I mentioned Malcolm Muggeridge’s post-mortem of a decade he had just lived through, The Thirties, in an earlier post. There are any number of thought provoking nuggets in the book, but one of the best has to do with the people I sometimes refer to as the pathologically pious. These are the self-appointed saviors of one category of the oppressed and downtrodden or other whose “selfless” crusades are always an irritant to the rest of us, and occasionally become downright dangerous. Typically one finds them eternally locked in a noble struggle to right some egregious wrong, yet, in spite of all their self-attributed heroism, they never actually seem to reach the goal. There’s good reason for that. The “struggle” is the end in itself. As Muggeridge put it,
In all movements which undertake the championship of the oppressed, and demand rectification of injustices and inequalities, there is, as in Don Quixote, a strong admixture of egotism. Their leaders are usually heroic; but when their heroism is no longer required, they are left disconsolate, and sometimes embittered. It seems cruel that they should be deprived of the limelight, or at best deserve as veterans only occasional acclamation, for no other reason than that what they agitated for has been wholly, or largely, obtained. In their case, nothing fails like success.
The doom of all who invest imaginative hopes in earthly enterprises and mortal men, is for these enterprises to triumph.
In other words, as Skinner might have put it, the positive “reinforcement” for this sort of behavior lies not in actually achieving some hypothetical goal, but in the process of, or, perhaps more accurately, in the appearance of “struggling” to achieve that goal. To put it more pithily, the pose is everything, and the reality nothing.
There’s nothing surprising or unexpected about this particular aspect of human behavior. It’s perfectly “normal” manifestation of the human traits associated with morality. As is usually the case, it requires the Don Quixote in question to perceive the Good as an object, existing independently, outside of the subjective mind. We are all programmed to perceive the Good in that way, even though no such object actually exists. Evolution doesn’t arrive at solutions that respect abstract truth. It arrives at solutions that promote genetic survival.
It is not difficult to understand why we should be programmed to perceive the Good in this way. Assuming moral behavior promoted our ancestors’ survival in the first place, it is more plausible that it would do so in the form of emotional imperatives rather than as a mix of subjective alternatives for cave dwelling philosophers to chew the fat over around the campfire at night. This sort of programming apparently worked well enough in our prehistoric past. After all, we’re still here. In those days, the Good was associated almost exclusively with ones own tribe or group, and the Evil with ones neighbors. The problem is, human societies have changed rather significantly since then. We can now perceive the Evil in ways that Mother Nature never imagined during the long millennia in which we existed as small groups of hunter-gatherers. Victor Davis Hanson provided just a few of the almost countless possibilities from a point of view on the political right in a recent article:
…there are new monsters in America, and I am starting to wonder whether I am to be considered among them: those of the uninvolved and uninformed lives, the bar-raisers, the downright mean ones, the never deserving of respect ones, the Vegas junketeers, the Super Bowl jet setters, the tuition stealers, the faux-Christians who do not pay higher taxes, the too much income makers, the tormenters of autistic children, the polluters, the enemies deserving of punishment, the targets to bring a gun against, the faces to get in front of, the limb-loppers, the tonsil pullers, the fat cats, the corporate jet owners, the one-percenters, the stupidly acting, the not paying their fair sharers, the discriminators on the “way you look”, the alligator raisers and moat builders, the vote deniers, the clingers, the typical something persons, the hunters of kids at ice cream parlors, the stereotypers and profilers, the cowards, the lazy and soft, the non-spreaders of money, the not my people people, the Tea party racists, the not been perfect and mistake makers, the disengaged and the dictating, the not the time to profiteers, the ones who did not know when to quit making money, and on and on.
Those on the left could compose a similar list, and it would be just as accurate. One finds saviors of mankind occupying all points on the political spectrum, and they all perceive Good and Evil in a bewildering array of real and imagined entities that didn’t exist when the tendency to conceptualize Good and Evil as real, independent objects evolved. As a result, human moral behavior is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. If the preceding ages weren’t sufficient, the 20th century provided us with ample experimental confirmation of the fact. Never before had so many people been slaughtered in the name of defending the Good in its Communist, Nazi, and assorted other ideological manifestations.
As one who cherishes the whim that our species should survive, I suggest that it’s high time that we a) realize we have a problem, and b) do something about it. We have at least taken the first baby step towards this goal by finally realizing, after a bitter struggle, that there is such a thing as human nature, and that it exists because it evolved. It seems to me that, once we have accepted these elementary facts and done a little thinking about their implications, we may be able to start breaking ourselves of the very satisfying but increasingly dangerous habit of inventing ever more imaginary Goods and the imaginary Evils of the sort noted by Mr. Hanson that invariably come along with them.
The advantages would be many. For starters, we could finally dismiss all the pretentions of the pathologically pious, the obnoxiously self-righteous, and the permanently outraged among us to an exclusive knowledge of the ingredients of Virtue. Instead of taking them seriously, would it not be better to smile in their faces, explain to them that the particular Good object that seems so real to them doesn’t actually exist, and, if they persist, house them in comfortable asylums? The alternative is to wait and hope they go away, as we did so often in the past. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t and, as history has so copiously demonstrated, eventually they can accumulate enough power to start murdering those of us who are unfortunate enough to fit their description of Evil. From a purely utilitarian point of view, it seems better not to take the risk.