Dehumanization As Prerequisite For Moral Failure

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (§III – Of Justice, Part I, Hackett Edition, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 25-26), David Hume writes:

Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally USELESS, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.

This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them.

For the past couple of weeks my students in my Landmarks of Philosophy class have been reading and discussing Hume’s Enquiry. In the course of our classroom discussion this past Wednesday–on §V – Why Utility Pleases–one of my students said, “It seems that if our moral behavior depends on a kind of sympathy or empathy with our fellow human beings, then one way to make possible immoral behavior would be to dehumanize others so that we don’t see them as our fellow human beings at all.” In the course of the discussion that followed, I did not specifically invoke the passage cited above–instead, we spent some time discussing historical examples of this potentially and actually genocidal maneuver and examined some of the kinds of language deployed in them instead. (Slavery and the Holocaust provide ample evidence of the systematic deployment of dehumanizing rhetoric and action in inducing and sustaining racism and genocide.) But in that passage, Hume captures quite well the possibility alluded to by my student; if morality depends on recognizing our fellow humans as moral subjects, a feeling grounded in sentiment, emotion, sympathy, and empathy, then dehumanization–by language, action, systematic ‘education’–becomes a necessary prelude to overriding these feelings of ours so that the stage may be set for moral atrocity. This is a lesson that seems to have been learned well by all those who rely on humans mistreating other humans in order to implement their favored political ideologies; the modern tactic of the utter effacement of the victims of moral failure by remote warfare or by invisibility in media reports is but the latest dishonorable instance of this continuing miseducation of mankind.

The Pleasures Of Anger

Anger is toxic, corrosive, and damaging; it is the poison we imbibe to hurt others. But like other substances described as ‘poisons’ anger is also intoxicating. As those who have ever felt ‘the red mist’ draw down over their eyes will readily testify, an outburst of anger is wholly controlling; a terrifying loss of self-control. But not one that is wholly unpleasant. And thus anger may be addictive too.

As the experience of happiness can be pleasurable, so can that of anger. This aspect of anger may partially explain its resilience in our emotional frameworks; part of the adaptive character of anger, its continuing survival, might be the pleasure it affords its ‘sufferers.’  Anger is difficult to control, to ‘reign in’; an acknowledgement of the pleasure anger provides may enable us to understand why ‘pointless anger’ and ‘raging’ and ‘venting’ exercise the hold they do. Those driven to drink wake up with hangovers; it is the price they pay for the pleasures of the night before. Those driven to anger may pay the price of broken relationships to experience the pleasures of the red mist. Those who require anger management require treatment in much the same way substance addicts do; they have found a source of once-pleasurable indulgence that has ‘gone wrong.’

There is little doubt about anger’s constructive qualities;  we are exhorted to ‘get, and stay, angry’ if we want to bring about change in this world; we are asked to cultivate an emotion supposed corrosive. Anger appears as a vital tool of our emotional arsenal; a good slave and a bad master. Anger makes us uncomfortable; in seeking to rid ourselves of it, we find the motivation to bring about desired moral and political change. But anger provides too, a space for indulgence of exhilaration. The experience of anger can be feelings of power and moral superiority. These are not unpleasant emotions.

Anger, a primary moral emotion, cannot play the vital constructive role it plays in moral condemnation and outrage unless it provided an affective state that was ‘welcoming’, one that provided more ‘comfort’ than the state of non-arousal from which it represents a departure.  Moral anger has the motivational and affective force that it does precisely because moral anger is pleasurable too. To feel that anger is to feel alive; to deny that anger is to anesthetize ourselves. The angry person told to ‘work through’ his anger, to ‘get over it,’ to ‘overcome it,’ is asked to substitute a bland, affect-less state for a pleasurable, emotionally charged one. Anger is not just frustration or fear writ large; anger is an uncontrollable itch, indulgence in which brings relief and pleasure. In anger we let ourselves be overcome, taken over. Such occupations will not proceed as smoothly as they do if they were taking place in an unreceptive environment.

We condemn some forms of pleasure-seeking—perhaps free soloing, which is dangerous, encourages reckless copycats, and leaves families anxious and scared. We might condemn the angry in similar terms.  The addict’s pleasure seeking is condemnation-worthy when it interferes with life projects; his own and those of others. These are the grounds on which we may condemn the addict. And the angry.

On The Alleged Undesirability of Inconsistency

Inconsistency in our beliefs–and thus actions–is often held to be not just a cognitive failure, a breakdown of rationality, but also a moral failure of sorts. Sometimes the inconsistent are accused of hypocrisy, of disingenuousness. We are urged to forensically examine their utterances and actions, sifting through the traces they leave, all the better to indict them of a catalog of epistemic and ethical sins. The expression of an inconsistency is also often taken to be a cover-up for a truly held belief, a masking of a sordid reality; there are the things we ‘really believe’ and then there are the things we only pretend to believe.

Perhaps we should be more tolerant of the inconsistent–especially as most of us, if not all, are guilty of it.

There is a simple apologia we can offer for this widespread inconsistency; we are creatures of limited reasoning power; we may find it too cognitively expensive to check our enterprise for consistency. We often satisfice, rather than optimize, the sanitation and hygiene we impose on our beliefs.

But there might be something even more fundamental at play. The accusations leveled against the inconsistent often presume there is a genuine, authentic self, one covered up and disguised by incompetency, for nefarious purposes. They suggest we are whole and are fractured by this tolerance of rupture within our corpus of belief. But perhaps–as many have suggested before me–we are a shifting conglomerate of sorts. We play host to many selves, many drives, many desires, all at once; if these drives and desires and instincts may conflict with each other, then why not our beliefs? Beliefs are revealed by actions, by visible exertion and the spoken word; these issue from our inner being, each bearing the impress of the turbulence that gave rise to it. Unsurprisingly, the agent who has been assigned their ownership appears singed by incoherence at the edges. But this incoherence may instead be a pleasurable medley of a kind.

I do not think there is much, if any, novelty in what I have noted above. But consistency continues to hold sway as an epistemic and moral ideal. It is still put down as a signpost, as a marker, for our aspirations. We are urged–when we have the time and the energy–to look closely and carefully under and around ourselves, and to conduct search-and-destroy missions for all and any inconsistencies.

We are too harsh on the inconsistent. In a fit of self-righteous rectitude, we indict them of too much. To be sure, some inconsistencies are harmful; for ourselves, for those impacted by our actions. The inconsistency of the powerful hypocrite is a particularly damaging one. But all too many variants of this supposedly deadly sin are not. At worst, they may only puzzle and perplex us, impatient as we are to categorize, all too neatly, our friends and family and acquaintances. But we should be more tolerant, and treat these visible faults in action and belief as spurs to a more sympathetic investigation of the human condition and the complexity of the inner life.

April Bernard on Margaret Drabble as Moral Psychologist

In reviewing a selection of Margaret Drabble‘s novels, April Bernard writes:

Drabble, as a moralist, seems to believe that it is less important what and why we do what we do, than how we think about it—before, during, after….If the reason that a man always sins is that he is sinful, what matters can only be what he does, spiritually, with these hard facts.

“What we do” i.e., our actions. “Why we do what we do” i.e., the reasons for our actions. Agents’ reasons–their beliefs and desires–are the causes for their actions. And then, finally, “how we think about what we do”–before, during, after–our beliefs about our actions and their reasons, introspectively and retrospectively.

I do not know if Bernard intends to describe Drabble’s views of moral psychology as being a paradigmatic instance of what moralists do, or whether she is taking her stance as a particularly idiosyncratic one. Be that as it may, it is interesting to consider a moralist as being more concerned with our reasoning about our reasons for our actions than with our actions and our reasons for them.

Consider for instance, a putative rebel who consistently fails to file taxes on time and sometimes fails to do so altogether. A little introspection on his part reveals he does so because he believes that tax-collection authorities are instruments of oppression and thus want to let them know–however indirectly–that he cares little for their intrusion into his life.  For Drabble then, the failure to file taxes and the resentment of authority is not as interesting as the actual introspection indulged in by the agent.

The reasons for this should be evident: such introspection–prior to actions, concurrently and retrospectively–is bound to be interestingly revealing, a tapping into a rich mother lode of psychologically acute facts about oneself. Our rebel may find–when he commences his archaeological investigations, in guided or unguided form–that his resentment of authority stems from other deeply held beliefs, primeval in origin, shrouded perhaps by childhood amnesia. He might find that he does not derive as much pleasure as anticipated from the commission of his action, that indeed, while he delays his payment of taxes, he is gripped by acute anxiety and fear–while he resents authority he fears it even more. And lastly, he may discover that his actions, rather than leaving with flush with the glory of success, bring in their wake a curious emptiness.

The visible actions we take and our publicly professed reasons for doing so may then just be a kind of froth on the seemingly placid–and occasionally disturbed–surface of our beings; they are interesting precisely because they suggest we look deeper and wider. Perhaps we could find a broader pattern that indicts the same set of reasons and provokes the same kind of introspection, thus suggesting the fundamental importance of the issues brought to the forefront of our consciousness.

These closer looks at oneself thus may point to further avenues for exploration of that most uncharted land of all: our inner spaces of motivation and fear and pleasure.


Shame, Rage, and Fascism

Jonathan Lear, in the course of a memorial address to the American Philosophical Association–dedicated to Bernard Williams–noted:

For Williams, shame needs to be conceived in terms of its inner psychological structure, in particular, in terms of internal objects and our relations with those objects. The basic experience connected with shame is of being seen in some kind of bad condition by an observer whose judgment matters. But: ‘Even if shame and its motivations always involve in some way or another the idea of the gaze of another, it is important that for many of its operations the imagined gaze of an imagined other will do’. This is what is involved in shame’s being an internalized emotional capacity, not merely an occurrent emotion in childhood in embarrassing circumstances.

Now, if shame is to function as a complex psychological phenomenon and if it is partially constituted by the imagined gaze of an internalized other, then we will have to admit that this internalized other is, to a significant degree, operating unconsciously. For we need to account for more than the relatively simple phenomenon of consciously experienced feelings of embarrassment before the consciously imagined gaze. In particular, we want to account for experiences that we take to be shame-filled, though they are not consciously experienced as such.

From there on, Lear is off and running, as part of his establishing that:

Williams’ approach to ethical life requires that we turn to human psychology; and the form of psychology required will have to be of a broadly psychoanalytic bent.

The unconscious operations of shame, of course, are of especial interest to therapists and their clients because of their peculiar and particular phenomenological manifestation: feelings of shame are visceral, tinged with a sense of abject humiliation, which, if not allowed to find expedited expression, may be directed outwards in ways intensely damaging to not just the subject but to those around him. Shame is intensively corrosive.

So shame and rage often go together. No one, it seems, is quite as angry, violent, or  murderous as the shamed one. When those feelings congeal into the  basis for a political ideology, they can become more broadly dangerous.

Fascism thus begs for psychoanalytic investigation; some of its central claims–like those of an imagined glorious past, lost to the machinations of a devious Other–rely on the creation of a social and political superego that instills shame in its adherents. The world becomes a stage populated by reminders and monuments of this humiliating defeat, grinning and leering from every corner. The associated shame is relentless in its invidious presence; the only escape from its sensations is a removal of those objects–humans included–that offend. Mere removal will not do, of course. The sensations of shame might only be assuaged by violent, destructive actions.  These become even more frenzied when it is realized that, shamefully, the Other was never a worthy opponent, never one that should have been victorious. The more this inferiority is emphasized, the greater the shame, the greater the rage.

It’s not just ethical life that requires a moral psychology with a psychoanalytic bent; so does politics.