Our friend Barbara Oakley has an interesting follow-up to our conversation on Tuesday with this intriguing opinion piece in today’s Chicago Tribune. The author of Evil Genes discusses cultural blind spots, starting with a personal anecdote regarding her adopted sons, both Balkan Muslims. She noted that they have never even thought to look at Islam critically, as they do with other religions. Similarly, Westerners have a blind spot when it comes to their belief in the inherent good of each individual:
It’s fashionable in the West today to assert that every culture has its blind spots, and so culturally speaking, everything is relative. But what many Westerners are unaware of, unless they have also spent time in a totalitarian state, is how much more free Westerners are to study their blind spots, to write about them and to publicly attempt to put a spotlight on them.
One blind spot Westerners have is the widespread assumption that everyone is innately good — or at least capable of being reasoned with. Neuroscience, however, is beginning to provide proof that the dogma of innate rationality and decency is deeply flawed — at least in a small percentage of people. Instead, it appears that both environment and genetics can occasionally combine to shape people who are naturally duplicitous, amoral and completely incapable of being reasoned with.
When we reflect on these findings, they make sense. After all, was Hitler trustworthy when he suavely insisted he was a man of peace? Could you reason Ahmadinejad out of his firm belief that there are no homosexuals in Iran? Is Russian President Vladimir Putin being honest when he insists he has nothing to do with his enemies’ oddly common tendencies to die horrific deaths? Is Hugo Chavez really attempting to give himself extraordinary rights to control every facet of Venezuelan politics for purely altruistic reasons, as he likes to imply? Will Chavez’s next step be the elimination of the press that helped spearhead his recent electoral loss?
“Successfully sinister” individuals exist, it seems, in every society. These manipulative individuals often do not have the charm, phenomenal memory or ruthlessness of a Hitler, Putin, Ahmadinejad or Chavez. Instead, they show their nature on a more banal scale: the malevolent department head who terrorizes his underlings, or the long-suffering mother who has been poisoning her children.
This is an extension of our discussion on Tuesday, and another interesting look at Oakley’s research. Not every individual, she postulates, is born either inherently good or a tabula rasa on which environment engraves the cultural values of good and evil. That challenges some of the assumptions on which modern Western culture rests, and calls into question how society can protect itself.
It also calls into question the concept of free will. Oakley will join us to discuss this again next Tuesday, since we never got to that discussion. If successfully sinister individuals exist because of their neurological structure, can they be said to operate from a sense of free will or instinctual compulsion? Similarly, does altruism exist as a choice or a biological response? Even if one accepts the neurological explanation as determinative, which I’m not sure even Oakley does, can society afford to act in any other fashion than under the assumption of free will?
This is not an academic question. Western justice — indeed, human justice — relies on the notion that people have responsibility for their own actions. Exceptions exist for the truly insane, those who cannot distinguish right from wrong in any sense. If successfully sinister people lack the will to operate in any other fashion, can they be judged as neurologically equivalent to that state? If so, how does society protect themselves against the malignant narcissists?
I believe that the individual comes with certain predispositions, but has consciousness and the ability to make choices. That consciousness allows humans to rise above instinctual compulsions, especially when the consequences of actions are clear, such as with lawbreaking. The neurological component exists, but to relegate actions completely to it amounts to claiming to be possessed as a defense. If the devil exists in the corpus callosum, the individual still has the responsibility for allowing him out. We’ll see what Barbara has to say about this next week.