Life is based on dispositions and necessities, and satisfying them. Reactions or impulses might be counted among dispositions. We do not know what animals or plants feel or ‘think’ unless we take into account the sentient part of our person, especially our body.
We imagine that animals feel and ‘think’ somehow similarly to how we feel and think. When I say ‘think,’ of course, I do not mean complex thought processes but something simpler, like recognizing a fellow animal or a danger.
Such recognition is different from a felt sensation or a felt impulse, although only logically and not in reality, because an animal, when it recognizes something, also feels something immediately towards that object of recognition. For example, when the antelope recognizes the lion, it immediately feels the impulse to flee. The two subjective processes are not separate.
We may assume that in humans, the sentient part of this pair of feeling and ‘thinking’ is much weaker than in animals, as well as that this pair is present, in extremely various ways, in all living beings. ‘Weakness’ refers not only to the intensity of the felt content but also to the quality of being able to be controlled from the outside.
We can say that animals are rather impulsive beings. We also call a person ‘impulsive’ when they act while being carried away by some internal emotions, and this, sometimes almost blind, state of being carried away by emotion is what we call an impulse.
We all have done things in the past that we later regretted, saying that emotions or impulses ruled us at that time. Of course, while doing those things, we did not cease to be conscious beings and also to think. Only, we could not withstand the surge of emotion or impulse. If our actions were reprehensible, we could hear others saying that we behaved ‘like animals.’
Thus it is a common view that humans can usually control their emotions and impulses, whereas animals cannot do this, or, if they suppress an impulse, the reason is another more powerful impulse. However, I think we can agree that although we cannot cleanly separate where the control and where the impulse begin, humans commonly control their impulses, whereas animals commonly are ruled by impulses.
With respect to this capacity for control, Plato imagined the rational human part of the soul as a charioteer driving the two appetitive parts of the soul, imagined as horses: the desiring and the volitive parts.
Why do humans control their emotions and impulses more than other animals? Because they have a much broader understanding of their environment and the ways to interact with it than do animals. Of course, human brain capacity is much larger, and this translates into more ways to relate to the environment than animals have.
Perhaps, due to this increase, early humans started to be able to react emotionally to things that other animals ignored or were not aware of. This is similar to the capacity of dogs to sense smells that humans do not smell, on the one hand, or to their numbness to the harmony of a song that, perhaps, they also hear as humans do, on the other.
The human being discovered itself in the middle of a much more numerous bundle of emotions and impulses than any other animal.
What is more, also perhaps due to the higher brain capacity, the human being had a much better memory than other animals, which might have increased the reverberation and influence of past emotions and impulses.
This memory made possible the imagination as an emotionally loaded memory, a memory that continued to be remembered because of the original emotional impact. As a consequence, human beings started to be accustomed to representations, i.e., to the presence of things in mind, without their physical presence.
And these representations transformed into objects themselves that the human mind started following in the same way animals observe real things from their environment. Being a piece in the hands of imagination, these representations started to have their own dynamic and thus transformed into other sources of emotions and impulses.
Perhaps it is natural that the more emotions you are exposed to, the less their intensity. At least, this is what we notice in our experience. For example, when you are a parent of fifty children, you cannot love them all in the same way and with the same intensity as a parent who loves his only child. Or, a child with numerous toys is not as attached to a single one as a child with a single toy.
Thus, an increased capacity to react emotionally to very many things diminished the intensity of those emotions and weakened the natural, biological basis of feeling emotions and impulses. This is why perhaps, emotions started to be easier to handle, but also why human life became much more complicated than that of animals, because human beings had to manage many more emotions and impulses than animals.
Choosing between emotions and impulses is a natural process, as we saw, and animals also can choose between them. For example, a dog prefers to lie in the shade than in the sun; first it will feel the need to move from the sun into the shade provided by the foliage of a tree, and then it will also satisfy that need. Thus, from this point of view, when humans choose between impulses they only follow a natural disposition.
What was not quite natural was living among the traces of emotions and impulses, living in representation, replacing reality with representation. Of course, this replacement did not happen overnight but over hundreds of thousands of years. The result was that man started living in two worlds, the natural world and the world of representation or the world of thought. This life in two worlds was not and is not an easy life.
It made humans capable of handling real things starting from the mental image they first developed about them. This mental image is very complicated because it is not a simple recording-based image but combines subjective elements of all kinds with objective content.
What is important is that gradually humans started to leave behind nature and natural life and started living more and more within culture and artificial life. Culture is the preeminence of representation against primary life, immediate emotions, and impulses.
Due to this preeminence, we do not deal merely with concrete things but mainly with concrete things about which we anteriorly always think something. That is to say, we do not deal with this concrete pen, for example, but rather with a concrete object that we consider a sample of a wide class of other similar things. The tangible pen in front of us only concretely represents the mental image we have about the class of pens.
Unlike animals, of course, due to a long cultural history, we can fix in our minds representations and deal with them almost as skillfully as we deal with material things. They also have a general character, which means they have fewer features than the concrete things expressing them. (In general, representations are poorer, for example, a memory is much poorer than the original event it remembers.)
The totality of these mental representations makes up our world of culture. Yet, something strange happens with them. Because we ceased living like animals in immediate contact with external and internal nature, we give almost unlimited credit to the cultural world, to the representation of life, to spirit.
We believe that things must correspond to the representation we have of them. Even when we ‘adapt’ to reality, in fact, we build a new understanding of that reality and learn to imagine it differently.
Our values are part of this cultural or mental world. As everything that populates this world, they are general representations. In that they are general, they also necessarily say how the concrete things that correspond to them must be.
In other words, once we develop the representation of a thing, we also develop the expectation to see all corresponding concrete things through the lenses provided by that representation. Representations are part of our existential comfort: in the same way that animals do not like changing their environment, we also do not like changing our ideas, representations, or beliefs.
But unlike things appearing to us as being separated from each other (a tree is here, a car is there, a bird is elsewhere, a man is coming nearer while a dog is playing in the backyard), our mental representations have a mutual coherence, which means that changing one representation usually implies changing of a whole series of representations (of course, depending on how important to us is the representation that must be changed).
For example, when someone deeply disappoints us, we might tend to mistrust everybody, and as a consequence, we also might tend to dislike the world in general as a place where we live with others.
This is why we do not easily accept changes in our ideas, even when there is iron proof against them: because such a change could entail the collapse of the whole world of our beliefs and ideas, which also would entail profound suffering.
As part of our environment, values are shared by other members of our community, but they also are pillars of this community in that they support its continuity and therefore contribute to our spiritual welfare and comfort.
They can be shared because of their general character, which depersonalizes them, making them similar to numbers that have the same meaning for everybody. Due to this shared character, values relate to the whole of a community as representations do with respect to a single individual, and, therefore, a community itself often behaves as an individual.
People see in their community’s values an aspect of their identities as humans. This is why they demand that all members of that community respect and cherish those values. Personal identity becomes thus intimately united with social identity.
Due to their general character as well as their relationship to human identity (both personal and social), values often negate the individual’s tendencies: those emotions, feelings, and impulses that an individual senses in his concrete life.
An identity is not innate; it is something you build all your life. It is a lifelong goal. As such a goal, it is also a representation. And as a representation, it is a combination of subjective and objective or socially shared elements.
Because of their relationship to human identity, the negating character of values consists, therefore, in choosing the more general identity (either the personal, extended to the individual’s whole life, for example, or the social one) at the expense of the individual feelings and tendencies.
Whatever value we choose, we can see that it denies these concrete feelings. The internalization of any value is based on education, and education means more or less constraint, i.e., reducing individual impulses to silence. People tried to transform values into second nature to make this process less painful. And, of course, they were successful if we think of how imbued with values most of us are in present-day society.
This is why we no longer feel the pain associated with values, in the same way in which an animal, once tamed, does not feel any pain in following instructions. We feel such pain only when our impulses are powerful or when there is a conflict between values in our souls: a conflict which typically appears as a moral dilemma.
Greek tragedies often described such conflicts depicting the excruciating pain of the main characters exposed to them. But such conflicts can also be more common.
How difficult it is for a mother to continue to love her child knowing that this child is a serial killer! We have here the conflict between the natural motherly feeling and the socially conditioned value of not killing your fellow humans. Or how difficult it is for a poor man to refuse a substantial bribe when he and his children are poor and devoid of the chance for higher education and the perspective of a better life!
These two examples show the conflict between what we feel and what we are meant to do. Because education transformed values into second nature in us, we might not observe their necessarily conflictual character. That is to say, we behave according to those values almost automatically, and the behavior following them becomes almost a reflex.
However, we are still natural beings, sentient animals, and therefore we can easily, at times, experience a surge of emotionality and impulses. Then the latent conflict becomes visible. Then we must make a decision. Then we commit ourselves to passion or to virtue, to what we immediately feel or to what our developing individual and social identity demands from us. Then we become aware that values are not just nice words but real entities that cannot be ignored.