How do we know when to stop brushing our teeth?

800px-Border_Station_Torkhemn_by_James_G_Pinsky_2006In the course of any given day, the number of snap decisions we are called upon to make is staggering. Simply getting to the office in the morning demands decisions about what to wear, when to leave the house, what route to take, where to park the car, and so on. Many of these involve considerable deliberation, especially when something sudden and unexpected happens that interferes with the decisions we would normally have made – the car not starting, high density traffic on our regular route, a meteor striking our office building, etc.

However, the vast majority of our decisions are made on the fly – they seemingly involve no deliberation at all. Should I use the big black coffee mug, or the smaller blue one? Having left the house, do I then go on the paved path, or simply cut through the lawn towards my car? Fiddle with the radio and only then drive, or the other way around? Even more subtle examples are ubiquitous. How should I pick up the coffee mug, left hand, right hand, by the handle, from above? How firmly should I press the toothbrush to my teeth, and when have I brushed sufficiently? How much pressure on the gas pedal would allow me to bypass that geriatric SUV safely? The list is endless.

Most of these decisions seem to involve no deliberation that we are aware of at all, and yet, it seems obvious that we are there, making them. In a sense, they are automatic, and yet, we’re the ones making them. At the very least, it seems to us that we could have done otherwise.

A host of intriguing questions arise when thinking about such actions, the role we play in producing them, and their relation to the clearer cases of deliberate action. One especially pressing question is: what is the rational basis (our reason) for performing these actions rather than others? And, given this basis, are we acting responsibly?

In many of these cases, the natural answer is that acting as we do is merely a function of gut instinct. We look at the coffee mug and simply see that the most appropriate thing to do – given its location and orientation in relation to our body and the organization of the objects around it – is to reach for it thusly. With respect to most of these actions, the vast majority of us are remarkably bad at articulating why the action we perform is appropriate. Even if we do manage to rationalize our action retrospectively, at the time of acting no such reasoning is taking place. Or at least that is how it appears. The action simply feels appropriate. But, why should we trust these feelings?

Though the examples presented seem trivial, a fascinating article by Benedict Carey of the New York Times reminds us that many lives are at the mercy of some people’s feelings. For example, despite the billions of dollars spent on I.E.D. detection technologies, a soldier’s gut instincts are often more reliable, and of course, they are always more readily available. Furthermore, research cited by Carey shows that some soldiers are better than others at detecting I.E.D.s, though they are usually not able to articulate the reasons for their suspicion. With so many lives at stake, a sergeant walking the streets of Mosul simply felt that something was wrong, and called the platoon to halt their advance. Perhaps it was the oddly shaped rock in the pile of rubble in the distance, or the eerie silence resting on a normally bustling market square, or perhaps it was the particular way that the two men off in the corner were shifting their gaze around. Whatever it was, the sergeant’s brain managed to identify it and initiate a threat response. The sergeant simply felt that they were all in danger. Moments later, an I.E.D. exploded. The platoon was safe, but some civilians were tragically killed in the blast.

Our lives are dominated by such instinctive reactions to an ever changing complex environment. We are tremendously good at it. Some of us are even better than others, when it comes to particular domains – expert soldiers, expert chess players, expert drivers. It seems that more often than not we should trust our instincts – it is the responsible thing to do. The question that still resonates is: Why?

Related articles:

£1.99 - small Knowledge and Practical Reason
By Jessica Brown, St Andrews University
(Vol. 3, October 2008)
Philosophy Compass

£1.99 - small The Natural Philosophy of Agency
By Shaun Gallagher, University of Central Florida
(Vol. 2, February 2007)
Philosophy Compass

£1.99 - small Decision-Making: A Neuroeconomic Perspective
By Benoit Hardy-Vallée, University of Toronto
(Vol. 2, November 2007)
Philosophy Compass

5 thoughts on “How do we know when to stop brushing our teeth?”

  1. You say we do the action, in these cases, because it feels appropriate. I am not quite sure. Why did I start crying then and not before? Because I felt like crying then. But it didn’t feel appropriate to cry then. Similarly, I don’t do the action because it feels appropriate. I do the action because I feel like doing it.

    What do you think? Does this matter?

    1. Santiamaya, thanks for the comment.

      When I say that we do an action because it feels appropriate, I do not mean to imply that we (need to) deliberate about (or introspect) our feelings, or that we (need to) evaluate what is and what is not appropriate for us to do in a given situation. Furthermore, it could be that there’s a sense in which some things we do merely because we feel like doing them. As in your example – crying. Each case needs to be thought of individually, but it seems to me that often, when you feel like crying, it seems more like something that happens to you rather than something you do, i.e., an action. But, clearly, there is much taht is controversial to say here.

      In any case, as I see it, the difference between saying that I do the action because I feel like it and that I do it because it feels appropriate, is that the latter but not the former implies that the action is rationally linked to the circumstances in which it is done (not to say that this cannot be the case in the former, only that the former doesn’t imply that it is the case). Something about the circumstances makes reasonable/appropriate the action (a description of both could, in principle, be given that would make transparent this rational relation, though you, the actor, need not be able to provide that description). Your feeling that some action is appropriate is an unarticulated awareness/representation of that linkage, and it is because (for the reason) of your having this awareness that you perform the action. Furthermore, in all such cases, it seems that you could have done otherwise (something that at least often isn’t the case with crying, for example). Finally, there must, of course, be room for misrepresentation. The circumstances might, de facto, not make reasonable the action; nonetheless, you might represent it as such.

      Anyway, this was very hand-wavy, but I think there is a difference between doing something because you feel like it, and doing something because it feels appropriate. And I also think that most of what we think falls under the former actually falls under the latter, with certain exceptions, specifically, when it isn’t really a doing that is involved, but a happening.

      Does this make sense?

      1. As a parent we hope our kids would never do soteihmng like that but the reality is that kids can be cruel! I hadn’t seen the video and expected it to be girls doing the bullying. We need to use this as a teaching moment for kids of all ages!

  2. Just found this site through Alltop. I enjoyed the post, you might enjoy a book called “The Gift of Fear” written by Gavin De Becker… He delves deep into this.

    Thanks for writing what you write, I’ll keep coming back.

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