Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Haidt’

When I started blogging in 2009, I thought I was embarking upon something radically different from anything I’d ever done before. Now I am fairly sure that was not the case.

Recently I went back to my journal entries of 1982 because I wanted to read through the notes I had taken from Peter Koestenbaum’s book New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. Because I wanted to catch all the quotations, I read through the pages of my journal more carefully than I usually do when only checking out a date or a name. It didn’t take long to show that it had taken me over a month to read the book, and my notes are interspersed with personal, psychological, existential and spiritual reflections, with groups of quotations from other books I was also reading at the same time thrown in, including Albert Camus’s The Plague. A very familiar pattern that clearly hadn’t started with this blog.

Basically, my diary was where I did all my thinking before I transferred part of it to my blogging. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! The only real difference is that my diary was not in the public domain.

Levels of Consciousness 

In looking at my Koestenbaum notes I find many things I will want to come back to in due course. The first thing that is perhaps worth flagging up, given the themes I have explored on this blog, is the section of notes about levels of consciousness.

If you had asked me on oath where was the first place I had read about this idea I might have said Jenny Wade or Jeremy Rifkin, with a possible nod at Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. I’d know it couldn’t have been  Ken Wilber or Kazimierz Dąbrowski, neither of whom I read on the subject till much later. It would never have occurred to me that Koestenbaum was even in the mix, let alone the first person to run those words past my brain.

What does he have to say about levels? Well, part of the reason I still resonate to some of what he says is that it is rooted in the process he calls reflection, which I have dealt with at length on this blog. This basically involves separating consciousness from its contents to the maximum extent possible, a process he tracks through various stages.

Koestenbaum’s model boasts six levels. He explains these over half a dozen pages or so (pages 77 -82).

The first stage, our starting point as it were, is where there is ‘no experienced distance between consciousness and object… we call this condition of consciousness the animal consciousness.’ The act of stepping back brings you to the second level: “eidetic or abstract consciousness,” in short to the ability to think. Next we reach “individual consciousness… [t]his level of consciousness thinks of itself as an individual and isolated self…’

This is where it really begins to get interesting.

The next ‘deepened level of consciousness is called the intersubjective or intimate consciousness… Two people do not feel like two individuals in one bipolar field, where each individual consciousness is an object to the other; they feel like a combined subjective core to which a world of objects is given in common.’ He uses the analogy of two space modules docking: “when they finally lock into each other, a common door is opened, their space is stretched and expanded, and a larger and communal inner space is created.”

What I am going to say now is extremely subjective. I’m going to say it anyway. When I was working well as a therapist, how I experienced the interaction between the client and me is almost exactly captured by those words. I felt as though I was in a quasi-meditative state which had opened an airlock, to borrow from his metaphor, in between my consciousness and the client’s, and the client had reciprocated. All sorts of factors could interfere with that process either on my side or on theirs, however it happened sufficiently often to make effective therapy possible.

As I reflect on this thought now, it seems to me that for consultation in a Bahá’í sense to work (something I have also explored at great length on this blog), something analogous has to happen at a group level. This is where he goes next, I think.

The fourth stage he labels ‘social or communal consciousness… It is the experience of unity with a large number of conscious centres over a long period of time.’ I don’t think by this he necessarily means the hive effect Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind. That promotes not wisdom but instinctive groupthink, or on a larger scale harmless collective, or sometimes even dangerous mob behaviour, rather than reflective cohesion of any kind.

I can again subjectively attest to something like this happening when I worked over a period of 25 years with a small group of others sincerely attempting to make decisions about all kinds of matters from the mundanely practical, through the highly emotional to the deeply spiritual. The group changed its members one or two at a time over the years as a result of an annual electoral process, but this did nothing to impair the sense of collective consciousness, one which, far from creating mindless conformity, encouraged the honest expression of diverse opinions while containing such differences within an ultimately harmonious frame.

The next two levels I have no personal experience of myself, but feel that the mystical literature testifies to something of this kind, including at points the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh.

The fifth stage is ‘cosmic consciousness’ where ‘the social consciousness becomes now the object of our consciousness… With this reduction we have reached the experience of universality.’

This may be at least in part what Bahá’u’lláh is describing when, in the Seven Valleys, He writes (page 18):

[The wayfarer] looketh on all things with the eye of oneness, and seeth the brilliant rays of the divine sun shining from the dawning point of Essence alike on all created things, and the lights of singleness reflected over all creation

He explains that differences are in the eye of us as beholder. He describes how the light we see is affected by the object it falls upon (page 19):

. . . colours become visible in every object according to the nature of that object. For instance, in a yellow globe, the rays shine yellow; in a white the rays are white; and in a red, the red rays are manifest.

This does nothing to detract from the pure whiteness of the original light itself, its inclusion of all differences in one. I absolutely believe in the reality of this level of awareness, even though it has eluded my consciousness so far. The essential unity of all things is hard to discern behind the material differences.

And the sixth and last level is even further beyond my reach. It is ‘the eternal now… when even space and time become the objects of the intentional stream of consciousness. The subjective core which has succeeded in making an object of cosmic consciousness experiences itself outside of space and time.’

Rovelli has managed to explain lucidly how at least one theory of physics suggests there is such a realm wrapped inside quantum reality.

He believes that the evidence as we best understand it, from a loop theory point of view (he’s not a fan of string theory), is that matter is not infinitely divisible and there comes a point where it cannot be divided anymore at the quantum level. When he is talking about space, the quanta he is concerned with are the quanta of gravity, which constitute space itself (page 148): ‘the quanta of gravity, that is, are not in space, there are themselves space.’ What is crucial is the relationship between particles, their interconnections. He clarifies this by saying (page 150):

Physical space is the fabric resulting from the ceaseless swarming of this web of relations. The lines [between quanta] themselves are nowhere; they are not in a place but rather create places through their interactions. Space is created by the interaction of individual quanta of gravity.

This is how space disappears. Now for time (page 158):

We must learn to think of the world not as something which changes in time but in some other way. Things change only in relation to one another. At a fundamental level, there is no time. Our sense of the common passage of time is only an approximation which is valid for our macroscopic scale. It derives from the fact that we perceive the world in a coarse-grained fashion.

I think all this may go some way to explaining why I found Koestenbaum so fascinating in the first place and why I feel moved to revisit the notes I took all those years ago. Also I feel that my previous habit of restricting my quotes from his book to those relating to reflection only has rather sold him short. This is the beginning of my attempt to make up for that.


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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(Shoghi Effendi, Letter to an individual Bahá’í, through his secretary, 17 February 1933.)

The previous post ended with the following point.

Most of us are trapped in our simulations, created by early experience and powerful influences in the present. Reflecting as an individual and consulting as a community are harder to do than we would like to think and need courage and perseverance in equal measure, courage to risk this shift in processing in the first place and perseverance if we are to learn how to master the skills in each case.

For the impact of destructive processes within the individual there is a wealth of evidence, both social and clinical, which I look at straightaway. I will look at the impact on groups and communities later using the work of Zimbardo as a powerful example.

Processes such as the ones I am about to outline are simply examples of the kind of invisible obstacles we might have to deal with when we are trying to shift our perspectives to integrate experiences and evidence against the grain of our programming. Breaking out of our individual or collective trance is not easy. When the evidence is complex, as with climate change, or collides head on with prevailing dogma, as with the reality of the soul, it’s particularly difficult.

Culture and the Individual

First, let’s take a look at some of the negative influences that operate under the surface within the individual. These do overlap with aspects of the wider culture but are worth considering here given their impact upon every single one of us as an individual.

As adults we may often find ourselves behaving in completely counterproductive or even destructive ways in our everyday lives and haven’t a clue why we do so, or even sometimes that we are doing so.

There are all sorts of ways that our culture subliminally shapes our reactions in ways that would shock our conscious mind. A recent study, for example, looked at the reactions of Americans from all parts of the racial spectrum. One of the experiments involved determining how quickly subjects would shoot at a target person in a risk situation. Pictures of different people were flashed up on the screen, some from a white European heritage, some from a black African heritage. It was no surprise that white subjects would take less time to shoot a black person than a white one. What was shocking was that the same was true for black subjects, so deeply had the toxin of racism infected them as well. What none of the subjects would have been aware of was that they were behaving in this way.

Even prominent people within a culture, those with access to the most information and with the most power to change things, succumb to the insidious influences of their society. Many of the founding figures of the United States were slave owners. Their personal investment in slavery conflicted with their avowed principles such as the equality of all men. John Fitzgerald Medina in his excellent book Faith, Physics & Psychology quotes the explanation given by historian Richard Thomas (iBook page 280):

Since America was not about to abandon slave labor or its policy of dispossessing the native peoples of their land, the only real and practical choice was to minimise the nature of its sins: blacks and native peoples (Indians) were not to be considered on the same level of humanity as whites; blacks were heathen and amoral, next to the apes in the scale of evolution. . . .

The technical term for this is resolving cognitive dissonance, and is a process that I was tempted to include in my earlier discussion of disowning, but wasn’t sure it applied directly to climate change. As Saul McLeod explains:

Leon Festinger (1957) proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational and sometimes maladaptive behavior.

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, a discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it, and achieve consonance (i.e. agreement).

This of course only works if we can successfully blind ourselves to the fact that we are doing it.

It’s obvious now to most people that the Americans and the British, in terms of race, hoodwinked themselves with this self-deceptive but profitable ploy. What we may not all fully appreciate is how far the toxic ideology of racism that thus developed spread its poison, for how long, and with how much resulting damage.

When John Fitzgerald Medina claimed in his book that Hitler was influenced by American eugenicists to develop aspects of his genocidal agenda, I had to check this idea out further.

I read Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning in tandem with Ricard’s Altruism, quoted earlier in this sequence. He confirms the extent to which the Nazi vision of extermination to gain land was inspired by America (pages 15-16):

Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonisation of North America and Africa. . . .

In the late nineteenth century, Germans tended to see the fate of Native Americans as a natural precedent for the fate of native Africans under their control. . . . . For the German general who pursued these policies, the historical justice was self-evident. ‘The natives must give way,’ he said. ‘Look at America.’

. . . . When Hitler wrote in My Struggle that Germany’s only opportunity for colonisation was Europe, he discarded as impractical the possibility of a return to Africa. The search for racial inferiors to dominate required no long voyages by sea, since they were present in Eastern Europe as well.

Hitler saw the Soviet Union as a Jewish project and felt (page 20):

[a] second America could be created in Europe, after Germans learned to see other Europeans as they saw indigenous Americans or Africans, and learned to regard Europe’s largest state as a fragile Jewish colony.

It is deeply ironic therefore that the nation who saw themselves as liberators of Europe at the end of the Second World War should have been part of Hitler’s inspiration in the first place. So do destructive subliminal processes wreak havoc on a massive scale in our world, especially when potentiated by self-interest. Climate change denial should come as no surprise therefore, given the complexity of the issue and the power of the vested interests who would lose out if something really effective were ever done to address the problem.

It’s a moot point in both cases whether those pulling the levers of persuasion, the propagandists, are as unaware of their reality distortion as many of those who come to believe them.

There are many more examples of this kind to illustrate the way that culture warps and biases our perceptions to devastating effect and I won’t attempt to list them here. We’ll come back to the cultural scale later.

Trauma and the Individual

What is also true is that our personal history has a powerful subliminal effect on us as individuals and can wreck our lives and those of the people closest to us. Trauma is the easiest example to use to illustrate this.

We may be completely unaware of the still active impact of early trauma, to whose current significance we are almost completely blind even if we remember anything at all about it.

Many different models of therapy have developed way to explain how this works.

That there is such an effect and that it is relatively widespread can be demonstrated in many ways. In a study carried out in 2010 and quoted by Koenen et al in The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health & Disease: the Hidden Epidemic (page 13-15), out of a sample of 5692 English speaking Americans 2190 (38.48%) reported some kind of traumatic experience prior to the age of 13.

A recent sequence of posts on this blog looked at the work of a Jungian therapist, Joy Schaverian, with people who had been traumatised by their experiences at Boarding School. She graphically explores through case histories the damage that has been done as well as the repressive mechanisms, with their consequences, that had been mobilised to cope.

To give a brief example, Schaverian explains, when she discusses one of her patient’s difficulties dealing with the time a teacher hit him in the face with a cricket bat, how hard it was for him to fully accept what he was saying (page 57):

Theo first told of this incident early in analysis. Then, a few months later, he retold it, this time with more depth of feeling. It was as though he was at first incredulous but then, as I took it seriously, he began to believe himself and to take seriously how abusive this had been. As Theo recounted it for the second time the feelings associated with the event became live in the session. Theo went white; he felt sick; he had trouble breathing and physically regressed.… The emotional impact of this was fully present in the room. Theo was overwhelmed and speechless.

The benefits of revisiting traumatic events in this way , even when they have possibly been forgotten between sessions are priceless (page 118):

. . . if [traumatic events] can be told they are gradually detoxified, thus eventually accepted as part of the person’s personal history. It is then an accessible narrative and no longer unconsciously dominates their life. When there is no such witness the trauma may become embodied, leading to conversion symptoms such as digestive problems, migraines, chronic pain, poor energy and a large number of other physiological indicators. This may be because the event that caused it is remembered in an embodied sense, but not recalled cognitively and so it cannot be consigned to the past.

We’ll be coming back to the idea of embodied memories in a moment.

Other concepts from different traditions are scripts in Transactional Analysis, which I’ve explored elsewhere, archetypes from Jungian therapy, constructs from Personal Construct Therapy, schema etc. the formation and experience of all of which are shaped by early experience as well as culture.

The examples I want to focus on right now I’ve chosen both because they provide dramatic and detailed illustrations of the invisible impact of childhood trauma on adults and are part of my recent reading around trauma and psychosis.

A recent post includes a detailed example, from their 1991 book The Stormy Search for the Self, of what Christina and Stansislav Grof term a spiritual emergency. Those interested in knowing more detail should click the link above. Basically it explores how a traumatised person was helped through her crisis without standard psychiatric treatment and later in the book how what they call Holotropic Breathwork helps people gain access to embodied memories.

They feel that this approach unlocks blocks between our awareness and the contents of the unconscious (page 259):

. . . .  It seems that the nonordinary state of consciousness induced by holotropic breathing is associated with biochemical changes in the brain that make it possible for the contents of the unconscious to surface, to be consciously experienced, and – if necessary – to be physically expressed. In our bodies and in our psyches we carry imprints of various traumatic events that we have not fully digested and assimilated psychologically. Holographic breathing makes them available, so that we can fully experience them and release the emotions that are associated with them.

I want to focus on a couple of examples from their earlier work – Realms of the Human Unconscious: observations from LSD research. The use of LSD in this way has come to seem controversial, so much so it was made illegal 1981, six years after this book was published. Some researchers are recently beginning to think more positively about its potential benefits, but we are a long way from repealing the laws that ban it.

Why the Grofs’ research is worth drawing on in this context is for what it seems to reveal about the accuracy with which inaccessible traumatic memories are stored in the brain. LSD helps a person regain lucid and detailed memories, which can then be integrated.

More than that, the Grofs developed a strong sense of the sequence in which such memories can be retrieved and the way they group into a mutually reinforcing layered networks which they call (page 46) ‘systems of condensed experience,’ COEX systems for short.

Both the detail and the interconnectedness of the memories go a long way to explain their power to shape our experience and behaviour in the present in spite of our routine oblivion to their existence. That such interconnected detail coexists with such intransigent forgetfulness explains the power the past experiences have to impact upon us outside our awareness. The examples I’m giving go a long way towards proving how much changing this impact depends upon bringing the whole network of experiences into consciousness.

The work they report on in this book was done in Prague in the decade leading up to 1965.

The layering effect can be illustrated by Richard’s history (page 57-60). The first layer related to his expulsion from university because of his conflict with the communist orthodoxy of the time. A ‘deeper layer . . . . related to Richard’s experiences with his brutal, despotic, and autocratic father.’ Deeper still were earlier memories from childhood such as a strong electric shock at about age seven. A comically horrific encounter with a cow at about one year old was from the next level down. Finally (page 59), he encountered his birth trauma, which he concluded was ‘the fundamental prototype of all the situations in which he felt absolutely helpless and at the mercy of a destructive force.’

The Grofs later explain that, as a general rule, each more superficial level has to be explored before the deeper levels can be accessed (page 71):

The . . . . most important reason for thinking in terms of memory constellations rather than individual memories is based on the content analysis of consecutive sessions of a psycholytic series. Before the subject can approach and relive a traumatic memory from early childhood (core experience), he usually has to face and work through many situations in later life that have a similar theme and involve the same basic elements.

The final result of this LSD facilitated mental archaeology was positive in Richard’s case (page 60):

After the experiences of rebirth, positive ecstatic feelings of long duration occur in Richard’s sessions. They brought about a far-reaching improvement of the clinical condition. His depressions, anxieties, and psychosomatic symptoms completely disappeared and he felt full of activity and optimism.

The Grofs are keen to substantiate that most of these memories are rooted in reality. They quote case examples. For example, the mother of another patient, Dana, (pages 65-66) ‘was absolutely astonished by the accuracy of the account concerning the traumatic event as well as its physical setting. . . . . The description of the room was photographically accurate, even in the most minute detail, and its authenticity was unquestionable because of the very unusual character of some of the objects involved. . . In this case, there did not seem to exist a possibility that this information could have been transmitted by some other means. Before the patient was two years old, the family left this house; shortly afterward, it was condemned and torn down. . . . Dana’s mother gave away many of the things that formed the setting of the relived incident. There were no photographs of the room or of any of the described pieces, and the mother did not remember ever having mentioned any of the objects in front of the patient.’

So that’s what can happen to an individual.

Group Processes

It may seem a step too far to use examples of this kind, drawn from clinical work with individuals, and imply that group processes are similarly potentially pathological and operate all too often outside our awareness and conscious control.

One dramatic body of evidence will have to suffice for now to illustrate how this comparison might not be so far fetched. Philip Zimbardo provides the evidence in his brilliant analysis, The Lucifer Effect. His perspective is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University.

Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behavior of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations which steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

Earlier work lends considerable weight to this latter point. For example, when I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

What may seem baffling is how apparently decent people go along with toxic patterns of behavior. The forces that coerce conformity are astonishingly compelling. Haidt talks of the hive effect. In The Righteous Mind (page 247) he asks ‘Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game?’ For him, ‘It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”’ Other experiments such as those by Solomon Asch, have shown how, when the majority in a group identify the wrong line as the matching one, the lone subject of the experiment tends to go long with the majority view at least some of the time: ‘To Asch’s surprise, 37 of the 50 subjects conformed themselves to the ‘obviously erroneous’ answers given by the other group members at least once, and 14 of them conformed on more than 6 of the ‘staged’ trials. When faced with a unanimous wrong answer by the other group members, the mean [ie average not stingy] subject conformed on 4 of the ‘staged’ trials.’

This video below by Melanie Joy conveys an attempt to unpack some of the detail about how this might work at a cultural level in a context meat eaters may find bizarre. As a vegetarian the validity of her explanation of how collusion is induced is compelling. Meat eaters may have to temporarily suspend their disbelief and step back from their investment in carnism in order to see how her explanation could easily be mapped onto such social toxins as racism and sexism.

Hopefully this helicopter survey of a vast field has done enough to convey clearly my sense that as individuals and communities we are locked into unconsciously determined and potentially destructive patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour, until, in my view, we are either painfully jolted out of our trance by a spiritual emergency or we painstakingly discover for ourselves the keys of reflection for individuals and consultation for groups. Only then do we have an opportunity to see what is working on our minds and change it.

In a complex world it is easy to hide from the wider but more distant impact of our individual and collective actions. Because the damage is potentially so great, so much greater than it ever was is the need now for our awareness to widen and embrace not just the daunting complexity within us but also that which stands between and outside us.

I have been considering the implications of this in the context of climate change and the afterlife but it also applies to many other areas of human behavior such as deregulation which removes safeguards in the interests of profit, extractivism that aggressively exploits the earth’s resources without sufficient care for the consequences, and a global economic system that harms not just the environment but the workforce to whose country cheaper production has been exported.

Where we might go next is dealt with slightly more briefly in the final two posts.

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Altruism Black Earth

In the light of recent events in London and Manchester and of this week’s sequence on Hillman’s book, that dealt in some detail with Hitler, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The posts, of which this is the second, appear on the consecutive days.

The previous post, triggered by two contrasting books – Altruism and Black Earth – raised the possibility that we might repeat the horrors of the Holocaust. We may not have travelled as far down the road of moral enlightenment as we would like to think. We are prone to rationalising our self-centredness and have not freed ourselves from the virus of racism.

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand

That a popular strain of American thought idolises the guru of egotism, Ayn Rand, should give us pause for thought. While proponents might contend that Rand and her acolytes place sufficient emphasis upon preserving the powers of the state to protect individual freedom in a way that will prevent any repetition of Hitler’s state destroying excesses, it is worth examining for a moment some of her ideas and the results that they are having to this day.

Ricard (page 302) recalls a televised interview in which Rand stated: ‘I consider altruism as evil . . . Altruism is immoral . . because . . . you are asked to love everybody indiscriminately . . . you only love those who deserve it.’ Her ‘sacred word’ is ‘EGO,’ but it did not bring her any happiness (page 305).

If she were not so influential in the States her bizarre position would not matter. Many Americans, in a 1993 survey, ‘cited Atlas Shrugged, her main work, as the book that influenced them most, after the Bible!’ Furthermore, as Ricard points out, she has powerful advocates (page 301):

Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, which controls the American economy, declared she had profoundly shaped his thinking, and that “our values are congruent.” Ayn Rand was at Greenspan’s side when he took the oath before President Ford. . . . .

She has shaped libertarian economic thinking (page 303) which regards the poor as ‘killers of growth, beings who harm entrepreneurs.’ Moreover, ‘Only the individual creates growth; society is predatory, and the welfare state, a concept that prevails in Europe, constitutes “the most evil national psychology ever described,” and those who benefit from it are nothing but a gang of looters’ [The quote is from Ayn Rand 1976 in The Economist, 20 October, 2012, page 54].

I understand that it is important not to be simplistic about this and dismiss all libertarians as narrow-mindedly self-seeking. Jonathan Haidt analyses some of the complexities in his excellent The Righteous Mind. He clarifies that on the American political scene the word ‘libertarian’ denotes someone of a conservative mind set.  He teases out some important aspects of this world view in order to get out from under his preconceptions about it (pages 305-306):

[Libertarians] do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family).

He unpacks this in the context of his understanding of the value of moral capital (page 292):

. . . we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community . . . . . .  and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

He writes (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

So, after this analysis of the way that liberals, with whom he identifies, fail to understand some of the crucial insights of their political opponents (and of course vice versa), he reflects upon a disturbing trend (page 309):

America’s political class has become far more Manichaean since the early 1990s, first in Washington and then in many state capitals. The result is an increase in acrimony and gridlock, a decrease in the ability to find bipartisan solutions. . . . .

So even from within his own balanced critique which accepts the value of moral capital, he is clearly aware of the dangers of group identity and especially of any group identity with a black-and-white view of the world and/or with an egotistical creed.

Narrow ideologies of this type are many and varied.


During the Second World War, for example, those who believed in some form of nationalism, originally well-short of Nazism’s totally racist ideology, when battered by the depredations of the Soviet Union during the period of its cynical pact with Hitler, were more likely to collude with pogroms (Snyder: page 130-31):

Insofar as the Soviets removed states that people wanted, and insofar as the Germans could pose as the ally of those who wished to restore them, the Germans could manipulate a powerful desire. The nature of this opportunity depended, of course, upon what leaders of national groups believed they could gain or lose from occupiers.

He explains exactly what this specifically meant in practice (page 142):

By destroying the Lithuanian and Latvian states, the Soviets gave the Germans the ability to promise a war of liberation.

What the Germans learnt (page 143) ‘was to exploit the experience of the Soviet occupation to further the most radical goals of their own, and what they invented was a politics of the greater evil.’

That pogroms were in fact somehow related to the sense that the Nazis were liberators is made clear (page 150):

. . . pogroms were most numerous where Germans drove out Soviet power, . . . Pogroms and other forms of local collaboration in killing were less likely in Poland, where anti-Semitism had been more prevalent before the war, than they were in Lithuania and Latvia, where anti-Semitism was less prevalent.

That pogroms tended not to escalate where that hopeful belief in liberation was absent is confirmed by their rarity in Poland where (page 161) ‘Germany could not even pretend to offer Poland to the Poles. Germany had already invaded Poland once.’ It seems as though people are not inclined to go the whole hog with wholesale systematic slaughter on the basis of psychological or material gain alone: you need an ideological component as well.

Narrow ideologies, possibly always in combination with greedy and/or self-serving tendencies, make us more vulnerable to perpetrating systematic atrocities against those who are seen as beyond the Pale[1] we have ourselves arbitrarily created. Self-interest and dissonance reduction seem to have played a strong part in the Holocaust as well: for example, blaming the Jews for all the ills perpetrated under Soviet occupation exonerated everyone else in those territories from the shame of their own collusion as well as ensuring the property they had gained would not be restored to their original owners (Snyder page 152-54). Killings do, of course, occur without an ideology to back them, and can involve large numbers of victims, but never on the same massive and sustained scale.

Raising a more general and bleakly pessimistic point, Snyder earlier quoted Herling, a victim of the Gulags (page 122): ‘. . . There is nothing, in fact, which a man cannot be forced to do by hunger and pain.’ Herling became convinced that ‘a man can only be human under human conditions.’

While the examples of heroic self-sacrifice in Nazi and Japanese concentration camps, in the cases of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, as well as in the current example of Bahá’í prisoners in Iran, suggest most strongly this is not true for everyone, Herling’s point is probably true for most of us under such extreme conditions. In our relatively benign social climate, the rarity of whistleblowing in the face of toxic reactions within an organisation suggests that most of us are too craven to stand up against abuses.

Expanding our Circle of Compassion

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

This sad probability is what drove Zimbardo, after his many experiences of humanity’s inability to resist evil, to formulate his ‘ten-step programme for resisting the impact of undesirable social influences and at the same time promoting personal resilience and civic virtue’ (The Lucifer Effect – pages 452-456). He ends his explanation of the steps by saying (page 456):

Before moving to the final stop in our journey, celebrating heroes and heroisms, I would like to add two final general recommendations. First, be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures. Second, moderate you’re in-group biases. That means accepting that your group is special but at the same time respecting the diversity that other groups offer. Fully appreciate the wonder of human variety and its variability. Assuming such a perspective will help you to reduce group biases that lead to derogating others, to prejudice and stereotyping, and to the evils of dehumanisation.

All this has confirmed my conviction that there is an imperative need for our society to actively believe in two fundamental truths: first, that altruism is as natural as egotism and can therefore be nurtured in our children, and second, that in this age it is not enough for us to extend our compassion only as far as our family or immediate neighbourhood – we can and should learn to embrace the whole earth and its inhabitants, living and non-living as our concern.

A core aspect of this is articulated in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

There is a challenging aspect to this as we discovered as we explored this together in a recent workshop at the Bahá’í Summer School in Keele.

There is no get-out clause in the wording that this message uses: ‘Each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ So that means everyone must take responsibility for the welfare of everyone. I can’t wriggle out of it. This means me: I have to take responsibility for the welfare of everyone – no exceptions allowed.

Some aspects of this are not too challenging. I live near a college for the visually handicapped. Quite often as I walk to town I spot a blind person with a white cane at a difficult crossing, where traffic is hard to judge if you can’t see, struggling to decide whether or not it is safe to cross. It’s easy for me to offer help and let them take my arm as I choose the right moment to cross. It costs me no more than a minute or two and I know exactly what needs doing.

It gets harder with large groups that are equally in need of my help, if not more so, because effective help would require more effort and more knowhow. I might baulk at the idea of helping thousands of refugees even though I wanted to.

That was not the biggest problem though. What about those who undoubtedly are playing a part in creating the refugee problem, Isis for example? I have no problem helping the physically blind. What should be my attitude to the morally blind, those who might harm me if I try to help them and who are impossible for me to like let alone love? Isn’t moral blindness deserving of compassion and effective help?

In the workshop we got as far as realising that society has a responsibility to understand their deficiencies and seek to remedy them compassionately, while keeping those individuals who are doing this work safe from harm at the hands of psychopaths or fanatical ideologues.

It was heartening to find that Ricard’s book addresses exactly the same issue more effectively (page 28):

Like the sun that shines equally over both the “good” and the “bad,” over a magnificent landscape as well as over a pile of trash, impartiality extends to all beings without distinction. When compassion thus conceived is directed at a person who is causing great harm to others, it does not consist of tolerating, or encouraging by inaction, his hatred and his harmful actions, but in regarding that person as gravely ill or stricken with madness, and wishing that he be freed from the ignorance and hostility that are in him. This doesn’t mean that one will consider anyone who does not share one’s moral principles or deeply disagrees with them, as being ill. It refers to people whose views lead them to seriously harm others. In other words, it is not a matter of contemplating harmful actions with a equanimity, even indifference, but of understanding that it is possible to eradicate their causes the way that one can eliminate the causes of an illness.

In explaining a related meditative exercise he recommends (page 263):

Go further; include in this loving kindness, those who have harmed you, even those who are harming humanity in general. That does not mean that you want them to succeed in their malevolent undertakings; you simply form the wish that they give up their hatred, greed, cruelty or indifference, and that they become kind and concerned for the well-being of others. Look at them the way a doctor looks at his most seriously ill patients. Finally, embrace all sentient beings in a feeling of limitless and love.


James Fallon (far right) with his wife, daughters, and son.

What becomes even clearer both in terms of Ricard’s argument in his book as a whole, but also in terms of the Bahá’í model of civilisation building, is that prevention is infinitely better then cure. We need to address the problem of how to enable our society as a whole to widen its compass of compassion so that everyone who grows up within its sphere of influence embraces the whole of humanity in its circle of concern. There is some evidence (see link for Fallon’s view) to suggest that certain kinds of positive experience can temper the destructive aspects of even a genetic predisposition to psychopathy.

And once we have convinced ourselves of this, and we must do it soon, we need to ensure that we educate our children to become citizens who will feel inwardly compelled to take responsibility for the care of everyone and everything that lies directly or indirectly within their power. We must ensure that this sense of responsibility is not just a feeling. We must ensure that it is active.

More of this next time.


[1] The term ‘pale’ came to mean the area enclosed by a paling fence and later just figuratively ‘the area that is enclosed and safe’. So to be ‘beyond the pale’ was to be outside the area accepted as ‘home’. Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1791. This was the name given to the western border region of the country, in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, ‘beyond the pale’. (See link for source of reference.)

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After describing Hitler’s characteristics, he goes on to attempt to tease out the telltale markers of the demonic (page 223-224):

If the eyes are the mirror of the soul as tradition declares, then was the compelling power of Hitler’s eyes the stare of the demon? Did his eyes reveal the hollowness within, a glimpse into the ice-cold abyss, the utter absence of soul?

. . . . As we noted in so many of the biographies, the urgent certainty given by the acorn seems to put life in the hands of a stronger power. “I go the way that Providence dictates for me with all the assurance of a sleep walker,” Hitler said in a speech in 1936.

Hitler’s certitude also confirmed his sense of always being right, and this utter conviction utterly convinced his nation, carrying it forward in its wrongs. Absolute certainty, utter conviction – these, then, are signs of the demonic.

He develops this further slightly later in the chapter (pages 245-46):

Hitler only followed the demon, never questioned it, his mind enslaved by its imagination rather than applied to its investigation. . . . For what makes the seed demonic is its single-track obsession, its monotheistic literalism that follows one prospect only, perverting the larger imagination of the seed toward serial reenactments of the same act.

I absolutely agree that complete conviction, absolute certainty, are pathological and destructive. This is a theme I have explored a number of times on this blog. However, I have never felt it necessary to hypothesise the existence of a demon to explain it.

My very battered copy of this classic.

My alternative picture is based partly in Eric Fromm. In ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) he develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us:

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Eric Reitan is also relevant. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his book, Is God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way (‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136):

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. When Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

This is not too far distant from Hilman’s perspective (page 236):

Elevation of the profane by the most profane act imaginable raises its power until it is indistinguishable from the sacred.

There are two other concepts relevant to the contagion of such toxic patterns: the hive switch and the Lucifer effect.

The Hive Switch

Haidt explains the first. The root of this whole highly debated issue, for Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.).

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

The capacity for charisma to carry thousands with it only needs the factoring in of such possibilities as the hive effect.

The Lucifer Effect

Zimbardo explains the second in his brilliant analysis, The Lucifer Effect. His perspective is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behavior of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations which steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

Earlier work lends considerable weight to this thesis. For example, when I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).


Coming back to Hillman’s perspective, there is one element that he adduces that may be slightly harder to dismiss (page 230):

Then, too, when we read of the odd coldness in Mary (Bell) and in Hitler, of that impulse toward death, there seems to be something else apart from both upbringing and possible heredity, some lack in their souls, or a lack of soul altogether.

He is ruling out such explanations as psychopathy, abuse or disrupted attachment in childhood as explanations of a coldness that is observed very early in their development. This launches him into an explanation of possible causes for the Bad Seed, none of which are mutually exclusive (pages 230-238): Early Traumatic Conditioning, Hereditary Taint, Group Mores, The Rewarded Choice Mechanism[1], Karma & Zeitgeist, The Shadow[2], Lacuna[3] and finally his pet theory The Demonic Call.

He explains more exactly what he means by the last idea (page 235 and 241):

As the potential for art and thought were given with the acorn, so is the potential for demonic crime. . . . . As Galand’s and Manolete’s potential was given with the acorn, so is the psychopathic potential for demonic crime.

I still prefer the Reitan and Fromm approach here which I outlined in the previous post. There are other ways of explaining a ‘calling’ without invoking a daimon. We all need an object of devotion. Heredity, upbringing and peer influence may shape our sense of it, but the need itself is inherent in our nature at some deep level. We need to be wise in the choice we make, or else we will slide into a dangerous or a meaningless pattern, the former if we choose a dark ‘god’ and the latter if we choose no god at all, trapped in an unconscious yearning for something to give our lives purpose. In addition to the devotion issue there is the related pattern: we all have a thirst for meaning which a convincing object of devotion slakes.


Even though, in the end, I disagree with his core thesis, I have to acknowledge the value that lies in his having raised these issues for consideration in such a clear and compelling fashion. When I look at the book more as a poetic rather than a prosaic exploration it makes for an even more satisfying read.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken him quite so literally as I have in this treatment. After all he is quite clear that he is speaking in the language of myth. Maybe I fell into the trap he describes (page 95:

. . . three modes transpose the mystery of the invisible into visible procedures we can work with: higher math, musical notations, and mythical images. So enchanted are we by the mystery transposed into the systems that we mistake the systems for the mystery; rather, they are indications pointing toward it.


[1] He writes: ‘If each choice is met with accumulating success… then those successes will reinforce your belief that fate has you on the right track.’

[2] He writes: ‘The psychological propensity to destroy exists within all human beings. . . . Hitler knew the shadow all too well, indulged it, was obsessed by it, and strove to purge it; but he could not admit it in himself, seeing only its projected form [in those he sought to exterminate].’

[3] He explains: ‘[S]omething fundamentally human is missing.’

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Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The second part comes out tomorrow.

As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.


Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)


In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan



Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William BlakeSongs of Experience Additional Poem

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the first: the second will come out on Thursday and the last on Friday.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:


. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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Gaude and Garrigos

Writer Laurent Gaude (l) and Amnesty’s Genevieve Garrigos launched the “stop torture” campaign in Paris

‘. . . it is to put a very high value on your surmises to roast a man alive for them.’

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592):  On the Lame (trans. M.A. Screech – Penguin Classics)

The spectre of torture as effective and desirable is back in the news again. I feel it worthwhile again to republish a pair of blog posts from two years ago, the first today, the second tomorrow. The book I refer to in the posts – Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy – conclusively demonstrates, at least to my mind, that no form of torture will ever be effective no matter how acceptable we manage to persuade ourselves it is. 

Amnesty International Survey Findings

On the 13th May the BBC News website posted a disturbing report of Amnesty International findings. They stated:

Nearly 30% of people in the UK believe torture can be justified, according to a survey by Amnesty International.

Amnesty said it had not expected the “alarming” result:”

. . . . At 29%, the belief that torture is sometimes necessary to protect the public was more prevalent in the UK than in Russia, Brazil or Argentina.

The survey involved 21,000 people in 21 countries as part of a global “Stop Torture” campaign. The UK results were based on a survey of 1,000 people aged over 18.

It is bad enough that on the basis of that statistic alone we come out worse than countries we label as less scrupulous than we are about human rights. Other figures give no comfort to those who would like to feel we are none the less well ahead of the field, surveying the torture scene from a secure and elevated position on firmly moral high ground. The report goes on:

. . . while the majority of those surveyed (56%) strongly disagreed that torture could be justified to protect the public, 44% ruled out prohibiting torture altogether.

The research suggested that 79 countries have carried out torture so far this year, with 27 different methods reported. The techniques range from electric shocks, beatings, rape, mock executions and stress positions to sleep deprivation.

Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, said the findings suggested that:

People have bought into the idea that their personal safety can be enhanced in some way through the use of torture. That is simply untrue.

There is a wealth of evidence to support her contention here, evidence which, it would seem, has fallen well below too many people’s radar.

The Main Moral Objection

Before I tackle that aspect of the matter, I need first to mention the ends-means problem.

Mixed Dictators v5Regardless of whether torture is or is not effective at enhancing our safety, there is a moral argument for saying that to defend a liberal democracy by the use of torture and any other degrading and dehumanising treatment of the supposed ‘enemy,’ is to betray the very foundations and core values of our society.

We can take the point even further and apply it to any society. Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, is very clear that the sense that our values, no matter what they are, are so important that any means of propagating and defending them are by definition justified, has killed more people than any other human tendency. Do we really want to join that infamous band of proponents of this view? Do we want to sit enthroned beside Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and their zealous followers in that hall of infamy? I for one absolutely do not.

The Efficacy of Torture

Even if I did though, I would do well to look at the evidence for the efficacy of torture.

There is one excellent place to begin such a search: Darius Rejali’s Torture and Democracy.

Before I plunge into an exploration of Rejali’s position, I need to fess up to the fact that I bought his book six years ago when I retired and have not had the stomach to read all its nearly 600 pages. I have dipped into it enough to know how thorough and rigorous it is. I simply cannot dwell on such harrowing details as he adduces for any length of time without a truly compelling reason. I had the same problem reading Chang and Halliday’s book on Mao – I stopped reading about halfway through.

Perhaps because I grew up in the shadow of World War II and had nightmares in childhood to match, perhaps because I was twice admitted for surgery before I started school, perhaps because my parents were grieving for my recently dead sister, perhaps because I’ve read a lot about these issues over my life time, I feel that I now understand enough about physical and emotional pain as well as powerlessness in a frightening situation, without having to read anything that does not credibly promise to tell me something on this subject that I did not already know.

What I have done though, because I did not know the answer to this question, was read Rejali’s Chapter 21 which is titled ‘Does Torture Work?’

At the beginning of this chapter he asks eight key questions of which four concern us here (page 447):

  1. Can interrogators separate deceptive from accurate information when it is given to them?
  2. How accurately do cooperative prisoners remember information after torture?
  3. Does this investigative method yield better results than others normally at an army’s disposal?
  4. If not, does this investigative method yield better results under conditions of constrained time?


A. How well do interrogators spot the truth?

I already had a sense where this might be going from recently reading Adrian Raine’s excellent book – The Anatomy of Violence – where he writes about whether we can tell when children are lying (page 171):

. . . . Can’t we tell if a four-year-old is lying? Actually, we cannot. Accuracy levels are at 40 percent at this age, 47 percent at age five, and 43 percent at age six. Parents, you think you know what your kids get up to, but actually you don’t even have a clue with your own toddler.’

I was already wondering what hope a torturer might have with someone he barely knows.

Rejali begins his examination of this by looking first at the supposedly best trained and most effective interrogators – the police. Many police throughout the world are trained using a manual originally formulated by Inbau and Reid in the early forties: it has been updated regularly since. The evidence he quotes is not encouraging (Torture & Democracy – page 464):

‘. . . . police investigators and others with the relevant on-the-job experience perform only slightly better than chance, if at all.’

Aldert Vrij has attempted to tease out the reality of this more closely. He moved from the laboratory to the front-line.

Police detecting abilities improved (an accuracy rate of about 65% to detect truths and lies), but remained “far from perfect, and errors in truth-lie detection were frequently made.”

He couldn’t use a control group in this instance because the material was too sensitive. However, one comparative finding is disturbing (page 464-65):

. . . those police who follow the Inbau and Reid method were actually worse at detecting deception. “The more police followed their advice, the worse they were in their ability to distinguish between truth and lies.”

The evidence suggests (page 465) that ‘torturers have far less training or experience in interrogation than police . . . so the prospect that they will be better at spotting deception is not good.’ For obvious reasons publically available, controlled, fine-grained studies of torturers are hard to come by. The anecdotal evidence suggests that Rejali’s supposition is correct. In fact, they do not even seem reliably to know when they are being told the truth after someone has broken under torture, as Sheila Cassidy attests after electrotorture in Chile (ibid):

After several days, she broke down and revealed the names of the nuns and priests who had sheltered her. The devout interrogators could not believe her and continued torturing her for days afterward.

This is reminiscent of the last torture session in the film The Railwayman where we see the incredulity of the torturer confronted with a truth that has been extorted which does not fit his world view.

And so?

If this were the only complication torture had to cope with there might be some hope of resurrecting its reputation with a sceptic whose objections are pragmatic rather than principled.  There are however other equally discrediting ones to consider in the next post.

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