Uncertainty, ambiguity and shame

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Uncertainty, ambiguity and shame

Post by Ubuntu » Thu Mar 30, 2017 6:52 pm

There's a common misconception that 'uncertainty' is something that causes distress in people with very specific personality types whereas other people can experience it neutrally or even positively. I would argue that uncertainty itself is a form of distress. By 'uncertainty' I don't mean a lack of knowledge or information. I don't know who the president or prime minister of Uzbekistan is but I don't feel uncertain about it. Uncertainty is what we feel when we can't make up our minds about what we believe or want. When we feel uncertain about something we simultaneously hold beliefs or desires that fundamentally contradict each other. This has to be inherently distressing because, by it's very nature, it prevents us from functioning (and a decision not to act is as much of a decision as deciding to act. This also applies to purely internal decisions that don't involve acting in the external world as well as automatic emotional responses - like if you feel uncertain about whether or not your brother is dead, you believe he might be alive but you also have reason to believe he might have been killed, do you grieve or feel relieved that he's OK etc., the uncertainty puts you in a deadlock). All of the decisions that we make are rooted in the matter of fact beliefs that justify that decision (whether it's an assumption about the consequences of that decision or the context that justifies it) as well as the strongest desire that we have at the moment. If we can't make up our minds about what we believe or want then we can't make sense of reality and we can't satisfy *any* of our desires. I would make the same basic argument as to why confusion is a form of distress rather than some emotionally neutral thing that causes it in some people some of the time. Interestingly enough I came to this conclusion on my own before I found out that some psychiatrists (including Richard Ryder) agree with me. There's even a book on the issue by some neuroscientist.

On a related note I think that confidence is the opposite of uncertainty even though people tend to conflate it with pride - the opposite of shame/humiliation-, and optimism about one's own abilities ; I would consider optimism to be an attitude and hope to be an emotion like pride, confidence and clarity - the opposite of confusion- as a I define them. A confident person is someone who is decisive, sure about what they believe or want and not constantly second guessing or doubting themselves. People will say something like "I was made fun of and it completely destroyed my confidence", and it might have in the sense that they are unsure as to how valid the criticism or insults are, but what they really mean to say is that it made them feel humiliation or shame. Likewise, it's not necessarily because of shame or uncertainty that someone doesn't think they have what it takes to be the fastest man in the world.

Much scientific research supports the idea that uncertainty Is inherently distressing, if not that it is itself a form of distress. Studies have shown that participants who were exposed to direct, overt racism had lower cortisol levels than subjects who were exposed to indirect, ambiguous 'read behind the lines' racism. I can recall another study where people who were in the dark about whether or not they would receive an electric shock felt more distress than people who were told that they would and actually did.

(added this in near the end, if it seems out of place) I do believe that objectively moral consistency really does require value monism but I wouldn't be surprised if people who are more intolerant of moral ambiguity were more attracted to value monism than less ambiguity intolerant people are. For example, imagine a scenario in which the only possible way to prevent millions of people from experiencing prolonged shockingly bad pain (the worst you could ever imagine) was to use some degree of force to persuade some guy to push a button that would prevent this (I know this scenario has been used in some form in the past). The man being coerced will only experience mild psychological or physical pain, not anywhere near as bad as what any of the millions who will suffer if he doesn't push the button will. If you believe that 'authority' (the initiation of force for non-defensive reasons) is intrinsically bad then you have to view someone's willingness to violate the autonomy of a non-threatening individual as inherently immoral. If you view suffering as intrinsically bad then you have to view someone's unwillingness to cause some pain in order to prevent much more pain in a hypothetical scenario when it is guaranteed that doing the thing that causes that much milder pain is the only possible way to prevent the greater amount of pain for a greater number of people as inherently immoral (and it doesn't matter whether or not you think the pain of separate people can be meaningfully aggregated. Either way, in this scenario you minimize more pain by coercing the man). If you're a value pluralist who values both freedom and happiness than you have no non-arbitrary reason to favor either action and you have to make sense of an inherently contradiction attitude that both decisions would be simultaneously moral and immoral. After all, something is ambiguous if it can be interpreted in multiple ways and whatever action you take in this scenario can be interpreted as simultaneous right and wrong in incomparable ways. A hedonistic consequentialist has no non-arbitrary reason to favor causing one person 50 points of happiness or another in a scenario where there is that ultimatum but the happiness produced in either decision is interchangeable in value, it literally makes no differences like it makes no difference whether or not you give me this 10 dollar bill or that ten dollar bill. It does make a difference whether or not you respect the uncaring man's autonomy or prioritize the value of happiness because they are two fundamentally different values. Value monism helps us to make sense of ethical situations and provides us with needed certainty about what we ought to be trying to do (if not what the consequences of our decisions will actually be). Value pluralists can only function by prioritizing some values over others in specific case by case scenarios and when they do feel uncertain about what the goal of a decision should be, there's no consistent principle they ascribe to that can break that deadlock or offer them guidance. That said, uncertainty about what the consequences of our decisions will can be very instrumentally valuable, at least to the extent of leaning toward X strongly enough to make a decision while still being open to the possibility that you are wrong.

It's obvious that some people are more tolerant of ambiguity which, by it's nature, *causes* the feeling of uncertainty (and maybe confusion as well), or at least there's a non-arbitrary reason why it would even if it doesn't, but that's not because they don't experience uncertainty as inherently distressing, it's because they feel it less easily than more ambiguity intolerant people do or maybe even that they're just generally more emotionally resilient. Likewise, some people are more tolerant of criticism than other people are but it's not because they don't experience shame or humiliation as inherently distressing, they just experience it less easily. There's still a non-arbitrary reason why criticism would cause shame or humiliation since it involves exposing a flaw - something of negative value- about someone or something associated with them (at least if we're talking about criticism that's rooted in a value judgment and not matter of factly correcting someone - even that could be threatening if they pride themselves on having some kind of knowledge or expertise). This doesn't mean that criticism always causes pain (or that it isn't sometimes valid and necessary even when it does), only that there's a 'universal' reason why it would that isn't dependent on completely personal preferences (universal for self-aware beings capable of verbal communication).

I believe the emotion of social anxiety can be reduced entirely to a fear of shame and/or humiliation in social interactions. When people feel 'social' anxiety they aren't afraid of being physically attacked or robbed. They're afraid of being criticised, insulted, treated in an unflattering way or even behaving in ways that they consider to be unflattering despite no negative responses from other people etc. All of these things induce humiliation or shame (I think I would consider guilt to be a form of shame). Related to social anxiety is self-consciousness, where people are hyper-aware of their own perceived flaws or whatever characteristics, behavior or things make them vulnerable to shame or humiliation because they believe other people are acutely aware of these things and might judge them negatively.

I also believe that our psychological need for privacy can be reduce to shame avoidance but I'm not 100% on this. There is an argument to be made that some degree of privacy is necessary in order to form intimate bonds (by discriminately sharing personal information with a select few) but I don't personally believe that intimacy requires exclusivity. I am open to the idea that some privacy seeking is rooted in wanting to avoid unwanted intimacy and not just because developing intimacy with someone requires sharing information that puts you in a vulnerable position. I have always sympathized with people who have to deal with things like autopsy photos of deceased loved ones and videos of their deaths being widely available to the public (especially an unsympathetic public. This in addition to just not wanting to have to seem them) and although it's counter-intuitive to me, I think it's because even having one's vulnerabilities exposed to strangers is as shame/humiliation inducing as having some unflattering information about yourself revealed to them. Preparing for, dealing with or witnessing the death of a loved one in front of strangers or having a cancer diagnosis shared with them isn't unflattering but it does expose you and those you identify with as vulnerable. I guess this is consistent with the humiliation even well-intentioned and respectful 'paternalism' can cause.

One thing I've never understood is the idea that stating criticism indirectly 'softens' it (another problem inherent to indirect/ambiguous communication, especially criticism, is the frustration it can cause in rendering someone 'unable' to defend themselves against criticism that is rooted in values or justified by beliefs that they disagree with, or counter whatever voiced beliefs or statements they disagree with when it comes to not necessarily critical indirect communication, or at least it makes it difficult for them to do so for social reasons). If information itself is distressing then it makes no differences (as far as the effect the information itself will have) as to how it's communicated. Someone's tone matters (like a doctor delivering bad news compassionately instead of bluntly) but only because of the information their tone itself communication (whether they're sympathetic or not, whether they respect you or not etc.) but it doesn't detract from the information - separate from their tone- that they are communicating. The information that your brother was killed in a car crash has to be distressing regardless of how it's communicated.

If the criticism is so subtle that the person literally doesn't catch on then what was the point of giving it (assuming they're trying to deliberately communicate something as opposed to just 'thinking out loud')? If they even just suspect what you're saying then it might (for non-arbitrary reasons) cause them to feel uncertainty, confusion, shame/humiliation and even frustration if they feel unable to address it (in addition to whatever frustration they might feel in response to overt criticism rooted in or justified by values or beliefs they disagree with).

I have noticed that people sometimes have a very deontological attitude when it comes to communicating antagonistic or controversial information directly and overtly. Something that would be considered unacceptable to communicate directly and overtly is considered acceptable if it's communicated indirectly even though they exact same information is communicated just because they haven't broken any official rules. They make a fundamental distinction between direct and indirect communication when the consequences of both are the exact same (at least two of the consequences being both the actual information communicated itself and the recipients emotional response to it, and that's leaving aside the possibility of causing uncertainty, confusion and frustration inherent to indirect communication/criticism).

There's one more point I could add - I don't know how much sense it makes but I've done enough thinking and writing. I'm not even going to scroll through for a final edit which might be a mistake but this was a really long post. I'm tempted to add this to my blog, though.

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