Ethical thinking, caterpillars, choking, panicking, and hope

Jon Morrow at copyblogger correctly suggests that we bloggers can get intoxicated by our words. He recommends:

Sober up – Walk away from the post for a few hours and give your internal editor a chance to wake up. He’ll tell you whether the post is good or not.
Find a driver – If you can’t afford to wait, ask a friend to read the post and give you honest feedback. Regardless of how euphoric you are about it, trust their judgment.

Chris Garrett follows with a thought-provoking post on how “blogging has some things in common with drinking the booze”:

Lowered Inhibitions
Solution: Don’t post in haste. Write like your mum or boss is reading.
Solution: Realize you are not perfect yourself and what you put out you get back.
Solution: Make friends in forums, comment on others blogs, chat on IM and email. Other people are usually happy to let you know the truth of the situation or just give support.
Solution: Post in draft, do not reveal too much, have clear procedures for keeping details safe and not always using the same passwords, keep backups.
Solution: Prevention is easier than cure but if you do find yourself having to clear up a mess, be honest and remorseful and hope people forgive and forget!

As it happens I just had a right old tussle with the third in his list – despair. In part this was a pin-off of the topic I’d been posting on for a while – psychopaths and lying – but I’ll write more about that another time. Today I’ll just consider the effect of of engaging one’s mind publicly with a big age-old problem (in this case, ethical and unethical behaviour).*

To recap: for the last week or so I’ve been writing about ethical thinking. The spark was a a post on  ‘The splintered mind’:

The caterpillar who thinks about how its legs work falls on its chin, the story goes. So similarly, Joshua Rust…suggests that in cases when our spontaneous responses would be morally appropriate, moral reflection can tangle up the works….I’m not sure I’m quite ready to get on board with Josh on this one yet, though. It seems to me that often our spontaneous reactions are self-serving, and habits of ethical reflection can break us away from those. I’m inclined to think that overall (even if not in every particular situation) it’s good to have habits of moral reflection.

This was picked up DrX who added a crucial unconscious element:

Rational examination has a role to play in this self-exploration, but deeper familiarity with the much larger role played by irrational, unconscious mental activity is critical to getting the most out of self-reflection.

I then wrote a post ‘Can we think our way to ethical behaviour?‘ and added the element of good faith. This led to a spirited exchange of comments. And I followed this with a piece the nature of lies and lying.

Today I reflect a little on the effect on me of driving down this winding road. First of all, it has been great fun and most illuminating too. However, ther’ve been some far from pretty sights too:

-the temptation to think these questions are insoluble (they are)
-the temptation to conclude that thinking ethical matters through is a fool’s errand (it isn’t)
-the temptation to rationalise: because the rules aren’t crystal clear maybe it’s all relative anyway (i.e. to undermine my own ethical functioning)
-the temptation to feel like a phony (who am I to pontificate about these matters?)
-in short, the temptation not only to give up the quest but to regret having undertaken it to begin with!

But let’s see if I can work my on track again.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article for the New Yorker on two psychological mechanisms which may be activated in the face of large problems: choking and panicking. To choke is to shift from implicit to explicit processing (e.g. the golfer Greg Norman getting ‘the yips’ and blowing an enormous lead). To panic is to focus far too narrowly (e.g. John F. Kennedy Jr’s air crash).

Panic…is the opposite of choking. Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little. Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct.

So, here are two possible intellectual reactions to overwhelming problems – over thinking and underthinking. In the face of my challenge of thinking through some questions of ethics I can think of a third possible dead-end: losing hope.

In ‘Feelings’ the psychoanalyst Willard Gaylin describes a college vacation job he once had smoothing out ball-bearings. It was easy but mundane work. He daydreamed pleasantly while gradually working his way through the barrel of ball-bearings.

One day the supplier in the factory, evidently noticing the casings diminishing, came with an even larger barrel and filled mine once again to the top. What had been added was a sense of hopelessness of the task. Had I been allowed to complete my barrel, I suspect I could have gone on to the next one and the next, but being deprived of even this small example of closure, of termination, of achievement – of creativity, if you will – I could not bear it. I quit at the end of that week.

Back to my week of ethical contemplation and my temptation to give in. There is a lesson I take from my experience (seperate from, but aggravated by, the topic itself) of undertaking a journey without a final destination.

Thinking hard is like driving fast. It’s thrilling. But one’s thinking (mine, others too?) veers between over-focusing and over-thinking and may end up in a third unhelpful place – the cognitive/emotional experience of hopelessness. Here one looks back and regards insoluble problems as being for that reason pointless undertakings. But they’re not necessarily so – they just require a different sort of motivation than closure.

As Dr. Johnson said, “Where there is no hope there can be no endeavour.” 

What did we do before the internet and blogging, by the way? I probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon this fascinating idea to begin with; I definitely wouldn’t have exercised myself as much – learning from others and testing my thinking with y’all.

*This post is the first in the category ‘n = 1’ where I attempt to extrapolate outwards from one instance, my own.


11 thoughts on “Ethical thinking, caterpillars, choking, panicking, and hope

  1. Or a different sense of closure. Not having solved the problem but learned something or gained an insight.

    It may be that anger can help. If you are frustrated what does the frustration want to do/say? (In my view depression is anger turned inwards – visualise turning it outwards – if depression is what is going on.)

    It sounds to me like the journey has been very worthwhile. Full of productive insights.

    To be (offensively?) personal: do you think it is possible you may have a touch of perfectionism in your make up?

  2. evan – Nice point about frustration, though that wasn’t one of the emotions at work, I don’t think.
    (Nothing offensive about it) I can be a bit that way when interested in somehting.

  3. as you certainly know, philosophers do reach rather firm conclusions on the workings of the ethical mind, so, unless you discount them, it is not true that these questions are insoluble. what is insoluble, it seems to me, is the ethical dilemma of finding a formula that will tell us how to behave consistently well, or in the right way, in the course of the daily hustle and bustle. but then that’s what makes life fun and interesting, and human interactions so rich and unpredictable. above all, it is what keeps us from becoming smug and complacent and falsely ensconced into a position of assured ethical wisdom.

    keep up the good work, steve. you have a cool blog.

  4. ama – Thanks for that. I guess what I’m getting at is the fact that generations philosophers keep being exercised by these questions means that they haven’t been solved – in that sense they’re insoluble.

  5. dr.steve… I just dropped by while taking a break from my grad school studies… enough of Freud for a moment..
    And I enjoyed the first part of this entry about blogging in and its analogies and potential ‘abuse prevention’! It made me remember another post…. I really think you will LOVE this:
    Desiderata for Bloggers
    If you DON’T thoroughly enjoy this, then… well, I’m sure I’ll find something that Sigmund could have said about THAT! Some sort of ego-too-seriousification complex I’m sure!

  6. terraflora – Thanks for the desiderata – excellent! One of the joys of blogging is coming across new folks; I think I’ll visit with lettershometoyou.

    Let me have anything by Freud that seems relevant anyway; I love that guy.

  7. Steve –
    a) you will LOVE ‘letters’! Wonderful writer!
    b) and.. who’d athunk… I love Freud now too! (It helps to be taught by someone (Christine Downing) who is so versed and holds him in such high esteem.)

    I am right now working my way to write a term paper about mourning (and melancholia!) and (hopefully) how we heal from that. So of course I’ve landed smack dab back in the land of the Narcissistic personality! I guess recent personal experience is already coming in handy!! hehe

  8. terraflora – Do you find that you like Freud as a writer as I do? The narrative forms, the analogies, the sustained argument, the tangents…must be quite something in the German.

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