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Being Right, Doing Right

December 14, 2011

Which is more important or valuable to you: being right or doing right? Take care, your answer may say more than you think.

This has been an interesting week for science news. On Tuesday, particle physicists revealed tantalizing evidence that suggests their search for the mysterious Higgs boson is bringing them ever closer to discovering direct evidence of the so-called God particle. Over the weekend, a few media carried news from the other end of the scientific spectrum about an article in the journal Science reporting evidence of altruistic behavior in rats.

The existence (or not) of the Higgs boson has little or nothing to do with theology. You can believe it exists without following the tenets any particular faith tradition. But the finding that altruism is not confined to higher primates, much less humans, calls into question a cornerstone of much of what passes for dogma in both religious and secular society.

Faith and reason alike have been used to justify arguments about the central role of altruism in defining what makes us distinctly human. Any news that this may not be the case begs at least a moment of pause for philosophic reflection.

Altruism is important to emergency managers in much the same way its absence is to homeland security practitioners. On one hand, altruism helps emergency managers understand and explain why people do better than expected in coping with the effects of devastating events. On the other hand, the absence of altruism, call it evil or what have you, is often used to explain the motivations of those who would do harm to others whom they do not know.

Thinking of these two things as polar opposites suggests a sort of binary symmetry exists between them. Some might even be tempted to assume a sort of randomness to the emergence of one behavior as opposed to the other, which ends up evening out the score over the long run. But this new research seems to suggest something else entirely.

Instead of seeing altruism as a hallmark of human-ness, we might now have to accept just the opposite. If rats can demonstrate altruistic behavior toward one another, then it might be hardwired into mammalian brains as a default mechanism for alleviating pain. This in turn, would make the contrary behavior–willfully evoking pain in others, especially when it involves calculation, forethought and planning, the far more exceptional class of conduct.

Rats hardly have a good reputation in polite society. We apply the “rat” label to conduct considered venal, self-serving, conniving and anything but altruistic. At the same time, we consider evidence of altruism the virtuous epitome of humane behavior. The evidence, however, suggests just the opposite may be true.

Rats it should be said in their defense do not conspire with one another to spread disease. Something tells me they would say, “sorry,” if they could, for passing the plague. But humans, especially those willing and able to coöpt and conspire with one another to do harm, often display in such deeds either an inability to distinguish the wrongness of their actions or at the every least a wanton disregard for notions or right and wrong. The sophisticated nature of such rationalizations, whether they rely on faith or reason, strike me as more distinctively human than anything we now know even rats to be capable of.

As physicists continue the hunt for the Higgs boson and proof of the Standard Model, we would do well to consider anew our model of human behavior and how important altruism and the lack of it are to our understanding of what makes us who we are. If acting in a humane fashion toward one another is at once less distinctive of our human-ness and more common to the condition of simply being alive than we previously imagined, we might want to reconsider how we treat the rats among us.

As the assiduous and incredibly expensive search for the God particle aptly illustrates, concerted, intentional human effort reveals a powerful need we have, as humans, to acquire knowledge not for its sake but rather for our own. It’s not that we need to know, but that we need to know we are right, to confirm our hunches or faith is justified. Rats, it seems, are happy simply doing right for its own sake. I wonder which is happier?

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 14, 2011 9:01 am

    Thanks for explaining the Higgs news. I heard references to it, but had no idea what it meant. Can you explain what a boson is? Gold star if you can!

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