Friday, March 6, 2009

Praise and Blame

...From the archives.

Article: Humans hard-wired to be generous

A study by government scientists in Washington indicates humans are hard-wired to be unselfish.

Neuroscientists Jorge Moll and Jordan Grafman of the National Institutes of Health say experiments they conducted have led them to conclude unselfishness is not a matter of morality, The Washington Post reports.

Rather, the two say altruism is something that makes people feel good, lighting up a primitive part of the human brain that usually responds to food or sex.

Grafman and Moll have been scanning the brains of volunteers who were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.

They are among scientists across the United States using imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass.

The results are showing many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, opening up a new window on what it means to be good.

Copyright 2007 by United Press International

Q: What acts are praiseworthy (and what does it mean to be good)?
Does any action which benefits others deserve praise and respect? Do motives matter? What if a virtuous act is committed because it benefits the acting agent, whether with pleasure or other gain? Is the difficulty of implementing that action a factor (sharing an apple with a homeless person or organizing a national fundraiser), including having the favorable circumstances to implement that action (a poor person donating money versus a rich person)? Does the action itself matter? What determines the degree of praiseworthiness?

A: An act is praiseworthy if 1) That action is a result of conscious decision, i.e. it can’t be an accidental act, 2) The action must be virtuous (whatever that means), 3) The action is implemented in an unselfish manner (the acting agent did not implement that action with the hope of gain, i.e., pleasure, money, favor, etc.), conscious or unconscious (the hope of gain may lie in genetics of that person, making that action unconsciously desirable).

The acting agent’s praiseworthiness should not be judged by other people because praiseworthiness is very difficult to determine. Instead, the act itself, without the aspect of the agent (his motives, circumstances), should be judged on its praiseworthiness. Id est, “that is a very good thing you did” (which implies that the acting agent is also good, but does not explicitly make that judgment).

Q: So what talents, skills, actions, etc. are praiseworthy? Is an evil person with a great mastery of a musical instrument praiseworthy?

Q: What actions are blameworthy?

Blame is often the result of anger. It's intention and outcome is considerable guilt and therefore pain, which makes it a very important subject to understand. So the question to ask is:

Q: When is it OK to feel angry?

"Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy."
-- Aristotle (Ancient Greek Philosopher, Scientist and Physician, 384 BC-322 BC)

Define conditions:
  • the right person
  • the right degree
  • the right time/moment
  • the right purpose/grounds
  • the right way/manner
  • the right length of time
Regarding "the right purpose/grounds", it is important to note that justifiable anger, or any pain-causing emotion, must be directed towards the action in itself, without taking into account its implications, all of which are an indirect outcome--or side-effect--of the action (e.g. being late should receive the same emotional response, as in the case of a surgeon being 15 minutes late late for a life-or-death surgery of the president, and in the case of a student being late 15 minutes to a class).

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