How many of you have looked closely at what that is? So this building, as some of you know, those of you who are Yale tour guides certainly know, is Memorial Hall. It was built in 1901 without this facade here. And at the conclusion of the First World War, during which a huge number of Yale associates died, this addition was constructed. Across the top are the names of battles of the First World War at which Yale men died. And down below is an empty coffin, “In Memory of the Men of Yale who true to Her Traditions gave their Lives that Freedom might not perish from the Earth.”
Yale’s relation to World War I was an extraordinary one. Here’s a passage from a speech given by Henry Simpson at the dedication of the war memorials that I just showed you.
“After our entry into the war, and a wide adoption by the government of the principle of universal service, Yale gradually became a military training camp and a completely militarized university. Her faculties and laboratories turned their resources entirely over to the arts of war, and nearly all of her remaining scholars became student members of the Organized Military Forces of the United States. Yale maintained one of the foremost artillery schools in America. She carried on a large naval training unit, commissioned officers for the Navy. She trained officers for the signal corps. Her chemists conducted resources for the chemical warfare service. Doctors and assistants were prepared there for the army hospitals, and a complete army hospital unit was maintained by the University in France. Practically the entire momentum of this institution of learning was thrown effectively into the scales of war.”
The relation between elite universities and the military during both the first and second World Wars was strikingly different than anything any of you have encountered now. And in an effort to memorialize the contributions to the war effort made by the men of Yale, it was decided that along the interior walls of Memorial Hall would be engraved plaques. So if you walk in on your way to Commons, on your right hand side as you enter, you see the names of Yale men who died in the Revolutionary War. And on the two sides that you pass, those who died on either side in the Civil War, the names of those who died in the Spanish-American War, the 227 names of those who died in the First World War, the 514 names of those who died in the Second World War, the 22 names of those who died in the Korean War, and the 37 names of those who died in the Vietnam War.
Now, the question of why the relation between elite institutions and the military came to be what it is today is one whose answer depends upon a number of these incredibly important and complicated facts about U.S. history. Suffice it to say that it was the view of the majority of Yale students and a good proportion of Yale faculty that the war in Vietnam was an unjust war. And it was for that reason that there was an unwillingness on the part of many of them to serve, and indeed, a brave expression of opposition on the part of some of them that had direct consequences in their lives.
But the attitude of the Yale campus towards the Vietnam War is perhaps best captured by this image of protesters co-opting this image of something used for commemoration of those who fought in a just war, and using it as a way off expressing their view that the particular war they confronted in Vietnam was an unjust one.
For those of you who have not yet been convinced that philosophy is something that matters: this was a philosophical debate about the nature of what justice permits.
Chapter 3. Jonathan Shay on the Iliad and PTSD [00:30:58]
Regardless of whether Yale students went to fight in the Vietnam War, a huge number of other citizens of the United States went to fight in the Vietnam War. And the work which we read for today by Jonathan Shay is an incredibly powerful reading of their experience that juxtaposes for you quotations from the great ancient description of the subjective experience of war–the founding text, in many ways, of the Western literary tradition, Homer’s Iliad–and the in-their-own-voice experiences of the Vietnam veterans with whom Jonathan Shay works in an effort to help them deal with the stress and the trauma that the war experience produced in them.
And Shay’s thesis in this book, as you know, is that when a leader destroys the legitimacy of the army’s moral order by betraying what he calls themis–what’s right, the order of things, the structure by which we can understand the world as predictable and well-ordered–in so doing, injuries are inflicted on the soldiers that are not physical injuries. They are what Shay calls moral injuries.
And these moral injuries arise, he suggests, both in the Iliad, where Homer describes the immediate and devastating consequences on Achilles, first of the feeling of injustice at having had his war prize taken away from him, and then through what Shay calls the berserk behavior that results as the consequence of the death of his friend Patroclus.
Now let me pause and say that in talking about this, we’re glossing over many, many things that are problematic about that story. What is it that Achilles is upset about? He’s upset about the woman who was given to him as a prize for battle being taken away from him and given to another man. I take it that, for most of you, your conception of what the moral order permits does not include war prizes of that form. And we’ll talk more about that when we get to the ethics section. How do we make sense of moral standards that are treated as legitimate in one domain, and not in the other?
But for the time being, I would like you to bracket here, as we bracketed in the context of most of the ancient texts that we’ve been reading, that which you find unfamiliar, and focus instead on what you find familiar. The description of Achilles’ experience is one that rings true; and it rings true in the same way that the description of the Vietnam soldier’s experience rings true.
Shay points out that just as the Iliad is a story of the devastating consequences for Achilles and the other soldiers, so, too, are the narratives that the Vietnam soldiers provide an instance of something that forces us to see that the consequences go beyond, and here’s a quote from the Iliad, “the war’s loss upon bitter loss, leaving so many dead men,”–that the consequence is to taint the lives of those who survive it.
One of the greatest harms that the Vietnam War appears to have done to a good portion of those who served there, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, is to have produced in them a set of symptoms that some psychiatrists find helpful to describe as post-traumatic stress disorder. And these are symptoms that affect the soldiers, the survivors of trauma, in three domains. They affect their actions in the world, they affect their perceptions of the world, and they affect their social experiences.
So one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is “a persistent mobilization of the body and mind toward lethal danger, a potential for explosive violence, as the result of being constantly on alert.” All of you know the experience of being in full focus when you feel yourself to be in danger. It’s something that occupies a huge percentage of the body’s resources. Everything goes on focusing on being hair-trigger responses.
And you can have this in all sorts of domains. You can have it if you’re engaged in video game, which requires you to do an incredibly quick response, or if you feel yourself in some kind of threat situation: but it’s a full-body experience of being related to the world in a particular way.
Now imagine being on alert in that way all the time. One consequence of being on alert in that way is that one perceives things in the most negative light possible. If you are what’s sometimes called risk-averse, then you are going to, for each encounter you have, entertain the possibility that what you confront is the worst-case scenario.
And soldiers who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder perceive those things around them through the heightened attentional mechanisms that come with this hair-trigger action, and view them as potential dangers. And the things that they pursue as potential dangers are not merely mundane objects in the world, like an object lying on a table that might ambiguously be either a gun or an innocent piece of cardboard, but also in their social interactions.
And perhaps the greatest cost, and we’ll see why this is such a cost in Thursday afternoon’s lecture, perhaps the greatest cost is the loss of the possibility of social trust. And I want to point out to you the way in which this can happen to cultures as a whole. Communities that find themselves subject to certain kinds of terrorist or guerrilla warfare by those who are opposed to them lose the capacity to behave humanely towards those with whom they struggle.
If your opponent’s strategy is to bring bombs into your country using ambulances, then you will be forced to treat ambulances as suspicious objects. If, as Shay describes in Achilles in Vietnam, a common strategy is to put a baby atop a pile of explosives, then you will be forced, through your enemy’s actions, not to help a needing child.
Robbing your enemy of this capacity to behave humanely to you is a strategy that produces a cycle of incredible disorder. Because, of course, it’s only a feeling of being cornered with nothing else to do that would lead somebody to take the strategy of using ambulances to carry bombs and so on.
The orderliness that governs conventional warfare is a reflection of a certain kind of psychological need. And the disorderliness that is typical of nonconventional warfare, of which Vietnam is an example and terrorism is a second, is something that you produces in societies as a whole some kind of approximation of the post-traumatic stress disorder that Shay identifies in the soldiers.
So what I want to do now, in the last five minutes of the lecture, is to give you two examples from Shay of the phenomenon that he’s describing, and then connect it back to Glaucon’s challenge. So the Iliad is a tale of mania, of anger. And the opening passage, which Shay cites, from Book I of which I had you read for today, is an expression of the indignant rage felt by Achilles at the betrayal of the rules of honor of warfare. And Achilles says–this is actually a quote from Book XVI , but it’s talking about the earlier moment.
“Only this bitterness eats at my heart when one man has deprived and shamed his equal, taking back his prize by abuse of power. The girl whom the Akhaians chose for me I won by my own spear. A town with walls I stormed and sacked for her, then Agamemnon stole her back out of my hands as though I was some vagabond held cheap.”
It’s a violation of the honor code. It’s a violation of the rules and expectations with which Achilles entered this war. “A town with walls I stormed and sacked for her. I am deprived of her not by the rules of war but by abuse of power.” Here’s a soldier in Vietnam expressing much the same thing.
“Walking point”–which is a job that involves basically being placed in the line of soldiers that’s most likely to lead to your being killed through an explosive–“Walking point was an extremely dangerous job. The decision of who was going to do it was made not fairly. It was made politically. Certain people got the shift. Certain people didn’t. Certain people on the right side of certain people.”
And this idea that the distribution of dangers doesn’t track rules, it tracks whims, is disordering. So the result of this, and I talked about this in the last slide already, is a kind of loss of trust, a recognition that ordinary objects–that’s the story of the baby on the mine–holds a potential for danger, nothing is what it seems, all certainties liquefy.
And the second discovery that Vietnam soldiers found themselves making was something that we’ll discuss in the context of a paper that we’ll read called “Moral Luck.” A discovery of what one is capable of in circumstances. Here’s the veteran: “It’s unbelievable what humans can do to each other. I never, in a million years, thought I would be capable of doing that. Never, never, never.”
So here’s Shay’s, here’s Homer’s answer to Glaucon: Dear Glaucon, Please note. The concern that these soldiers are expressing is not about what they seem to be. It’s not about what they are perceived to have done. Indeed, one of their complaints is that when they come home, no one will listen to their stories. The concern of these soldiers is about what they have done, about the being, and not the seeming. And it is the being, what you are, what is intrinsically the case, that is of concern to them.
So we’ll take up this issue at the beginning of next lecture with the discussion of the Milgram, and then we’ll turn to the readings from Epictetus and the contemporary analogues of it.
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