Right Out Out Of Greek Tragedy

Though I feel bad for his wife, and even a bit for the man himself, I can’t help but feel a little giddy about the whole Spitzer fiasco. The epic rise and fall, the ridiculously obvious hypocrisy of an ethics reformer with an immoral habit; it couldn’t be better scripted. People who study the brain and how we pay attention to things often analyze how we separate foreground and background, and one way to make people focus and respond to something in the visual field is to have a stark contrast between an object in the foreground and those in the background. Same with sound, I would think, and smell and in fact all our sensory tools. The Spitzer case is intriguing because, like in Greek tragedy, the central character has a tragic flaw, a characteristic that creates an almost grotesque set of contrasts within the character, a set of contrasts that make observers both entranced and confused, since most of us will feel a need to try and resolve the contradictions: how could he think he would not get caught? Which leads, again to Greek tragedy: just as Oedipus had no choice, his fate was sealed, how much of Spitzer’s activity was the result of conscious choice? Of free will? And how much was compulsion… Roy Baumeister recently addressed the question of various stages of free will in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science; that journal is a behind a firewall, but this quote from the abstract provides a glimpse:

 “Human evolution seems to have created a relatively new, more complex form of action control that corresponds to popular notions of free will. It is marked by self-control and rational choice, both of which are highly adaptive, especially for functioning within culture. The processes that create these forms of free will may be biologically costly and therefore are only used occasionally, so that people are likely to remain only incompletely self-disciplined, virtuous, and rational.”

Baumeister, Roy F. “Free Will in Scientific Psychology.”Perspectives on Psychological Science 3 (1), 14-19. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2008.00057.x