Monday, December 4, 2017

Does Evil Come From ‘Threatened Egotism’?

Ben Shapiro asks, “Where Does Evil Come From?,” and lists four basic ingredients for evil. Number four is “Sadism”, an ingredient for sure but which I’ll set aside for the sake of this post. It is the top three that I want to focus on. Citing Roy Baumeister’s book Evil: Inside Human Violence And Cruelty, Shapiro lists these roots:

1. Instrumentality: The notion that evil acts aren’t evil so long as you’re performing them with a good end in mind. This would include the suicide bomber, who believes that he’s changing the world for the better by slaughtering children in pizzerias, or the dictator who slaughters his enemies in pursuit of power.

2. Threatened Egotism. Baumeister found that violence wasn’t perpetrated by those with low self-esteem, but those with self-esteem that was threatened. He found that “violence is perpetrated by a subset of people who think well of themselves, and indeed it mainly occurs when they believe that their favorable images of self have been threatened or attacked.” This is the danger inherent in, for example, the microaggressions culture that suggests threat where none exists.

3. Idealism. This is really just a subset of instrumentality. It’s the belief that your violence makes the world a better place by drawing us closer to utopia. The worst wars in world history have been caused by idealism, as Karl Popper suggested.

Which one of these three doesn’t belong?

Number one is certainly true. The idea that the ends justify the means opens the door to all kinds of evil behavior. We see that moral principle at work in our politics everyday: So-and-so needs this-or-that, so we’ll just tax and/or regulate those with the capabilities to provide it, for the purpose of forcing them to provide it with or without their consent. That’s the mild version. Suicide bombers and dictators are the worst version, and the welfare state springs from the same moral premise as them.

Number three must refer to mystical, philosophical idealism; the belief in something drawn from a mystical realm inaccessible by observation and logic contrary to, in defiance of, or in disregard of the facts of man’s nature. In other words, feelings or whim. I would call this utopian idealism (as opposed to realistic idealism). Altruism is the common denominator between one and three. Utopians are definitely altruists. And since altruism virtue-izes sacrifice, these mystical idealists have no problem sacrificing any number of human beings to satisfy their utopian desire to “make the world a better place” according to their own ideals by any means necessary. Utopian idealism, such as socialism or theocracy, needs human sacrifice to implement. A realistic ideal, like American-style constitutional republicanism and its corollary, capitalism, does not.

Another cause not listed is the Philosopher King (or Ruler) premise. Shapiro mentions Karl Popper. Popper laid the ultimate blame for the horrific dictatorships of the 20th Century not just at the hands of intellectuals like Hegel and Marx, but ultimately at the hands of a man who lived 2500 years ago, Plato. “Popper would assert,” writes historian Arthur Herman in The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle  for the Soul of Western Civilization,

it had been Plato in the Republic and the Laws who would first encourage Western man “to see the individual as a pawn, as a somewhat insignificant instrument in the general development” of society toward virtue. It was Plato’s assertion of “the principle of collective unity” and in the Laws that “no one should ever be without a leader” that had spawned the succession of would-be Philosopher Rulers who had bathed history in blood, from Plato’s friend the tyrant Dion of Syracuse to Stalin and Hitler.

Citing Popper’s book The Open Society and Its Enemies, Herman goes on:

At bottom Popper’s thesis was that Plato had passed onto posterity a singularly dangerous vision of history. . . Popper dubbed that vision historicism” . . . defined . . . as the doctrine that history is governed by certain evolutionary laws, the discoverer of which allows us to prophesy the destiny of mankind.

Why did Popper think Plato’s historicism was important? First, because it destroys the notion of free will. It wrecks the notion that the future depends on us and the consequences of our own individual actions. . . Second, it encourages men to think they can use these laws to build a better future for society than if men are left to themselves. They become tempted to set themselves up as a ruling elite of Platonic Philosopher Rulers based on their knowledge of where History with a capital H is going.

“The wise shall lead and rule,” Plato had written, “and the ignorant shall follow.” Reading this passage from the Laws in the light of Aristotelian and Enlightenment-based models made it clear that Plato intended to divide society between Those Who Know and Those Who Must Obey. “Never,” Popper wrote, “was a man more in earnest in his hostility to the individual” than Plato. Popper pointed to another passage from the Laws, written in the context of military tactics: “The greatest principle is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader.” It was this same principle that, Popper argued, the Communist Part in Russia, the Fascist Party in Italy, and the Nazi Party in Germany all embraced and made their own. *

The ends justify the means, mystical idealism, Historicism (historical determinism), philosopher rulers.

But what about Shapiro’s number two? I submit that what Shapiro actually has in mind is pseudo-self-esteem, not genuine self-esteem. Genuine self-esteem cannot be threatened by others, because genuine self-esteem is self-generated to begin with. Self-esteem, properly understood, is a self-assessment that one is capable of understanding and dealing with the world, solving his problems, and achieving his goals, generated and reinforced by genuine accomplishments over time and the pride associated with those accomplishments—on the way to making one’s own life the best it can be given one’s personal attributes. Self-esteem does not depend on others’ compliments or approval or praise (earned or unearned) from others. Genuinely earned praise and recognition is nice, but not essential to genuine self-esteem.

It follows that genuine self-esteem does not lead to power-lust. Just the opposite. It leads to respect for others and thus a willingness to deal with others by voluntary agreement rather than coercion. The urge or need to dominate others—for example, to achieve a utopian ideal—is not an attribute of a person of genuine self-esteem because that person does not live through others. The true egotist—a person with an unrealistic, over-inflated view of himself—in fact lives through others and is thus dependent on others to support his sense of self-worth. A power-luster who seeks to dominate others in order to make them conform to his views and values is in fact living through others. But egotism and self-esteem are not the same thing. A true egoist (as opposed to the egotist) does not live through others, and thus does not seek to dominate them. He has no need to. Genuine self-esteem is not a feeling of infallibility. It is not a feeling of superiority. It is simply a feeling of self-confidence in the broadest sense, which cannot be shaken or ”threatened” by disapproval of others.

So I would disagree with Shapiro’s point two above. Otherwise, he’s on to something important about the nature of evil. Points One, three, and four (to which I think Ayn Rand’s concept of Envy/Hatred of the Good for Being the Good is integral)—combined with Platonism—is certainly at the heart of the breeding ground of evil.

* To be fair, Herman agrees with Popper’s assessment, but only up to a point. Herman does believe that Popper underestimates the influence of Rousseau, Nietzsche, and “the racial doctrines springing from Darwin and his disciples,” saying that Popper “missed half the target.” Nonetheless, as Herman explains in his book, Plato formulated the basic idea that truth and knowledge exists in a supernatural realm accessible only by the contemplation of a small handful of wise men, and argued that these wise men should be granted absolute power—”above all [as] legislators and lawmakers”—to regulate society accordingly. This vision certainly fits with Shapiro’s point Three. Whatever Plato’s motivations—”creating the perfect society”, “the first Communist state”, “a blueprint for totalitarianism”, or as “Plato’s answer to a single question, ‘What is justice’”—what dictator, secular or religious, would not relish the role of absolute ruler based on his own vision of what a “good” society should look like? Mark R. Levin in his book Ameritopia (which I reviewed for the Objective Standard) also makes this point about Plato's dark influence on America and Western Civilization.

Related Reading:

Atlas Shrugged—Ayn Rand

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