The Dangers of Pit Bulls and Climate Control – Part I

So, I think you all are getting the point of this series so far: psychopaths are a big problem in our world! But it’s not that simple. Take an analogy. Timmy is sick. He caught a bug at school the other week and is down for the count. Thankfully for his parents, they’re somewhat eccentrically obsessed with health and cleanliness and had immediately placed Timmy in a microbiologically sterile bubble in their guest bedroom, before proceeding to decontaminate the entire house and its occupants. The pathogen that threatens the health of those he might come in contact with is successfully locked in. (Unfortunately for Timmy, so is he!) However, Timmy’s parents didn’t factor Sunshine, the family’s pet pit-bull, into their anti-infection equation.

So, one afternoon, while Timmy is reminiscing about his former life outside the bubble, along comes Sunshine who pokes a hole in the bubble’s protective layer with his favorite stick. The highly contagious, airborne infection is now free to surf the air waves of 21st century climate control, and through a series of highly improbable events, Timmy’s sister, parents, dog and goldfish all come down with the nasty bug. The infection then spreads throughout the neighborhood, city, and eventually, the world, as local businessmen who don’t mind an aggressive pat down from the TSA and exposing their genitals to puerile airport security personnel via Peeping-Tom-Technology travel to very serious and important business meetings. So, what’s the point of this? Simply put, psychopaths need a number of things to have their effect in lieu of the direct interaction of personal relationships. Among a psychopath’s best tools to spread his malevolence are fanatic bulldogs and the cold theories of human nature that determine the intellectual climate of a society. It’s through these intermediaries that our bodies and minds are systematically infected – ponerized.

In this article I’ll focus on the latter of these tools. For now, all that needs to be said of the fanatics is that the tenacity of true believers (whether paranoid or just lacking important functionality of the prefrontal lobes) is what keeps pathological social systems in action. Just think of Internet trolls with religion and guns, seeing a Communist or terrorist behind every even slightly ‘liberal’ blogger, and you’ll get the picture. As for the second type of psycho-puppet, they’re a bit trickier to spot. Often intelligent, and highly influential in society, the pervasiveness of their theories in modern Western culture offers them some degree of camouflage. But when those theories are put to the test, they don’t fare too well. Unfortunately for us, very few actually question them, and they’re the cause of many of the world’s biggest problems.

In his book, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (New York: Norton, 2009), professor of psychology at the University of California, Dacher Keltner lists some depressing figures. In the last fifteen years, levels of trust among Americans have dropped 15%; feelings of social anomie, loneliness, and unhappy marriages are on the rise; people have fewer close friends, babies have less physical contact with their parents, and American children’s well-being ranks twentieth in a list of 21 nations. Keltner traces this overall decline in social well-being to what he calls the Homo economicus ideology of human nature. He writes:

This ideology has influential advocates from Sigmund Freud to evolutionary theorists. The strongest proponents of this view are found in the halls of economics departments. Their characterization of human nature [is] known widely as rational choice theory … First and foremost, Homo economicus is selfish. Every action of Homo economicus is designed to maximize self-interest, in the form of experienced pleasure, advances in material wealth, or, in evolutionist thought, the propagation of genes. … Competition is a natural and normative state of affairs. … Cooperation and kindness are, by implication, cultural conventions or deceptive acts masking deeper self-interest. … The conclusion: These generous acts are evolutionary “misfires” or “strategic errors” … (pp. 8 – 9)

Keltner mentions just a few such theorizers: the already-mentioned Freud, Ayn Rand, Machiavelli (“in general [mankind] are fickle, hypocritical, and greedy of gain”), and George C. Williams (Natural selection “can honestly be described as a process for maximizing short-sighted selfishness”). To this list we may add Karl Marx (for whom material conditions shape consciousness) and Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679), who thought that so long as there were no strong authority to keep them in line, humans were naturally “in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man” (quoted in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 2002), p. 7). In other words, human nature is so wretched (i.e. self-serving, distrustful, malicious) that a strong authority (i.e. church or state) is needed to keep society from descending into social chaos. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. As Keltner describes it, such a view of human nature offers only part of the picture. Without the very real qualities of equality, compassion, cooperation, gratitude, love, laughter and nurture, our families and societies would fall apart. These emotions and values are what bring, and keep, people together, and coincidentally (or not), they are the very qualities lacking in psychopaths.

In fact, some big clues to this can be found in Adam Curtis’ 2007 documentary The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom . In it, Curtis shows the influence of “simplistic model[s] of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures” on modern economics and politics (are we seeing a pattern here?). One such model is the “Game Theory” of mathematician and Nobel Prize winner in Economics John Nash, whose life was whitewashed in the Hollywood film A Beautiful Mind. Importantly, Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, although in my opinion “schizoidal psychopathy” is a better fit. His arrogant, cold-hearted, and disturbed mind is dealt with at length in Sylvia Nasar’s biography of the same name. Nash’s view of human nature influenced the development of his “game” scenarios, which in turn greatly influenced official Cold War policies.

According to Nash, human beings are selfish and distrustful by nature, and the only way to create social stability is through the cultivation of suspicion and self-interest. In one of his games, players must choose to trust or betray their gaming partner in order to either lose or gain benefits. Trust only works if both sides choose to do so. If your opponent “screws you”, however, you lose more than you would if you screwed him as well. The choice with the greatest payoff is thus to betray your partner, who in turn betrays you. According to Nash, as well as other economic theorists like Friedrich von Hayek and James M. Buchanan, this is how humans actually operate: motivated entirely by self-interest and constantly calculating and anticipating the malicious intentions of all others. Homo economicus. Life is one big game of screwing others over, and coming out on top.

That’s great in theory, I suppose. However, in practice, the only individuals who consistently played the games in such a manner were psychopaths and economists (!). When the games were played by the experimenters’ secretaries, they always chose the mutually beneficial trust scenario, that is, the normal, human response. And while these theories of economic and political “freedom” were embraced by politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and continue to determine economic and government policies in Western societies, as Curtis concludes, when they are put into practice they actually lead to “corruption, rigidity, inequality.” See how far Timmy’s bug can spread?

As can be seen by the names mentioned above (Machiavelli, Hobbes, Marx, etc.), the view of humanity as nothing but selfish imps has long held sway. Religious traditions have taught their believers to view themselves as “special” and set apart from the rest of humanity, which is seen as wretched, brutish, amoral, and Godless. (In other words, Homo economicus-lite; only the others are evil.) It is so universal that it seems to be a rule among religious sects, whether in the Talmudic view of goyim, the Christian view of the “un-saved”, or the Muslim view of the kafir. So, too, in political theories. As the game theory tests showed in The Trap, normal people tend trust one another. It is “intra-species predators” such as psychopaths who are themselves distrustful by nature, and who then inspire distrust in others; who are selfish, and inspire selfishness in others; and who wish to be the ones controlling the rabble of humanity.