The Behavior of Man

This particular blog post has given me much reason for reflection over the last month. I have fiercely debated between calling it "The Behavior of Man" and "The Character of Man." The reason for this dichotomy lies in a superficial, but important, linguistic fact: in the sciences, we talk about behavior; in the humanities, we talk about character. This essay and the next shall further explain the subtlety and significance of that English nuance.

If a physicist describes an atom or a chemist describes a reaction, they use the word "behavior." A zoologist might also use it to describe a rhino's aggression. Yet, psychologists use the same term to describe people with consciences and wills.

I am not suggesting that man does not have behavior, but I am suggesting that we usually use the word "behavior" when we are attempting a clinical, objective description. When we say, "The children behaved badly in the store," we seem to be saying something significantly different than, "The children displayed poor character in the store." Perhaps this is because, objectively, we are acknowledging the possibility of mitigating circumstances, such as the children being overtired. We would like this example to be an exception rather than the rule. However, at what point do such mitigating circumstances become merely a distant backstory to ill-behaved children?

In his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, Robert M. Sapolsky attempts to explain the sheer complexity of behavior. He analyzes long-term factors and biases as well as momentary hormone surges and nerve reactions. His fairly eloquent thesis might be summed up in the cliché it's complicated. As Sapolsky writes in his introduction, "It actually makes no sense to distinguish between aspects of behavior that are 'biological' and those that would be described as, say, 'psychological' or 'cultural.'"*

Although descriptions and explanations are certainly helpful, and perhaps necessary, they do not necessarily contain a judgment. For instance, in The Nazi Conscience, Claudia Koontz explains the thought process of a nationalistic group of people who committed heinous acts for what they thought was the greater good.

However, neither Koontz nor Sapolsky would say that you can explain away the atrocities they committed. Essentially, an explained behavior does not excuse bad character.

*Robert M. Sapolsky, Behave: the Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (New York, New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 1.

Mrs. StephensAlumni