The film classic Ronin from 1998 had this great moment when Robert de Niro answered the question “Ever killed anyone?” without missing a beat with “I hurt somebody’s feelings once.”
Even though we are not killers – at least most of us are – I wondered if we can go through life without ever hurting the feelings of others? And what are feelings anyway?
On the one hand, feelings arise through an ongoing process that we call ‘interoception’. This is what the brain makes of the sensory experiences of the internal organs and tissues, the hormones and the immune system. On the other hand it is the sensory experiences that flow in from the world around us. All together are the components of feelings that make us feel good or bad, calm or restless, or neutral. Emotions are then the external expression of these inner feelings.
So we see that although we can influence our feelings – because we create them ourselves – we are less conscious of the feelings of others. Of course, we actively try to manipulate the feelings of others by being friendly, neutral or aggressive towards someone. But we also influence the feelings of our fellow human beings without being aware of them.
It starts at our birth. Without us understanding or being aware of much of the world, we are the source of a whole range of feelings in our parents, grandparents, siblings and relatives. If a person falls in love with us, and we are completely unaware of it, and we do not replicate these feelings, we may have hurt someone’s feelings. Or if we are born into a certain social class or with a certain skin color without our doing and without our guilt, then we can – without understanding or noticing – cause envy or hatred in others.
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Because feelings are shaped differently by people, even the most harmless action on our part can lead to hurt feelings. Once reacted one second too late to a greeting? Already the other person may consider himself/herself treated as rude.
No matter how hard you try, you will not be able to live a life without hurting someone’s feelings. Now the question is, should that even be a goal? Since it is inevitable, perhaps the question should better focus on quantity How much emotional injury is OK? Just as the weather slowly drags the environment, so there are extreme events. A hurricane, a drought, an earthquake that massively impacts the environment. Something similar could be our own emotional target. Minor emotional hurts are unavoidable, but they don’t kill anybody. Large ones, on the other hand, have a stronger impact and are avoidable.
This question becomes even more interesting when we realize that we will also have to admit feelings to machines. In my (German) book When Monkeys Learn from Monkeys I explain why machines should have emotions. So that we humans can better interact with them. But won’t this create more potential subjects whose feelings we can hurt?
And something seems to have this question in common with another one that came to my attention during my research on artificial intelligence. “Can our brain ever not think?” Because our brain is always on, whether we’re awake or asleep. Brain activity can be measured at any given moment.
So when we are told that we can achieve anything, here are two things we can’t do: not thinking and not hurting the feelings of others.