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Hyden Dilemmas

Mon 23 Jan 2012 21:39:36 Leave a comment Go to comments

I recently watched through the Jekyll, the recent BBC modern sequel of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story. It was an enjoyable experience that combined the elements of a psychological thriller and science fiction, while never taking itself too seriously. With just six episode to tell the story the show keeps the plot moving and avoids falling into the monotony of longer seasons. There was a hint of cliche stereotypes in otherwise refreshing characters and James Nesbitt, in particular, does a great job as Jekyll/Hyde. It wasn’t perfectly in sync with the original, however  the key element of a dichotomous personality was central to the story. Watching the show seeded the requisite reflection of the perspective and ethics of the situations within the story and how they may apply to our reality.

At the superficial level, the plight of the Jekyll position can been seen to be one of mental illness. The story shows how an individual with such a condition faces not only a great internal enemy, but how they feel then need to isolate their true selves from society and their loved ones. How the struggle to simply be the person they feel they are takes such a considerable investment of energy that it seems  like a mighty achievement in itself. This in turn causes the everyday tasks of a ‘normal’ person to often seem insurmountable. The stigma of the illness leading not just to isolation from those who ought to provide support, but also leading to a burden of guilt for the impact that such failures have on the friends and loved ones.

At a deeper level it’s about the inner Hyde we all have, that primal instinct that drives us to perform primal deeds. In the show, Hyde is portrayed as a charming, yet violent, sex crazed drug addict with a rather apathetic attitude towards morality. It’s not that Hyde is driven to do evil that makes him dangerous, but rather that he pursues his desires with a complete lack of any concern for others.  Traditionally these acts are often looked upon as sins, the type of acts that typify an amoral individual. I think the ethical lesson that should be taken from the story is that it’s not the acts or desires that are wrong, but rather its when one acts to satisfy their desires in a way that is disconnected from the other aspects of their humanity that problems arise.

Reflecting on my own life, I can see how certain desires are in conflict with other aspects of my life, sometimes to the extent my actions in pursuit of those desires could be described as disconnected. For example, I’m currently working my way back to having a healthy body by maintaining a diet and exercise regime. I’m pretty sure there was no time where I thought deeply about the issue and decided I did not care about my health or appearance. Yet, there have certainly been times where I was driven by gluttony to the exclusion of just about any other consideration. Part of that experience involves finding that my thought patterns can vary between the time of in depth consideration, and the moment where I take the action. What starts out as an “unacceptable indulgence” shifts to a “reasonable compromise” without so much as a concious thought, and often with significant external pressures. It’s not quite like having a whole other personality take over one’s body, but it does make it clear that one isn’t necessarily in concious control of one’s own conciousness.

I’ve previously written about my views on the mind and how it learns from experience. Let’s presume that the human mind is not fundamentally rational, but rather that its rationality is built on top of a set of abstract mental  patterns developed through experience with the world.  It would be possible for multiple perspectives on a single issue to be present within a mind at any given time, with the one we perceive as our own as simply the patterns that gain dominance through the neural process. However, if an external condition were to vary the change in neural inputs could shift the dominance in mental patterns such that our perspective on a given issue changes, all without a concious thought.

Some of the more interesting ethical questions were those faced by those interacting with the main character. To what extent could each of the personalities be held responsible for the deeds of the other? What responsibility did Dr Jackman have to avoiding letting Mr Hyde loose? Are they separate people who time shared a body, or are the two facets of the same person? To what extent is it moral to influence which personality is in control at a given time? It’s this question I find interesting, particular when applied to the view that each of us having our own internal Hyde. In the show those who’s ambition is to exploit the existence of Mr Hyde are depicted as morally bankrupt, or at least ethically questionable. They engage in unethical conduct for their own material benefit; although some do attempt to rationalise it with appeals to the greater good (“think of the science!”). Can these judgements be applied to those who would seek to exploit the inner Hydes we all possess?

I would hold that they can. It’s important here to note that exploitation isn’t simply a matter of providing a means to satisfy desire; it’s not the good or service that is the problem. Exploiting the inner Hyde is about manipulating the subconscious mental processes in order to override the concious, rational choices of that person. Perhaps the clearest example of this would be those who push addictive psychoactive drugs; the dramatic shift in personality that a user can experience can cause them to behave irrationally, often resulting in harm to both themselves and others. The dramatic impact of exploiting this psychological vulnerability is so severe and inseparable from the positives that many such drugs have been outlawed.

However, not all instances of this issue are treated the same. The continuing battle over poker machine reform in Australia is one such example of how a society will often choose to turn a blind eye to the victims of this kind of psychological exploitation, or at best make a token effort to address the issue. There are also examples that our society has barely begun to address, such as the fast food that is scientifically designed to not just taste good, but induce cravings in order to drive future consumption. Additionally, much of what passes as marketing these days includes a sophisticated attack on people’s psyche in an attempt to get them to make decisions against what would have been their better judgement. You’re more likely to purchase a product you’ve been subconsciously trained to associate with positive emotions than a product you’ve considered as having the best value to price relationship. Of course I wouldn’t be surprised to find those who would justify the greed that drives those responsible for such things.

But what of freedom? Should people not be able to sell the products or services that others demand simply because meeting that demand is itself presumed to be a good thing? To this I would reply that as far as freedom’s go, the freedom to think my own thoughts without external interference is perhaps the greatest freedom I could hold. The mental degeneration of a disease like Alzheimer’s would seem to be a far harsher sentence than spending a similar time period in simple physical containment. Even most ardent libertarians support the state intervening to protect the free use of property from interference from third parties, as well as to protect the fragility of the human body. Why should this protection not extend, at least in principle, to the fragility of the human mind?

The only rebuttal to this I can currently think of is one that perceives the human mind as a black box, where the individual is the only party responsible for their cognitive process. To me this argument seems to come from the same egotistical drive that leads people to behave recklessly on the subconscious assumption that they’re not physically vulnerable. It’s about as naive as claiming that an individual is the only party responsible for the circulation of blood around their own body, and therefore the party who slits the individual’s throat bears no responsibility for the loss of blood. If the science of psychology is going to continue to enhance our ability to manipulate the thoughts of each other, or even just to understand (and therefore exploit) mental weaknesses, then I think we have to begin to include such understanding in ethical analysis. Ethics founded on conceptualising the human mind as an independent and internally responsible entity will cease to be applicable in a world where that is not the practically reality.

The recent ruckus between Melinda Tankard Reist and Jennifer Wilson brings to mind a case that demonstrates where I would draw the line between protection and freedom. Often anti-pornography activists will claim that those who view pornography are so twisted by the experience that their ability to think objectively about the effects pornography has on them and on society. To the extent the issue is about involuntarily being exposed to sexualised imagery, I can sympathise with the argument against pornography as such exposure will potentially trigger certain thought patterns involuntarily. However, there are many people that will passionately and rationally defend their consumption of pornography with reasonable temporal isolation from such consumption. While I’m willing to question the morality of intentionally interfering with someone else’s thought processes, I’m not willing to concede that such things can completely undermine someone’s ability to reason to such an extent that it justifies interference with their own choices (at least not without clear and convincing evidence of chronic cognitive impairment). Nor am I convinced that the primary drive to desire pornography is external, so the industry as a whole does not appear to be relying on a market manufactured through psychological manipulation.

Important too, is that the issue goes beyond the ethics of isolated circumstance. The assumption of rational expectations form the basis of most economic analysis, including the reasoning behind the effectiveness of the market mechanism. Allowing the exploitation of the inner Hyde, the undermining of the rational behaviour of an individual, undermines the power of markets to operate effectively. If people are no longer acting rationally (in their own best interests), each trade within the system, even though still fitting the definition of voluntary, can no longer be assumed to be a net gain. A marketing strategy that relies on mental manipulation to induce sales is as economically beneficial as one that relies on breaking windows. If we’re going to found a social and economical system on the basis of rational expectations, we need to find ways to minimise systematic threats to our potential for rational behaviour without hampering the freedom that enables such rationality to so beneficial.

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