Wednesday, April 28, 2010

let the children play

What makes sense of regret? Obviously, there are the moral kinds of reasons, but that’s not what I have in mind. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I end up regretting past actions, I do so believing that things could have been different than they in fact were. I could have made a different choice, imagining an alternate version of myself with slightly to vastly different desires, temperament, and beliefs at the crucial moment of decision.

This ability to reason or, at the very least, to imagine alternate scenarios – states of affairs that are in fact false but might have been true – is a really awesome and important ability (often called “counterfactual reasoning”). For instance, I imagine an alternate version of myself from this morning, and that version of myself has breakfast (when in fact it’s false that I actually had breakfast this morning).

I don’t think it’s unique to human species. There’s empirical evidence that many animals engage in behavior that is best explained with a theory of mind that attributes some similar power to them. In humans, however, the ability is deployed at higher levels of sophistication and placement within a social ecology.

Take little children, for example, who play make-believe. They imagine themselves not merely as alternate versions of themselves but as utterly different kinds of things, human and otherwise. My friend’s son plays make-believe, pretending to be a king or an animal or a fire truck or a school teacher or a... This complex cognitive behavior is actually practice for adult moral sensibility. It is a rudimentary form of the combination between counterfactual imagination and empathy. The dual abilities to imagine oneself in “another’s shoes,” so to speak, and to be able to see alternate possibilities of behavior and consequences retrospectively into the past (i.e., regret) and into the future (i.e., choice) form the raw materials of moral agency. Hence when children are whiling away hours and hours of pure, unbridled play, they are actually constructing the cognitive and conative structures that undergird high-functioning ethical character.

When I regret an action, especially one where the action affects someone other than myself, I perceive in my mind’s eye at least two things: (a) how things could have turned out differently and (b) what it’s like to be the other who suffers because of my poor decision. While these components are built into us by evolutionary mechanisms, they are also nurtured by things as innocent, simple, and vital as pure play.

These components are also the root structures that allow for us to be so good at deception and manipulation.

Two sides of a coin...
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