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Excuses, Excuses

middle aged woman lying on sofa and talking to her psychologist

Much of modern psychology applies the empirical methodologies of natural science to man. This accounts for its authority but also for many of its errors. Today, empiricism no longer has to argue for its own authority, so firmly ensconced is it in the public imagination. It has been almost universally accepted as capable of explaining all things, including man.

As Nietzsche observes in Beyond Good and Evil, empiricism may be democratic, rather than simply true:

Eyes and fingers speak in its favor, visual evidence and palpableness do, too: this strikes an age with fundamentally plebian tastes as fascinating, persuasive, and convincing—after all, it follows instinctively the canon of truth of eternally popular sensualism. What is clear, what is ‘explained’? Only what can be seen and felt—every problem has to be pursued to that point.

This prejudice compliments our other source of enthrallment, equality. Equality implies that each individual may consider himself sovereign in the judgement of all things. It diminishes the habit of trusting great individuals, and also the power of tradition (which is to say, religious tradition) over the mind. Empiricism deepens the impression that, as long as you use the prescribed methods, anything is knowable by anyone.

Under these circumstances, modern psychology is where most inhabitants of liberal democracies turn to ask the big questions: what are we, and how are we to live? But, argues Theodore Dalrymple, the answers that modern psychology offers are mostly shallow, erroneous, and debilitating. Dalrymple’s short, clear-minded, and well-written book, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, is a history of modern psychology from Freudianism to neuroscience that aims to show “the overall effect in society of psychology as a discipline or way of thought.”

This book, interspersed with the trademark Dalrymple wit, penetrating observations, and biting asides, follows the well-established themes of his oeuvre: a critique of modern moral fashions from the perspective of literature and philosophy, and an analysis of science and its applications from the perspective of morality. Though Dalrymple, a retired prison doctor and psychiatrist, has written on modern psychology in the past, Admirable Evasions is his most focused and comprehensive analysis of it.

For him, modern psychology in effect teaches that we are all shallow, powerless, or mindless beings, while often encouraging “self-absorption without self-examination.” Among the sources of psychology’s appeal—apart from the authoritative sheen of empiricism that it enjoys—is one that’s less than overt. Psychology is secretly appealing, in that it absolves us of moral responsibility for our various misdeeds, vices, and failings.

Our bad actions are never our fault. They are the fault, psychology teaches, of our subconscious drives, of our parents, of our genes, or of our brain chemistry. Sometimes one can even blame the universe itself, as in the case of neo-Darwinism.

Moreover, the road to absolution is of relative ease and is often pleasantly self-indulgent: no painstaking study, effort, or development of virtues is needed to reform our character. Rather, medicines, therapy, and machines can cure the diseases diagnosed by the priests of this modern religion. By promising the impossible and indulging our hopes for permanent alleviation of suffering and evil, it turns men into children. This is the science of Nietzsche’s “last man.”

Among Dalrymple’s many interesting observations is the contradiction he sees between psychology’s alleged discoveries and the law. For example, behaviorism, by asserting that human behavior is determined by external stimuli, implies that there is neither permanent identity nor consciousness. We are therefore creatures that are different from one moment to the next. Someone who committed a crime was, in other words, a different being when the crime took place. The law becomes confused, weak, and unjust. Indeed, the law and citizens take on a new attitude toward criminals, namely pity. It diminishes our resolution for punishing—both domestically and abroad.

Similarly, the “Real Me”—the authentic “me” which is of course good and innocent—did not commit crimes, shirk duties, or destroy families. Those things were done by the “Apparent Me,” which has been imposed by society. One now has an excuse to blame and therefore hate society. It owes me—and not a little. The good news is that the government can help through a variety of programs. The sicker we are, the larger the government necessary to cure us.

Shallow concepts like self-esteem, for example—which pretends self-respect is earned merely by being asserted—distorts the public mind, and solidifies psychology’s rule by taking over sectors of society (like education policy in America). But is the end of education the achievement of paper-thin, unjustifiably puffed-up, frail egos? Psychologists of old—classic writers, such as Stendhal and Dostoyevsky—would be interested more in the delusions of today’s  psychologists than in their findings.

Dalrymple also takes his chisel to the expansive, unformed limestone slab called neo-Darwinism. He writes that the use of neo-Darwinian theory to account for the human intellect leads to this contradiction:

If evolution is a directionless, purposeless, natural phenomenon that is all-explanatory, then human behavior just is, it is neither moral nor immoral; if on the other hand it is moral or immoral, then either the process of evolution is directed by a moral intelligence in the direction of greater morality . . . or the process of evolution is not all explanatory, and has led to something that escapes it . . . namely human conceptions of morality.

Neo-Darwinism wants it both ways: we are evolving, instinctive beings governed by forces beyond our control, yet we are also moral, nice, and harmless citizens of liberal democracies.

The author does acknowledge, along the way, that “psychologists have done many intriguing and ingenious experiments,” and that psychology has helped those in genuine need, like schizophrenics. However, psychological thought’s overall effect “on human culture and society” has “been overwhelmingly negative” because

it gives the false impression of greatly increased human self-understanding where none has been achieved, it encourages the evasion of responsibility by turning subjects into objects where it supposedly takes account of or interests itself in subjective experience, and it makes shallow the human character because it discourages genuine self-examination and self-knowledge. It is ultimately sentimental and promotes the grossest self-pity, for it makes everyone (apart for scapegoats) victims of their own behavior.

To Dalrymple’s mind, literature, perhaps specifically tragedy, comes far closer to giving an accurate analysis of man’s condition than modern psychology ever could. This is in part because there can be no analysis of the human psyche without reflection on morality, and therefore on human ends, which modern psychology either refuses to do or does on the sly, in contravention of its own methods. Great literature, unshackled by an arbitrary methodology, is capable of presenting man’s various fears, illusions, and the impossibly of his wishes, all while prescribing humane solutions instead of flattering and exacerbating those fears and illusions. At its peak, literature teaches decency and restraint rather than self-pity and moral evasion.

An analysis like Dalrymple’s is long overdue. His talent for clear writing and penetrating observation is rarely surpassed.

Reader Discussion

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on June 05, 2015 at 12:45:46 pm

I haven’t read Dalrymple’s book and won’t comment on it directly. But I’ll say that I don’t find the thesis of this post compelling.

Yes, psychology (and science generally) indicates that large dynamics influence events, and these dynamics transcend the power and will of any individual. Taken to an extreme, it suggests that these dynamics control everything and that human will and choice are an illusion. But in any event, it suggests a less ego-centric view.

I get that Milikh (and Dalrymple?) find this view threatening. But that's about it.

Our bad actions are never our fault. They are the fault, psychology teaches, of our subconscious drives, of our parents, of our genes, or of our brain chemistry. Sometimes one can even blame the universe itself, as in the case of neo-Darwinism.

Moreover, the road to absolution is of relative ease and is often pleasantly self-indulgent: no painstaking study, effort, or development of virtues is needed to reform our character. Rather, medicines, therapy, and machines can cure the diseases diagnosed by the priests of this modern religion. By promising the impossible and indulging our hopes for permanent alleviation of suffering and evil, it turns men into children. This is the science of the “last man” of whom Nietzsche spoke.

I can imagine this same argument given throughout time:

In arguing that lightning strikes are mere natural phenomena, you’re asserting that our bad actions are never our fault – that they are the fault of the universe itself!

Moreover, the road to absolution is of relative ease and is often pleasantly self-indulgent: no painstaking study, effort, or development of virtues is needed to reform our character. Rather, you just install these lightning rods? By promising the impossible and indulging our hopes for permanent alleviation of suffering and evil, it turns men into children. This is the science of the “last man” of whom Nietzsche spoke!

You hear this argument raised in opposition to adding fluoride to water, or using birth control, or inoculating girls against getting cervical cancer, or using geo-engineering to address climate change: NO! People are behaving in ways that offend me, and the troubles we are confronting prove that my preferences are GOD’S preferences. If you find a way to solve the problem without solving the behavior, you will undermine the leverage I have over your behavior! Woe, woe, woe…!

Here’s the real crux of the matter:

If evolution is a directionless, purposeless, natural phenomenon that is all-explanatory, then human behavior just is, it is neither moral nor immoral; if on the other hand it is moral or immoral, then either the process of evolution is directed by a moral intelligence in the direction of greater morality . . . or the process of evolution is not all explanatory, and has led to something that escapes it . . . namely human conceptions of morality.

Perhaps Dalrymple offers some support for this assertion. But as presented here, it seems to overlook an obvious possibility: Morality is a function of evolution. Morality arises because it offers an adaptive advantage to animals living in social groups. Thus we observe different behaviors among animals that operate in social groups and animals that do not. And we observe different moralities among people who live in sparsely-populated areas and people who live in cities (as evidenced by research conducted using the Ultimatum Game).

I don’t mean to say that Milikh (and Dalrymple?) are not justified in expressing alarm about how social science undermines morality – precisely because those moral norms are (often) adaptive. But I find no conflict between saying a proposition is accurate and that it is socially maladaptive.

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nobody.really
on June 06, 2015 at 02:21:43 am

" NO! People are behaving in ways that offend me, and the troubles we are confronting prove that my preferences are GOD’S preferences. If you find a way to solve the problem without solving the behavior, you will undermine the leverage I have over your behavior!"

From Pride And Prejudice

“It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance. But no such happy marriage could now teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was. An union of a different tendency, and precluding the possibility of the other, was soon to be formed in their family.”

An union of a different tendency? And why do we have such a vast financial deficit, a "profound moral crisis" to quote TD, that "underlies western society"? Or or at least pervades it.

“How Wickham and Lydia were to be supported in tolerable independence, she could not imagine. But how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue, she could easily conjecture.”

I may not invoke God but woe is the relations between the sexes and I sincerely hope people increase their moral leverage over their behaviour. I strongly suspect Psychology has and is doing much to undermine that hope.

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Kiljoy
on June 06, 2015 at 11:07:24 am

Properly understood, self-esteem psychology is not as presented here. Unfortunately, what's here is exactly how the hacks of pop psych have brought it. They have ignored the so-called "father of self-esteem" (Nathaniel Branden), and bastardized the whole concept into a vain, insipid unter-concept.

But this is what is done with every well-understood idea these days. I have finally concluded, after several decades of refusing to believe it, that there is indeed a plot to stupidify every institution that brings man into his own, that makes for accountable, sensible individuals. This is better for control by some few thousand scumbags who fancy themselves genetically superior to the rest of us.

Overall, I think it's obvious that I don't dispute the theme; modernity is undermining all that can make humanity workable and perhaps great. But take heed: when we use the dumbest variant of a model and throw the wisest version into the trash with it, we participate in this destruction.

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kldimond
on June 07, 2015 at 19:32:20 pm

Nobody:

Is this what is meant by "how social science undermines morality"

http://www.powerlineblog.com/archives/2015/06/you-know-obama-is-hard-up-for-accomplishments-when.php

Then again, this is a case of a narcissistic sociopath taking credit (no cowardly avoidance of responsibility here, mind you!) wherein Obama takes credit for the recent Triple Crown achievement of American Pharaoh - then again, this is an apt descriptor for Obama.

Heck, one can always use a laugh!

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gabe
on June 08, 2015 at 14:04:46 pm

A fair point: Milikh (and Dalrymple?) decry the effects of "modern psychology" on people's morals. Yet when did "modern psychology" begin having this effect? Jane Austin was able to write about immoral behavior leading to bad ends in 1813. Sigmund Freud wouldn't even be born until 1956.

In short, the problems that Milikh (and Dalrymple?) would attribute to "modern psychology" seem to long predate anything we might recognize as modern psychology.

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nobody.really
on June 08, 2015 at 14:05:51 pm

Correction: Sigmund Freud wouldn’t even be born until 1856.

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nobody.really
on August 20, 2015 at 02:34:33 am

Well, if that's a fair point according to you I might presume research in the field of psychology is doing you little to no harm... perhaps it is even of considerable benefit. Sadly I don't think that's the case for the majority of people for reasons that Edmund in King Lear was only too aware... and Shakespeare. I'm a poet ; )

Roger Scruton says he's a small 'c' conservative; dissociating himself from the Tories.
Similarly I wrote 'P'sychology... (I don't know how to make letters bold on this device) perhaps this a rather laboured point but it seems to me that the more that what might otherwise be a laudable enough field of enquiry becomes associated with leftist apologetics... politicised etc, well, the more problematic is that field. Too obvious?

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Kiljoy

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.