Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Coveting and ambition

A recent report in Science News (Laura Sanders, “Thou Can’t Not Covet,” May 22, 2012) described a study to test the prevalence of mimetic desire, also known as coveting in theological and ethical language.

Copying other people’s behaviors has important evolutionary functions. For example, eating what others eat helps an individual avoid food poisoning. While traveling in Japan thirty years ago, I attempted to practice mimetic behavior when served a whole octopus. Is the entire octopus edible or does one eat only parts of it? Unfortunately, my observation of the other diners never yielded an answer, leaving me wondering if the octopus, which was a small part of a large meal, was decorative rather than food.

Mimetic desire also has unfortunate consequences. People tend to want what others have. A study conducted by a team from INSERM in Paris and reported in the May edition of the Journal of Neuroscience

showed adults one of two videos: a piece of candy sitting on a surface, or a person’s hand reaching toward a different-colored piece of candy. Participants then rated the desirability of each candy they saw. As the mimetic desire theory predicts, people rated the about-to-get-grabbed candy as more desirable. The same effect held for clothes, tools and even toys…

Brain scans conducted during the videos showed that both the brain’s mirror neuron system and the parts of the brain that assign value to objects became active. In short, humans want other humans want. Coveting is biologically not optional.

Coveting may also serve some social purposes, e.g., encouraging people to engage in productive activities the community deems beneficial because of the value the community places on those activities. In the twenty-first century, this value finds expression in terms of financial reward, celebrity, or power. Thus, a person may work harder at his/her job in order to obtain more pay, a promotion, or more influence within the organization, thereby contributing more to the community’s level of well-being than by becoming indolent or self-serving. In other words, coveting – keeping up with or exceeding the competition – may foster healthy ambition and productivity.

The tenth commandment is an injunction against coveting (unless one counts the prohibition against false gods and idols as a single commandment (Exodus 20:2-6), in which case the injunction against coveting your neighbor’s house is the ninth and coveting anything else that belongs to your neighbor is the tenth (Exodus 20:17)). The commandment wrongly regards a wife as part of her husband’s property, dehumanizing her as an object to possess. From a modern perspective, we rightly understand the commandment as banning coveting and as a warning against treating people as objects.

I suspect that excessive coveting may have led to the need to temper the innate human impulse toward mimetic desire. Excessive coveting may prompt direct action to obtain the object of one’s desires by unauthorized taking from another person. This theft breaks the trust essential for community and potentially ignites feuds that fracture community. Thus, the commandment against coveting has a similar function to the commandment that established an eye for an eye as the norm for justice (Exodus 21:24, e.g.).

Coveting is now more of a psychological problem (by this I mean an idea with affective content and not a mental health issue) than the source of criminal activity. The mortgage crisis in the U.S. and Europe shows that the power of greed – an expression of coveting because money has no intrinsic value, especially if represented by electronic bytes, and people seek money for the relative status it conveys through power, prestige, or purchases – remains the source of some criminal behaviors.

Coveting that causes dissatisfaction and births unrealistic desires or ambitions robs a person of the satisfaction associated with flourishing. Similarly, coveting that distracts a person from genuine human flourishing (cf. Ethical Musings: Success) impoverishes a person.

Aristotle situated the virtues as the contextually appropriate mean between two extremes. Courage, for example, is the situationally defined mean between rashness and cowardice.

Perhaps ambition is a virtue contextually located between coveting and indolence, greed and asceticism.

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