Excerpts on moral pathologies

May 20, 2018

 

[From Notes of an Underground Humanist.]

 

How is mass inhumanity possible?— When I ask myself how it’s possible that so many white Southerners used to support slavery even on moral grounds, as having a “civilizing” influence on blacks, I’m led to the conclusion that it is very easy for humans to invent and believe in ideologies which justify activities that bring material benefit and social recognition to them. Arguments can always be thought of for both sides of an issue, even moral arguments. Most of the time you’re going to subscribe to philosophies and values that permit you to affirm yourself in the way you’re accustomed to, because your most fundamental values are material comfort and social recognition. Given your environment, whatever values are consistent with these deepest values are probably the ones you’ll subscribe to. It’s not just intellectual laziness, either. It’s also the fact that the way you live structures your perception of the world, even determines the data that enter your consciousness. Living amidst a certain class of people in certain physical and economic conditions, not being exposed to other conditions, will naturally lead to your adoption of the views of this social group. You’ll see certain things happening and not other things; you’ll encounter certain types of behavior and not others, which may well cause you to make unsound generalizations about human behavior or the behavior of particular ethnicities. Your social circumstances may end up distorting or suppressing your innate human commitment to kindness, fairness, compassion, solidarity. Other people, due largely to their different social conditions, may more nearly approach a realization of these human values than you; they may have a clearer understanding of the nature of society’s present configuration and of its (in)compatibility with human values. Certain types of social organization are relatively conducive to prejudice; other types are relatively conducive to rationality.

 

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An immoral morality.— Oh the stupidity of condemning people like John Brown and accepting “righteous wars” or cheering them on! The nonsense morality! Neutrality, inaction, is far more morally repugnant in extreme cases than violence is. The disinterested reasoning and distant action of a McNamara or a Dick Cheney or every State in history offends the moral sense far more than immediate and violent insurrection against oppression does. The latter is human, the former not. (Bureaucratized violence—impersonal violence—is not far removed from totalitarianism, the superfluity of the individual.) The morality of The Wretched of the Earth makes more sense to me than the morality of “following rules.”

 

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Homo economicus.— Today I was eating a sandwich on the edge of a pleasant stone courtyard in front of an office-building downtown. Standing there harmlessly, next to the sidewalk, eating a sandwich. A guy wearing a suit, maybe coming back from lunch, passed by me but stopped to ask if I was waiting for someone. “No.” “Okay, this is private property,” he said. I looked at him, took another bite of my sandwich, and slowly walked away. Furious inside. It occurred to me then that homo economicus is the only despicable creature in the animal kingdom. That man’s act, that petty little bureaucratic act, is the origin of all wickedness.

 

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The modern slave.— A good test of a person’s worth—that is, of his humanity, his free-spiritedness, his kindness and mental independence—is whether he is willing and able to examine rules critically in the light of reason and either obey them or not obey them based on their reasonableness. The modern slave is the one who does what he is told by authorities, who accepts their rules and orders unquestioningly even if they are irrational or they hurt people. The typical bureaucrat is the perfect slave. Only a liberated, humane person picks and chooses his rules for himself, guided by reason and compassion. Genetically speaking, everyone or almost everyone has the capacity to be a mere bureaucrat, a consistent follower of orders. It does seem, however, that some people are more comfortable with playing such a role than others. Remember the Milgram experiments in the 1960s? Most of the participants were willing to obey orders and inflict the maximum amount of pain on the victim, blindly trusting the authority-figure’s reassurances—but some did refuse. For whatever reason, obedience (a terrible thing) came less naturally for them than for the others.

           

One of the most important goals of a humane system of education and socialization would be to teach people not to obey automatically. This is the opposite of what our current educational system teaches, though, because of the necessity of universal obedience in a capitalist society.

 

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After reading about Thomas Thistlewood and Jamaican slavery in the eighteenth century—reading alone in a dark and empty apartment at night—one has to clean oneself with the slow movement from Beethoven’s Archduke piano trio. Thistlewood the slave master who kept a diary of his practices but didn’t comment on them, didn’t reflect on his feelings or those of his slaves, just matter-of-factly recorded daily events without self-consciousness. Considered himself a man of the Enlightenment, was interested in botany and horticulture, read books. But the punishments he meted to his slaves—no different from the punishments other plantation-owners visited upon their slaves in this probably most brutal of societies in history—are not light reading. Of course the daily floggings and the sexual predations on his female slaves and all that. But also his invented tortures, like having a slave defecate into another’s mouth and then wiring the mouth shut for hours. How do you reconcile these practices with Thistlewood’s self-conception, his civilized Britishness, his intelligent ordinariness? The answer is obvious, but it says a lot about humanity. It’s all about categorizing people. One feels sympathy, compassion, empathy to the extent that one identifies with another, categorizes him as an extension of one’s self. Blacks were seen as not fully human, etc. The human capacity for abstraction, for mediation—that most lethal and magnificent capacity, which has led to humanity’s villainies and glories—allowed whites to mediate their experiences/“internalizations” of blacks with the ideas of inferiority, filthiness, semi-subhumanity, dirty otherness. Hence, no self-identification of whites with blacks occurred, and so no pity or compassion. Blacks, while acknowledged to be human, became for whites effectively objects (of a nasty sort), like Jews in Nazi Germany. Whites could do whatever they wanted to them while still retaining in their own eyes a civilized humanity.

 

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The authoritarian personality.— One problem with the average political “conservative” (or neoconservative; the distinction is no longer very clear) in the U.S. is that he has an emotional attachment to the idea of America, its greatness, so that if anything is said that might be interpreted as critical of his country he feels the need to disagree with it and defend America. He is more committed to his belief in the greatness of his country, a nonexistent abstract entity, than to action on behalf of people’s well-being (action that he often thinks takes “anti-American” forms). He is vigilantly on the lookout for “anti-Americanism,” his antennae hyper-attuned to the faintest whiff of it. He won’t accept criticisms, for example, of American foreign policy unless they’re premised on the belief that America is great, noble, a force for democracy and freedom in the world. His outlook, hyper-patriotic, is basically totalitarian. So he can’t think clearly about the world: the fog of patriotism is always obscuring his vision and putting blinders on him, like on a horse. It’s a mental pathology, not unlike the pathology of fundamentalist Christianity (which is one reason the two pathologies are often seen in the same person). A profound emotional commitment to an abstract entity is almost always pathological, which is to say unnatural, arising out of societal alienation.

           

My pseudo-debates on Facebook with an old acquaintance enlighten me as to how the conservative, or rather the “authoritarian,” mind works. (Authoritarian minds exist across the political spectrum, but they seem more common on the right.) Its political side revolves around an ideological core immune to argument. You can amass all the evidence in the world, but this guy is never going to change his opinion on issues like “big government” (bad) or “law and order” (good). The best thing you can do with such people is to push them aside and get on with productive work.

           

Here’s a better way of saying it: once a person like my acquaintance places you in a certain mental category that he considers beyond the pale, such as “radical” or “socialist” or “anti-American,” his mind is more or less shut off to your arguments. You can say as much as you want, point to any number of facts or empirical studies, but because you’ve been locked away in this box none of it has to be taken seriously. The box is a defense-mechanism by which the conservative prevents your arguments from undermining his own convictions too radically. The fact, then, that conservatives are very prone to name-calling is significant: by labeling their opponents “liberals” they give themselves permission to disregard their arguments, which is the best possible reaction because if they actually tried to engage with arguments on their merits they’d fail. Liberals don’t need the name-calling so much because they can usually beat their opponents through logic.

 

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The notion of “stupidity” seems purely polemical and without substance, but that’s wrong. It is a necessary concept in order to explain things about people that would otherwise be inexplicable. Lack of (self-)critical intelligence, lack of talent for abstract thinking, lack of social awareness or empathic understanding of people and situations—these are what is usually meant by “stupidity.” Everyone exhibits stupidity sometimes, but in some people it is more common than others. A disproportionate number of political conservatives, for example, are more or less stupid, as you’ll see if you talk to them. They have trouble understanding arguments, the rules of logic; they’re less open-minded than liberals tend to be, less able to understand opposing arguments or consider facts relatively disinterestedly. Scientific research confirms this.[1] It has to do with the old idea of the authoritarian personality (which exhibits more stupidity than a relatively “open” personality does). Another way to say it is that the average conservative is less objective, rational, empathetic, etc. than the average liberal. Again, that’s a scientifically demonstrated fact, not just an insult.

           

As for radical leftists, they often fall into one of two categories: the left version of arch-conservatives with whom you can’t argue, and something that approximates the open-mindedness and intellectual disinterestedness of Chomsky or Zinn. Mainstream liberals tend to be more objective than the former but less objective than the latter.

 

 

 

[1] See, for example, this page, which has links to twelve peer-reviewed articles. From the perspective of conservatives, one of the less insulting findings was that “In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized.”

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