Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Humane treatment and the limits of explanation

In a post over at All Intensive Purposes, blogmeister T.S. talks about a woman who takes to "training" her husband like the experts train zoo animals--by positive reinforcement. In a comment I replied with such pith that I'll just copy and paste it right here:

I think it's more about the wife becoming humane than about her husband being an animal. Oddly, we seem to talk about humane treatment for non-human animals mostly. But what's humane and "civilized" often is to treat people like the animals we are. Angry dogs and angry people aren't so different. Instead of answering anger with anger--barking back or stabbing with a knife--you address the fear and suspicion with words or gestures (handshake, gift of a cracker). We really aren't foremostly rational beings. I suspect that the idea that we are is largely the fault of the Bible. "God" giving us "the word" and so on. Like having just a hammer is supposed to make every problem look like a nail, I think the apotheosis of verbiage makes every issue look intellectual--that is, conscious and rational. Har de har har.
For awhile I've thought that becoming a dog person (spouse and I have two) had made me a better people person, and I've wondered how much it's like the lessons so many say they learn in caring for infants and toddlers (spouse and I have none, but our friends have many). Obviously the same training tools apply to both dogs and human infants: Reward and rebuke (or punishment) are all you have as an aspiring teacher, and reasoned discourse isn't an option. So I think therein lies the lesson for the would-be people person: How to influence others without explanations.

A common mistake or bad assumption seems to be that after little people grow smart and begin to talk and finally become "mature," explaining or offering reasons is all we have to do to make them see the light (a.k.a. "make them do what we want them to"). Although anybody who's ever had a friend or lover or an ornery boss has stockpiled exceptions to the supposed rule, still it's an upside-down or at least skewed perspective, I think, to consider them exceptions. The rule, I'm inclined to say, is that we are emotional and unconscious actors--dogs and people alike. In civilizing I think we've engineered relations so that generally explanation offers quick relief--at the department-store returns desk, in court, at NASA and military control centers, etc. I also think a result or aspect of this engineering is that we have to go about pretending everybody fundamentally is rational, including ourselves, which would be a recipe for a lot of social and scholarly ineptitude.


Stroll said...

In other words, people be strait trippin!!!

I'm all about solving people problems with electric shocks. Or hammers. Or nails for that matter.

Just kidding of course, but I'm inclined to agree that people are more emotional than reasonable, if that's the point you're making.

SteveG said...

The question seems to be one of autonomy. Few want to deny that it would work, but that in using techniques like operant condition, we are treating someone as less than a full human with the right to self-determination. It's almost (drink Pepsi) like we are putting ourselves (won't be attractive without a big truck) in a position where we (Viagra will make you feel powerful again) can override the will of the other person (pizza, pizza) making them less human.

Murky Thoughts said...

Less human? What's human? What's self determination? And what is the self? All of these are open questions, last I checked in on philosophy as a freshman. I see that there's something distasteful to conventional sensibilities about what I'm proposing, but pooping is distasteful (and quasi-self determined), yet the grandest buildings provide toilets. We are romantic creatures, but we also can be practical. If there were no such thing as moral manipulation, we'd have no ethical way to raise our children. I suppose it would make sense to protect children and impose fewer responsibilities on them than adults even if we didn't pretend a totally transformational metamorphosis distinguishes the adult stage from the "pupil." The psychology and personality we develop during the particularly plastic periods after birth allow us to redirect our primal urges, Freud told us, but I don't think he gave us reason to expect that any psychology, let alone a run of the mill 21st century one, could liberate behavior from animalistic urges. Angst is fear. So psychology tends to account for and explain behavior from the deeper urges. Meanwhile dogs have psychology and a reality principle too. Dogs that are mistreated as puppies become messed up and unmanageable adults. You can train a dog to wait patiently for her own dinner and not to beg at the table while you eat yours. There's the dog superego at work. Have we humans taken the game to a totally different level? Relatively speaking, perhaps. But it's not like we're hitting the ball out of the park at every at-bat. We might as well be practical with people as we are with dogs, and maybe we should take a lesson from the dog and not consider such treatment as an insult any time it occurs outside sex, cooking and chair design. I'm not saying we can't or shouldn't bother reasoning with each other, just that we'd do well to be aware that more than reasoning is going on, and not to dismiss or denegrate addressing the more primal stuff on principle. I agree with the common sense that this creates opportunities for abuse in marketing or whatever. C'est la vie.

RC said...

Interesting comment i'm glad you posted it here.

--RC of strangeculture.blogspot.com