Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Reflections on The Nature of Human Evil, Part I: Evil as Childishness

I often encounter the argument that libertarianism as a political philosophy must make exception for children and mental invalids on the basis of the fact that these individuals are not sufficiently rational. Generally, it seems that the claim is that under an individualist order, such individuals have insufficient mental faculties to adequately represent themselves or to understand the arrangements that they enter into, so that any arrangement cannot properly be considered 'voluntary' or 'consensual.' An order based on consent can hardly be expected to handle an individual incompetent to grant his own consent.

Actually, I think that most ideologies make such exceptions, whether in terms of rationality or the broader concept of intelligence, and in general that most people believe along similar lines that 'good' behavior, or 'socialization,' broadly speaking, is something 'learned' -- a matter of the intellect. The assumption seems to be that it is rationality, or at least it is primarily rationality, which is what allows for human beings to function as moral individuals capable of representing their own interests and respecting social norms, whether those norms are derived from libertarianism or communism or whatever.

First, I do not deny that children and mental invalids probably are less rational and less intelligent than fully grown and developed adults. But I do question whether it is primarily rationality which allows an individual to peacefully and successfully navigate his surroundings, social and otherwise. After all, violent criminals are often frighteningly rational people, while many lunatics and imbeciles who nevertheless manage to acquire a modicum of self-control and have been reasonably well trained-up in good habits may often be safely allowed out on the streets, mostly unsupervised. In fact, I sometimes wonder if maybe they might not constitute the majority of...

Well... never mind that. The point is, it seems to me that the real problem is that children fundamentally can't control themselves. I would also question just whether anyone actually can be said to 'understand' reality at all, let alone that everyone actually does except children and mental invalids, or whether this is perhaps a bit of a popular delusion one might creatively call 'rationalism.'  But I shall pass over that for now. Other things contribute to the difficulties of making arrangements for these groups, yes, especially their inability to 'understand,' but I think it is primarily a question of self-control. All the intelligence and rationality in the world can't make up for a deficit in this department.

And, in practice, it's not so much that they can't handle a libertarian system, it's that the system can't handle them. Inevitably, it breaks before they do. It is this lack of self-control that brings the whole thing down. It is simply impossible to deal in a free and easy manner with a person who has no control over his impulses.

Inevitably, childish impulsiveness meets with tyranny of one form or another, and either the tyranny wins, or the impulse does and becomes its own tyranny. And as self-control is a critical -- if not the central -- component of human virtue, it follows that 'unvirtuousness' -- 'evil' -- necessarily leads to a state of tyranny, while only by virtue may a person arrive at a state of liberty. So, as it seems to me, both liberty and tyranny are matters determined by the soul. Both come from within, and a child who does not learn self-control will never have any hope of tasting freedom, whatever kind of society he finds himself a part of.

But it is not merely children who suffer from childishness.


I claim no special knowledge of the field of psychiatry, but it is my understanding that there is a tradition of thought in that field which posits that psychoses and other personality disorders stem from disruptions to the process of childhood development, such that a person in some critical respect becomes 'stuck' in a childish state, unable to complete some process of maturation. He moves into adolescence and adulthood with some mode of his conduct governed by a childish, destructive frame of reference because his psyche is unwilling or unable to make the transition to a more truthful or mature point of view. A psychosis is a sort of childishness.

I do not know if this theory is correct, but I suspect that whoever came up with it based it on many of the same patterns which have occurred to me. As I observe myself and others, even historical figures, the 'evils' that befall them and the evils they inflict, as well as the 'evil' character flaws that lead to these behaviors, all too often resemble the silliness and oblivious self-centeredness of childhood. The posturing and mannerisms of an eccentric like a Qaddafi or a Hitler strike me not so much as anything like some dark sophistication, but as the manner of an impetuous little child. They are like vain little children with the faculties and potencies of a man -- physical, intelligence, and yes, even 'reason.'

It is for this reason that I strongly suspect that there is really no such thing as 'diabolical genius,' or if there is, it must be very rare, and really and truly diabolical. Most run-of-the-mill evil, even of the genocidal sort, seems to me more like the dissembling little child who carelessly knocked over the glass of milk but doesn't want to admit it for the sake of his foolish pride. The nature of human evil is more a lack of control than an active, intelligent force.

It doesn't scheme all that much, I suspect, at least in the active manner portrayed in the movies; it passively grasps at fleeting temptation, is long on opportunism but short of real initiative, and rages and broods at what frustrates it. The appearance of calculation in the villainous mastermind is mostly an illusion, I suspect. He probably merely fell into a useful pattern by a combination of trial and error to see what works, practicing to perfection the usual spur-of-the-moment dishonesty necessary to prolong whatever situation he finds himself in, and perhaps had a bit of luck or a few pointers at the hands of an elder crook. All this is a roundabout way of indulging a particular tendency rather than learning to control the tendency itself.

He was probably as good as caught many a time, if only his captor had had the energy and gumption to press ahead with a real and meaningful apprehension. He only looks as 'sophisticated' as he does now through a prolonged, almost a mechanically habitual, masturbatory practice, not as a matter of cultivated virtuosity. Deep down...well, there is no deep down to him. Like everything else about him, his 'sophistication' is a dissembling pretense. To those unfamiliar with his pattern of thoughts, its initial appearance may impress as having a resemblance to real intelligence. But ultimately, there is no real polish to him, there is nothing there there, only a greasy prideful sheen. Anyone who got to know him would see the 'sophistication' fall away, and would realize that there was very little him to know.

The slime-ball, glad-handing politician is no one but that kid who was elected class president in high school, who you know (and oh how he would prefer that you didn't!) started out as the bossy little tyrant of the playground that annoyed everyone with any sense. The drama-queen who gets wrapped up in every stupid cause and ruins her life 'helping' people who only take advantage of her is the little girl who never seemed to have a clue, who all the boys used for fun and tossed aside because she never developed any wisdom or common sense, preferring to live in her fantasy world than to face the facts as they were.

The thug serving time for breaking and entering is that kid you knew who used to steal candy from the corner store, whose grades always suffered because he spent all his time at school selling the loot. The psychopath who commits a horrific string of murders is the creepy kid nobody ever talked to, who found pleasure in his spare time torturing small animals because he never developed a sense of relating to the pain of others. Developing the insight and self-control to become 'normal' would have come at the cost of their childish gratifications, so they never bothered to do it, preferring instead to develop an accretion of pretense to protect it. As adults, not much changes, only the necessity of increasing the complexity of the fan dance that obfuscates the nature of the evil impulse to others -- and often to themselves.

All of them are stuck as children down inside, infants, toddlers, and adolescents who have gotten command of the levers controlling and adult body and intellect. To be sure, this is not to be dismissive of evil. A heavily armed toddler at the helm of a speeding automobile evading the authorities, or at the helm of a nation and in command of a nuclear arsenal, is a very dangerous thing.


I find this abstraction of 'evil as childishness' to be a very useful mental tool. Whenever I am confronted with a situation or a conflict in which I detect evil but I cannot understand, often viewing the actors through the lens of childishness will bring some insight.

When I encounter this kind of confusion, it is usually because I am trying to relate to the actors by 'putting myself in their shoes,' and this is a mistake. If I realize my mistake -- that 'I am not them' -- and then try to relate to them as they appear to me, sometimes I make some headway. But this approach can also be misleading. After all, I am not them; if I were, the first approach would have worked.

By trying to 'adjust myself to be them,' so that the situation makes sense, I wind up being forced to ascribe some very uncharitable qualities to them in order to make sense of what I see. But these qualities not only appear uncharitable, but also unreasonable and unrealistic if evaluated independently. In explaining the evil, they tend to stretch the limits or reasonableness and probability.

This is especially true when I am trying to bridge a large cultural gap, because I simply have a very difficult time understanding the other frame of reference. It begins to look feasible that some really awful and unrealistic personality traits are actually present, especially when one can find no other explanation for what he has seen to have actually taken place. Thinking about it, the reader can probably recall a whole slew of speculations of this sort.

But I think the mistake here is assuming an adult frame of reference merely from the appearance of adulthood. If I ask myself 'What thought or mental state or set of beliefs could persuade a grown adult to behave in the way I am observing this person to behave?', I must often come up with some very nasty answers. The answers are very different if I assume a childish frame of reference, but most people, myself included, don't usually think of adults as children. Viewing the situation through the lens of childishness -- especially a lack of self-control, insecurity, small-mindedness, self-centeredness, an inability to relate to the pain of others, to understand or acknowledge the probably consequences of one's actions, and other characteristically childish qualities -- many otherwise horrible or stupid actions begin to make sense in a much more reasonable way. For whatever reason the actors simply have not developed into adulthood in some critical regard, and yet have acquired the physical appearance and most of the other capacities of adulthood.

There is a point in almost everyone's life when he realizes that his parents are real people that aren't actually all that special, and that adulthood isn't really what he thought it would be. It is pretty much like being young, except older. It may seem rather condescending to view other people in this way, but sadly it is probably accurate. It helps every now and then to remember to view one's self in that light as well, and to remember what the alternative explanations might be. As all people are capable of evil, so also most people could do with at least a little more growing up in some aspect of their lives.


This idea of self-control and childishness is all very well and good, but it would do well to ask 'What exactly is this self-control going up against? What is one controlling?'

The easy answer, of course, is 'one's impulses.' Probably if I were to follow that path a little further, I might really find myself staring into the very pit of all darkness. Primeval chaos? Original sin? The devil himself? I'm not sure. Of course, whatever it is, it can't be all bad; some impulses are good, even the highest forms of human inspiration. But I think that even with leaving the answer here at 'impulses' there is a great deal of useful thinking to be done.

Mainly, it is useful to think about because not all people will experience the same impulses in the course of their lives. For starters, I'm quite sure that some people experience much more powerful impulses than others as a sheer matter of their individual constitutions.

For these people, a great deal more of the faculty of self-control must surely be required to over-ride these tendencies. I'm 'lucky,' I think, in that I don't in general feel most such impulses even as strongly as the average person, at least so far as I can tell, so I don't generally need much self-control to appear 'good.' In the impulse department, on most things I think I'm close to a flat-liner. There really is almost nothing to control. Others struggle mightily with things that I find totally uninteresting altogether. This isn't necessarily a matter of a lack of self-control for them; they may just find it all the more tempting. One shouldn't necessarily jump to conclusions that a vice is a sign of a weak constitution.

On the other hand I think that my type of situation can be a mixed blessing. Developing the strength of self-control for any particular circumstance is an experience in itself, and all habits are strengthened through repetition. Not having the habit of self-control for lack of need can be a set-up when that one oddball temptation comes along out of the blue. It can also be a handicap when some new need emerges, as in dealing with a bad habit when a change of necessity forces one's hand. It is difficult to break a habit when one isn't in general used to forcing himself to form new ones.

I think this is a big component in the geopolitical culture clash as well. For example, an American has had the world at his fingertips in a way that most Chinese have not -- and all the responsibilities and temptations to deal with that come with it. On the other hand, most Americans have not had to deal with the situation of surviving near-starvation. One's particular virtues can often come with a downside of never having met certain temptations in that the necessary circumstances never presented themselves. Where no impulse was ever present, it should not come as a surprise that there is a chink in the armor of discipline when it does surface.

As individuals and as peoples, the disciplines we have acquired and childish tendencies which have been allowed to persist are unique to our situations, and not necessarily to be so quickly despised when perceived in one another. It can be difficult to see the mote in one's own eye, and that works both ways.


For those with powerful impulses who are trying to 'learn' to overcome them, it goes without saying that one of the most detrimental things that can be done for their efforts is to indulge the impulse. Being in the company of personalities which encourage indulgent behaviors is really unhelpful.

Yes, I'm thinking of grandparents.

But I think the damage goes beyond sabotaging self-control. Indulgent personalities almost always have one thing in mind -- short-term comfort and happiness. Also, securing the affection of the indulged person is often a goal of this behavior. But the indulgence almost always has exactly the opposite effects.

This is easy to see in small children, who quickly learn that by 'putting on a show' of being upset that they can wheedle things out of weak (and indulgent) people. However, I think that the 'show' is less of a show than most people who observe this kind of behavior tend to assume. In general, I think that there is much less of a clear distinction between make-believe and reality within the psyche of humans -- especially those who are disposed to pretense, and especially in children.

After all, the best way to tell a good lie is to convince one's self on some level that the lie is actually the truth. Those squalling children trying to get their way I suspect are really upset on some level. The manipulative fit of drama can never be entirely truthful nor entirely pretense. That is no good reason at all to cave in to the demand, naturally. This is not an argument for leniency. What one shouldn't do, one shouldn't do, whether or not he is upset about it. Neither two-year-old nor fifty-two-year-old crybabies should have their destructive attitudes and impulses indulged by others. And there are good reasons that the indulgence should be resisted precisely because of the upset it induces.

If being perpetually upset is the way to reliably get what one wants, well, the strategy is clear. Indulgent caretakers given the care of an impulsive child reliably produce very unhappy, out-of-control children. And, seemingly paradoxically, such children often harbor resentment and anger towards the indulgent caretaker, not affection. But even less impulsive children I suspect are not well served by this kind of upbringing, as it tends to teach them to take the goodwill of others for granted, makes them weak, and does not prepare them well for the real world. Like their impulsive counterparts, they also tend to be selfish and disrespectful, if less in severity, because they have never really needed to learn not to be. Conversely, children who are consistently resisted in their impetuousness and expected to live up to their responsibilities tend to turn out much better adjusted, responsible, respectful, and, yes, loving. Most people find it easier to love when they are strong than when they are weak, and that it is more compelling and rewarding to love a strong person than a weak one. At least, that is what I observe.

But in general, I think most people already know all this. It is not usually the child's lack of self-control which is the real problem. It is the adult caretaker's.

Among impulsive adults, the behavior usually isn't quite so obvious as a tantrum. Most adults at least have that much self-control. The 'drama' manifests itself in other ways -- posturing and pretense, elaborate rationalizations, guilt-shifting attitudes. We all know someone who lives his life immersed in his own personal narrative of victimization, or passes from one all-too-avoidable drama to another, or in some self-constructed fantasy that somehow conveniently lets him off the hook for indulging in some behavior that would otherwise be obviously stupid and self-destructive.

Of course, to a degree we all must live in some abstraction of life or another, which we each construct on the basis of our own insight and character. But I think we tend to draw better abstractions when we have better command of our passions.

No comments:

Post a Comment