Terrible Things

May 29, 2011

One thing that this general picture helps us account for – if we need to – is how people do such terrible things. There was a funny piece in The Onion on this theme not long ago (prompted, I think, by the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords):

As more details emerged of Friday’s horrible but relatively commonplace manifestation of human nature in Brandon, SD, citizens nationwide somehow managed to enter a state of shock, apparently struggling to comprehend an act that, throughout history, has happened thousands upon thousands of times.

In the wake of the tragedy, Americans have expressed a deep sense of bewilderment, though it is unclear why, given that events just like the one Friday have taken place frequently throughout their lifetimes.

I too am often puzzled by the “how could anyone do such a thing?” response that is frequently elicited by heinous – or, indeed, impolite – acts. I don’t, however, exactly endorse a concept of ‘human nature’ as the source of these various enormities – except in the (legitimate) sense that human nature is highly variable, with a range of capacities that can be activated or inculcated by circumstance, and clearly a wide range of the behaviours of which humans are capable are horrifying. (In this respect it’s certainly possible to say something like “human beings are sufficiently biologically primed towards violence that violence will always be a feature of human society” [which is surely true if anything is] without taking this to be a claim about human nature except in a probabilistic sense, which is all we need from the concept.)

It’s common, however, to think of one particular range of human behaviours as requiring more explanation than another, because some behaviours are innate, and some are the product of contingent socialisation: for example, people sometimes argue that we’re basically evil fuckers who can be socialised into behaving somewhat tolerably; or, contrariwise, other people argue that we’re basically fluffy bunnies who can be warped by circumstance into unpleasantness.

As I say, it’s presumably true that some dispositions are going to be statistically more common than others – probabilistically more likely – in some given circumstance, given the make-up of the human organism. But that fact in itself shouldn’t lead us to any conclusions about essential human nature versus contingency. We certainly shouldn’t think – as is common – that the dispositions and habits of thought we have been socialised into, and therefore regard as normative in the ‘should’ sense, are therefore normative in the probabilistic (or essentialist) sense. This parochialism is the enemy of any adequate social theory. What we regard as obviously right isn’t obviously right because it’s a core feature of the human self that has been sadly obscured by pathological socialisation. Our own norms are as contingent as anyone else’s, and require no more or less in the way of social-theoretic explanation w/r/t their source.

So – we think what we think because (very loosely) we participate in a positive-feedback loop of valuation and validation w/r/t our norms. It is, obviously, very very easy for positive-feedback loops to be created around basically any norm at all. The problem of “how could people do such a hideous thing?” simply isn’t a problem from this p.o.v. People do such hideous things because they think it’s a good idea, and they think it’s a good idea, most often, because people around them also think it’s a good idea, and the community as a whole participates in a positive feedback loop of mutual validation. This is far from the only way that norms can get constructed – as I’ve already said, it’s possible for the relevant feedback-loops to be largely internal to the organism (through, for example, the projection of a fantasised approving judge), or entirely non-conscious. But it’s obvious how this sort of thing works, and it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that the most monstrous deeds can be perpetrated by groups of people who can approve of each others’ actions (or individuals who are capable of imagining others who do). This is exactly the same process by which good deeds get done and good norms get created. The only difference (which is not a difference in any explanatory sense) is whether we in fact approve of the normative dynamic in question (or whether we should approve of it).

One further aspect of all this is that the “under-such-and-such-a-circumstance I could have been a Nazi!” thing, which evidently produces such a vertiginous sensation in many people, such that it must either be rejected by the positing of a core self invulnerable to such transformation, or is taken to ‘problematise’ even the mildest assertion of ethical propriety, rather loses its force. The self is intrinsically a social thing, as I’ve been saying. To say that you might have been a Nazi, then, is in fact to speak of another self, who shares certain common properties with you. This doesn’t mean that the claim is illegitimate – it might be made, for example, to highlight the similarity between the actually-existing self and the historically imagined (but, perhaps, condemned) alternative self. And, of course, there are plenty of people running around today with fascist politics, such that the claim that they would be Nazis given half the chance requires very little in the way of imaginative counterfactual projection. But if the claim is simply that, given vastly different socio-historical circumstances of socialisation, a vastly different self would emerge, this is pretty much tautologous, on my view, and shouldn’t be found either shocking or profound.

What all this does mean, of course (and again this should be news to no one), is that the conditions that make the self matter. Part of our politico-ethical responsibility is to make the circumstances that make good selves – and the selves thereby made can, perhaps, continue the reproduction of positive, rather than harmful (as we take them to be), circumstances of socialisation.


6 Responses to “Terrible Things”

  1. Carl Says:

    Couldn’t agree more with all of this. I love how you’ve framed it in terms of stuff we shouldn’t be surprised by; so the surprise is itself surprising, or rather points to exactly the kind of group dynamic you describe around some version of asserted universal norms and self.

  2. duncan Says:

    Thanks Carl, that’s nice of you. Like you, I suspect, I’m a bit puzzled by the resistance this sort of thing can often generate – I never quite get why it’s meant to be as problematic as it’s evidently taken to be by many. Anyway, hope you won’t spend quite all your time in real life, but will be continuing with the blogging too. Best…

  3. Christopher Eddy Says:

    Hi, Duncan, I’ve just stumbled across your blog in the last few days (I’m 72 and, as a last-century person, I’ve come only in the last two years to the eworld) and, as one who discovered Brandom in 1997 via Rowland Stout’s brief review of MIE in the TLS and has been struggling ever since to get people to read him, I wish to begin by recording my feelings of admiration and gratitude for your work, and relief that at last I have somewhere to refer all those little academic philosophers who pretend that they find Brandom unreadable (though they seem to have no problem with Foucault’s or Derrida’s prose).

    With reference to the above post in particular, I wonder if you know Randall Collins’s work, e.g., in “Violence”, but also his more general theory in “Interaction Ritual Chains”. I cannot yet say exactly how, but I have a feeling that his wholly relational concept of the self could be integrated with Brandom’s in an interesting way.

    I’m working my way through your stuff chronologically and may have some substantive points to make when I’ve seen where you end up. Meanwhile, keep up the good work.

  4. duncan Says:

    Hi Christopher –

    Many thanks for your kind words – they’re much appreciated, and I’m very glad the posts here are of some interest or use. I should state the obvious that, since the blog is a record of my reading and thinking, many of the posts are in the process of ‘working through’ the content they discuss – so, for example, the earliest posts on Brandom are very under-informed, relative to the later ones. But that’s generally flagged in the posts themselves…

    I haven’t read Collins – but I should. At the moment (and for the foreseeable), my research is in economics, rather than philosophy – and one of the things I’m looking for there is an adequate ‘micro-foundational’ analysis of power dynamics; Collins looks like someone to engage with, on that score – so thanks for the recommendation.

    Your other comment has a lot to it – I’ll reply at greater length soon.

  5. Christopher Eddy Says:

    Hi, Duncan,

    Collins is actually a sociologist and interesting in contrast to Bourdieu (also one of my heroes).

  6. duncan Says:

    Yes I like Bourdieu too – though I’ve never been able to track down his Heidegger book (or I guess been quite motivated enough to order it, though it looks excellent).

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