New York Times ethics columnist Randy Cohen appeared on NPR’s “On Point” on August 10. Among the many interesting things he had to say, two caught my attention in particular. If the two points interest you, you should go listen to the show, because I’m really only using what Cohen had to say as leaping off points into some half-baked (or tenth-baked) ideas here. But Cohen is worth listening to.
Cohen’s first point that caught my attention was that humans have an ethical/moral faculty only because that faculty has evolved in them. Faculties that evolve have a reason for evolving (a function), and in humans that faculty functions to make it easier for groups of humans to live together.
In that way, morality and ethics are like politics, religion, family, marriage, etc.—the grand structures of community where we find “meaning” in living. These grand structures, along with other large structures of different kinds (art, poetry, gender, baseball, fun, etc.) and smaller structures (dessert, hiking, blogs, veganism) are called by some thinkers (Richard Dawkins was first) "memes". Memes are the structures around which our thought and our culture are constructed, or even the very vessels of thought itself—the vessels that carry meaning from one human being to another via the vast ocean of consciousness. This idea (or meme) of The Meme somewhat ironically fits in very well with materialist approaches* to consciousness, because it provides a theory for the movement of ideas within and among individuals without the necessity of free will or souls.
Even while putting aside the question of whether humans are truly moral/ethical beings and whether it’s healthier to maintain incredulity toward some of those metanarratives, it’s clear that the concepts of ethics and morality are strong drivers in most human culture. The question becomes how those concepts, those memes, become active in individual lives, how they find root in the individual brain…
…which leads me to the second of Cohen's comments to catch my attention: that it’s not always a good idea to act upon our moral/ethical impulses immediately. This statement caught my attention not because of its content, but because of its assumption that it is possible for one to act upon a moral/ethical impulse. Recent research shows that “we” don’t really choose our actions at all (see posts from last couple of weeks—in the language that I’m using here, I’m playing with the very trap that I warned against before: the idea that “we” are something other than our brain functions). Research clearly shows that there is a delay between the moment when decision making actually occurs in the brain and the moment when we become aware of having made a decision.
What could it mean, then, for someone to give us advice about acting on moral impulses, if we aren’t really in control of our decision making? Shouldn't we all just face the fact that all decision making is illusory and we should therefore just stop trying to make decisions and just let the world happen, willy-nilly? Does it mean we should stop trying to write poems and just let them come out whenever they happen to come out? Going down that path, we eventually lead to an individual who does nothing, says nothing, never moves, ceases to exist. But isn’t every action “choosing to act”?
I think a possible answer to the problem of moral/ethical advice and action in the face of the absence of free will lies in the fact that, as I argued in a previous post, when we make forward-looking statements, we are really describing ourselves as we have arrived at that point in time, describing our being up to that point, describing, in short, our evolution. When Breton writes in the Surrealist Manifesto about seeking the integration of waking life and dreaming life, he is describing his intellectual life up to that point, describing the influence of Freud and the Symbolists and Dada and World War I and everyone he’s ever known and everything he’s ever read upon him at that moment. When the Flarfists reject originality and the personal in poetry, they are describing the effects of postmodernism, contemporary culture, the history of art and poetry, everyone they’ve ever known, and everything they’ve ever read upon them at that moment. When Kent Johnson or Catullus writes about other poets, or when any poet writes as another poet (persona), he is revealing parts of his own personal composition. In other words, a large set of memes has been worked into a set of relations in the mind of Kasey Mohammed—and, in fact, they are “Kasey Mohammed”. The work of Kasey Mohammed is a revelation of the memes that compose Kasey Mohammed, or some portion of them; so in one sense Eliot was wrong. All of our work is a revelation of personality—or some part of it—if we think of personality as our meme components. Eliot was right to seek empathy as the proper ground of poetry, though; and he clearly was trying to avoid the trap of "personality" as something individual and hermetic, as opposed to a sense of self linked to other selves (via memes).
People are meme machines.
How is it possible, then, to be an agent in the world when it’s not even possible to intend?
Remember that the decision-making process in the brain seems to involve the input of many “experts” within the brain all making separate arguments; if one argument doesn’t immediately take precedence, the brain pauses. We call this pause “doubt”,” “indecision”, “hesitation”, “confusion”, etc.; in the time it takes for the feedback loop that is our consciousness to become aware of the decision under deliberation, it also becomes aware of the counter-arguments, the doubt. Sooner or later the brain settles on the counsel of its experts and “makes up its mind” and the self-awareness loop indulges itself in the illusion that it was involved in that process all along.
We seem to have gotten along pretty well these past several thousand years working under that delusion. And we certainly would not be able to function well if we took the lack of free will to its absurd conclusion and became completely and utterly passive (actually, that would be impossible without serious mental illness, because, for one thing, we would starve to death). So what is the middle ground? In what way does this knowledge become useful to us? In other words, why should we care enough to expose, discuss, and work against (or work mindfully within) the delusion of free will?
Because we are people, and people are meme machines, and the function of a meme machine is to contribute to the evolution of memes.
It is the individual poet’s (and the visual artist’s and the musician’s and the teacher’s and the politician’s) job to contribute to the evolution of memes. This is why the most exciting art is always the “new”, or the art that puts a new spin on the old. If memes are not evolving in the art, then the art is doing next to nothing. Does that mean the individual work of art must be progressive, must be formally innovative, must experiment? Not necessarily. The individual work of art might put pressure on certain memes through its content rather than its form or structure.
You might ask again: if there is no free will and no decision making, then how does it make sense to say a poet has a job? It makes sense because what a poet thinks of as her forward looking plan, her manifesto, is a description of her evolution. Alice Fulton already has evolved into a poet. Kasey Mohammed is already a poet. W. S. Merwin and Ann Carson and Brenda Hillman and Peter Streckfus and the thousands of other people who write poems are all products of poetry evolution. Poeting is what they do. They’re just doing what they were memed to do, and in so doing they influence the readers and poets and friends with whom they come into contact. So the importance of being a poet, the importance of being a politician, of being oneself is not revealed in the success of being oneself or in meeting one’s goals; it is revealed in one’s success at building memes in other minds, whether those memes have to do with poetry or plumbing or peaches.
It might seem, then, that we can say that the goal of poets and artists and politicians and teachers should be to change the world. In fact, a real artist or politician or teacher, etc. can’t help but change the world in one way or another, because they are traffickers in memes. They change the world not by intending to, but by being loci of meme traffic, and their brains have already decided for them whether or not they will be an active locus. Their job, then, is to go where their brains lead them. In doing so, they reveal their own evolution to others and influence others by their actions and speech. So, even though Cohen’s belief that he can choose to act or choose not to act on moral/ethical impulse is a delusion (as is that deep-seated belief in all of us), he is an agent in the world and does have influence because he speaks on NPR and in the Times and says things like “don’t act on moral impulse” which became a small part of my moral/ethical architecture alongside “be the change you want to see” and “all people are created equal”, and now it is a small part of your moral/ethical architecture. What are you going to do with it? I don’t know, and neither do you. But if that bit of advice fits in well enough within your moral/ethical architecture, who knows… it might become a poem, or a book, or a blog entry, and in some small way, Randy Cohen would be its co-author.
* Materialist/Determinist approaches to consciousness are not to be mistaken for the kind of Cosmological Determinism that holds a preset and unavoidable future, which would seem to require a more stable, certain, and down-pinnable situation than our quantum-fluctual universe would provide.