Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Wieners, State Murder, and Morality

It’s hard to ignore these days: sex scandals by the powerful (Congressman Anthony Wiener, Presidential candidate John Edwards, French Director of the IMF Dominque Strauss-Kahn, ex-Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, ex-NY Governor Eliot Spitzer, and dozens of lesser lights) provide us with one amusing spectacle of self-immolation after another (isn’t it always amusing to see the fall of a narcissist?) Less amusing and more ominous are the increasing episodes of powerful leaders turning their military might on their own people: the government-directed thugs in Egypt’s Tahrir Square now seem like choirboys compared to the savagery unleashed on protestors by “leaders” in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Syria and nearly everywhere else these days, where those in power seem quite willing to murder their own people to keep it. Indeed, it seems that the major use of the military these days is to exterminate internal dissent: it happens no less frequently in Israel (murderous attacks on the Palestinians whom Israel, as an occupying power, is by law bound to protect) than in Iran; with the related threat clear in every so-called “advanced democracy” to spy on and cripple any form of even consideration about dissent that may raise its head (“domestic terrorist” is the appellation given in the U.S.).

What this leads me to (aside from dreaming about actual revolution) is speculation about what drives apparently sane men (and sometimes women) to the kind of immorality, or amorality, that is so conspicuous these days: sexual misconduct suitable to teenagers, or the casual murder of the innocent. The two seem related, if only to the extent that, as the old saw goes, Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Indeed, a recent piece on the corruption inherent in sexual misadventures by politicians puts it this way: politics “selects for people with risk-taking behavior and a high degree of self-regard” (Katherine Zernike, NY Times, 6/12/11). So you get people in power who are narcissistic juveniles deluded into thinking they’re gods. Some might even call them psychopaths.

Is this the answer, then? That the people who, as leaders, commit stupid and terrible acts, are self-selected psychos?

Probably many would like to believe that; because what it implies is that we, the normal ones, the moral ones, aren’t prone to such behavior. We would never do such things. It was to test this thesis that Philip Zimbardo, in 1975, embarked on a now-famous study known as The Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo has written about this in a book called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (Random House: 2007). The conclusions are stunning and quite discomfiting. What the study (graduate students were told they were to engage in an experiment about prisons; some were chosen as “guards” while others were chosen as “prisoners”) found was that it was startlingly easy to elicit violent and aggressive behavior by the “guards,” even though they had been selected for stability and told they were engaged in an experiment with fellow students. Once they were put in the role of “guards,” that is, the students began to act like authoritarian and even sadistic controllers of those subject to their whims. The “prisoners,” by contrast, in the role of the controlled, began to break down with crying, depression and disorganized thinking, to the point that by the fifth day of the experiment all asked to be released from the game and the experiment had to be stopped ahead of time.

What this indicates is that even playing roles for which they had no previous experience led apparently decent people to become torturers and bullies. As one summary of the study put it:
The Zimbardo prison study, like the Milgram study, was valuable in showing how easily ordinary people could slip into a brutal and aggressive pattern of behavior, especially if it was approved by an authority. (from Psychology: An Introduction, by Russsell A. Dewey, PhD, (http://www.intropsych.com/ch15_social/zimbardos_prison_study.html). (NB: the earlier Milgram study demonstrated that normal subjects could be easily persuaded to punish “learners” with what they thought were powerful electric shocks, if they were urged to by authorities).

This study (and previous studies, including Hannah Arendt’s examination of the Nazis who committed horrifying acts in the guise of “just doing my job,” which led her to coin the term, “the banality of evil”) thus means that, to a degree yet to be determined, most humans are quite capable of immoral or amoral behavior. More, it means that, to some extent, humans conform to the role they are given to play. The role itself—be it prison guard or U.S. Congressman or head of state—determines how those in that role behave. Those who manage to get themselves into a position of power, that is, often find that the immunity from punishment the position confers leads them to behaviors that they might otherwise contemplate with disgust or condemnation. We can see this on a smaller scale in our own lives: if we think we can get away with it, we might run a red light or cheat on our taxes. If we are authorized to exercise power over others, even over students (as teachers) or our own children (as parents), we might become authoritarian and punitive to a degree that shocks us in retrospect. Of course, this is always justified as being “for your own good.”

If we agree, then, that humans are capable of brutal or evil actions, the question becomes why? Are we as humans naturally inclined to behave badly and simply await the right opportunity? Or are we naturally inclined to be good and moral, and get drawn to brutal behavior by circumstances—either the role we are given, or the deprivation we are desperate to move out of? And more deeply, do we have a choice, i.e. are we equipped with free will to choose one or the other? Or are we driven like automatons by forces deeper than we know? Did Anthony Wiener, to get specific, have control over his computer finger in sending out his silly photograph? Or was he compelled to take that idiotic risk (what could possibly be the payoff for such a risk?) by internal or external forces beyond his conscious control? And what about the monsters like Syrian President Assad, who has killed thousands of his own people? Or the King of Bahrain who brought in Saudi forces to kill his own people for seeking a better life? Or any of a million others we could name?

Clearly, conservatives, especially religious ones in the Christian tradition, believe (or claim to believe) in strict personal responsibility. If you commit any act that “breaks the law,” you are guilty and deserve punishment. Behind this view lurks the doctrine of “original sin,” first promoted by St. Augustine, that humans are tainted at birth because of the original sin of Adam in disobeying God in the Garden of Eden. Hence, humans are born depraved and require strict laws and punishments to back up God-dispensed or government-created laws in order to be “good.” Jews, while rejecting this original-sin doctrine, subscribe to a somewhat related concept: that humans in this world are imperfect, and therefore prone to commit sins for which they must atone. The important point about both these views, and about most social/religious views in general, is that humans have free will and can choose either good or evil. Humans are inclined, by nature (or Satan), to sin, and it is through the appeal to Christ or God or the moral law (Torah, Ten Commandments, Koran etc.) that these inclinations can be controlled and turned to good.

By contrast, there are more recent traditions (starting with Jean Jacques Rosseau, who specifically rejected the doctrine of innate human depravity) which see humans as basically good, with the evils of society forcing them to behave badly. Most progressive or reformist political theories begin with this general idea, and therefore seek to compensate for societal inequality by instituting laws and programs that give the poor and oppressed a better chance at advancement. Social security, Medicare, unemployment compensation and progressive tax policies are all designed to this end. The root idea is that all people can thrive if the “unfair” advantages of birth are mitigated and all are given a level playing field on which to operate.

Aside from the rightness or wrongness of such policies, the issue here is whether or not the root ideas are sound. Do humans actually have control over their own destinies? Does free will actually exist? Because if not, if humans are in fact driven by forces beyond or beneath their conscious control (the “conscious self”), then the recent questioning of the very idea of free will and the social/legal system resulting from it (and morality itself), becomes a serious issue. Thomas Metzinger, in The Ego Tunnel (Basic Books: 2009), has framed this question quite clearly:
Free will does not exist in our minds alone—it is also a social institution. The assumption that something like free agency exists, and the fact that we treat one another as autonomous agents, are concepts fundamental to our legal system and the rules governing our societies—rules built on the notions of responsibility, accountability, and guilt…If one day we must tell an entirely different story about what human will is or is not, this will affect our societies in an unprecedented way. For instance, if accountability and responsibility do not really exist, it is meaningless to punish people (as opposed to rehabilitating them) for something they ultimately could not have avoided doing. (Metzinger, p. 127)

What Metzinger is referring to is a host of neuroscientific discoveries that have begun to cast serious doubt (as the Buddha did two millennia ago) on the reality of what we feel and call “the conscious self.” We feel ourselves, that is, as autonomous beings with control of our actions; we feel ourselves (and everyone else) to be the conscious agents of our own actions. But what neuroscience has increasingly found is that we feel this only because the subconscious or unconscious precursors to our actions in the brain are invisible to us. This is why we have the absolutely certain feeling that our minds initiate actions that our bodies carry out. Since we are blind, that is, to the model we have created of ourselves and our bodies, we are correspondingly blind to the workings of our own brains. This is proved in countless experiments which show that injuries to certain parts of the brain (often via stroke) impel people to do things which surprise their conscious selves, and importantly, cause that “self” to make up preposterous stories to account for those baffling actions or perceptions. It is also proved in research into what are called “canonical neurons,” which demonstrate that our perception is not objective in the sense that we simply see an apple or a cup; we actually perceive such objects as “what I could do with (them).” Perception and action are not separate, that is; perception automatically includes a program or inclination for a possible interaction with the object perceived: A desire or intention to grasp or eat it is already included in seeing an apple. Metzinger then concludes:
When modern neuroscience discovers the sufficient neural correlates for our willing, desiring, deliberating, and executing an action…it will become clear that the actual causes of our actions, desires and intentions often have very little to do with what the conscious self tells us. From a scientific, third person perspective, our inner experience of strong autonomy may look increasingly like what it has been all along: an appearance only…(p. 131)

What will we do then? Will we still condemn the Wieners in the same way? Will we continue to lock people up for their “willful” actions? Continue to declare opposing leaders monstrous aberrations of humanity? Continue to set ourselves off as separate and different (and, of course, superior) from such ‘sinners’? No doubt many will. For others, though, it will appear critical that the moral arbiters of society be shaken from their long hallucination that some supreme being has handed down fixed laws for all to follow, and that those laws equate with something called “justice.” We will all have to either accept the fact that life or evolution or whatever power we name is no respecter of human imaginings about its meaning, or the fact that our laws and strictures and goals are little more than vain desires for humans (especially other humans) to be far more, and far better than they apparently are. Either one of which might deliver more of what we pretend to want (justice, tolerance, compassion) than what we have now.

Lawrence DiStasi

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