On Depression, Suicide, and Being a Good Person

The psychologist Rollo May once noted that “depression is the inability to construct a future”. Whatever the scientific merits of that observation, I believe it offers a reasonable explanation for how someone could do something that most of us would find impossible: consciously ending their own lives, often regardless of their seemingly positive circumstances. If one is unable to see any point to their lives, or to conceive of any future beyond the painful past and present that is all they know, then what other choice to they have, as far as they can see?

Obviously, depression and suicidal ideation are fundamentally personal matters that affect each individual differently, so I am reluctant to generalize about how it feels, where it stems from, and so on. Please take this as the uneducated stream of consciousness of one person and nothing more.

All I can say is that as a sufferer of depression and anxiety (both thankfully far milder than most), as well as someone familiar with the subject through loved ones and personal research, I have learned one valuable thing: no expression of love or validation is too small. Every little bit counts. No matter how futile it may seem, at the very least we must try.

I have heard too many stories of people being brought back from the brink of suicide and despair by the spontaneous phone call of a loved one, or the random act of kindness from a stranger. Humans inherently seek out validation and meaning in their lives; as a social and sentient species, we require both love and a sense of purpose. Simply being acknowledged by another human being, or being given something to work towards — a charitable cause, the making of art, the caring of others — is enough to enrich our lives and keep us going.

There is little I can say that is not already known: that suicide is irreversible, that depression and mental illness are nothing to be ashamed of and suffer alone with, that the people around you care and want you to stay. The unfortunate reality is that no matter how much we remind ourselves of these things, or how much we try to be there for others, the tragedy of the human condition continues. Many of us will be or feel powerless to help ourselves or others. In response to tragedy, we will reflect, act accordingly in the short term, but then move on until the next grim reminder.

Of course, this is not to discourage people from seeking help or offering it — doing good is still valuable and necessary regardless of whether bad things continue to happen. Over the years, I have learned from both personal experience and the accounts of others, that no matter what your mental status — depressed, suicidal, satisfied, etc — doing good for others feels deeply uplifting and self-actualizing. After all, we need to start somewhere, and in such a cruel world, no act of goodness is too small. It will always matter to someone, perhaps enough to save their lives. What have we got to lose in the process?

Ultimately, my point is that we must remain vigilant in our goodness and conscientiousness, to be kind and loving to as many of our fellow humans as possible. As the Scottish author Ian Maclaren rightly advised, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. In doing so, we can better our chances at enriching, if not saving, both others’ lives and our own. Even if it does not work out — if people continue to suffer, act self-destructively, or remain unmoved to act morally — at the very least we can say that we did very sincere best, and will continue to do so as long as human suffering on both an individual and societal level remains.

If you have read up to this point, thank you, and remember that I am always here for you, whether you’re an acquaintance or my very closest loved one. Your value as a person is all the same. Try me, you’ve got nothing to lose and no judgement to contend with. I know I can seem distant and unavailable, but believe me, I can and will make the time. It is hardly an inconvenience. On the contrary, it would be my honor. Be well my readers.

Reason, Empathy, and Human Progress: A Dialogue

TED Talk has a great 15-minute animation of a conversation between psychologist Steven Pinker and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein regarding the role of reason and empathy in bettering our species overall (the ending of slavery, alleviation of poverty, etc). Done in the spirit of an illuminating and investigative Socratic method, it’s a very stimulating conversation.

Do you agree with their conclusion? What are your thoughts on the matter?

Excellence as Habit

This apt observation was made over two thousand years ago, and it remains as relevant today as it did then. This reflects the universal fact that to be moral and virtuous is a conscious and continuous effort. We have to be as reflective and analytical as possible with respect to the decisions we make and the interactions we have; in this way, we determine the best course of action in terms of ethics, integrity, and self-improvement.

Furthermore, we should never be complacent about our presumed moral character, or assume we’re inherently moral as it is, because that could lead to a blind-spot in our own behavior. To be a moral person is a constant work in progress, because we’re constantly learning new things and expanding upon our understanding (and definition) of what is good, what is ethical, what is excellence, etc.

Of course, none of this is easy, but the rewards are worthwhile, especially if enough people do it at once.

What are your thoughts on this? What do you do to be a better person?Who or what has inspired you or helped you to this end?

Does Thinking About Money Make You a Bad Person?

Most people would agree that time and money are very important things in life, second to or on part with love, healthy, and family. But can dwelling too much on one or the other influence your overall ethical character? According to a study reported in The Atlanticthe mere thought of trying to acquire more money — even by honest means — can make you a bad person.

“The increased want associated with greater wealth and status can promote wrongdoing,” Paul Piff of the University of California, Berkeley wrote in a widely-cited paper showing that the “upper-class” was more likely to lie, cheat, violate driving laws, and even take candy from children.

It’s not just having money that makes us dishonest. Even thinking about it—lustrous gold coins, money trees, year-end bonuses—makes us us more likely to behave unethically. A new study this week both indicts the immoral intoxication of money and offers a simple solution: When you make people think about time rather than money, they become self-reflective and less likely to do the wrong thing.

In four experiments, Francesca Gino (Harvard Business School) and Cassie Mogilner (Wharton) primed subjects with words associated with money or time. Then they asked them to complete certain tasks like a number matrix and a sentence-unscrambling test. The participants, who could lie about their performance, rewarded themselves with money for each task they allegedly completed.

Nearly 90 percent of those primed to think about money cheated, compared to just 42 percent in the time condition.

The pernicious influence of greed, consumerism, and materialism is nothing new or controversial. But the idea that merely thinking about these things primes negative behaviors and ideas is an interesting one — and probably something most people would find contentious. After all, we’ve all thought about wanting to make more money at some point in our lives, so does that mean we’re periodically tempted to be dishonest or exploitative?

Well, why not? It’s not too difficult a conclusion for me to swallow, personally. Few human beings are ever consistent in their moral or ethical character, and most of us find ourselves frequently faced with temptations to do bad things (and justify them) for our own gain. So the idea that we can get carried away with our own desires, even if we don’t mean to be, isn’t terribly surprising.

And what about the influence of time?

Thinking about time makes us reflect on who we are, the professors concluded. Self-reflection makes us honest because we evaluate ourselves in the long-term, rather than focus on the clear short-term advantages from cheating. “Even good people can and often do bad things,” Gino said in an email conversation. “People who value morality may also behave unethically if they are able to convince themselves that their behavior is not immoral.”

In other words, if you make a habit of thinking about the bigger picture — what little time we have left to accomplish our goals or spend time with our loved ones, for example — you’re more likely to realize the error of your poor, short-term judgements.

It gets more interesting:

In previous research, Gino and the behavioral economist Dan Ariely predicted that creativity enabled dishonesty. People who could produce more novel, useful ideas in general could also come up with creative ways to rationalize unethical behavior. (“Sure, I got her fired, but she can better reach her potential in another industry”; “I’m not stealing from this national bank, I’m adjusting for the implicit subsidies it enjoys as a Too-Big-To-Fail institution”; etc) Stimulating creative thought in their study increased dishonest behavior by blurring the line between morality and immorality.

Many people associate criminality and immorality with poverty and ignorance; but more often than not, the intelligent and otherwise well-off person has every reason to be a bad person — literally, they’re smart enough to figure out reasons to justify their malevolent actions. To me, this drives home the often neglected point that there is a difference between intelligence in terms of cognitive ability — retaining, learning, analyzing, and so on — and knowing about ethics, morality, empathy, and other things that underpin benevolent behavior.

But in this research, Gino showed that self-reflection highlights that line between right and wrong. “In a sense, it reduces their ability to engage in this creative explanation for why what they are doing is okay,” she said.

Introspection is key. Take more time to think about things and weigh the consequences and long-term implications. It’s not easy, but the potential rewards — for you, your loved ones, and the wider society — are vast. But in a world dominated by money, materialism, and cutthroat competition, this is even more challenging. It’s easy to justify dishonest behavior when you’re struggling in an increasingly inequitable and cynical world.


Have Young Americans Lost Their Moral Compass?

In recent months there has been a visible struggle in the media to come to grips with the leaking, whistle-blowing and hacktivism that has vexed the United States military and the private and government intelligence communities. This response has run the gamut. It has involved attempts to condemn, support, demonize, psychoanalyze and in some cases canonize figures like Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

In broad terms, commentators in the mainstream and corporate media have tended to assume that all of these actors needed to be brought to justice, while independent players on the Internet and elsewhere have been much more supportive. Tellingly, a recent Time magazine cover story has pointed out a marked generational difference in how people view these matters: 70 percent of those age 18 to 34 sampled in a poll said they believed that Snowden “did a good thing” in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.

So has the younger generation lost its moral compass?

No. In my view, just the opposite.

The article is a pretty engaging read, and I recommend reading it and deciding for yourselves. 

The “Divine command” theory of ethics: is it more common than we think?

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

Caveat emptor: I am not a philosopher and proffer these posts, as always, as tentative thoughts, designed to hone my ideas, inspire conversation, and learn from my readers.

It has always seemed to me that Plato’s Euthyphro argument pretty much disposed of the claim that morals are grounded in God.  If you need a refresher, that’s simply the argument that if morals are underlain by God’s commands, then anything that God commands is good by definition. (Plato used “piety” rather than “morality,” but the argument is the same.) But by those lights God could say, “Stoning adulterous women is the moral thing to do” and we’d have to go along with it.  (This is, in fact, the “divine command” theory—DCT used by William Lane Craig to justify the genocide of the Canaanites.)

But of course few of us want to adhere to the notion that whatever God says

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War and Human Nature

From what I’ve seen, it’s become something of a canard to say that war is intrinsic to human nature. Large scale violence is not only uniquely human, but inseparably so, such that it’s hard to imagine human existence without it.

But a recent study is casting doubt on this widely-accepted and seemingly verified “Deep Roots Theory” of human violence. Scientific American reports on the research published today in Science, Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War.

Of the 21 societies examined by Fry and Soderberg, three had no observed killings of any kind, and 10 had no killings carried out by more than one perpetrator. In only six societies did ethnographers record killings that involved two or more perpetrators and two or more victims. However, a single society, the Tiwi of Australia, accounted for almost all of these group killings.

Some other points of interest: 96 percent of the killers were male. No surprise there. But some readers may be surprised that only two out of 148 killings stemmed from a fight over “resources,” such as a hunting ground, water hole or fruit tree. Nine episodes of lethal aggression involved husbands killing wives; three involved “execution” of an individual in a group by other members of the group; seven involved execution of “outsiders,” such as colonizers or missionaries.

Most of the killings stemmed from what Fry and Soderberg categorize as “miscellaneous personal disputes,” involving jealousy, theft, insults and so on. The most common specific cause of deadly violence—involving either single or multiple perpetrators–was revenge for a previous attack.

These data corroborate a theory of warfare advanced by Margaret Mead in 1940. Noting that some simple foraging societies, such as Australian aborigines, can be warlike, Mead rejected the idea that war was a consequence of civilization. But she also dismissed the notion that war is innate–a “biological necessity,” as she put it – simply by pointing out (as Fry and Soderberg do) that some societies do not engage in intergroup violence.

Mead (again like Fry and Soderberg) found no evidence for what could be called the Malthusian theory of war, which holds that war is the inevitable consequence of competition for resources.

Instead, Mead proposed that war is a cultural “invention”—in modern lingo, a meme, that can arise in any society, from the simplest to the most complex. Once it arises, war often becomes self-perpetuating, with attacks by one group provoking reprisals and pre-emptive attacks by others.

The war meme also transforms societies, militarizes them, in ways that make war more likely. The Tiwi seem to be a society that has embraced war as a way of life. So is the United States of America.

Needless to say, I’m awaiting more research on the subject. But whatever the case is, I think it’s important not to view mass violence in such a fatalistic way. That mentality would only perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which we’re more willing to accept war as an institution — or solution — by virtue of its apparent inevitability. This same approach accounts for many other moral and social evils.

Even if such negative behaviors do have deep roots, that’s hardly an excuse for not trying to mitigate their influence. Most human behavior stems from both nature and nurture, and I’m not aware of any human characteristic that strictly falls under one sphere or the other. Thus, there is always some avenue for improvement, albeit through concerted multidimensional efforts — better material conditions, in combination with quality education (formal and informal), tends to lead to a vast reduction in social ills.

Are secularists slackers when it comes to relief efforts?


It should also be noted that not everyone who does good deeds — especially if they’re secular — feels the need to advertise their religion or ideology. We all do what we can regardless.

Originally posted on Why Evolution Is True:

You might be aware, from discussions on the internet, about Joe Klein’s slur on secular humanists in his recent Time magazine piece on returning veterans performing public service.  Klein mentioned, after seeing church groups helping out after the Oklahoma tornado disaster, “funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals. . . ”

That kind of canard is bruited about all the time, and a needed palliative for it has just been published in the Atlantic, in a piece by Katherine Stewart called, “A Catholic, a Baptist, and a secular humanist walk into a soup kitchen. . . ”  It’s a good critique of the notion that only the religious help out in disasters—a notion that carries with it the idea that religion but not secular humanism promotes morality.

Stewart points out several facts.  First, people in relief organizations like the Red…

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Feel Good While Doing Good

Sometimes, one of the best ways to cheer yourself up is to make someone else happy. When another human being thrives, it becomes contagious. Even watching my garden grow or my pets flourish puts me at ease.

For all our flaws and moral shortcomings, our species is still an inherently nurturing and social one. It’s very difficult to prosper in a negative social or physical environment. It’s been universally observed for centuries that happiness is strongest when it is shared.

Rats, Sperm Whales, and Altrusim

The following report comes from Discovery News, and while it’s a bit old, I think its relevance and implications remain secure.

Researchers started by housing 30 rats together in pairs, each duo sharing the same cage for two weeks. Then, they moved them to a new cage where one rat was held in a restraining device while the other could roam free.

The free rat could see and hear his (or her — six of the rats were female) trapped buddy, and appeared more agitated while the entrapment was going on.

The door to the trapping enclosure was not easy to open, but most rats figured it out within three to seven days. Once they knew how, they went straight to the door to open it every time they were put in the cage.

To test the rats’ true bond to their cagemates, researchers also ran the experiment with toys in the restraint to see if the rats would free the fake stuffed rats like they did their comrades. They did not.

“We are not training these rats in any way,” said first author Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal.

“These rats are learning because they are motivated by something internal. We’re not showing them how to open the door, they don’t get any previous exposure on opening the door, and it’s hard to open the door. But they keep trying and trying, and it eventually works.”

Even when researchers rearranged the experiment so that the trapped rat would be set free into another enclosure, away from his hero friend, the rats still opened the door, indicating they were not motivated by companionship.

“There was no other reason to take this action, except to terminate the distress of the trapped rats,” Bartal said. “In the rat model world, seeing the same behavior repeated over and over basically means that this action is rewarding to the rat.”

This sort of behavior is perhaps unexpected, give that most people would hardly think of rats (mere pests that they are) as being capable of much sentience, let alone selflessness. Not only does this challenge  the notion that altruism is the sole purview of advanced cognitive capacity, but it goes against the popular perception that living things are concerned only with their own self-interest and survival.

There’s clearly nothing to gain from freeing another rat, other than the apparent “satisfaction” of alleviating the suffering of another living thing.  But is there a limit to this behavior? What would the rats do if given a more enticing alternative to freeing their comrade?

In one final test to truly measure the resolve of the rats, scientists presented them with a pile of chocolate chips in the cage. The rats were not hungry, and in prior experiments showed they liked chocolate because they would eat it instead of rat chow given the chance.

Still, free rats tended to act benevolently. Even if they munched on a few chips first, they would then free their pal and allow him to eat the remaining chips.

“It said to us that essentially helping their cagemate is on a par with chocolate. He can hog the entire chocolate stash if he want(s) to, and he does not. We were shocked,” said co-author Peggy Mason, a professor of neurobiology.

So even when given an irresistible temptation to spurn their friend, the rats still tended to prioritize the well-being of the other rat. In fact, they furthermore shared in the goodies, even though they could easily hog them after having done their part.

Rats are hardly the only animals to demonstrate this sort of behavior. Just about every social species that’s been studied – from dolphins to monkeys – have displayed similar behavior. Most recently there was a discovery that a group of sperm whales,  a species widely perceived as aggressive, had adopted a deformed dolphin.

Behavioral ecologists Alexander Wilson and Jens Krause discovered this unique phenomenon when they set out to observe sperm whales off the island of Pico in the Azores in 2011. Upon arriving there, they discovered a whale group of adult sperm whales, several whale calves, and an adult male bottlenose dolphin. Over the next eight days, the pair observed the dolphin with the whales six more times, socializing and even nuzzling and rubbing members of the group. At times, the sperm whales seemed merely to tolerate the dolphin’s affection, while at others, they reciprocated. “It really looked like they had accepted the dolphin for whatever reason,” Wilson reports to ScienceNOW. “They were being very sociable.”

This gregarious dolphin was easily recognizable by its spinal malformation, a rare spinal curvature that gave the dolphin’s back half an “S” shape. This malformation did not seem to affect the dolphin’s overall health, but  was likely the reason that the dolphin joined up with the sperm whales in the first place. In the highly social and clique-based world of dolphins, such a disfigurement could have given the dolphin low social status, or may have prevented the dolphin from fitting in and keeping up with its peers. “Sometimes some individuals can be picked on,” Wilson says. “It might be that this individual didn’t fit in, so to speak, with its original group.” The deformed dolphin could perhaps better keep up with the sperm whales, which swim more slowly, and could stay by their side at all times, as sperm whales always assign a “babysitter” to remain at the surface with the calves while the other adults dive deep to feed.

Could there be anything in it for the sperm whales? It’s possible there is a mutual benefit, as the article notes towards the end. Why else would they accept the member of another species into their cohesive group, let alone one that has “disabilities”?

While there are several likely possibilities for the dolphin’s advantage in the match, the whales’ reason for the adoption is less clear — there is no obvious advantage that the whales could gain by adding the dolphin to their group. Sperm whales have never been seen being affectionate to other species, and, further, scientists say that bottlenose dolphins and sperm whales often do not get along, as the dolphins have been known to chase and harass the whales and their calves.

Of course, there are some caveats to keep in mind. For starters, it’s still uncertain what the sperm whales’ motivations are, and as tempting as it is to view it as an act of compassion, it’s simply too soon too tell. Then there’s the fact that this is an isolated incident, and can hardly be extrapolated to represent the norm.

Still, this and the previous rat experiment suggests that there is something innate within other social species that seems to cause what we would otherwise call altruistic or compassionate behavior. This is definitely something that should be studied more, if only to give animals more credit for sentience, and thus more rights.

In any case, it makes sense that social species would have some innate inclination to help one of their own, since our individual survival is dependent on the group’s well-being. We depend on each other’s cooperation to thrive, so generosity is often a win-win for everyone. Maybe even altruism, which requires personal sacrifice, may confer some sort of advantage. Regardless,  I this suggests that morality does indeed have some natural origin, given that empathy and a sense of solidarity seems to underpin most moral actions.