Friday, May 04, 2012

Roy Baumeister on the temptations to evil

In his 1999 book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty psychologist Roy Baumeister undertook what some might consider an exploration of the obvious, why and how do people embrace what would be considered evil? If a philosopher of ethics or a theologian were to consider a central flaw in the premise and executive of the book a failure to adequately define evil that was not really the scope of the book. Baumeister set for at the beginning that his goal was to examine human aggression and cruelty not from the perspective of philosophy or theology but from a sociological and psychological perspective.

Part of the reason for doing this was practical, he was working on the subject from his professional background as a scholar. Another reason for his approach was a point of principle, that violence and aggression always show up in every human society and understanding the social and mental/emotional mechanisms leading to it was warranted. To the extent that Baumeister took up a philosophical point it would be in stating that most discussion of evil in traditional religious thought and popular culture tended to fixate on evil in terms of what he called the "myth of pure evil". He outlined several traits of this myth.

1. intention infliction of harm on others
2. evil is actively pursued because it is pleasurable for evildoers to do so
3. the victim is innocent and good
4. evil resides in the other, the enemy or the outsider
5. evil is static, which is to say the evildoer has always been evil
6. evil represents the opposite of order, peace and stability
7. evildoers are characterized by pride and egotism
8. evildoers have difficulty with self-control at an emotional and volitional level

Baumeister states that of the 8 traits of the myth of pure evil the last two are least central to the depiction but arguably most realistic about actual aggressive and violent people.

Now here I would stop to suggest Baumeister's understanding of traditional religious thought must be substantially truncated. In Western Christianity the doctrine of Original Sin spells out that a person may commit evil acts while thinking those acts to be good. Christianity across the world and across history has no problem at all affirming that sin (i.e. evil) is a temptation from inside ourselves due to weakness in the flesh or from evil in an environment. Christians have discussed for millenia how the temptation toward evil comes both from within the heart that is not practiced in self-restratin and from culturally accepted cruelty since its inception.  After all, wasn't it Jesus himself who said that it is from the heart that evil desires and impurity spring forth?  Still, it may be understandable Baumeister has not had enough grounding in what he calls traditional religious thought to know these things.

Baumeister considered (I would say wrongly) that traditional religious thought propagates his points about the myth of pure evil.  Baumeister does, however, say that traditional religious teaching heavily emphasizes points 7 and 8 in daily life.  This is significant because while traditional religious thought has often been frowned upon by modern Western secular societies the traditional teaching that a propensity for cruelty and aggression comes from high self-esteem or pride fits the growing research in criminology and psychology.  Back in 1999 when Baumeister wrote that no criminals or abusive spouses could be said to have low self-esteem in any provable way that might have been controversial.  It shouldn't have been.  Baumeister's case that the fastest path to cruelty in sociological terms and psychological terms is to have a very high but malleable self-esteem. The person most likely to be evil, most likely to be an abuser is going to be a person who thinks he or she is wonderful but can't prove to others they product matches the hype.  Threatened ego /self-esteem is one of the fastest ways for a person to turn evil.

There are, of course, other motives and Baumeister outlines them broadly.
1. lust, greed and ambition (instrumental evil)
2. threatened egotism or revenge (evil in defense of self-esteem)
3. idealism in a group (arguably evil in the service of a group's self-esteem, which leads to demonizing others)
4. enjoyment of cruelty, i.e. sadism

Baumeister notes that genuine sadism, that is evil performed by those who find it pleasurable to harm others, is exceptionally rare.  Most people avoid harming others and this not necessarily because of the abstractly moral objections to cruelty but usually due to sheer physical discomfort and revulsion at the consequences of cruelty. This may seem counterintuitive but killing is distasteful and gross and that's why so many people are loathe to kill.  You might think it would be because of a sturdier philosophical reasoning, and in some cases that's true, but for many soldiers who could not bring themselves to shoot the enemy even in World War II there was a visceral aversion to taking the life of another human being.

As Baumeister winds his way through studies and case histories he lays out the reasons why people are tempted to evil.  Again, though Baumeister does not really define evil let's bear in mind that this need not be the point of the book given the deliberately narrow constraints the author set for himself. He makes a persuasive case that one of the greatest problems in exploring and discussing evil is the magnitude gap between the victim's perception of an evil act and the perpetrators perception of something that may have been unpleasant but was ultimately necessary.

Now by the end of the book Baumeister asks a question a traditional theologian would find highly relevant. The question Baumeister asks, given the half dozen ways a person could be swayed by and embrace evil, is not "Why is there so much evil in the human race?" The question is "Why isn't there more?" The motives to evil are actually all too easy to understand.  Low level criminals often display a lack of impulse control and may be stuck in low-level thought.  Paradoxically Baumeister's observations about petty crime lead him to some statements that might be summed up, and I joke quite a bit here, as "Criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot."  Maybe not literally cowardly and superstitious but certainly operating at a low level of thought and with a low level of self-control.  As Ducard would tell Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, the mind and motives of a criminal are really not that hard to understand.

But the ideologically motivated evil person (do I need to say it?) obviously displays a great deal of self-control.  Even serial killers have a great deal of self-control.  FBI serial killer expert John Douglas, Baumeister shares with us, remarked that no serial killer ever killed someone in the presence of a uniformed police officer (in real life here, not in some Batman comic book).  No serial killer can be considered insane or driven by irresistable impulses.  Baumeister states flatly that in American culture too many people act and think as though many of our impulses are beyond our control.  If someone goes on an eating binge they still select the food, consider what flavors they want to experience, and operate from that.  Truly irresistable biological urges are very few.  You can avoid eating food or avoid drinking water but you breath automatically.  Baumeister's case for what few bodily urges are irresistable is bluntly scatalogical, no amount of human willpower will keep your body from urinating or defecating forever.  The body will eliminate the waste. Apart from that what most people describe as an impulse that can't be resisted is an impulse they give themselves over to.

So what, then, holds people back from doing evil things?  If, as Baumeister so plainly proposes, everyone can and will be tempted to do or say something evil at some point and harm someone, why isn't there more evil?  If evil is defined as emotional, verbal, and physical cruelty what restrains us?  Baumeister states that the two things that most restrain evil have been the two things that are exceptionally unpopular in contemporary American culture.  The first big disincentive is the cultivation of self-control. Baumeister goes so far as to say that the beginning of violence is not a question of motive but of a casting off of self-restraint. The costs and benefits inside a person's mind may tip the scale toward doing something wrong as the faster and easier way to get what one wants.

But the second disincentive to evil is bigger, guilt. Baumeister proposed in his book that Americans need to stop focusing on self-esteem as a good in itself. He pointed out that despite the emphasis on self-esteem violent crime has increased in the previous half century rather than decreased. As our culture has tended to discuss guilt and shame as bad things violence has also escalated.  Baumeister offers what could be the controversial proposal that guilt does more to pre-emptively curb violence and aggression than possibly any other emotional or psychological process. Those who embrace violence may do so in part because they do something cruel and the anticipated terrible consequences simply do not arrive at that moment.  From there, well, the rest is a matter of flow, you might say.

Rather than focus on considering how great you are you may be healthier considering yourself an ordinary shmuck without any special achievements or abilities.  Baumeister may not have realized that this fits with Paul's instruction that no one think of himself more highly than he ought. As for guilt, there are plenty of places in traditional thought (like the Bible) where people are warned in advance, "Don't do X or the Y consequences will make you miserable when they catch up with you." Don't lie to make things easier for yourself because should you be caught in that lie, and when you get caught in that lie, you'll have ruined so much of what you worked for. Baumeister's proposal that guilt is not just important AFTER evil has been committed but that in many cases realization of guilt pre-empts a cruel act is something that just about any traditional religious thinker, let alone a Christian, would say makes sense.  This fits what we've been taught and have shared as a common value for millenia.  Of course a big disincentive from doing or saying evil is a fear of future judgment!

Particularly memorable in Baumeister's book is his discussion of abusive husbands. Those that have traditional gender expectations and who also "marry up" are vastly more likely to be abusive in every way.  Why?  Baumeister proposes that this would be because the self-worth of the man is threatened by the intellectual, social, or monetary discrepancy between his status and that of his wife.  He hasn't or can't live up to what he think the man's role in the house should be and compensates by physical force and aggression to level the playing field, as he perceives it. In other words, Baumeister puts it, a husband with an offended sense of status entitlement is far more likely to be an abuser than a husband who may have a bad education or background who by luck becomes a millionaire and marries a woman richer and smarter than him in terms of her background.  A guy like that is just too busy being grateful for how lucky he is and is six times less likely to hit his wife than the man who is bitter that he hasn't gotten what he believes is his proper destiny and is married to a woman who has more earning power, social status, and intellect than he does.
Pride may come before a fall but wounded pride will generally come before a beating is unleashed on a wife, too, it seems.

Baumeister remarks that across every culture and time the perpetrators of violence are pretty much the same, mainly young males from the age of puberty to the peak years of sexual potency. It's not that women are never violent or cruel, in fact in Baumeister's lecture "Are Men Necessary?" in response to Maureen Dowd he observed that in the last twenty years domestic violence perpetrated by women has skyrocketed and that the victims are usually the mothers' own children.  However, historically the trend is fixed, young horny dudes have lots of testosterone and are jonesing for a fight.  As a certain megachurch pastor has liked to put it men are born for combat.  Combat for what?  Oh, well, we can discuss that later.  As this connects to Baumeister's observations young men in their sexual prime are absolutely the most violent people around. The higher their self-esteem and sense of entitlement the more violent they get whenever that sense of self is threatened.

Baumeister, at the end of his book, notes flatly that shifting familial authority from fathers to mothers has done nothing to stem violence in young sexually potent males. If anything precisely the opposite has happened and young males in America have grown far more violent.  Yet curiously violence in media seems to have had no really observable correlation that would suggest causation.  People who play violent video games may not, in fact, become more violent.  A culture that sanctions violence or a suspension of self-control can easily exist without a particularly violent TV show or video game.  To pick a specific example, it's not like William Wallace II needed video games to be verbally violent toward people he disagreed with. It wouldn't even be a case that he was somehow influenced by the movie Braveheart.  Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, right? The sentiment "I never beat up anyone who didn't deserve" could be taken as an illuminating self-defense of an evil person.  After all, Baumeister spells out at length, it's a universal axiom among abusive husbands to say that the wife provoked him and needed to be put in her place.

I could write quite a bit more about the content of the book but will wrap things up.  It's no surprise that by the end of his book Baumeister observes that it's impossible to chalk up evil to just nature or just nurture and that the relationship between the two is too complex to ever imagine we'll be able to make significant progress against the synergistic ways in which human nature and human nurture can spawn evil. We can attempt to reduce risk variables and keep in mind that the quest for higher self-esteem has made things worse rather than better, and we can bear in mind that American society has probably undervalued guilt for its capacity to pre-empt evil, but human nature is simply not as pliable as many idealists have thought.  For an author who spent so much time explaining the problems in traditional religious ideas about evil at the start of his book Baumeister ends up affirming some of these most traditional foundations of traditional Christian ethical teaching.  A Christian's proper understanding of the impact of sin and the Golden Rule can still be a deterrent to cruelty, which is hardly to say that there aren't other ways of refraining from cruelty. It's not as though no one in Jewish or Christian writings ever warned about the weakness of the flesh or that there is a way that seems easy but it's end is destruction.

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