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To be Human is to be Complex, F&M Professor Says

  • Common Hour Bennett Helm
  • Franklin & Marshall College's Elijah E. Kresge Professor of Philosophy Bennett Helm spoke on a topic of his research, "Emotional Reason and What It Is to Be Human," during Common Hour on April 17. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

For legal purposes, courts today define corporations as people, but a Franklin & Marshall College philosophy professor tapped the findings of his prodigious research to explain that people are defined by their humanity.

And their humanity, Elijah E. Kresge Professor of Philosophy Bennett Helm told an audience April 17, is defined by how they bring the complexity of their emotions and reasoning to bear when dealing with life's circumstances. 

"Some persons may not be human beings," said Helm, the 2012 recipient of F&M's Bradley R. Dewey Award for Outstanding Scholarship, which recognizes a faculty member who best exemplifies "the ideal of the scholar whose research efforts reflect and inspire excellence, and enlighten teaching."      

"We've all heard that corporations are people, too," Helm said. "Well, they're not."

Helm spoke on a topic of his research, "Emotional Reason and What It Is to Be Human," during Common Hour, the College community's discussion held every Thursday during the academic year.

The author of two books -- "Love, Friendship, and the Self: Intimate Identification and the Sociality of Persons" (Oxford University Press 2012), and "Emotional Reason: Deliberation, Motivation, and the Nature of Value" (Cambridge University Press 2007) -- Helm argues that as an end result of deliberation, emotional reasoning is the appropriate response to a situation.

To illustrate, he refers to Mark Twain's 19th-century novel "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," in which Huck sets off down the Mississippi River in the antebellum South with Jim, an escaped slave about whom the young white boy has conflicted emotions and judgments.

Huck doubts whether helping Jim escape is the right thing to do, but he loves Jim, and when the chance comes to turn him in, Huck chooses to protect his friend.

"Twain's point is that Huck's actions are an appropriate response," Helm told the audience in Mayser's Gymnasium. "Your emotions and judgments come together to form a single assessment."

To be a person is to be responsible for who you are, the professor said. Interpret your emotions by understanding what makes you emotional, he said, then used himself as an example, angry at a rabbit and fearful of a hailstorm.

Why? The rabbit is eating the vegetables in his garden and the hailstorm threatens to damage his garden's crops.

"Interpreting our emotions can make them determinant," Helm said. "Emotions are fundamental to our ability to reason."

Sophomore Anne Dolan, a government major, said she was intrigued by Helm's idea that emotion and reason work in tandem.

"He made an interesting point that they can be based off each other and that you can come to the right conclusion," Dolan said.

Senior Sean Davis, a philosophy major, was skeptical, particularly in terms of anger.

"I don't think you can box in an appropriate reaction and call it rational," Davis said.

Now writing a third book, Helm's works and publications on action theory, moral psychology, the nature of emotions, and the metaphysics of the self are considered at the forefront of current thinking.

In 2012, Helm and two colleagues, University of California-Riverside's Agnieszka Jaworska and Vassar College's Jeffrey Seidman, received a $640,000 grant from the prestigious John Templeton Foundation to support a research project titled "Love and Human Agency: An Interdisciplinary Investigation."

The team is studying the role of love and caring in human freedom and other aspects of human agency -- the capacity to make choices and to impose those choices on the world. The research team anticipates the project will result in two or more books, dozens of peer-reviewed academic articles in a variety of disciplines, and presentations at major national and international conferences.