Friday, May 21, 2010

Of Hearts and Heads

Sandy was a generous woman who brimmed with kindness and compassion. Her empathy was so far reaching that her heart would immediately melt at the sight of others' discomfort, and she helped others without thinking. If someone suffered on the road and asked for money, she would hand double the request, unquestioningly. However, Maria was different. She believed in thinking before acting, and was not one to easily give way to the emotions of the heart. She greatly disapproved of Sandy's behavior, for she felt it wasn't right to be charitable without thinking of the consequences. According to Maria, if Sandy handed out money and materials to the needy, especially children, they are taught to be forever helpless and dependent. Besides, what if the money was spent on drugs and frittered away? Isn't that Sandy's fault? She, on the other hand, would put some thought into the matter and come up with an effective and practical way of helping people. Maria never felt sad, nor did she empathize with people who suffered. She worked from a sense of duty, and put as much rationality as she could in the process. According to her, she was being more morally responsible, than someone like Maria, who rashly acted on her feelings of pity. But people around Maria saw her as a cold, unfeeling person. Everyone felt closer and warmer to Sandy, and they couldn't agree with Maria's point of view. (Original Source: The Pig That Wants to be Eaten, Julian Baggini)

Sandy is a person who listens to her heart, while Maria listens to her mind. Is one better than the other? Not really. If so, we wouldn't have evolved to have both feelings and rational thought. But, in order to be morally responsible, is feeling, or thinking, more important? Again, the answer seems to be both. But if we had to choose one over the other, due to some compulsive changes in the future of evolution, which one would it be?

One thing that comes clean is that both ladies act on good intentions. The consequences, and the means to achieve the good ends, are in question. To the practical person, Maria makes a lot more sense. At the end of the day, global issues such as poverty, cannot be eradicated if every philanthropist randomly gave out money and materials. There needs to be a plan, and a systematic effort to pool in money and effectively utilize it through long-term solutions. Such long-term solutions need to be conceived and implemented. Rational, practical thinking is of utmost importance to ensure money is well spent, and resources are managed properly, so that there is little disparity in its distribution.

But such rational thinking cannot be set into motion without the impetus of feelings such as compassion and empathy. Some people like Maria are motivated enough by their sense of duty. But to me, duty is incomplete without genuine feeling. Besides, sustaining a grueling long-term effort requires much more than just duty - there needs to some feeling of involvement.

We evolved to feel first, and then think. Our animal ancestors cultivated the sense of morality primarily through feelings of empathy to fellow members. From that instinct, we have come down several stages wherein we have a more sophisticated moral structure built on the pillars of empathy and rationality, for successful and harmonious coexistence. One cannot exist without the other. However, merely rational thoughts of helping people cannot sustain without the feeling to want to help. But a feeling of wanting to help has immense hope to be practically and logically structured, given some time. I think the essence of humanity lies in feelings of compassion and kindness. Rational thought follows those feelings. If we had to compromise, I think we would survive better with feelings of morality, than rational thought on morality. Imagine a scenario such as a sinking ship; would a plain sense of duty and rationality alone urge men to rescue others, before they tried to save themselves? Rationality would scream: save yourself, there is only 1 boat left.

In the above scenario, Sandy is surely commendable, but she has to be advised on how to effectively channelize her feelings and donations, so as to truly address core problems. While Maria is very sensible, a future of humanoids like her who are cold to suffering, but can calculate a plan of rescue, is troubling to envision.

1 comment:

SecondSight said...

The lines between compassion and self-righteousness, duty and obligation are hard to define as it is.. My favorite take on it is from an old story about a sage whose wish to god was something along the lines of- Let whoever walks across my shadow be relieved of ills, but let them not know it was because of my shadow, and let me remain ignorant of who walked across.. :)