Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 2b

What’s fascinating is that most guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment remained hesitant to apply ‘tough’ tactics at all, even under mounting pressure. Two-thirds refused to take part in the sadistic games. One-third treated the prisoners with kindness, to Zimbardo and his team’s frustration. One of the guards resigned the Sunday before the experiment started, saying he couldn’t go along with the instructions. In Why Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment Isn’t in My Textbook, there is a quotation, from John Mark, who had been one of the guards in Zimbardo's "experiment." It's from the July/Aug, 2011 issue of the Stanford Alumni magazine: 

"During the day shift, when I worked, no one did anything that was beyond what you'd expect in a situation like that. But Zimbardo went out of his way to create tension. Things like forced sleep deprivation — he was really pushing the envelope. I just didn't like the whole idea of constantly disturbing people and asking them to recite their prisoner numbers in a count. I certainly didn't like when they put a guy in solitary confinement.

"At that time of my life, I was getting high, all day every day. I got high before I went to the experiment; I got high on my breaks and lunch. I got high afterwards. I brought joints with me, and every day I wanted to give them to the prisoners. I looked at their faces and saw how they were getting dispirited and I felt sorry for them.

"I didn't think it was ever meant to go the full two weeks. I think Zimbardo wanted to create a dramatic crescendo, and then end it as quickly as possible. I felt that throughout the experiment, he knew what he wanted and then tried to shape the experiment — by how it was constructed, and how it played out — to fit the conclusion that he had already worked out. He wanted to be able to say that college students, people from middle-class backgrounds — people will turn on each other just because they're given a role and given power.

"Based on my experience, and what I saw and what I felt, I think that was a real stretch. I don't think the actual events match up with the bold headline. I never did, and I haven't changed my opinion."

The big problem with the Stanford Prison Experiment had always been that it was so unethical that no one dared to replicate it and so Zimbardo had for decades been the final authority on the subject. But then, two British psychologists designed an experiment for the BBC to answer the question: what happens to ordinary people when they don a uniform and step inside a prison? Bregman says that it was an effort to sit through the resulting 4 hr. program because nothing much happened. The main difference from Zimbardo's experiment was that the psychologists didn’t tell the guards what to do. All they did was observe. 

Things were just getting started when one guard announced he didn’t feel suited to the role of guard: ‘I’d rather be a prisoner, honestly …’ On day two, another suggested sharing the guards’ food with the prisoners to boost morale. Then on day four, when it looked like some sparks might fly, a guard advised a prisoner: ‘If we can get to the end of this, we can go down the pub and have a drink.’ Another guard chimed in, ‘Let’s discuss this like human beings.’ Or, as the Sunday Herald summed it up, ‘What happens when you put good men in an evil place and film it for telly? Erm, not that much actually.’ 

From a scientific perspective, the experiment was a resounding success. Haslam and Reicher (the psychologists who conducted the study) published more than ten articles about their results in prestigious academic journals. But the BBC Prison Study has since faded into obscurity, while people still talk about the Stanford Prison Experiment. This exposes a harsh truth: if a study shows the negative side of human character, it will receive wide publicity; if it shows the good side, it will be ignored.

The Stanford Prison Experiment attempts to show what today’s social psychologists call situationism: the idea that people’s behavior is determined largely by what’s happening around them. If you put people in certain situations, they are more likely to be racist or sexist, or they may lie or cheat. But continued to its logical extreme, situationism, according to one psychologist, “has an exonerating effect”. “In the minds of a lot of people, it tends to excuse the bad behavior … it’s not the person’s fault for doing the bad thing, it’s the situation they were put in.” 

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 2a

“Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.” - Oscar Wilde

In the 1970s, sociologist Erving Goffmann introduced the concept of ‘framing’ – each of us views the world through a mental picture frame which enables us to make sense out of our jumble of experiences. In Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman discusses some of the most well-known narratives of modern times - the novel Lord of the Flies, the end of the Easter Islanders, Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram's Obedience Experiment, the Bystander effect etc. All of them give prominence to the negative side of human character. But the popular interpretations of all of them have major problems.

Take Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo’s experiment is one of the two or three most famous experiments in the history of psychology. It is depicted in movies, television and introductory psychology textbooks. In the years that followed the experiment, Zimbardo would grow to be the most noted psychologist of his time, becoming president of the American Psychological Association. In the decades since the experiment, millions of people have fallen for Philip Zimbardo’s setup. He has repeatedly emphasized his view that this experiment reveals much that is significant in understanding what happens in real prisons.

The standard description of Zimbardo’s experiment is as follows. In order to gain insight about the behavior of prisoners and guards in real prisons, Zimbardo and his colleagues constructed a simulated prison in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University. Then they recruited 21 psychologically healthy male college students and randomly assigned 10 of them to be prisoners and the other 11 to be guards. The prisoners were to be held captive in the simulated prison around the clock for two weeks, and the guards were to serve duty in the prison on eight-hour daily shifts, so there were always at least 3 of them in the prison at any given time. For this, they would be paid $15 a day.

The results, in brief, were that the guards behaved toward the prisoners in “negative, hostile, affrontive and dehumanizing” ways. The prisoners behaved alternately in rebellious and passive ways. At one point, on the second day, they ripped off their clothing and identification numbers while shouting curses at the guards. Later, five of the prisoners reacted with such extreme emotions that they were removed from the study before the end of five days. By the end of the sixth day the behavior of the guards and prisoners had spiraled to the point that Zimbardo decided to end the experiment early. "These guys were all peaceniks," he said of the students chosen to be guards. "They became like Nazis."

The standard interpretation: In a prison, one group has power over another and the powerless group is stripped of their individual identities. This  creates extreme, maladaptive responses that are characteristic of the responses often seen in real prisons. Those in power become abusive, and those subject to that power become immature, passive, and rebellious. These effects do not have to do with differences in original personality (because in the experiment, the subjects were randomly assigned to roles). Rather, they result from the situation in which people find themselves. 

Bregman writes, ‘Philip Zimbardo’s study wasn’t just dubious. It was a hoax.’ A major problem with the experiment is with its 'demand characteristics'. Any characteristics of a psychology experiment that let research participants guess how the experimenters expect or want them to behave are referred to as demand characteristics. In any valid experiment, it is essential to eliminate or at least minimize demand characteristics. In this experiment, the demands were everywhere.

Zimbardo claimed in many interviews that his prison ‘guards’ turned sadistic of their own accord. Subsequent revelations about the experiment reveal that the guards didn’t even have to guess how they were supposed to behave; they were largely told how by Zimbardo and his associates. In his relatively recent book, The Lucifer Effect (which I have not read but is quoted by Bregman), Zimbardo mentions a meeting with the guards that took place on the Saturday preceding the experiment. There could be no mistaking his instructions:

We can create a sense of frustration. We can create fear in them […] We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. They’re going to be wearing uniforms, and at no time will anybody call them by name; they will have numbers and be called only by their numbers. In general, what all this should create in them is a sense of powerlessness.

Is this not an overt invitation to be abusive in all sorts of psychological ways? The supposedly independent scientist had, by his own admission, drilled his guards. They hadn’t come up with the idea to address the prisoners by numbers, or to wear sunglasses, or play sadistic games. It’s what they were told to do. And, when the guards did behave in these ways and escalated that behavior, with Zimbardo watching and apparently (by his silence) approving, it would have confirmed in the subjects’ minds that they were behaving as they should.

Most of the subjects stuck it out because Zimbardo paid well. They didn’t get the money until afterwards. Guards and prisoners alike feared that if they didn’t play along in Zimbardo’s dramatic production, they wouldn’t get paid. Not only that, on the Saturday before the experiment started, Zimbardo was already talking about ‘we’ and ‘they’ as though he and the guards were on the same team. Which meant that the story he later told about losing himself in the role of prison superintendent as the experiment progressed couldn’t be true. 


Sunday, August 21, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 1b

For decades, what the primatologist Frans de Waal called 'Veneer Theory' used to be the dominant biological view of human nature. It regarded genuine kindness as either absent or an evolutionary misstep. Morality was a thin veneer barely able to conceal our true nature, which was entirely selfish. In the past couple of decades, however, Veneer Theory has been increasingly questioned by new evidence to the contrary. For example, anthropologists demonstrated a sense of fairness in people across the world and economists found humans to be more cooperative and altruistic than the Homo economicus view would allow.  

When we behave horribly, we are called 'animals' but when we behave generously, we are called 'humane'. We like to think that our finer characteristics are the result of our culture and have nothing to do with our evolutionary history. But as Stephen Jay Gould said, ‘Why should our nastiness be the baggage of an apish past and our kindness uniquely human? Why should we not seek continuity with other animals for our “noble” traits as well?’ Morality is a direct outgrowth of the social instincts that we share with other animals. 

In the Origin, Darwin drew no distinction between man and other organisms. At the heart of Darwin’s theory  is the denial of humanity’s special status. Humans, just like any other species, were descended, with modification, from more ancient ancestors. Even those qualities that seemed to set people apart — language, wisdom, a sense of right and wrong - had evolved in the same manner as other physical traits, such as longer beaks or sharper incisors. Evolution has shaped people to be altruistic by instilling within us a genuine concern for the fate of certain other individuals. 

Darwin wrote an entire book about animal emotions, including their capacity for sympathy.  Having companions offers immense advantages in locating food and avoiding predators. Darwin’s writing massively contradicts Veneer Theory. He speculated, for example, that 'The social instincts lead an animal to take pleasure in the society of its fellows, to feel a certain amount of sympathy with them, and to perform various services for them.' After over 40 years of observation of primate behavior, Frans de Waal  contends that concern for others is their natural conduct. 

It appears that social animals are wired to cooperate and to reduce stress by seeking each others’ company. Many types of social interactions may be best understood in terms of a non-zero-sum game with multiple winners. Darwin had this idea long before scientific studies of animal behavior when he noted that natural selection would opt for “the feeling of pleasure from society”. Studying primate biology brings us closer to the truth than studying Hobbs, which is that we are social to the core. 

Anyone who says that large-scale cooperation is beyond our nature knows too little about primates, including ourselves. Research with other primates has shown that the propensity to forgive can be shaped heavily by one’s cultural experiences. Separate infant monkeys from their mothers, and they’ll grow up to be less conciliatory than is typical for their species. Raise them among individuals from a more conciliatory species, and they’ll become more conciliatory than is typical.

It’s not that religion and culture don’t have a role to play, but the building blocks of morality predate humanity. We recognize them in our primate relatives, with empathy being most conspicuous in the bonobo ape and reciprocity in the chimpanzee. Moral rules tell us when and how to apply our empathic tendencies, but the tendencies themselves have been in existence since time immemorial. Biology holds us “on a leash,” said biologist Edward Wilson, and will let us stray only so far from who we are. 

This also means that the reputation that Darwinism has gained of painting nature as a cold, unforgiving theater is misplaced. The idea that Darwinism has to be replaced in our daily lives so as to build a moral society are based on a profound misreading of Darwin. Since he saw morality as an evolutionary product, he envisioned an eminently more livable world than the one proposed by many of his followers, who believe in a culturally imposed, artificial morality that receives no helping hand from human nature.

The most common theory about our earliest ancestors is the “Man the Hunter” hypothesis. But early hominids were largely defenseless creatures of small stature and had body structures that would have made them less efficient hunters compared to other predators. They much better fit the profile of prey species, vulnerable to a large variety of carnivores. It makes sense to relabel “Man the Hunter” as “Man the Hunted”. It is highly likely that these creatures lived in large groups for protection requiring individuals to be highly social and cooperative. 

It is only because of the prevalence of Veneer Theory that it was believed that goodness is not part of human nature, and that we need to work hard to teach it to our children. Children were seen as selfish monsters, who learn to be moral from teachers and parents despite their natural inclinations. They were seen as reluctant moralists. But experiments have shown that moral understanding develops astonishingly early in life. Infants under one year of age already favor the good guy in a puppet show. The puppet who nicely rolls a ball back and forth with another is preferred over one who steals the ball and runs off with it.

Darwin noted that the only uniquely human expression is blushing, an observation that has stood the test of time. Blushing is an evolutionary mystery that must be particularly perplexing for those who believe that exploitation of others is all that humans are capable of. Such a signal makes no sense for a born manipulator. Blushing tells others that you are aware how your actions affect them. This fosters trust. We prefer people whose emotions we can read from their faces over those who never show the slightest hint of shame or guilt. 

Recent studies support a view of the emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive. Compassion and benevolence are rooted in our brain and biology. For example, helping others triggered activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate, portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. People who develop the need for psychiatric intervention are those who have become alienated and antisocial. It works this way only because we are not born as loners. Our bodies and minds are not  designed for life in the absence of others. 

German and Japanese aggression once shook the world, yet only a few decades later it is hard to think of two countries more pacific. Sweden spent the seventeenth century rampaging through Europe, yet it is now an icon of nurturing tranquility.  Our expectations for ourselves play a strong role in shaping our behavior. It is important that we get out of the rut of giving cooperation and fairness secondary roles in the evolution of cohesive and smoothly functioning social groups. “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” wrote Orwell .


Monday, August 8, 2022

Social production of moral indifference - 1a

(I am a conformist in every sense of the word, but, curiously, I like reading about views that question the status quo. The minority view is more interesting. So I thought of writing a few posts against the prevailing individualistic, grasping, violent view of human nature but it became much longer than I expected. I have divided the posts into sub-sections and numbered them 1(a), 1(b), 2(a), 2(b) etc. But it must be remembered that the divisions between different sub-sections are porous.)

Human nature is not nearly as bad as it has been thought to be. — Abraham Harold Maslow

At the beginning of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, a band of prehistoric hominids has been driven from a water hole by another clan. One of them picks up a bone and realizes that he can wield it as a weapon. He and his band use their newfound power to beat one of the other clan members to death. This violent act enables them get their water hole back and marks the Dawn of Man. He throws the bone up into the sky, where it turns into a satellite orbiting the earth.

One should examine the assumptions behind this story instead of accepting them blindly. Are competition and conflict really the only reason for human progress? The story of how we became human is an important one, not just from a scientific point of view but because it informs our beliefs about human nature. The current belief in self-interest  tells us that to behave morally is to invite others to take advantage of us. It shapes what we teach our children, both at home and in the schools. 

The dominant views expressed by people around us, the messages we receive from the news media, etc. shape our patterns of thought. These views influence most of our behaviors but they are rarely questioned. If, during a job or performance interview, we are asked to describe ourselves, our answer will very much reflect the dominant expectations of that time. Our appearance, self-perception, and social behaviour are entirely determined by the messages we receive.  By encouraging us to expect the worst in others, it brings out the worst in us. 

Research has shown that people tend to act according to what they see or hear is the common behaviour. When visitors to a national forest read signs that asked people not to steal petrified wood because a lot of people had stolen wood in the past, theft actually increased. People had concluded that since many had the habit of stealing wood, it was okay for them also to do so. Over 2,500 college students from twenty-three countries, were surveyed and the counties that had higher rates of corruption, tax evasion, and political fraud were also the countries that had higher rates of lying. 

You are no longer surprised by accountants validating the books of fraudulent companies or doctors being little more than marketing agents for the pharmaceutical industry. It is common to hear people who are uneasy about the occasional side effects of economic wheeling and dealing being portrayed as namby-pambies just not up to the rigors of the marketplace. As a result of the self-interest model's influence, our bonds of trust have taken a heavy beating in recent years.

Such negative assumptions have guided most realms of human affairs, from policy making to media portrayals of social life. As our science enters further into the domain of the human heart and mind, we come to see our lives less in terms of joys, virtues, sins, and miseries and more in terms of chemical imbalances, hormones, good moods, and depressions — material problems which can be tackled by technological solutions, not moral challenges with which we must learn to live. As Issac Asimov said, 'The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.'

There are two contrasting views about human behaviour. One school of thought regards humankind as essentially good, and sees it as society’s task to ensure that our benevolent disposition comes to the fore. The other believes humankind to be essentially bad, and wants society to act as a police officer, to curb our evil tendencies as much as possible. One side is highly altruistic, and focused on ‘give and receive’; the other is highly egotistical, and focused on ‘divide and rule'.

The latter view has become dominant today. It results in a mechanistic, fear driven society that can be manipulated.  Politics becomes a place where the strongest groups dominate and the weaker pay the costs of defeat or neglect. There is a definite correlation between what humans think of themselves and what they become. Assuming the worst about people often brings out the worst in them without their realizing it. It's a clear case of the old statement - "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist". 

According to Hobbs, human life in a state of nature was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. It resulted in ‘a condition of war of all against all.’ He assumed that anarchy can be tamed and peace established if we all just agree to relinquish our liberty and put ourselves into the hands of a solitary sovereign who he called after a biblical sea monster: the Leviathan. Hobbes’ thinking provided the basic philosophical rationale for directors and dictators, governors and generals down the ages to grab power. You are often told that ‘knowledge is power’ but it is more true to say that ‘power is knowledge’.

The condition we face is much like that described in Bertolt Brecht's play, The Exception and the Rule. On Brecht's stage a handful of characters wander through a pattern of actions that show a moral universe turned upside down. What is good is made to appear evil; justice and injustice trade places. A coolie attempts to do a good deed. He is killed by his employer who sees the coolie's gesture as a threat from a class enemy. The murderer is placed on trial but is acquitted in a judgment that finds his behavior perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. In his poem The Second Coming, Yeats describes such a situation:

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.

What matters more than the model of human nature that you choose to use is to realize that you have one in the first place, because then you have the power to question and change it. As Keynes once admitted, it was ‘a struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and expression … The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in the old ones which ramify. . . into every corner of our minds.’ Conceptual locks are far more powerful than factual locks. 

In the posts that follow, it would appear that I have over-emphasized human cooperation and under-emphasized the competitive and self-aggrandizing aspect of human nature. But the assertions about the negative aspects of human nature have become so common that it was necessary to indicate the overwhelming importance which sociable habits play in Nature and human society. Individual self-assertion is something quite different from the petty, unintelligent narrow-mindedness which goes for “individualism” and “self-assertion.” 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

An award for gaffes

Have you heard of the 'Foot in Mouth Award'? It is awarded by the Plain English Campaign for "a baffling comment by a public figure." The award was first made in 1993, when it was given to Ted Dexter, the chairman of selectors for the England cricket team.  Politicians have been recipients of the award more times than any other group of people. The list includes some familiar names. Here is a sample:

Alicia Silverstone - The American actress, star of Clueless, was awarded in 2000 for her comment: "I think that Clueless was very deep. I think it was deep in the way that it was very light. I think lightness has to come from a very deep place if it's true lightness."

Richard Gere - The American actor was presented with the award in 2002 for his philosophical comment: "I know who I am. No one else knows who I am. If I was a giraffe and somebody said I was a snake, I'd think 'No, actually I am a giraffe."

Boris Johnson - He is a regular contender for the prize. He won in 2004 for his comment: "I could not fail to disagree with you less." His second win in 2016 was secured by the unsinkable: "Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a Titanic success of it."

Naomi Campbell - The English supermodel picked up the award in 2006 for saying, "I love England, especially the food. There's nothing I like more than a lovely bowl of pasta."

George W. Bush - Bush's award was made during his final year in office as President of the United States (2008). Entitled a "Lifetime Achievement Award", it was given not for a single quote, but for his continued "services to gobbledygook". His gaffes were described as covering a large number of topics, and included comments such as "I know what I believe. I will continue to articulate what I believe and what I believe – I believe what I believe is right", and, "I hope you leave here and walk out and say, 'what did he say?'"

Silvio Berlusconi - The former Italian Prime Minister received the award in 2011 for comments such as "I am pretty often faithful", when talking about fidelity in 2006, and describing Barack Obama in 2008 as being "Handsome, young and also suntanned".

Mitt Romney - U.S. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney received the award in 2012 for making gaffes like: "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me" and "I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that's the America millions of Americans believe in. That's the America I love."

Donald Trump - He was at the time of the award (2015) campaigning for the Republican nomination in the 2016 US presidential election. The Plain English Campaign said that Trump was "unrivalled". In particular the campaign cited his remarks on Mexican immigrants: "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." It also cited his remarks on John McCain: "He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured."

(I heard that every Republican president makes you nostalgic about the previous Republican president. Trump made you feel that Bush was a wise, compassionate guy with a nice sense of humor. Can you imagine a time when you will be nostalgic about Trump? Maybe Trump II?)


Friday, July 15, 2022

Tocqueville on Religion - II

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America also offers a philosophic account of why a free society necessarily requires a religious foundation. A free society depends on freedom of thought and discussion, it certainly includes a right to question conventional opinion. But it would be a mistake to think that this freedom requires an unfettered skepticism about all things or a willingness to treat all ideas as open to question. On the contrary, all societies depend in some degree or another on shared beliefs or “opinions men receive on trust.” 

It is not possible for societies or even for individuals to arrive at all beliefs on the basis of the unguided, independent thinking of each individual. This, Tocqueville claims, is an “inflexible law” of the human condition. “If man were forced to prove to himself all the truths he makes use of every day, he would never finish; he would exhaust himself in preliminary demonstrations without advancing.” Having neither “the time because of the short span of life, nor the ability because of the limits of his mind,” man cannot establish by his own efforts all of the convictions that he needs; those that claim to have done so are dishonest or deluded.

Accordingly, an individual is “reduced to accepting as given a host of facts and opinions that he has neither the leisure nor the power to examine and verify by himself.” The functioning and prosperity of society therefore require “that all the minds of the citizens be brought and held together by some principal ideas; and that cannot happen unless each of them sometimes comes to draw his opinions from one and the same source and unless each consents to receive a certain number of ready-made beliefs.” All societies, and especially free ones, require some intellectual unity, which in turn supports a unity of the citizens’ sentiments.

The limited power of the individual human mind makes it impossible for common ideas on moral and religious questions to arise from the spontaneous and unregulated thought of each individual. Religion, Tocqueville thinks, is the most important source of common beliefs for citizens. Here he is careful to note that his defense of society’s religious consensus is undertaken not with a view to what is good for religion, but instead with a view to what is good for society. Such religious beliefs are evidently useful “even if one wants to pay attention only to the interests of this world.” Tocqueville is concerned not with the salvation of souls but with the preservation of a decent political order. Such an order depends, however, on the preservation of commonly held religious beliefs. 

Tocqueville argues that human beings desire freedom but not an unlimited freedom. When they have firm moral convictions rooted in firmly held religious beliefs, they can be confident that they know how to exercise power justly, but what if they lose their religion and therefore become uncertain about what is morally right while nevertheless retaining a certain decency? In that case, they will no longer want to govern themselves, because they will find the responsibility frightening and oppressive. At this point, they will come to think that they can solve their problem by simply submitting themselves to the state, letting their rulers decide all things for them. He writes in Democracy in America

There are religions which are very false and very absurd ; but it may be affirmed, that any religion which remains within the circle I have just traced, without aspiring to go beyond it (as many religions have attempted to do, for the purpose of enclosing on every side the free progress of the human mind), imposes a salutary restraint on the intellect; and it must be admitted that, if it do not save men in another world, such religion is at least very conducive to their happiness and their greatness in this. 

This is more especially true of men living in free countries. When the religion of a people is destroyed, doubt gets hold of the highest portions of the intellect, and half paralyzes all the rest of its powers. Every man accustoms himself to entertain none but confused and changing notions on the subjects most interesting to his fellow creatures and himself.

His opinions are ill-defended and easily abandoned: and, despairing of ever resolving by himself the hardest problems of the destiny of man, he ignobly submits to think no more about them. Such a condition cannot but enervate the soul, relax the springs of the will, and prepare a people for servitude. 

Nor does it only happen, in such a case, that they allow their freedom to be wrested from them; they frequently themselves surrender it. When there is no longer any principle of authority in religion any more than in politics, men are speedily frightened at the aspect of this unbounded independence. The constant agitation of all surrounding things alarms and exhausts them. 

As everything is at sea in the sphere of the intellect, they determine at least that the mechanism of society should be firm and fixed; and as they cannot resume their ancient belief, they assume a master. 

For my own part, I doubt whether man can ever support at the same time complete religious independence and entire public freedom. And I am inclined to think, that if faith be wanting in him, he must serve; and if he be free, he must believe. 


Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Tocqueville on Religion - I

Alexis de Tocqueville’s four-volume Democracy in America (1835-1840) is commonly said to be among the greatest works of nineteenth-century political writing. It is regarded as the first-ever analysis of democracy to dissect its pathologies. Many of his observations were both astute and prescient (which is remarkable considering that he was only in his 30s). 

He was a liberal, but, as he once said, a “new kind of liberal.” “One of the noblest enterprises of our time,” he added, would be to show that “morality, religion and order” do not need to be opposed to “liberty and the equality of men before the law.” Tocqueville stood out as a friend of religion who was also a friend of freedom. The remarkable feature of his thought was that he believed religion was essential to preserve liberty contrary to what hard core secularists thought. 

Thus although he emphasized that the separation of church and state is necessary to political liberty, he could say in Democracy in America  that religion “should be considered the first of [the Americans’] political institutions”. Probably the most important reason for his support of religion was that Tocqueville thought that organized religion was the only possible long-term counterweight to some of the main threats democracy faced. Democracy fosters intellectual and moral habits that can be deadly to freedom: the tyranny of the majority, individualism, materialism, and democratic despotism.

Rather than attempting to push religion out of the public sphere, he welcomed it, provided that its influence was indirect and it did not try to dominate the public sphere. For Tocqueville, the only way for either freedom or religion to prosper in the long run was by recognizing that they were mutually necessary, and mutually beneficial. He wrote not as a religious teacher aiming to propagate a particular faith, but instead as a political analyst interested in the kind of religious beliefs necessary to uphold freedom and democracy. He wrote not with a view to preserving completely intact a particular religion, but instead to discover the religious essentials of the free society and to explain how and to what extent they can be preserved. 

“Most religions,” he contends, “are only general, simple, and practical means of teaching men the immortality of the soul.” This teaching “is the greatest advantage that a democratic people derives" from religious beliefs and is what makes these beliefs “more necessary to such a people than to all others.” Religion is “only a particular form of hope,” one that is “as natural to the human heart as hope itself.” He reminds us that as responsible citizens of a democracy, we must take care to preserve the country’s inherited religious traditions. This is a difficult task because democratic conditions tend to undermine religion.

According to Tocqueville, democracy presents a new form of freedom that displaced the servitude of the ancient and medieval world. But, he thinks that this democracy carries within it the possibility of new forms of servitude. Democratic freedom is also a form of power: the power of the people to rule. This power carries with it new possibilities for abuse, and Tocqueville accordingly emphasizes the importance of religion’s ability to impose a necessary limit on the majority’s power. He sees the danger of majority tyranny. He sees that human nature is flawed and that human beings in any form of government are prone to do injustice to each other if they are not restrained in some way.

What “is a majority taken collectively,” Tocqueville asks, “if not an individual who has opinions and most often interests contrary to another individual that one names the minority?” If we can “accept that one man vested with omnipotence can abuse it against his adversaries, why not accept the same thing for a majority?” Men do not change their “character by being united,” nor do they “become more patient before obstacles by becoming stronger.” Accordingly, Tocqueville concludes that the vast power held by the democratic majority carries “consequences” that are “dire and dangerous for the future.”

I take the example of a future time, in the 20th century, when ruthless ideologies like Nazism and Communism arose and took hold of certain countries. These atheistic ideologies held that everything was permitted in society’s interests, even to the extent of destroying certain categories of citizens that were held to be socially undesirable. Tocqueville sees religious belief providing people with a sense of immovable moral limits which he viewed as necessary because of the protection it provides for the rights of those outside the majority, who are subject to the majority’s power. 

On the basis of these arguments, Tocqueville seeks to correct the anti-religious thinkers of his day — and those of our own day - who think of  religion as nothing but a source of oppression, and promote public atheism as a guarantee of freedom. For such men, “the freedom and happiness of the human species” require us to believe that human beings can be understood as nothing more than an accidental aggregation of matter and not as beings with souls. When such thinkers “attack religious beliefs,” Tocqueville argues, “they follow their passions and not their interests.” That is, they neglect the interests of society while following their anti-religious feelings instead.

In reality, Tocqueville argues, religion “is much more necessary” in a “republic” than in a “monarchy,” and “in democratic republics more than all others.” It is safe to give the people power to rule only if they believe that there are moral limits on their power that they must respect and their belief in such limits is sustained by their belief in religion.

Many people think of individualism as opposed to despotism. But in Democracy in America, Alexis de  Tocqueville warns that naked individualism may lead to democratic despotism. Excessive forms of individualism and materialism make citizens indifferent to their public duties and therefore undermines their ability to sustain the spirit of cooperative citizenship on which self-government depends. He says that “it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.” 

The despot, Tocqueville observes, “readily pardons the governed for not loving him, provided they do not love each other. He does not ask them to aid him in leading the state; it is enough that they do not aspire to direct it themselves.” This will make people as a whole surrender their right to govern themselves, handing themselves over to the rule of an all-powerful government directed by one man or perhaps a small elite.

There are some activities which can be undertaken only if you have a belief in after-life. By teaching the existence of an afterlife with rewards for virtuous living, religion gives men the confidence to undertake certain community activities that the self-interest of individualism prevents. Without such beliefs, doubts would inevitably stifle men’s public-spiritedness. The religious belief in rewards and punishments after death sustains such sacrifices by making their rewards certain. David Sloan Wilson writes in Evolution for Everyone 

A given religion adapts its members to their local environment, enabling them to achieve by collective action what they cannot achieve alone or even together in the absence of religion. The primary benefits of religion take place in this world, not the next. 

Reaching a similar conclusion by a different route, Hannah Arendt felt that  totalitarian elements dominate modernity, and that in a mass society there would always be a majority of people whose dedication to their own social and private interests would make them easy prey for party machines and demagogues (The Portable Arendt). "For the really horrific discovery of totalitarian regimes had been that mass conformists - "job holders and good family men" - were much more pliant, dedicated, loyal, and abundant agents of extermination than the criminals, "fanatics, adventurers, sex maniacs, crackpots" and social failures of the mob. She writes:

The mass man whom Himmler organized for the greatest mass crimes ever committed in history bore the features of the philistine rather than of the mob man, and was the bourgeois who in the midst of the ruins of his world worried about nothing so much as his private security, was ready to sacrifice everything - belief, honor, dignity - on the slightest provocation. Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives.