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Born to be Good by Dacher Keltner Essay

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Updated: Nov 7th, 2018

Discussing Compassion as a Pro-Social Emotion, as Presented in Born to Be Good by Dacher Keltner

Society is a group of people who are interconnected by common traditions, cultures, and ideological views. What is more important is that socialization is the main feature of human beings who refer to their emotions, mind, and feeling to take part in various social events. However, emotions are often divided into positive and negative ones and, therefore, it is often hard to decide which one prevails in an individual.

Dacher Keltner has dedicated a book called Born to Be Good: A Meaningful Science of Life to analyzing the major question that concerns all people worldwide: “Is the bad stronger than the good” or not. Despite the numerous researchers disclosing the affirmative evidence concerning the inborn evilness of some individuals, the author still confides in the idea that to be good is a genetically encoded state which is typical of all human beings in the world.

By placing an emphasis on genetic origins, as well as presenting Darwinian visions through a Jen science perspective, the author’s ideas about the innate goodness seems to be solid and argumentative because of the irrefutable facts represented in the book. In this respect, the book puts forward two basic ideas. The first one is that humans possess inborn goodness. The second idea postulates that compassion is a genetically, culturally, and socially impregnated feeling that indicates positive emotions.

The study of positive emotions, such as compassion, sympathy, and love of humanity is necessary for understanding human nature and its inclination to inborn goodness.

To prove the idea, the author refers to Darwinian arguments about compassion as the basic instinct. Keltner, therefore, underlines, “…studies of the universality of facial expression, of how emotion is registered in the nervous system, how emotion shapes judgment and decision making, had never looked into these states” (14).

In this respect, facial expressions serve to reveal unconscious displays of such human emotions as compassion, embarrassment, pity, and empathy. All these feelings indicate the pro-social dimensions of human perception of life. Hence, viewing the biological evolution of such emotions as cooperation, goodness, and compassion prove the idea of good nature of humans.

While using evolutionary ideas of Darwin, Keltner manages to strike the balance between the good and the bad in people’s lives by comparing the evolutionary process of humans and animals. At this point, Sussman and Cloninger agree with the author by stating that “we will learn a lot about the evolution of cooperation, goodness, fitness, and compassion by going beyond humans and paying attention to how other animals negotiate their social interactions” (177).

The majority of cases prove that one can replace the word “animal” while talking about humans and vice versa, with reference to the fact that humans like any other species belong to the animal kingdom, which is a sign of commonality.

Darwinian views on compassion as the strongest human instinct is also explained by the peculiarities of human physiology. Hence, the research has proved that cooperation is closely linked to the activity of the brain’s reward-processing operations by releasing dopamine.

This substance allows humans to receive pleasurable feedback and enhance their behavior (Sussman and Cloninger 178). Consequently, genetic origin of compassion is supported by the idea that being good generates pleasant feelings and provides people with incentive to communicate and interact.

In addition, it creates strong stimuli for promoting open cooperation and communication among people. Inherent goodness enables to benefit people from being rational optimists rather than following the global tendency of negativity. The essence of the above-presented argument shows that people are considered much fairer and kinder they think they really are. At this point, excessive concentration on negativity brought by mass media broadcasting is the main reason for limiting innate good nature of human beings.

Compassion can be strongly associated with sympathy expressions, which is the strongest passion in accordance with the Darwinian theory of evolution. This emotion, therefore, denotes human ability of being good to others. While looking at the principles of serviceable habits, nervous discharge, and antithesis, Keltner approaches a solid explanation for the emerged emotions and the inborn goodness of individuals.

In this respect, the author argues, “…thousand of generations of human social evolution have hones moral intuitions in the form of embodied emotions like compassion, gratitude, embarrassment, and awe” (Keltner 47). In this respect, there is a strong connection between psychological and biological aspects of this emotion revealed through such visible expressions as laughter, smile, and touch. This evolution is also emphasized by major cultural, religious, and social teachings about morality and ethical behavior.

To support this idea, the author reveals his experience of interviewing a number of people talking about their meeting with the Dalia Lama: “They could remember the precise tough, the warm feeling that rippled through their bodies, and the lasting change this contact introduced into their lives” (Keltner 174). Physiological characteristics of individuals are largely dependent on the way different emotions are exposed in a social setting.

In the course of struggle, people should surpass their emotions and, therefore, they are often overwhelmed with compassion to encounter adversaries. Feeling connection to the enemies is an inborn feeling expressed toward all people irrespective of their personal interests and fights. In this respect, Keltner presents the arguments against the concept of inborn goodness to prove that those arguments do not have a solid ground.

In particular, the author talks about the evil possessing the power of contamination. Due to the fact that badness spreads extremely fast and contaminates the environment, the problem is all about relativism because the badness has deep roots in Western thought. The point is that some people stereotypically consider certain things as naturally bad and, therefore, they cannot generate goodness.

In addition, Keltner opposes the concept of altruism that is closely associated with self-interest. By referring to the Darwinian concept of natural selection, which is not premised on moral foundation, the human nature does not presuppose to have sincere and transparent intent to generate good and altruistic moods.

Acting within the realm of emotions allows an individual to progress in terms of social, psychological, and intellectual development. The assumption of emotional affiliation is closely associated with biological functioning of the organism.

Specifically, the author argues that such feelings as ethical intuition and caretaking relate to the functioning of the vagus nerve (Keltner 78). Hence, those people who have activated vagus nurse are inclined to feel emotions advancing altruism in the form of gratitude, compassion, love, and happiness.

The vagus nerve links heart, brain, and speech and, as a result, it provides evidence on human capacity and identifies people through their possibility to sympathize with, love, and care for others. Samuels et al. assume that “…species has long depended on cooperation to survive, a degree of socialization which requires an innate empathy and compassion for others” (10).

Considering the above-presented facts leads to the idea that compassion is an inherent part of human nature rejecting the presence of self-interest and preeminence. In addition, the innate nature of positive emotions is not associated with absence of negative emotions. Most importantly, compassion as an emotion is a biologically integrated process that involves the function of the vagus nerve.

Presenting individuals as initially good is possible because Keltner views positive emotions as the primary condition for establishing communication between people since good emotions, such as compassion and love, are shared among individuals much quicker than the negative ones (174).

In this respect, compassion can be regarded as a pro-social emotion helping people cope with the constantly changing environment and survive in the process of natural selection. Additionally, compassion as a pro-social strategy is realized through reliable identification of what action can be considered rightful.

Contagious nature of the feeling, as it has been discussed previously, allows to reset the human behavioral patterns and to provide a new direction in cooperation between individuals. Additionally, compassion contributes to reducing the limits of giving and helping each other.

People can always feel the benefits of supporting each other because it is the essence of social living and survival. Finally, people exercising compassion gain much more popularity and benefits while living in a community. The aspiration to help originates from the human desire to have a partner, a supporter to live in cooperation and develop social skills.

When referring to the social perspectives of human evolution, it is impossible to ignore human physiology as a means of expressing emotions. Communicating compassion is possible through the touch, a language of moral connection and trust. Indeed, touch as a physiological act generates brain activity and transfers some ideas of reliability leading to altruistic behavior.

The cost of giving, therefore, is aimed at exchanging goodness and creating a socially favorably environment. In this respect, Kelner believes that these nonverbal clues are “the most potent nonverbal clues we have to an individual commitment to the moral order” (89). Exchanges of smiles, laughing, and touches designate different aspects of sympathy and care taking.

Additionally, Keltner writes about touch as the key to physical and emotional vitality of a person. Consequently, compassion is a robust element of the ‘pro-social’ nervous system. Hence, individuals possessing extensive pro-social skills are more evolutionary apt to live and act in a society and practicing communication skills.

Darwinian exploration of compassion as an emotion and biologically correlated state of an individual is closely associated with Jen science that the author is affiliated to. Specifically, following the Confucian concept of inborn goodness, the author strongly believes, “jen science has examined new human languages under its microscope – movements of muscles in the face that signal devotion, patterns of touch that signal appreciation, playful tones of the voice that transform conflicts” (Keltner 4).

While analyzing physiological and biological structure of individuals, as well as how a human organism generates emotions, it is possible to talk about new strategies for evolution of kindness. It also needs revision of the previously stated assumptions about human actions are hardwired to their desires of self-interest and personal fulfillment.

However, the presence of the balance between the good and the evil provides a theory of Jen ratio in the realm of human actions. Hence, the author proves that bringing the good to others “leads to greater boosts in happiness” than taking care of oneself (Keltner 12). At this point, giving is much more rewarding than receiving and this concept is imprinted in many philosophical, ideological, and religious postulates of cross-cultural societies.

While studying the biological realm of human development, understanding the role of vagus nerve in shaping and generating our emotions is essential.

Therefore, there is a wider perspective of roles and features forming the actual nature of humans. Lack of in-depth study, as well as exclusion of a biological dimension, has provided a solid basis for criticizing compassion in Western thought. Hence, Keltner provides examples and arguments promoted by other opponents of the theory of compassion as a premise of pro-social behavior.

Specifically, compassion humiliates recipients and a person expressing compassion to another implies that he/she does not have a deep respect for this person. Additionally, compassion is often seen as inherently subjective because people sympathize with others in order to gain benefits from the situation.

Finally, certain studies underscore the limitedness of freedom while exercising compassion. However, these statements can easily be withdrawn from a prevalent number of other studies of human behavior and its dependence on emotions. Dovidio also agrees that compassion is what makes human to be human because it shapes the genetic basic for pro-social actions (29).

Evolutionary theory and behavioral genetic is combined with the framework to consider various predispositions to possess positive emotions. At this point, altruism, as a one dimension of compassion, denotes “people’s intentions and motivations when they offered help to another person” (Dovidio 35).

In a scientific sense, altruism can be considered in a broader context and involve the attempts that allows to increase the likelihood of human survival and reproduction. At this point, the individuals are genetically pooled to support people and create a socially accepted setting.

Overall, Keltner’s most important ideas are confined to the fact that all humans have genetically encoded positive emotions encouraging their survival and evolution.

In the book, the professor expresses his strong adherence to Darwinian and Confucian theories of human emotional development to prove that human beings as social actors are initially born to be good and, therefore, their emotions and feelings generate only positive behavior.

Introducing the concept of Jen ratio, the scholars relates to the balance between the good and the evil stating that this confrontation is necessary for understanding the idea of goodness.

At this point, Darwin explores compassion as the strongest instinct of humans helping them to survive and reproduce. It is a biologically correlated emotion that is revealed through human physiology, including touch and facial expressions. At the same time, Keltner talks about Confucian tendencies of positive emotions by referring to a great number of supporting evidence.

In particular, he believes that virtuous human experiences are specifically highlighted through altruism, which should not be regarded as an expression of self-interest and personal benefits. Despite the opposite tendencies and criticism of compassion in Western thought, Keltner’s research is a valuable contribution to understanding the biological nature of humans and their innate kindness.

Works Cited

Dovidio, John F. The Social Psychology of Prosocial Behavior. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Keltner, Dacher. Born to Be Good. New York: W.W. Norton &Company, 2009. Print.

Samuels, Neil et al. “On Human Capacity.” AI Practitioner 13.4 (2011): 9-12. Print.

Sussman, Robert. W., & Robert C. Cloninger, Origins of Altruism and Cooperation. US: Springer, 2011. Print.

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