There Is No Such Thing As A Killing Instinct

The instinct idea is a symptom of our cultural problem, not a tool we can use to solve it.

There are no instincts, if by instinct we mean behaviors that we perform without needing to learn to perform them. Can you think of anything we do without learning to do it? Without learning the right way to do it? Walking? No. Going to the bathroom? No. Loving? No. Eating? No. And certainly not: coexisting with others at home, in school, in a family, on the job.

Writing about the several acts of courage put on display last Saturday, during the shooting rampage that occurred in a shopping mall parking lot in Tucson, Ursula Goodenough writes that:

Here we have full-blown altruism, unanticipated and unrehearsed, popping through in human after human, as instinctively as sneezing, restoring our souls.

Ursula’s idea, I think, is to resist the impulse to draw the conclusion from the violence — violence that was both utterly unexpected and all too familiar — that humans have an instinct to kill. I agree with her about this.

But it is worthwhile to challenge her statement as it stands. Far from being an instinctual action, sneezing hardly deserves to be called action at all. It is an involuntary response, like blinking, not something one performs. And there is, I think, a deeper potential misunderstanding in the vicinity: as I am sure Ursula would be quick to agree, just because an action is unplanned, unreasoned, spontaneous, and automatic, it doesn’t follow that there is anything instinctual about it.

Is it instinctual for the shortstop to jump to avoid the runner’s slide as he turns the double play? It is automatic, to be sure, but at the same time it is the product of cultivation, skill, training, and expertise. It is a cultural, as well as individual, achievement.

And so for the acts of courage performed Saturday in Tucson by Patricia Maisch, Roger Sulzgeber, Joe Zamudio, George Morris, Dorwin Stoddard and Daniel Hernandez. They were done automatically, very probably. But they were not done blindly, as if through an inborn drive. Like the shortstop, these were well-brought up people who responded to the situation in which they found themselves. The situation spoke to them. It made demands upon them. They heard the call. They were like the shortstop.

I feel love for them, and gratitude. I am grateful, not because they did the equivalent of sneezing. And not because they decided to do the right thing. I do not mean to trivialize, but what I am grateful for is that, like a great shortstop, they responded to what the situation required. They were able to let the situation take over.

The same situation-driven compulsions also operate in reverse. Frequently the best predictor of what a person will do is not character, but rather, simply, the situation in which he or she finds himself. (For a great book on this, see: John Doris’s Lack of Character.) — Why is one man a war criminal, and the other a great soldier? Look to the situations in which they respectively find themselves to answer this.

No, the question we should ask is not whether there is an instinct to kill, but rather, whether killing is something that we value. Crucially, this is not a question about whether we think killing is good, or is sometimes good, or whether we believe killing is sometimes a necessary means to an end.

We value much more than we judge to be worth valuing.

Do you approve of all that you desire, or lust after, or dream about? Do you, could you, decide how to feel about things? No.

Did Helen, in Homer’s The Odyssey, believe it was right for her to run off with Paris, abandoning her husband Menelaus and their infant son? No. But did she value Paris? Did he shine for her as a source of erotic necessity? Of that there can be no doubt. The erotic power of Paris called to her and she was helpless — like the shortstop, or the hero — to resist.

What is remarkable — and herein lies, apparently, a fundamental difference between Homer’s world and our own — is that despite Helen’s actions, actions that precipitated the Trojan War with all the attendant suffering, destruction and upheaval, Helen is upheld by Homer, and by her husband, as “shining among women.” Helen did not choose what to feel. She did not choose what to value. The things of value in her world simply shone for her and swept her away. Her openness to erotic love is a form of heroic achievement.

(This interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey is developed by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly — who are good friends of mine, and colleagues — in their astonishing new book All Things Shining. My contribution to the blog today is in part a meditation on the argument of their book. I hope to return to a critical discussion of the book in this place in the coming weeks.)

The question what do we value? is a question about what matters to us. What stands out for us and commands our attention and interest and concern. It is a question about meaning.

Our predicament as a culture is not that of deciding what to value. It is rather that of accepting that our values come before — or rather, as I would argue against Dreyfus and Kelly, at the same time as — any act of thoughtful evaluation or weighing up. One cannot choose what to love, or find disgusting. One cannot choose to feel, anymore than one can choose to sleep. One cannot choose what to believe. (Good arguments, after all, compel assent, they don’t invite it.)

In a world in which we falsely believe that we choose our values, instinct presents itself as that which is beyond our reach, that which outstrips the space of reason. But once we recognize that the space of our lives is not circumscribed by reason, we realize that the very idea of an instinct is at best a clumsy device for explaining away, rather than coming to grips with, the fact that we are not authors of our own lives.

What is clear, I suppose, is that we, as a people, do value killing. One of our greatest institutions — a source of refined craft, technological achievement, personal development, scientific research, and education — is the military, and the military is, at the end of the day, a company that serves, and daily performs, the act of killing. The death penalty, the superabundance of armed police organizations in the U.S., the armed citizenry, etc. There is so much evidence that killing is something we value.

To say that we value killing — that killing is a thing of value for us and that we are powerless to change this — is not to say that killing is good, or that we think it is good.

Every night on TV there are shows about killers. But they tend also to be shows about those whose job is to fight and hunt down the killers.

Ambivalence, too, may be one of our most urgent, abiding values.

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