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The Desire for Moral Impotence

photograph of hands tied behind man's back

Richard Gibson and Nicholas Kreuder recently wrote about humans’ morally troublesome desire for control. The prospect of control is, Gibson notes, “intrinsically appealing” to humans, an “incredible common desire,” concurs Kreuder. Both writers also agree we should be wary of this desire for control. Gibson argues that this desire negatively influences our relationship with nature, while Kreuder argues that it “may leave our interactions with others feeling impoverished and hollow.” I largely agree, but I think there is another equally universal and deep-seated desire that also deserves some consideration — the desire to lack control.

An oft-repeated saying in philosophical ethics is “‘ought’ implies ‘can’.” In other words, if you can’t do something, then there’s no question of whether you ought to do it. Our moral responsibilities only extend as far as our abilities.

Because of this important link between what we ought to do and what we can do, being reminded that something is under our control often also serves as a reminder that it is also our responsibility.

The discovery that one has control is often not as joyous and anxiety-relieving an experience as you might expect given the universal human desire for control Gibson and Kreuder describe. In fact, anger, resentment, and bitterness are all common reactions to being reminded that we are in control of something. We often don’t want control. We yearn for it to be nothing to do with us — someone else’s problem.

Many of our responsibilities are, of course, distinctly moral ones. The world is an imperfect place, and we all have the capacity to make it better to some degree. In fact, many of us have the power to make it significantly better. In other words, most of us actually have a morally significant level of control over how the future unfolds.

Let’s take an example. It costs significantly more than most people think to save a life by donating to the most effective charities — about $2,300. But that’s still only about half as much as the average American spends at restaurants each year.

Ask yourself honestly; could you make a few lifestyle changes and afford the $2,300 needed to save a life? If so, how often? Once in your lifetime? Once a decade? Once a year? More?

How does this make you feel? Are you excited to learn or be reminded of your morally significant amount of control over the world? To discover that you (probably) have the radical power to give another human, a person just like you, the gift of life? Speaking for myself, far from feeling elated, I feel guilty and ashamed. My conscience would be clearer if highly cost-effective charities like this simply did not exist — if they did not grant me this ability to meaningfully reshape the world (at least for that one person and their family). Because having that ability means I have that moral responsibility. In my ordinary life, I act in bad faith. I think and act as though I don’t have the power to save lives with moderate charitable donations. For self-serving reasons, I think and act as though I lack control over the world that I actually possess.

In his discussion of Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, Kreuder points out the attractiveness of having more control over our interactions with others. Imagine having more ability to decide how people will respond, being sure that you’re not going to say the “wrong thing.” He suggests this kind of control would provide relief for those “wrecked with anxiety and marred with feelings of powerlessness.” This is certainly a desire I can recognize.

But I can also see the inverse: the desire of having less control in our interactions with others, in many cases.

Imagine your younger sibling is going off the rails – drinking too much and partying too hard. Their grades are suffering. Your sibling doesn’t listen to your parents but they look up to you; you know they will listen in the end. So you know that you, and only you, can intervene and make them get back on track. You can sit them down and have the difficult conversation that neither of you want to have. In other words, you have a great degree of control over your sibling.

How would you feel about having this kind of interpersonal control? Far from relieving your anxiety, you might feel deeply burdened by it, and the significant responsibility that it entails. It would be understandable to wish that you weren’t in such a potent position, and that someone else was instead. You might even be tempted to deny to yourself that you have such control over your sibling to avoid having to deal with the moral burden.

Rather than the risks that accompany greater interpersonal control, Gibson is concerned primarily with the negative effect that our desire for (often illusory) control has on our relationship with nature. It influences how we approach debates about “designer babies, personalized medicine, cloning, synthetic biology” and his focus, “gene drives.”

Gibson contends that humans actually have much less control than we like to think. In a cosmic sense, I think he is right. But, at least as a collective, humanity is surely in firm control over much of nature, perhaps even too much. Unfortunately, we control the global climate via our CO2 emissions. We control global fish stocks via modern fishing practices. And now, as Gibson explains, we also control which species we want to continue living and which we want to drive to extinction via the emerging technology of gene drives.

With respect to nature, at least the biosphere of Earth, humanity surely has much more control than most of us would think is desirable.

Our catastrophic relationship to nature seems to me less a symptom of our desire to control nature, and more a symptom of our being in a blissful state of denial about just how much control we have.

To be clear, I think Gibson is right to warn against an excessively domineering attitude toward nature, and Kreuder is right to warn against having too much control over our interactions with others. But we should also be on guard against the equally human tendency to find narratives that absolve us of our burdensome responsibilities. If Gibson is right that, fundamentally, “we’re subject to, rather than the wielders of power,” if we can’t really exercise control over the world, then there’s no reason to ask ourselves the tough question — what should we do? Avoiding this question may feel good, but it would be morally disastrous.

‘The Rehearsal’, Manipulation and Spontaneity

photograph of film set

The recent HBO series, The Rehearsal rests on a common concern – having to navigate situations without experience, where mistakes can significantly alter your life and the lives of those around you. Spearheaded by writer, director, producer, and performer, Nathan Fielder, the program offers people an opportunity to “rehearse” potentially high stakes situations by repeatedly running through a simulation with the actors. The episodes to air so far involve a bar trivia fanatic confessing to a friend that he previously lied about having a master’s degree, a woman practicing raising a child before deciding to become a mother, and a man hoping to convince his brother to let him access an inheritance left by their grandfather.

The show derives its humor, in part, from the lengths Fielder and his crew go to in the “rehearsals.” In the first episode, his team build a fully furnished, patroned and staffed, 1-to-1 replica of the bar in which the confession will take place, complete with live trivia. Fielder hires an actor to play the part of the confessor’s friend, who then arranges a meeting with this friend to better understand her personality, speech, and mannerisms in addition to gathering information about her from a blog she runs.

To simulate motherhood, the team hires many child actors to act as the adopted son. However, labor laws prevent a child actor from working more than four hours in a single day and limit the days a child can work each week. So, Fielder and his team must regularly replace the actor playing the child but do so covertly to maintain the illusion of raising a single child. Additionally, the team of actors changes each week, to a group of older actors, so the woman experiences raising a child at each stage of development.

Why go to such lengths, aside from the entertainment value? In the first episode of the series, Fielder notes that in our regular lives whether we achieve happy outcomes is a matter of chance. The idea behind taking painstaking efforts to make the “rehearsal” look and feel like reality is to leave the participants as prepared as possible in order to reduce the role fortune plays.

The appeal of performing these “rehearsals” seems to be motivated by a desire to control our interactions with others, in order to produce the best outcomes for all involved.

This is an incredibly common desire. Feeling like things are out of your control, especially those things which have a significant impact on the course of your life and the lives of those you care about, is anxiety inducing. The fact that things may go horribly wrong for us, despite our best efforts and intentions, creates a feeling of powerlessness. Being wrecked with anxiety and marred with feelings of powerlessness makes life difficult, to put it plainly.

But ought we follow through on this desire to gain control over our interactions with others? Richard Gibson helpfully analyzes the desire for control in the context of gene drives here. In doing so, Gibson presents an argument from Michael Sandel. Sandel argues that our desires for control, particularly in the realm of genes, involves a lack of humility. When we try to control as much as we can, this implies that we think it is appropriate for us to control these things. Specifically, Sandel claims that when we view the world in this way we lose sight of what he calls life’s giftedness. Our talents, skills, and abilities are given to us in the same way that a friend might give us a present. Much like one would think it inappropriate to alter a friend’s gift, perhaps trying to take total control of our lives is similarly inappropriate.

However, the real moral issues behind our desires for control become clear only when we consider that “rehearsing” involves other people.

For instance, the bar trivia fanatic is not just aiming to limit the fallout he experiences as a result from his confession. Instead, he is afraid of how his friend will react, and thus tries to control her reaction.

Of course, one might see no problem here. After all, we regularly tailor our interactions with others to avoid offending them while getting what we want. This is simply part of life.

Yet “rehearsed” interactions seem importantly different. To see why, consider the following: Daniel Susser, Beate Roessler, and Helen Nissebaum, in a discussion of manipulative practices on digital platforms, describe manipulation as “imposing a hidden or covert influence on another person’s decision-making.” Manipulative practices, they argue, involve trying to control a person in the same way that one might control a puppet, producing the desired behavior in the target by pulling on the target’s proverbial strings. Further, they argue that manipulative practices are more problematic the more targeted they are – manipulation that is tailor-made to match one person’s psychological profile seems more troubling than manipulation that trades on a widespread cognitive bias. Compare an ad for beer on TV the week before the Super Bowl that shows people excitedly watching a football game, to the same ad appearing in the social media feeds of sports fans after they make posts which suggest that they are feeling sad.

Although not perfectly analogous, there are important similarities between manipulation and “rehearsal.” We can see this with the trivia fanatic. In some cases, the “rehearsal” must be covert; if the fanatic’s friend knew he spent hours “rehearsing” their conversation, this would surely undermine his efforts and likely cause great offense.

A “rehearsal” may involve efforts to control how others respond to the conversation. One practices pulling different strings during the conversation to see how that changes the final outcome.

Finally, some “rehearsals” are targeted; the actor in the fanatic scenario puts in significant effort to mimic the friend as closely as possible. Surely, the actor cannot perfectly capture the psychological profile of the target. Nonetheless, imperfect execution does not seem wholly relevant. Thus, at least some “rehearsals” appear morally problematic for the same reason manipulation is worrisome.

Yet other “rehearsals” may lack these features. The rehearsal of parenthood, while hilarious due to its absurdity, does not need to be covert, involve an effort to guarantee particular outcomes, nor target a specific individual. One’s child will certainly have a different psychological profile than the child actor and, no matter how skilled the actors, surely they will not have indistinguishable performances. Thus, “rehearsals” that aim to try out a particular role, like parenthood, seem to have a different moral character than those that aim to make another person act in a desired way.

There is, however, one thing which may be universally problematic about “rehearsals.” During “rehearsals” of a conversation, Fielder stands by, taking notes and turning the conversation into an elaborate decision tree. This seems to turn the conversation into a sort of game – one practices it, determines cause and effect relationships between particular conversational choices and interlocutor responses, then pushes the proverbial reset button if the conversation takes an undesired turn.

As a result, it seems that the ultimate goal of a “rehearsal” is to eliminate spontaneity in the real conversation.

But part of what makes our experiences with others worthwhile is when the unexpected occurs. The price we pay for spontaneity is the anxiety of uncertainty. Our desires for control, if satisfied, may leave our interactions with others feeling impoverished and hollow.

I cannot say with perfect certainty what the goals of The Rehearsal are. The show offers a hilarious but often uncomfortable glimpse into what people are willing to do to gain a feeling of control. In doing so, it offers us the opportunity to reflect on what we should aim to take out of our interactions with others, and whether gaining control is worth what we might lose. If this was Fielder’s purpose with The Rehearsal, then it is a rousing success.

Seneca, Stoicism, and Thinking Better about Fear

photograph of feet standing before numerous direction arrows painted on ground

During times of crisis, such as a global pandemic, we have an opportunity to think better about fear. Most folks are living in fear, to various degrees, during this time of uncertainty. And that isn’t fun; fear is often unpleasant ‘from the inside.’ And it can rob us of well-being, and a sense of agency and control. And fear can be irrational: ancient Stoic philosophers argued that it neither makes sense to fear what we cannot control, nor to fear what we can. Of course, too little fear, in certain situations can be fatal; but we’re often faced with the problem of too much fear. Let’s begin with how fear can inhibit our ability to lead a moral life.

When in the grip of fear, it is all too easy to snap at loved ones, focus on our own problems at the expense of others, and generally be unpleasant, and perhaps worse. We may, in the grip of fear, treat others as obstacles in the pursuit of allaying those fears, and inflict unjustified harm in response. By example, Sam fears the trespasser on his property intends him harm — the man, while innocent, looks menacing; Sam shoots first and asks questions later. Here Sam is treating the trespasser as an impediment to his peace of mind; and in the grip of fear, he does something deeply wrong. We often aren’t at our moral best acting out of fear.

In addition, fear can rob us of our ability to think clearly. In the grip of fear, we can have a worse time thinking clearly and rationally: fear can, among other things, enhance our selective attention: the ability to focus on a specific thing in our environment, to the exclusion of others. And while this may be useful in a dangerous situation, it can also make rational thinking difficult. Conjure up the last time you were afraid; you likely weren’t at your smartest or most rational; I wasn’t. And fear can be self-defeating: if we want to address the source of our fears, we often need our full cognitive capacities. We thus need to rid ourselves of the feeling of fear, to best equip ourselves to address the cause.

And there’s the issue of control: the source of fear — e.g. economic uncertainty — may not be in our control. Many things aren’t in our control. Things that have receded into the past, as well as things that await in our unknown future, lie outside our control. The ancient Stoic philosophers thought it irrational to fear what we cannot control: there is nothing to be gained from fearing what we can do nothing about; we emotionally harm ourselves, but gain nothing. Fearing what is beyond our control is like standing on the beach and trying to will the tide not to come in; we can immediately recognize this behavior as irrational. But fearing what is beyond our control isn’t that different: we can do nothing about it; so to focus our mental and emotional energies on it would be a waste. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca explains:

“Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present.”

How should we then think about fear directed toward the future?

“It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so, look forward meanwhile to better things.”

It isn’t rational, the Stoics held, to fear what we cannot control. And we shouldn’t fear what we can control either: if we can control it, we should. It makes more sense to focus on controlling the source of fear, and addressing it, then continuing to remain afraid. It doesn’t make much sense to be afraid of something we can address. It would make no sense to, say, be afraid of visiting the dentist, as many are, but fail to take active steps to prevent having to visit the dentist (more than necessary), by say, practicing good oral hygiene.

You may reply here that you don’t have direct control over your feelings; it isn’t as though you can voluntarily expel fears by sheer acts of will. There is an element of truth here: we often don’t have direct control over our emotions like we do, say, a light switch; we often just find we have certain feelings and emotions. There are things we can do cognitively to indirectly control and combat fear. Here are a couple of tools to help:

Narrowing one’s time horizon: sometimes the best way to address fear, especially fear of things to come, is to shrink our time horizons. Instead of focusing on the year, month, or even the next week, focus instead on the day. Too long? Narrow it further: focus on the next hour, or even the next minute. Life isn’t lived in an instant; and often enough, our fears lie in anticipation, but aren’t actually realized. This is why Alcoholics Anonymous wisely suggests those in recovery mentally frame their recovery as ‘one day at a time’: sometimes it is too overwhelming to think in larger time slices; doing otherwise may be too overwhelming. We need not be in recovery to benefit from the wisdom of narrowing our time horizon when in the grip of fear.

Gratitude: taking note of what we have to be thankful for — often, if we look hard enough, we can find things for which we should be grateful — can displace fear. We can use the practice of gratitude — like making a gratitude list — to draw our attention to the good things in our lives, to combat the overemphasis on the bad. To put the idea poetically: we can’t long abide both in the shadow of fear, and the sunlight of the gratitude; the latter has an uncanny way of driving away (or significantly reducing the power of) the former.

What’s the point to thinking better about fear? In short: to live a better life. We aren’t our best selves when we’re afraid. And since bad things may eventually befall you — where there is little we can do about it — we may as well appreciate the good things in the moment. What’s the point of that? I’ll let Seneca answer:

“There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So, look forward to better things.”

Though fear can be useful — by example, it may help us survive — we can be too fearful to live good, productive lives. We may not always be able to do something about feeling afraid, but we need not let it completely dictate the quality of our lives either.