Between impulse and reason

Human impulse springs from two sources, one biological and the other cultural. Biological impulse includes eating due to hunger, emptying ones bladder and bowels due to internal pressures of digestion, sleeping when fatigued, sexual drives, and other such hard-wired behaviors. Developmentally, the sublimation or redirection of biological impulse is what we accomplish in child-rearing. In addition, certain impulses are instinctual survival mechanisms, such as seeking and building shelter, speech and language development, defense of family, and fight or flight responses.

Cultural impulse is generated by psychological forces such as social conditioning, peer pressure, propaganda, advertising, rumor, superstition, metaphysical belief and so forth. All these play upon emotions, either heightening or lessening feelings of well-being. The understanding of such mechanisms accounts for cultural developments such as advertising, which is entirely focused on the stimulation of emotional impulse to drive consumption. The range of human emotion is enormous, but can be reduced to four primary modes: mad, glad, sad and scared. It is through these four basic emotions that our impulses are stimulated.

Behaviors such as rioting and mob violence span both types of human impulse, biological and cultural. Once triggered, impulse feeds upon its own and group energy, unleashing a primitive and powerful force that repeatedly asserts itself despite the widespread harm it often causes. The danger of human impulse is so great and omnipresent that virtually every society on earth endeavors to restrict and control it through use of reason, erecting elaborate systems to impose order through prohibitions, laws and punishments.

Through reason, prohibitions against murder are universal, unless such killing is officially authorized. The same principle applies to the treatment of animals; cruelty to animals is a crime, unless officially authorized in the slaughter of livestock. Theft is illegal, unless officially authorized by bank regulators allowing 35% interest to be charged for credit card debt. Virtually every human impulse toward negative behaviors that harm others, except cannibalism and the sexual abuse of children, has also been justified through the use of reason; internal contradictions absurdly establish most prohibitions as self-negating. This illustrates the risk of mistaking ignorance for wisdom. Sound reasoning requires careful evaluation using critical thinking skills that must be properly taught and learned.

The competition between impulse and reason vexes humanity, and we seem unable to establish lasting equilibrium. Accordingly, we are beset with repeated episodes of violence and war. War itself has become infused, or perhaps confused, with reason, producing a set of rationales justifying untold billions of dollars spent on defense industry weaponry, ie: peace through strength. The same can be said of law enforcement in general, a tendency to “bulk-up” in military-style equipment in anticipation of the inevitable outbreak of impulsive mob violence. The self-negating, internal contradictions of such reasoning naturally produce exactly the sort of impulsive violence that it seeks to prevent, hence the murder of George Floyd at the hands and knees of officers of the law. When prohibitions against murder are blithely ignored by police, reason betrayed, citizens are left impulsively adrift on a sea of rage and confusion.

It is the control of impulse through the use of reason that distinguishes human beings from other animal life. We reasonably defer immediate gratification by working for future reward; our impulses are restrained and the chaos of animal life is set aside. When chaos erupts, however, reason takes flight and human impulse takes over. The chaos of COVID-19, the murder of innocent, unarmed black men and women by police, severe economic inequality, and the legacy of 400 years of systemic racism have converged, and America’s impulsive President is making matters far worse. His impulsive Tweeting further inflames an already dangerous situation.

When it comes to Donald Trump, there is no competition between impulse and reason; impulse has won. He models the most primitive human feature, that of the aggressive, impulse-driven brute, and by his example we are losing the power of reason, that which separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

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