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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Social negatives

Last time I think I concluded that I think there are some individual benefits to be had from a form of mood enhancement that seeks to align mood more closely with a rational appraisal of the world - so long as this does not lead to an excessive focus on boosting the self in preference to or to the detriment of rational considerations of the actual problems of one's own life (as in, mood improvement might encourage a person to stay with a domineering partner) or society's ills at large. Indeed, I considered that some CBT/positive psychology intervention could perhaps make individuals feel more capable of tackling bigger problems or motivated to do so as a means (in part)to adding meaning to their lives.

But here I wanted to explore further some of the ways in which the dominant cultural messages incline us to have an unduly mistrustful and negative view of our fellows.

This is much of what Rutger Bregman is exploring in his new book Humankind and, yes, I have to say that I think it's well worth reading as either an important corrective or even just as an alternative focus.

Firstly, to state my case, as I have said before I think, I am dispositionally inclined to think the best of others. On the whole, I think I do believe that people are pretty decent on the whole and my natural response is to trust. It does surprise me that others speak very dismissively of people in general, attribute the worst motives to others, feel a strong preference for 'us' over 'them' and will opt for distrust as a default.

Bregman re-examines a list of some of the most (in)famous psychological experiments and case studies - all of which have been used in education and in popular psychology books to emphasise how nasty and brutish we humans are. The idea seems to be that civilisation offers a veneer of niceness, but below that film-thin layer is a beast waiting to break out.

The Stanford prison experiment, the Milgram electric shock experiments and the murder of Kitty Genovese have all been brought forward as evidence.

However, and this is key, further analysis suggests that none of these cases are in fact evidence of the nastiness of human nature. The prison guards in the Stanford case were encouraged and pushed to be aggressive - some actually stated that they didn't want to do it, but did so because they believed that the experiment would be part of a positive social move to improve prisons. In the Milgram case, participants wanted to assist the process of science and went along while they believed that their actions were for the greater good. They actually refused once they were being ordered to continue using force rather than in the cause of scientific progress. As for the bystander effect which was developed out of the Kitty Genovese case (who actually died not alone but in the arms of the friend and, in contrast to accepted belief, the police were called but did not come), a meta-analysis shows that in the vast majority of emergencies when there are numbers of people watching on, they do work together to help.

On the whole, and even taking into account awful atrocities, individuals seek to pursue what they believe to be good. Which means they may come to act in dreadful ways through the conviction that a greater good will arise. They are wrong, yes, but not 'evil' even if what they do is evil. Roy Baumeister coined the phrase 'the myth of pure evil' to capture this view.

Of course, there are psychopathic and sociopathic people and it is also true that power (like, as discussed before, economics) tends to make people more self-interested and less empathic.

Bregman's view is that whereas in small groups, we could counter this through the use of shaming practices, now we cannot. The powerful people have armies, police forces, political control and mass media. Civilisation, in his view, is a polluting effect. Through private property, we become materialistic and acquisitive; we seek to protect what we have and accumulate more. We become increasingly distrustful and tribal.

What's more, it is in the interests of those in power to manipulate these tendencies, to have us focused on holding on to what we have and trying to increase our own standing, rather than for us to band together against a powerful minority.

Through encouraging our self-interest, we are weakened and disempowered. The force we could have if we acted together is kept at bay by our increased tendency to fragment and fear each other. We are willing to grant all power to the Leviathan to protect ourselves from each other - while the Leviathan can grow and grow.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. - Romans 13: 1-4

Thus, it seems to me, that the greatest enhancement possible - allowing the greatest increase in well-being for the majority of people - would be to break through the distorting veils of social and political distortions.

This looks increasingly unlikely. The use of Big Data, for example, in electioneering which can damage the democratic ideal by directing personalised messages to persuade individuals, utilising their fears and vulnerabilities. This prevents there being a shared world of information that voters can discuss and debate. (See this article by one of my forthcoming tutors, Carissa Veliz and this one by Neil Levy on the dangers of fake news.) Just consider that in this extension of individualism, John Stuart Mill's ideals fall apart as truths cannot be tested in the public space as no one has the same access to information.

Media coverage, as I discussed in a previous post, encourages distrust and anxiety, which foster negative views of outsiders - an emotional response that populist parties can make use of...

Why, though, should they (whoever they are) want to maintain nationalism and existing hierarchies?

It's easy to understand how the rich want to stay rich... but bear in mind that if the top 20% wealthiest people in the world contributed 0.5% of their income, it would double the income of the bottom 20%. There would still be rich and poor, just not to the same extent. How can any ideal of justice not claim that this 'ought' to be done? The rich won't suffer, but the poor will benefit! How can there be a case to argue against it? The answer: rights. The rich feel they have the right to keep all they have - or to give it at 'their discretion' - as in, they can choose freely who benefits irrespective of the overall justice of the impact.

So, I suppose, it's in the interests of the powerful and the rich to foster a preference for rights over duties. If we, the majority, are led to be so protective of our rights, how can we say that they should not have the same rights? But our rights offer us only negative benefits, while their rights prevent the doing of positive good.

If we see the poor as lazy and stupid, why should anyone feel any duty to redistribute wealth?

If we see progressives as politically correct idiots who threaten the needs of the majority with their crazy claims for disparate minority groups, then why should we feel any concern for the oppressed and ignored?

If we see immigrants as potential terrorists and rapists, we can keep them out and enhance a nationalist world view that involves harsh foreign policies and limited demand to support global programmes like international development and climate change treaties.

So, it seems I'm suggesting that we are in a sense brain-washed to feel threatened and alienated; to focus on individualism and rights; to concede control to a system that perpetuates self-interest and anxiety.

Consider: if we instead valued egalitarian principles, recognised that others have needs like ours and that most people really want to do good; if we could shame the psychopaths in power and encourage a society of trust and kindness, we could all - or the vast majority - be a great deal better off. That demands co-operation and collaboration, though, not the search for individual enhancement. And the philosophy of enhancement is all about the changes to individuals and how the sum total of individual benefits plays out in society. But to me that gets the whole thing the wrong way round.

Firstly, the rich and privileged will benefit the most - at least to start with. Philosophers argue it would 'trickle down'. But how can they be sure when what we see now is how the rich and privileged use their power to maintain their status!

Secondly, the focus is on subjective and individual well-being which does not suggest any guarantee that toxic systems would be in any way altered - in which case, improving the happiness of the poor and oppressed would be to bring them to a state of false consciousness. That might be 'better' than depression but surely has to be worse than improving standards in society that allow for genuine freedom and flourishing?

And thirdly, the whole thesis is founded on self-interest - so how could it not effectively perpetuate the most damaging aspect of societies as they are?

So, I think that an ethical view of enhancement has to start with enhancing society. And that might demand that we all take a 'make me less selfish' pill. With double doses for the rich and powerful.

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