Crisis of Conscience


My wife Carol and I were discussing the collapse of the pillars of the U.S., economy and the greed that contributed to it. The golden parachutes of the CEOs are well known, textbook illustrations of what the Commies always said about us, but I suspect that a key component of the fall of the big three car companies had something to do with the salaries of American auto workers, artificially inflated (one suspects) by unions. They are way above those of their Japanese counterparts, who make better cars—well, all of it leads one to suspect that, in one way or another, greed is the big factor. Carol and I, munching our Hardee’s breakfast biscuits (I sure hope they don’t go down!), began to rehearse our years-long debate (a completely friendly one, let me assure you): what is the key element in social crises like the one we face? What sort of human failing is at fault? That is quite important, just as important as determining the specific nature of an illness before you prescribe treatment for it.

Carol’s Mindvendor.com website is dedicated to the notion that all social and moral problems stem from muddled, immature thinking. And from a lack of self-reflection. Essentially, I believe Carol espouses the classic Socratic view: every individual would behave better, would behave morally, if only he or she understood the options and their repercussions. Socrates argued that everyone seeks what is best for him, and one is right in that instinct. The trouble is, too often one doesn’t see what it is that is best for him. He wants immediate gratification, and he can’t see past next week. “Two weeks? What kind of foresight is that?” (Ike, in Manhattan). This is why the dumb crook thinks the best thing for him to do is steal. He’s wrong. What is best for him is to contribute, by honest behavior, to a social condition in which all needs may be met by means of people getting jobs to supply one another’s needs, and being paid decently, so we can buy the goods we need, that others make. He fails to see that he is, by stealing, helping create a lawless chaos in which not even his own ill-gotten possessions will be safe from his thieving colleagues. He is right to seek his own good. That’s what every individual should do; he just doesn’t see what is good: the common good. It will cause all boats to rise.

So, my wife the philosopher (why do you think I fell in love with her? This, plus her beauty, her sense of humor and a million other things!) says the solution is better thinking, a conviction she has held most of her life. It’s what attracted her to study with Matt Lippmann at the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children. We need to get in on the ground floor of people’s cognitive development and encourage them, via Socratic questioning, to think for themselves. If this becomes a life-long habit, people will be much less likely to make fatal mistakes, e.g., jumping the gun in choosing a mate, in having sex and possibly kids too early, etc. If people were enabled to think clearly, a generation would grow up without superstition, without its equally irrational cousin racism, without the blinders of selfishness (they’d see it was counter-productive and would boomerang on them). If young women toyed with the idea of getting pregnant as a way of securing Lothario’s commitment, they’d know better and wouldn’t risk it. Instead of becoming drunks or addicts, people would realize that is a death trap of diminishing returns and increasing deprivation. And so on.

But that’s where my problem comes in with Socratic Rationalism. (It’s not much of a problem; I agree we’d be loads better off if kids could be taught to think clearly and that it is “cool” to do so.)  Isn’t it obvious, starkly so in the case of the addict, or the smoker, that pure reason just isn’t going to cut it? They probably know well enough what they’re walking into. What is it that carjacks their behavior, so that reason is ejected from behind the wheel? Plato understood that the appetites are easily as strong as reason and can be kept to heel only with a great effort of will. It also goes by the name Poe gave it: the Imp of the Perverse. Life is more (and less) than Pure Reason.

A good will is probably energized by a good conscience, a sense of oughtness. It has to be a mighty voice that will intervene at the point of selfish decision and order us to stand down—with a good probability of being heeded. How do we obtain such a conscience? We are not born with it intact, or whole all at once, though we are born with a facility for it, just like language. Also like language, we develop a conscience through interaction with others. As neo-Freudian psychologist Jacques Lacan says, we learn we are human by recognizing ourselves among the gallery of humans, picking out our face in the crowd scene and realizing: “Oh! I am one of them!” Lacan calls it “the Mirror Stage.” Our first interactors are our parents. And their job is to begin our socialization. They impose upon us what Lacan calls “the Law of the Father.” This is the social code of roles and rules that define what it is to be a person in one’s particular culture and society. As Durkheim explained, certain values, held sacred by the group because they foster a stable society, are imposed upon us as children. The remembered and imagined voices of society (of parents, teachers, examples, authorities) which warn us to do this and not to do that become internalized. They speak to us from memory when we are tempted. They congratulate us when we resist antisocial temptations. They condemn us when we give in and act selfishly, disregarding what society has told is good behavior, i.e., good for the group (including us). That feeling is called “guilt.” It is instilled in us “artificially.” We wouldn’t experience guilt feelings if society didn’t impose its laws, “brainwashing” us into accepting and respecting them. Some view that as oppression (see Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus), but what do you get when “the Law of the Father” is not imposed, let’s say, because of parental neglect? What you get, we call “sociopathy.” What you are missing is a little thing called “conscience.”

The greedy executives with their golden parachutes: what explains that? Would they suddenly recoil in self-loathing if someone (maybe Carol, or the Prophet Elijah) could get fifteen minutes with them in their plush offices to explain to them the wider effects of their greed? No. Don’t you think they already know pretty well what happens when you pour Xylene into the river instead of disposing of it in some safe way (if there is one)?  No, of course they know what they are doing. They do not lack either reason or foresight. They are like Lex Luthor. They see the big picture. Their failing is that they don’t happen to care about anyone else. As far as they are concerned, it is all about them and no one else. It is a choice they have made, a choice to narrow their focus. Or should I say, to prevent their infantile self-preoccupation to be broadened out. No one ever programmed the Law of the Father into them. They are not hearing the implanted voices of the social chorus warning them away from choices that are bad for the group.

The civilized sociopath is ultimately no different from Jeff Dahmer, the cannibal. CEO Lex Luthor’s instincts and crimes are wider-ranging and do not involve immediate, hands-on acts of violence, no matter how much they may degrade society--or imperil our collective economic health. Like Dahmer, they either don’t give a damn about those folks out there, or they make an exception for themselves. It’s like Aquinas’ argument for priestly celibacy. “What if everybody felt free to do what I am thinking of doing?” Murder, rape, theft, etc., if openly practiced, would destroy society, so we decide it’s wrong. In the same way, wouldn’t the human race vanish if everyone became celibate? Sure it would, Aquinas replied, but in the nature of the case, there is no way celibacy is going to become that popular! There is plenty of room to accommodate the few who will choose it. Dahmer, or your greedy CEO, probably thinks: “I am an exception. Sure, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where everybody is like me, but I don’t, and I never will.”

But Lex, but Hannibal, you’re not holding up your end of the Social Compact! Their answer: “What Social Compact? I never signed on the dotted line! I don’t recognize the implied interdependence. I’m not part of the team. I am acting for myself. If you decided to follow the same path, I wouldn’t blame you. I’d just try to make sure I won the competition with you.” Do we have a good argument against that? Doesn’t matter. Even if we do, Lex and his fellow CEOs are not listening. We just have to stop them—or prevent them.

What is wrong with the nerd? He is usually quite intelligent, so that’s not the problem. He wasn’t adequately socialized. What he is missing is a degree of self-perception. He missed Lacan’s “Mirror Stage” in that it doesn’t occur to him that, if he is to be accepted by the social group, including finding a mate, he must become “one of them,” and he doesn’t. He is a victim of infantile solipsism. So is the heedless greedy CEO. But he is well-groomed and suave. What he is missing is a different sort of socialization: the cultivation of an interactive concern, a conscience, the ability to consider the interests of others (and finally of everybody) as being the same as his own

Here’s where I think Carol’s Mindvendor philosophy is right: finally it does come down to a kind of education as the solution to society’s problems. But what kind? I agree about teaching children, i.e., all individuals, to think clearly. But that’s not going far enough. We have to impose the Law of the Father. We have to implant the chorus of society’s ghostly voices, an audio track of alternative cheering and booing inside our heads.

Why is this lacking in our society? I’m not sure if things used to be better, or even different: maybe not. But there sure is loads of room for improvement. Maybe each generation has its own version of the crisis. Maybe it is an ever-shifting, ever-evolving moral virus, a sort of “chronic crisis” if there can be such a thing. But in our day one big cause of it is that children are having children. The young parents are not adequately socialized themselves. They are not the role models for their children. Clueless, he forfeit the role, and it goes instead to Britney Spears.

In some circles one hears that it is not the government’s job to teach morality any more than it is to teach religion. But that’s a big mistake. It does after all boil down to the Social Compact. That is the belief that government is strictly pragmatic and utilitarian, a mere device to maximize individual freedom by restricting your right to act only at the point where it impinges on my own freedom. That arrangement, that task, implies no particular religion. But it does imply a kind of value system. It will be enough to program into the heads of our children the Law of the Father, in our case the inner chorus that tells us to respect the rights of others, and to refrain from acts like theft, rape, deceit, and murder which make a livable society impossible. I am reasoning out the plan, but my plan is not reasoning with people to get them to see the abstract truth, which they can then apply to their lives. That’s good, too. Carol and Socrates are right. But that won’t do the trick, not the main one. The Lords of Greed (and all the other socio-cultural termites) are suffering from something like a character disorder more than a lack of reasoning skills. We need to try to build both. We can try to preach repentance to them now, but I suspect it’s too little too late. We need to catch them on the way up.

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
December 2008


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