Sociopathy and Kindness (part two)

In part one, I took a look at Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door which examines the prevalence of sociopaths who, unhampered by consciences, may rise to positions of power at the expense of others. Milgram’s experiments on obedience together with studies on the psychology of killing during warfare show that most of us will obey authority, even when this goes against our better judgement, our conscience.

So, in the context of a company that profits through exploitation of people or the planet we tend to believe/hope that they are not really causing harm because: (1) we wouldn’t, and (2) we are conditioned to obey authority and not question the situation. The solution is to learn to no longer accept authority (which is happening for some) and to share information on corporate impacts, both positive and negative. Practical solutions that translate into concrete actions are often the best way of dealing with seemingly overwhelming problems, i.e. we need to know what are the best (and worst) options when we want to purchase anything from a bar of chocolate to a phone to laundry detergent, etc.

But how motivated are we to care?

The second book, On Kindness, by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor (2009, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) examines the history of our behavior as a society when it comes to caring about the welfare of others. Kindness here is considered in the broad sense, meaning compassion, empathy, humanity, altruism, or as the Victorians called it, “open-heartedness.” I think it’s natural to ask the question: How much do we, as a society, care about each other these days? When I say “each other,” I’m including the people we come in contact with and those far away that we’ll never meet; our habitat; our fellow animals; and the fate of the planet as a whole.

The book investigates why the idea has come about that “as a species—apparently unlike any other species of animal—we are deeply and fundamentally antagonistic to each other, that our motives are utterly self-seeking, and that our sympathies are a form of self-protection.”

The authors mention studies on “what makes people happy” which show that kindness registers much higher on the happiness scale than self-focused behavior. This has become a fairly popular topic these days – a good example is Happy (2011), a documentary on happiness that looks at cases where interdependence and sharing has improved the quality of people’s lives and their happiness level. Here’s the director, Roko Belic, talking about community life in Okinawa, and here’s a clip on the problems of emphasizing extrinsic rather than intrinsic values.

“We mutually belong to one another,” the philosopher Alan Ryan writes, and the good life is one “that reflects this truth.” Today this truth has gone underground. Independence and self-reliance are now the great aspirations; “mutual belonging” is feared and unspoken; it has become one of the greatest taboos of our society. Why?

The German critic Theodor Adorno “suggested that even though our alienation, our distance from other people, may make us feel sage, it also makes us sorry, as though loneliness is the inevitable cost of looking after ourselves.”

A large part of the book focuses on the history of our attitude towards kindness (/compassion/empathy, etc.), starting in classical times. The Stoics (not an indie band – you might be thinking of The Strokes) considered kindness to others to be an extension of self-love, radiating outward from the family circle to local community and then humanity at large.

Stoics were aescetics: the pleasures they endorsed were not appetitive or sensual but “soul states” that enhanced the goodness of the individual by bringing him into harmony with the oneness of nature. The naturalness of kindness, its roots in early childhood affections, made it a font of happiness that “expands the soul.”

Cicero argued that warm friendships extended throughout human society, and warned that people who cared more for their fellow citizens than for foreigners threatened to “rend apart the fellowship that unites mankind.”

Cicero, who brought stoicism to Rome
Cicero, who brought stoicism to Rome. (Also notable for having the lower body of a chess piece)

I agree with this and believe that it’s one of the great hurdles that we face if we want to make a harmonious global society. From a consumer point of view, there’s almost certainly a lower barrier to accepting slavery, child labor, poor working conditions, environmental destruction, etc., if it takes place in a different country.

The authors of On Kindness suggest that the Christian-era association of kindness with self-sacrifice was a miss-step in thinking, since it removed the aspect of personal joy and the idea that it expanded the soul. Perhaps this association of kindness with self-sacrifice is one of the reasons why it has come under such fire over the last 500 years.

Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651)—the urtext of the new individualism—dismissed Christian kindness as a psychological absurdity. Men, Hobbes insisted, were selfish beasts who cared about nothing but their own well-being.

Hobbes considered human existence as dog-eat-dog, or a “struggle of each against all.” Over the next century, there were several major works that disagreed with Hobbes’s sentiment, David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) and Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). In the former, Hume compared the transmission of feelings between people to the vibration of violin strings, with each individual resonating with the pains and pleasures of others as if they were his own. Smith, widely considered the father of modern economy for his treatise on the benefits of a free-market, describes it as follows: “We become in some measure the same person… this is the source of our fellow feeling.”

Smith’s book was followed closely by Rousseau’s most famous work, Emile or On Education (1762), which imagines a boy educated to follow his natural inclinations rather than social conventions. Rousseau disagreed with his predecessor, John Locke, on the inherent nature of children.

“We see Children,” Locke wrote, “as soon almost as they are born, cry, grow peevish, sullen, out of humour, for nothing but to have their wills.” In Emile, Rousseau sharply criticized this description, arguing that the egoism Locke attributed to children was not natural but socially induced. Children are “naturally inclined to benevolence,” but society thwarts this innate disposition, replacing it with competitive egoism.

Less than forty years later, things changed radically when we were introduced to the idea of uncontrolled population growth by Malthus, a concept that is still widely taught in schools and universities.

In 1798, as the [French] revolution moved towards its close, the political economist Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population, one of the most influential texts of Western modernity. Malthus was determined to show that any society governed by benevolist principles was doomed to poverty and misery. Human beings procreate as fast as their income permits, he argued. Therefore, any attempt to improve the general condition of society was demographically doomed.

Just prior to this, in the middle of the decade-long revolution, France was “dechristianized” and briefly replaced by the cult of reason, culminating in a celebration of the goddess “Reason” in the Notre Dame cathedral in 1793. When Malthus released his essay a few years later perhaps the time was ripe for purely rational view of humanity’s path, somewhat free of the, albeit flawed, version of compassion that the church had nurtured. In any case, Malthus’s thesis that the human population will grow as fast as it is it can until eventually growth is limited by availability of resources (food, water, land) has influenced our thinking greatly since then.

Thus, by the opening of the nineteenth century, the long quarrel between kindness and egoism had begun to turn decisively in egoism’s favor. Nietzsche wrote in The Genealogy of Morals (1887) that he “regarded the inexorable progress of the morality of compassion which afflicted even the philosophers with its illness, as the most sinister development of our European culture.”

Malthusian political economy, the Thatcherism of its day, was a particular bête noire of the benevolists, condemned for its mechanical approach to human affairs and its ruthless attitude to the poor and vulnerable.

“Poor-peopling,” as Florence Nightingale dubbed women’s philanthropic labors in slum neighborhoods, began to fall from fashion, and many welcomed its passing, looking instead to trade unions and governments to eradicate poverty rather than softening it.

It’s interesting that Robert Reich (for example, in the 2013 documentary, Inequality for All ) cites the decline of trade unions in the 1970s, helped by Reagan in the US and Thatcher in the UK, as a major factor in the opening up of the wealth gap between the 1% and the 99%. The fact is that we can’t separate the people in power from the rest of us—whatever trends we adopt as societal norms will pervade us all, it’s not possible to assign such a core, inherently human trait such as kindness and social responsibility to those in power so that the rest of us can abdicate responsibility.

Phillips and Taylor go on to cite the program for voluntary blood donation to the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK as a case in point.

Richard Titmuss, one of the NHS’s most influential champions, described as the universal human impulse to “help strangers.” Why should anyone care whether a person entirely unknown to them gets the health care he or she needs?” He published a famous study on the motivation behind blood donors (The Gift Relationship).

People, according to Titmuss, were simply enacting a “fundamental truth” of human existence, that “to love oneself, one must love strangers.”

The good society was one that built on this truth, creating welfare systems based on the recognition that all people are dependent creatures, needing each other for support and comfort. A bad society was one that, in the name of freedom and independence, denied people the “right to give.”

The private market is profoundly coercive, he argued, forcing people into situations that thwart their natural altruism.

To digress for a moment; last year I was at a meeting where a senior officer of a large (and controversial) agrochemical company gave a talk which he introduced with a statistic that new projection for the human population just came in from the U.N., and it looked like we’d be at 8 billion by 2020 (or something like that). His concern then quickly changed to a kind of somber relish as he told everybody we must use their products or we’re all screwed.

This is not far from the Malthus rationale: we have to continue the way we are going with destructive agricultural practices at the expense of the planet in order to support the growing population. The irony is that our reckless way of life is probably going to curb our population growth: insecticides that wipe out essential pollinators like bees; endocrine disruptors reducing human fertility; monoculture food crops that could be wiped out by a single virus or pest; and climate change taking care of the rest.

There are parallels between the scare-tactics used by some corporations and the post-9/11 anti-terror propaganda (for example, see Martha Stout’s analysis of George W. Bush’s “paranoia war”). The point being that fear mongering is a very common approach used when companies or organizations want to manipulate you (just think of advertisements for household disinfectants where the baby is in mortal danger of being consumed by germs), and population growth is a very convenient excuse for bad behavior.

There’s no denying that the global population has increased for centuries, but the rate of population increase has peaked in the 1960’s at 2.2% and is now only half that (1.1% in 2012). Therefore, some models predict that the global population in 2100 will actually be 6.2 billion, lower than the current number. It’s also relevant that population growth is generally faster in developing countries (e.g. Ethiopia and Indonesia) than affluent countries (e.g. Germany and Japan where growth is zero or negative), suggesting that Malthus’s reasoning that we should not help the poor or hungry is not even rational from a strictly population control point of view. In agreement with this sentiment, the U.N.’s main recommendation is to increase funding to family planning programs, particularly in developing countries.

Malthusian Limits. Population growth may play a large role in the rise of individualism and competitiveness. The graph shows projections of the world population according to different scenarios (U.N., 2010). However, research at the Autonomous University of Madrid (2013) predicts that our population in 2100 will actually be lower than today, in agreement with the “low fertility variant” above.
Malthusian Limits. Population growth may play a large role in the rise of individualism and competitiveness. The graph shows projections of the world population according to different scenarios (U.N., 2010). However, research at the Autonomous University of Madrid (2013) predicts that our population in 2100 will actually be lower than today, in agreement with the “low fertility variant” above.

Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to kindness, in Phillips and Taylor’s view, can best be summed up as follows:

Putting oneself in someone else’s shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable.

Everybody is vulnerable at every stage of their lives; everybody is subject to illness, accident, personal tragedy, political and economic reality. Bearing other people’s vulnerability, which means sharing it imaginatively and practically… entails being able to bear one’s own.

We are still heavily influenced by Malthus’s views on population growth, but the fact that there are more of us on the planet now than ever before shouldn’t be an excuse for maintaining Hobbes’s 350-year-old philosophy of dog-eat-dog. In fact, that way of life is almost certainly not the path to saving our society and our planet, and it’s most definitely not the path to expanding our souls.


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