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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Why Good People Do Bad Things

David Brooks has written an interesting article in today’s New York Times (3.20.12) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/opinion/brooks-when-the-good-do-bad.html?ref=opinion about human nature.  “Why”, we ask, “Do good people do bad?”.  Brooks wonders why this doesn’t happen more often since we are programmed from birth and down the millennia of human existence to be self-protective and aggressive and to expand our perimeters and secure our interests. 

John Calvin believed that babies come out depraved (he was sort of right; the most violent stage of life is age 2). G. K. Chesterton wrote that the doctrine of original sin is the only part of Christian theology that can be proved. This worldview held that people are a problem to themselves. The inner world is a battlefield between light and dark, and life is a struggle against the destructive forces inside.

This worldview was both darker and brighter than the one prevailing today. It held, as C. S. Lewis put it, that there is no such thing as an ordinary person. Each person you sit next to on the bus is capable of extraordinary horrors and extraordinary heroism.

Frank Bales, the topical subject of Brooks’ article is the young soldier who massacred 16 people in Afghanistan recently.

Friends and teachers describe him as caring, gregarious and self-confident before he — in the vague metaphor of common usage — apparently “snapped.” As one childhood friend told The Times “That’s not our Bobby. Something horrible, horrible had to happen to him.”

This is a normal reaction, affirms Brooks:

According to [the worldview that prevails in our culture], most people are naturally good, because nature is good. The monstrosities of the world are caused by the few people (like Hitler or Idi Amin) who are fundamentally warped and evil.  This worldview gives us an easy conscience, because we don’t have to contemplate the evil in ourselves.

As in the Chesterton quip, we who have been schooled in Christianity believe that Man is evil, expelled from the Garden of Eden is shame and sin; and that redemption can come only through Jesus Christ.  Christianity notwithstanding, Nietzsche espoused the theory of ‘beyond good and evil’ – that is, acting on those very basic and primitive impulses of self-protection, acquisition, expansion, and security without the guilt and recrimination imposed by society is the highest form of human expression

As Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil:

…life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation….

Although we may not admit it, we admire Nietzsche’s Superman.  In this very politically correct world, in which religion, morality, and the strictures enforced by both  dominate and reduce the individual to a flaccid, herd-following being, we would like to be Richard III, Aaron the Moor, Edmund, Goneril, Regan, or Macbeth.  We would want to, as Nietzsche puts it:

sail right over morality, we crush, we destroy perhaps the remains of our own morality by daring to make our voyage [to a world where hatred, envy, covetousness, and the lust to rule are the conditions of life and must be present “and must therefore be further enhanced if life is to be further enhanced”. 

Shakespearean characters (and those of Christopher Marlowe, especially Tamurlane), are the embodiments of pure, unalloyed, untrammeled ambition – the perfect expression of Nietzsche’s theory of the pure will of the Superman, an amoral striver beyond good and evil.  A simple, but familiar example from Machiavelli which Shakespeare espoused in Antony and Cleopatra:

Love is a link of obligation which men, because they are rotten, will break at any time they think doing so serves there advantage

Machiavelli also commented on law and force, suggesting that princes need law, but there are times when only “beastly force” will suffice.  In short he, like Nietzsche, understood that accession to power requires setting aside the more bourgeois assumptions of morality; and is famously remembered for his conviction that while love of the people can be useful, it is fear that is the most instrumental tool in gaining and retaining power.

Machiavelli also commented on law and force, suggesting that princes need law, but there are times when only “beastly force” will suffice.  In short Machiavelli, like Nietzsche understood that accession to power requires setting aside the more bourgeois assumptions of morality.

Human nature, however represented by the Bible, Shakespeare, or Nietzsche, is neither good nor evil but simply exists.  Shakespeare was especially good at chronicling the endless cycle of history and describing the human nature which underlies it.  Jan Kott has observed that if one were to lay out all of Shakespeare’s Histories in a row, we would see what he calls The Grand Mechanism at work – the same palace coups, plots, duplicity, greed, desire, and ambition played out over centuries. Why does history repeat itself asks Shakespeare and Kott?  Because an immutable and ineluctable human force underlies it.

As Brooks observes:

David Buss of the University of Texas asked his students if they had ever thought seriously about killing someone, and if so, to write out their homicidal fantasies in an essay. He was astonished to find that 91 percent of the men and 84 percent of the women had detailed, vivid homicidal fantasies. He was even more astonished to learn how many steps some of his students had taken toward carrying them out.

One woman invited an abusive ex-boyfriend to dinner with thoughts of stabbing him in the chest. A young man in a fit of road rage pulled a baseball bat out of his trunk and would have pummeled his opponent if he hadn’t run away. Another young man planned the progression of his murder — crushing a former friend’s fingers, puncturing his lungs, then killing him.

These thoughts do not arise from playing violent video games, Buss argues. They occur because we are descended from creatures who killed to thrive and survive. We’re natural-born killers and the real question is not what makes people kill but what prevents them from doing so.[Italics mine].

There are, then, three types of people – 1) those who have successfully incorporated the principles and moral precepts of society and who, despite their evil thoughts (as above 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women), repress them and lead ‘normal’ lives; 2) those who do not live by the rules and express in the most primitive and savage ways the bestiality of their natures; and 3) those who live by Nietzsche’s rules. 

These last are Supermen, whether the Tamburlaines or Genghis Khans who ride out of the Steppes to maraud, conquer, and acquire from Europe to Japan; the Richard III’s,Macbeths, and Edmunds who plot to accede to power; or those who live within the law but on its edges, fulfilling desires to conquer and acquire without the ethics and morals of what Nietzsche called ‘the herd’.

Brooks adds another category – that which includes Robert Bales; people who have always lived well within the margins of society, who have subscribed willingly and even happily to its rules (what could be more structured and disciplined than the military?), but whose containment vessel springs a serious leak.  Robert Bales has to be a freak, we argue. People just aren’t that way:

When somebody who seems mostly good does something completely awful, we’re rendered mute or confused.

Most of us live within the rules and devise others to keep the antisocial, pathological killers at bay; but we also secretly admire the Supermen, the amoral heroes who express their true, basic, and fundamental natures.  

The closest we have come to both realizing and admiring this primitive potential is by acknowledging it within a psychological theory:

Self-actualization is the organism's master motive, the only real motive: "the tendency to actualize itself as fully as possible is the basic drive...the drive of self-actualization"  or  man's tendency to actualize himself, to become his potentialities...to express and activate all the capacities of the organism." (Wikipedia)

In one brutal act Robert Bales raised issues that we have long chosen to ignore – the nature of war and the stresses that can release primitive urges; human nature; and the nature of good and evil – and David Brooks has discussed them all intelligently and well.

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