A Curious Miscellany of Items Philosophical, Historical, and Literary

Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Of Moral Physiognomy

December 21, 1757

Dear Mr. Avenger,

In your last, you told me of a witty Author of your Age (Mr. ORWELL, I believe you call’d him), who declar’d that by his fiftieth Year, every Man hath the Face he deserves. This is more than mere Wit on your Author’s Part, for only a little Reflexion will convince us that that Action which is oft repeated, over a Course of many Years, must needs leave its Traces upon a Man’s bodily Constitution. We ought not to be surpriz’d in discovering that the angry cholerick Man, who inclines much to Displays of Rage, being oft flushed, will carry with him a perpetual redness of visage, even in his cooler Hours. And your gloomy and splenetick Fellow, being much given to the furrowing of his Brow, will in Time find he hath carv’d deep Furrows thereon. Indeed, I once knew a Man, of this Neighbourhood, a Drunkard and perpetual Gin-Sot, whose Hand had cramp’d it self into a veritable Claw from the constant grasping of his Mug, which he was never without. He hath long since pass’d from this Vale of Tears, a Martyr to his particular Vice, his Children put upon the Parish.

Not only will our outward Actions, by much Repetition, produce alterations of the outward Body, but our inwards, that is, our Passions and Affections, if they be swol’n to steady Dispositions, will also work their inevitable Effects upon the outward Physiognomy. It is for this Reason that my Lord VERULAM declar’d that “the Lineaments of the Body do disclose the Disposition and Inclination of the Mind in general” [Francis Bacon, Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605), Second Book, IX.2 — Ed.].

The reading of Character from Body and Countenance is not modern Philosophy, but rather ancient Lore. We read in the courtly SENECA that omnia rerum omnium, si observentur, indicia sunt et argumentum morum ex minimis quoque licet capere: inpudicum et incessus ostendit et manus mota et unum interdum responsum et relatus ad caput digitus et flexus oculorum. Inprobum risus, insanum vultus habitusque demonstrat [“all acts are always significant, and you can gauge character by even the most trifling signs. The lecherous man is revealed by his gait, by a movement of the hand, sometimes by a single answer, by his touching his head with his finger, by the shifting of his eye. The scamp is shown up by his laugh; the madman by his face and general appearance” Epistles 52.12 — Ed.]. (You shou’d know, my good Avenger, that in the Roman Times, scratching the Head with one’s little Finger was taken as a sure Sign that a Man was a Molly, that is, a Member of that infamous Race of Woman-Haters, practisers of that abominable Vice which shou’d ever be passed over in Silence.) In time, these outward Signs of Character become stamp’d upon us through much Repetition. Whether we will or no, in the very process of Age, we reveal our Minds to the World; our Souls are laid bare to Friend and Foe alike through our Habits and steady Dispositions.

You see, we wear Footpaths upon our Bodies in the Course of our Doings. Both our Virtues and our Vices leave their indelible Marks. And so it is that nec auguria novi nec mathematicorum caelum curare soleo, ex vultibus tamen hominum mores colligo, et cum spantiantem vidi, quid cogitet scio (PETRON. Satyr. 126) [“I know nothing of omens, and I never attend to the astrologer’s sky, but I read character in a man’s face, and when I see him walk, I know his thoughts.” Petronius Arbiter, Satyricon, ch. 126 — Ed.].

But the Relation of Cause and Effect may also run in the reverse Direction, from the Body to the Mind. That ill Action which is oft repeated will beat a Path to ease the Way for its after-Travellers, the Result being a well-worn Road to customary Vice. Where we once stick at committing some one Indiscretion the first Time, the third, fourth, or fifth Time finds our Will less reticent and more yielding, until she hath become a very Courtizan of easy Virtue. Whence it is that my Lord SHAFTESBURY justly observes that “the least step into Villainy or Baseness, changes the Character and Value of a Life” (Characteristicks Vol. I, p. 121).

The difficult Passage of the first Traveller invariably makes the Passage of the next Traveller just so much easier. And if enough Time be not left for the Thickets and Brambles to grow back, the soil becomes packt, trodden down, and instead of a mere Footpath, a fixt and permanent Road is form’d. As the divine EPICTETUS warns us, “the man who has had a Fever, and then recover’d, is not the same as he was before the Fever, unless he has experienced a compleat Cure. Something like this happens also with the Affections of the Mind. Certain Imprints and Weals are left behind on the Mind, and unless a Man erases them perfectly, the next time he is scourged upon the old Scars, he has Weals no longer but Wounds” [Discourses, II.18 — Ed.].

To bring this my tedious Lesson to a close, it is wise Advice when ’tis said that if we wish to gain knowledge of a Man’s Vices, we shou’d canvass his Enemies; if we wou’d know more of his Virtues, we shou’d speak with his particular Friends; and where we wou’d know about his Habits, Customs, and Times of coming and going, we shou’d press his Servants. But no little Intelligence can be glean’d of all these things by the mere observing of his Outwards, his Form, his Countenance, and his Frame.

I am, Sir, as allways, your Servant,
Jos: Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxon.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Little Useless Learning

Sometimes, in the course of one’s scholarly travels, one stumbles upon a problem, mystery, or interesting fact that, while being too small in import to spin off into a paper, still demands to somehow reach an audience beyond the scholar himself. That is precisely the purpose of this post. It will be a depository for some matter overflowing from my scholarly waste books that I frankly don’t know what else to do with.

The learning contained herein derives from my researches on my favourite philosopher, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), about whom I’ve written before.

The best place to begin is with the picture above. It is a portrait of Shaftesbury painted by John Closterman c. 1700-1701. Considerable scholarly ink has been spilled concerning the identity of the figure to the viewer’s right, who holds the Earl’s robes of state and seems to beckon him toward the outside world and away from his books. Hypotheses as to who this figure represents have included: Thomas Stringer (superannuated steward to Shaftesbury’s father); John Wheelock (Shaftesbury’s own steward); Shaftesbury’s grandfather, the first Earl; or a psychoanalytically split-off version of Shaftesbury himself (à la the advice proffered by Shaftesbury in his work Soliloquy, or Advice to an Author). For more on this, I would simply refer the interested reader to the fascinating — though idiosyncratic and ultimately unconvincing — Chapter 3 of Lori Branch’s book, Rituals of Spontaneity: Sentiment and Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006).

The first edition of Shaftesbury’s 3-volume masterwork, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times appeared in 1711. It was intended as a sort of collected edition of his previously published works in two volumes, tied together by a new third volume, written in the form of a free-wheeling tongue-in-cheek commentary on the foregoing by Shaftesbury in the voice of an anonymous but generally favourable modern critic.

Towards the end of his life, Shaftesbury had become gravely ill and left England to live in Naples in hopes of recovering his health. From Naples Shaftesbury directed a new edition of Characteristicks, for which he designed intricate emblematic engravings, to be executed by the masterful engraver, Simon Gribelin. These engravings were to be keyed to certain passages of the text and were to consist of three frontispieces (one for each volume), six headpieces (one for each of the separate treatises contained therein), and the circular emblem by Gribelin that had already appeared in the first 1711 edition. Shaftesbury had at hand a young Irish draughtsman named Henry Trench, to whom he dictated his plans for the designs. Trench’s preliminary drawings, along with detailed instructions for the plates and the general layout and editing of the book, were then sent to Shaftesbury’s agent and general factotum in England, Thomas Micklethwaite.

Shaftesbury died in Naples, having only seen the finished versions of three of the nine new plates for the second edition. The second edition of Characteristicks appeared in 1714/15. At some point during the process of publication two new plates somehow crept into the book. (Actually there was also a third new plate, as some copies had Shaftesbury’s work “The Judgment of Hercules” appended to them, with accompanying engraving by Gribelin of Paolo de Matteis’ painting of the same. However, this was a separate work, never intended for Characteristicks.) Who decided to add these plates (and who ultimately paid for them) is a mystery. It may have been Micklethwaite, or perhaps it was Shaftesbury’s widow. What we know is that it was not Shaftesbury himself.

Consider, for instance, one of these additional plates, the headpiece to the Preface, depicting Shaftesbury’s coat-of-arms. In his detailed instructions regarding the layout and illustrations for the second edition, Shaftesbury is very clear that there is to be no ornament over the Preface, for he writes: “The wooden Flourish or Flower-Work over the Preface [in the 1711 edition] must be taken away, and the Page left plain.” In addition, the instructions make clear throughout that, aside from the cryptic subscription to the Preface, there is to be nothing to mark the identity of the author, which obviously the coat-of-arms would have done. It should also be noted that Shaftesbury’s name was added to the title page of the second edition, contrary to his evident wish to remain anonymous.

The other of the two unintended plates would have gone even further towards identifying the work’s authorship. This was an engraved portrait frontispiece of Shaftesbury himself, again by Gribelin, modeled after the painting by Closterman already described. The engraving is a mirror image of the original, and the beckoning figure has been removed, and in its place has been added a garden landscape.

There is at least one scholar who has been unable to resist the temptation to assume that this garden is a depiction of the grounds at Shaftesbury’s seat, Wimborne St. Giles, in Dorset. David Leatherbarrow, on rather flimsy evidence, writes: “The appearance of a landscape in an eighteenth-century portrait is not uncommon, nor in earlier portraits. But this is not any landscape. I believe it is a representation of Shaftesbury’s garden at Wimborne St. Giles, the only such representation, and, as I shall try to show, of Shaftesbury’s conception of perfected nature” (Leatherbarrow 147).

If this were true, it would be very interesting, given Shaftesbury’s own influence on the history of gardening and his own writings on the same. Leatherbarrow largely bases his claim on Shaftesbury’s description of his gardening work at St. Giles, claiming it matches up with the grounds in the portrait. But alas, the evidence does not support his claim in the slightest.

First, Gribelin’s depiction seems highly stylized, and in any case it is on too small a scale to support any inference in this direction. Second, Leatherbarrow provides no evidence that Gribelin had seen St. Giles, nor that Shaftesbury had sent him any directions regarding their illustration. This does not rule out the possibility that Micklethwaite, who had seen the grounds at St. Giles, could have instructed Gribelin. But that would be pure conjecture.

In addition, there is even more reason to dispute Leatherbarrow’s claim. The latter writes: “As the engraver had already finished one emblem by the time of Shaftesbury’s arrival in Naples it is safe to assume he was in contact with Gribelin before his departure. Thus he could have supervised the execution of the portrait. I believe that he did” (p. 147). Besides being, again, little more than conjecture, this claim suffers from what I take to be a fatal flaw, for, to reiterate, Shaftesbury’s instructions concerning the illustrations to Characteristicks makes clear that there was to be no such portrait. His plans clearly dictated that the work was to contain only the circular 1711 title page emblem, the three volume frontispieces and the six treatise headpieces. In case there is any doubt of his intention, here are Shaftesbury’s exact words: there is to be no other illustration or ornament “besides what the Author furnishes, and are compris’d in the Three general and Six particular Plates, together with the round Frontispiece-Devise allready current” (“Virtuoso-Coppy-Book” 252). This list was explicitly intended to be exhaustive. There were to be no additional illustrations. He was adamant about this. Thus, it is not “safe to assume” that Shaftesbury supervised the execution of the portrait. And as I have already pointed out, the instructions make clear throughout that, other than the cryptic subscription to the Preface, there is to be nothing to mark the identity of the author.

In any case, garden historian Suzannah Fleming, Chair of the Temple Trust, has worked extensively on the grounds at St. Giles, and in a conversation in September of 2012 she reliably informed me that the terrain at St. Giles is quite flat and possesses nothing corresponding to the hills seen in the distance on this plate. Having never been there myself, I'll take her at her word. She did however tell me that a doorway has been uncovered at St. Giles, long disused and bricked up, that might correspond to the one in Closterman’s original painting. This would make sense since, as is not the case with Gribelin, we know that Closterman had been to St. Giles, and the portrait was done there. If there are actual elements from St. Giles in Gribelin’s version, it is because he copied them from Closterman’s portrait. Any new elements in Gribelin’s version have no authority as an accurate depiction of Shaftesbury’s home.


BRANCH, Lori. Rituals of Spontaneity: Sentiment and Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006).

LEATHERBARROW, David. Topographical Stories: Studies in Landscape and Architecture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

SHAFTESBURY, Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of. PRO 30/24/24/13. (“Virtuoso-Coppy-Book”, consisting of Shaftesbury’s instructions for the engravings in Characteristicks, contained in the Public Records Office.) Reproduced in Standard Edition (Vol. I,3), Wolfram Benda (ed.). Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt: Friedrich Fromman Verlag, 1992.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

My Struggle with "Mein Kampf"

The Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg, today
At the end of August and beginning of September, I had the privilege of presenting a paper at a conference devoted to the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) in Nuremberg, Germany, hosted by the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität (Erlangen-Nürnberg). The current Earl of Shaftesbury was in attendance for the entire three days, which I must say was sporting of him, considering that at times he must have found it  painfully boring. I, however, had a wonderful and stimulating time, seeing the sites of such a beautiful city, and meeting with fellow enthusiasts to talk about my favourite philosopher.

I cannot let this opportunity pass without thanking the conference organizer, Patrick Müller, for his invitation and for his gracious hospitality. I am not much of a traveler, and usually after a week away, I am anxious to come home. This time, however, I didn’t want to come home, and at least part of the credit for this must go to Patrick. So Patrick: If you read this, thank you. Other credit is due to the people of Nuremberg, whom, in my admittedly limited interactions with them, I found to be polite, upright, and generous (those who know me will also know that these are about the highest compliments I can bestow upon a people).

On my last day in the city, Patrick took me on a little walking tour of the former Nazi Party rally grounds. Given that Nuremberg was the spiritual heartland of Nazism, it is passing strange that although it was heavily firebombed in the Second World War — over 90% of the Altstadt was destroyed — the Allies somehow managed to leave the Nazi Party’s massive congress hall and rally grounds more or less intact. Thus, there are many reminders of the moral stain of Nazism in an otherwise stupifyingly beautiful city.

The juxtaposition of Nuremberg’s National Socialist past and its decent, generous, cultured citizenry today, left me with a need to learn more, to piece together the quasi-biological puzzle of how today’s Bavarians (or Franconians) could have been generated from such a seemingly different moral species. This is what led me to (re)read Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

If you ever want to feel very uncomfortable, make yourself seen reading this book on the subway. You will get stares. The people doing the staring generally fall into two groups. The first are the people who wonder why it is you would be reading this verboten book. You must have some scholarly reason, or else it’s assigned reading for a course, otherwise you wouldn’t touch it. They are understandably puzzled.

The other group does not wonder, and they are not puzzled. They know — or at least they believe they know — that you’re reading Mein Kampf because you’re a degenerate crypto-Nazi racist of some kind. They do not hide their expression of disgust and hostility. They secretly wish the book could be burned and that you could be quietly shipped off to some place for re-education (or worse). Their gaze is most uncomfortable. The feeling is much akin to that dream that almost all of us have had — you know the one: you are at school or work and you suddenly realize you’re in your pyjamas or are stark naked. Only imagine that instead of being in the nude, you are embarrassed to find yourself wearing an SS uniform and a monocle.

If you can stand up to the withering gaze of ill-wishers, Mein Kampf is worth reading, which is why I was appalled a decade ago when Heather Reisman, founder and CEO of Indigo Books and Music (Canada’s answer to Barnes and Noble), announced that the book would no longer be sold in her stores. It was of course her right to make that decision. But the decision was still a dumb one.

(Incidentally, I was an employee of Indigo at the time, and I’m pretty sure that I personally played an inadvertent role in her decision. But that is a story for another day.)

In any case, the following are a few of my reflections on Hitler’s manifesto.

His Shallowness

Compared to authors of just about any stripe, Hitler’s intellect is clearly in the featherweight class. Yes, he constantly — and self-consciously, in my opinion — refers to his voracious reading habits. And yet, few are the actual books he refers to, and he has seemingly read few if any of the great classics, German or otherwise. On the other hand, he writes often of his consumption of pamphlets and newspapers. But no great intellect can be formed from such ephemeral confections, any more than a healthy body can be built from bubble gum and chocolate bars.

Hitler manipulates a bastardized lexicon of quasi-German Idealism, comprising such terms as “subjective”, “objective”, “will”, “concept”, “freedom”, etc. He clearly has little notion of their original philosophical context. It is as if it took some 150 years for Kant’s ideas to filter down to the very dregs of the German people, to be finally collected into the fetid and overflowing sewers of Hitler’s mind.

His Austrian-ness

I was also struck by repeated reminders that Hitler was Austrian, not German. He considered himself to be German, in the pan-Germanic sense, but his pan-Germanism seems at its core to have been a reaction to his experience as the citizen of a decaying multi-ethnic Hapsburg Empire, in which Germans were perceived to be in political decline relative to the other peoples of the Empire. Hitler’s was a paranoid garrison mentality. Thus his constant nightmares about the “Slavization” or “Czechization” of the German people. He loathed Vienna precisely because of its multiculturalism, something which we in a country like Canada have tentatively learned to celebrate, or at least have learned not to view as an existential threat.

His Anti-Semitism

Which leads to his anti-Semitism. There is little that is original in Hitler’s worldview. As I said, he was an intellectual featherweight, and the main elements of his political fantasies were cobbled together from ideas that were very much part of the Austrian alptraum. To the extent that they could be said to hold together in some kind of a coherent whole, Hitlerian Nazism could be said to be an ideology. But upon reading Mein Kampf, I could not fail to notice the extent to which one of the most conspicuous elements of this ideology, its anti-Semitism, fails to be fully integrated into it. It is there, obviously. And it’s not that it was inconsistent with Nazism. It’s that it seems somehow tacked on, like an extraneous element having less to do with theoretical conviction than with idiosyncratic, personal hatred. Hitler’s anti-semitism is somehow Hitler’s anti-Semitism.

When Hitler describes the growth and development of his anti-Semitism, something doesn’t quite ring true. He claims to have come into it relatively late, as the result of a gradual awakening. To some extent, the Jew represents for Hitler an object case study of all that is wrong with the Other, with all the foreign elements that are infecting the Austrian body politic. Thus, the Jew is somehow both capitalist representative of Manchester liberalism (p. 93) and “the leering grimace of Marxism” (p. 51). Insofar as he is Zionist, the Jew is an ultranationalist. In any case, he is clannish, preferring his own kind, while plotting the destruction of the Austro-Germans among whom he resides. And yet at the same time he is portrayed as inherently nationless, not only through lack of a homeland, but through extreme selfishness, greed, and lack of fellow-feeling. At the same time that Hitler portrays Jews as only concerned with their own kind, he also portrays them as atavistically individualistic, claiming that if they didn’t have Aryans to prey upon, they would claw each other to death. There is more than a little tension in these contrasting portrayals.

How can all these contradictory characteristics be imputed to one people? Unless perhaps the Jew is for Hitler merely the embodiment of all that is not-German and therefore bad. But if that is the case, why is it Jews in particular that are made to play this role? Why not some other people? After all, they made up a relatively small proportion of the Austro-Hungarian population. Why not Slavs instead?

And yet, in Mein Kampf Hitler reserves a hate-filled linguistic violence for the Jews, a venomous diction he rarely if ever deploys on Slavs or Czechs or any other nationality. These latter he at least accords recognizably human motivations: they will destroy the Germans if allowed, but they do so only by playing a game that every self-respecting people must play, the game of survival. And yet, the Jews are somehow outside this brutal game and the odd sort of grudging sportsmanship it entails. They are somehow cheaters rather than players. They are not players because they are not humans. By contrast with how he speaks of Czechs or Russians or the English (he seems to have felt some degree even of admiration for the latter), here is an all-to-common animadversion on the Jews:

“Later I often grew sick to my stomach from the smell of these caftan-wearers. Added to this, there was their unclean dress and their generally unheroic appearance…. Was there any form of filth or profligacy, particularly in cultured life, without at least one Jew involved in it? If you cut even cautiously into such an abscess, you found, like a maggot in a rotting body, often dazzled by the sudden light — a kike!” (p. 57)

Such language betrays a visceral loathing that goes well beyond the putative objectivity of a political ideology. This is personal. It betrays not so much a philosophical conviction as a psychological pathology. Where it comes from, I’m not sure. But I am led to doubt that it was acquired through some passive and gradual process of “education” or intellectual realization.

His Emotional Flatness
 There were two occasions on which Hitler wept (or claims to have wept). The first was when his mother died. This event, which we must remember left Hitler an orphan in his late teens, is dealt with in a sentence or two. One never really gets the impression that he cared all that much — just as one never really gets the impression that he cared that much for his father, despite repeated references to him as “the old gentleman”.

The other occasion was during the First World War, when while recovering in hospital from poison gas, his eyes bandaged, he found out that Germany had surrendered. He claims to have buried his head in his pillow and cried. But his description of this emotionality somehow doesn't ring true. Again, the account seems more than a little contrived. When Hitler claims to cry, one has trouble believing it.

His Egoism

Karl Marx did not write The Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital as intellectual autobiographies. Would the history of communism have been different if he had? I don’t know. But whatever change Marx wanted to make in the world, it wasn’t all about Marx. The overthrow of the bourgeoisie would come from class consciousness, not from how Marx’s personal biography worked itself out.

It was different with Hitler. He rolled up the entire history and destiny of the German people into a little ball, and he called it “my struggle”. As if the cosmic fate of millions turned on his own fate. There is a name for such a person, just as there is a name for someone who believes he can control the weather with his thoughts: we call them “crazy”.

Another name for Hitler’s condition might be Messianism. And indeed, insanity and Messianism do often arrive at the dance as a couple. But the actual Messiah, like Marx, was clearly not as absorbed with his own unique role in history as was Hitler. Jesus offered a message of salvation, which you could take or leave. It was others who imputed to him his special role in human history and eschatology. Hitler, on the other hand, seemed to view his own life story as world history. His “struggle” to become an architect was the German people’s struggle, and every setback in his life, such as failing to get into art school, was the result of some vast conspiracy against the German people. Now, as a grad student I once failed to get a fellowship, and I have had papers rejected for publication. But it would take considerable ego on my part to view this as a vast conspiracy against my nation by some foreign enemy whom it is my special destiny to somehow defeat with the aid of the united will of my people. To think this way is, well, bizarre. It is at least a little bit psychopathic.

I have tended to be suspicious of interpretations of Hitler that make him out to be some kind of unnatural monster, a moral singularity, mostly because I tend to think that there is nothing constructive in such a view; it rather lets the rest of us off the hook for the monstrous characteristics lurking in almost all of our souls, a few rare moral saints notwithstanding. I always thought of Hitler-types as the limiting condition of the less admirable parts of our own characters. In viewing Hitler as a moral singularity, we can comfort ourselves with the analgesic thought that Hitlerism couldn’t happen here, amongst us, because maybe there will never be another Hitler, he being too strange, outlandish, unnatural. Of course, every sane person in her heart of hearts knows that this is bullshit, that Hitler was a human being of some kind. But this not-so-noble lie gives us succour.

However, reading Mein Kampf has led me to think that perhaps there is a grain of truth to that interpretation, that “moral singularity” thesis. There was a certain idiosyncratic pathology to the man. On the other hand, reading the book has also reinforced my belief that there doesn’t seem to have been anything particularly brilliant or charismatic about this little creature. Which unfortunately leaves me back where I started, with the question of how it is that he gained so many followers? And so I still find myself unable to mentally connect the humane Bavarian or German of today with the Nazi of yesteryear.

N.B. In quoting from Mein Kampf, I have used Ralph Manheim's translation (Boston: Mariner Books, 1998).

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Philosophy for the Like-Minded

I have a doctorate in philosophy, to which I devoted four and a half years of my life in study and research. Therefore, I consider myself to have some residual claim to the title “philosopher”, despite no longer teaching the subject nor holding a faculty position in a university. Nevertheless, it is with a due sense of grief that I discover myself no longer able to read papers or monographs in academic philosophy without at least one of the following three reactions: (i) intense boredom, (ii) intense headache, or (iii) intense frustration at the smugness, obtuseness, and/or utter pointlessness of what I’m reading. Thus, although I still claim to be a philosopher, I generally only do so if I need to speak to or refute other philosophers. In short, I consider the title to be neither honorific nor a source of any great pride, and I wear it with discomfort.

To paraphrase that great and wise wit La Bruyère, one can mark the beginning and end of a love affair by how uncomfortable a man and a woman are when left together in a room. I have fallen out of love with philosophy. I entered the discipline with fear and trembling, and I leave it with considerable disgust and embarrassment (at ever having been in love with it in the first place). My former colleagues seem just as embarrassed for and disgusted with me. And that, I’m afraid, is the end of the affair.

Or not quite. I recently picked up a philosophy book and tried to read it. I had a fond wish to rekindle an old flame, and I thought that a newish book by an academic philosopher writing on an area of applied ethics, purporting to be based on a series of lectures, and with whose ideas I am in general agreement, just might do the trick. But alas, once you break up, things are never quite the same when you hook up again. It’s best not to even try. Since falling out of love with philosophy, I confess I have strayed. I have had flirtations with history, politics, economics, poetry, law, you name it. I have been promiscuous. And when I am left alone with philosophy, I can’t quite get my mind off the other charming ladies. With her, I am alternately ashamed, bored, and annoyed. I need to find a way of extricating myself from the relationship with some modicum of decency. So I can’t wait until this book is finished.

The book in question is Jeff McMahan’s Killing in War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009). As with much other academic philosophy, it goes out of its way to make what should otherwise be an exciting subject mind-numbingly pedantic. Needlessly complicated ways are found to state claims that are trivially true to anyone smarter than the average fruit fly; common platitudes are presented as if they were profundities that no one had ever thought of before. Or else, other claims that are by no means obvious — or even plausible — are offered as if they were self-evident, with little or no argument to back them up. To be fair, they are often claims that all like-minded academics might very well agree with, and so perhaps the author feels little need to back them up. The trouble is, if you haven’t had your common sense educated out of you, or if you lack sufficient leisure and grant funding to be able to believe in the absurd, you will be utterly baffled by what most academic philosophers write, even in ethics, a subject which we should be able to expect to have at least some connection with the lived experience of the masses outside the groves of academe.

I am being a bit cruel, a bit arch, but only to make a point. In truth, one could read far worse examples of what I’m talking about than McMahan’s book. And as I said, I’m in general agreement with much of what he argues in it. Still, there are times when he falls into the common philosophical sin of relying on what I have elsewhere called the “ethicist’s royal ‘we’”. This is the tendency to make or rely on the claim that we all believe that X is good or that Y is bad, where in fact “we” (in the universal sense) do not all believe this, or where “we” simply refers to like-minded academic philosophers of a certain disposition — usually upper middle class, white, and very uncritically left-leaning.

Here is one example from McMahan’s book. Traditionally, in “just war” doctrine, a distinction is made between ius ad bellum and ius in bello (roughly, justice in going to war versus justice in the conduct of war). This distinction has led to the tendency to view combatants in a just war as morally equivalent to their enemy combatants (who, by inference, are combatants in an unjust war). Thus, it may be wrong for one side to enter into a war with another, but once this has been done, whether the war is just or unjust, combatants from both sides are morally justified in killing one another according to ius in bello. Of course, the right to kill non-combatants in a just war is a separate matter. And I leave aside what seems to be implicit throughout McMahan’s book, that it is always or usually clear to both sides whether a war is just or unjust (it is usually not clear, which makes much of his argument moot). But the idea is that, once war is declared, combatants on the unjust side have a job to do, and they are bound to play by the same rules of “the game” as combatants on the just side. On both sides, combatants are tools or agents of the parties who declare war. Or something like that. Killing of enemy soldiers is permitted in much the same way two boxers are morally permitted to pummel each other; the justness or unjustness of the war doesn’t enter into it.

However, McMahan believes that just and unjust combatants are not morally equivalent according to ius in bello. Unjust combatants are not morally justified in killing just combatants; just combatants are morally justified in killing unjust combatants (within the constraints of just war doctrine). I am in general agreement with his position, though I’m not sure where it gets us. In any case, McMahan has to defend himself from possible counterexamples to his view. These counterexamples involve situations in which it seems that some agent is justified in acting on behalf of another in the achievement of an unjust aim. Such situations are supposed to be relevantly analogous to the case of soldiers fighting on the unjust side of a war. McMahan picks out two such cases, offered by the philosopher Frances Kamm. The cases are:

(i)    A lawyer acts to evict a poor tenant from a building on behalf of his client.

(ii)    Someone smashes a beautiful vase on behalf of a paralyzed person who owns it.

Both of these situations exemplify much of what is wrong with academic ethics, though in somewhat different ways. The second example seems horribly contrived. It is hard to imagine circumstances in which such a situation would come up. Counterexamples and thought experiments in ethics often lose much of their force when they can’t be made to seem plausible. I would almost venture to say that if you cannot find either a plausible everyday example, or else a real and poignant historical example, then you do not have a counterexample. Also, besides being contrived, the second situation is also underdescribed, and because of this the principal’s intention and the agent’s action seem unmotivated and unintelligible. If the owner of the vase wants to do this act, then one is tempted to assume he has at least some reason for it. Why does the owner wish his vase to be destroyed? Perhaps he believes it is cursed. Perhaps it was in some way the cause of his being paralyzed. Maybe he knew he was dying and couldn’t bear the thought of someone else acquiring it. Or maybe he simply doesn’t believe that it is beautiful and is just taking up space (notice that the example seems to rely on an implied claim that there is an ethical duty not to destroy something you own which someone else finds beautiful; this claim is itself dubious and in need of separate argumentative support). In short, it is a silly and unconvincing example.

The first counterexample, the one about the poor tenant, seems less contrived and therefore more plausible, at least in the sense that it is regrettably an everyday occurrence. But again, there is an “ethicist’s royal ‘we’” implied here. After all, why should we assume that a poor person, simply by virtue of being poor, has the right to squat on someone else’s property, and that therefore it would be wrong to evict him? Is it because the landlord is rich? We do not know this, nor should it necessarily make a difference in our reasoning. Does the landlord have a duty to provide a place to live for poor non-paying tenants? If so, this claim at least merits some kind of an argument in its support. It may seem obvious to comfortable left-leaning academic philosophers earning a six-figure salary and who are not being asked to make such a sacrifice themselves. It doesn’t seem all that obvious to me. It may also be of considerable relevance how the tenant came to be poor. If he is shiftless, irresponsible, and largely the author of his own miserable fate, does the landlord still owe him the same duty?

Kamm argues that although it would be wrong for the landlord to kick him out, it would not be wrong for the lawyer to do it on his behalf. When McMahan refutes this counterexample, it is telling that he doesn’t call into question its implied premise that a landlord is morally obligated to allow a poor tenant to squat on his property. McMahan accepts this antecedent, but with regard to the consequent he seems to waiver between a) biting his own bullet and condemning the lawyer for being complicit in a wrong, or b) excusing the lawyer on the grounds of his contract with his landlord client. The first strategy is at least consistent with his overall argument, though he would find many who would in fact deny the lawyer’s guilt, whatever they thought of the landlord’s. The second strategy doesn’t sit so well with his overall thesis regarding the moral status of unjust combatants. Through his tacit, unquestioningly liberal (and personally costless) support for the poor, McMahan is forced to tie himself into logical knots to defend his thesis. He has been reflexively wed to spurious but fashionable dogma and, philosophically, it has cost him.

I would have taken the different strategy of simply denying Kamm’s antecedent: other things being equal, and taking the paucity of facts provided by Kamm as it stands, I simply deny that it is wrong for the landlord to evict the poor tenant, and by extension I deny that it is wrong for the lawyer to do so on his behalf. Thus, the counterexample is really no counterexample at all. I do not deny that there would be something wrong with a landlord who felt no regret about doing so, or with a lawyer who positively enjoyed this duty (assuming again that the poor tenant is himself guiltless). But feeling regret for an action is not the same as being morally unjustified in doing it. Similarly, a just combatant in war may feel regret for killing an enemy combatant, but this does not mean that he was morally unjustified in doing so.

I don’t claim that what I have just argued is all that original or profound, and to some readers it may seem downright obvious, even if it is painful to accept. But I can tell you that most academic ethicists, well-meaning lefties that they are, would be shocked at what I have just argued — or at least at the plain way I have argued it. Luckily for them, they are rarely faced with heretics like me. So they can continue to find ways of arguing against each other on certain philosophical issues without ever really disagreeing on the basic (and unwarranted) assumptions about distributive justice they all hold dear. And thus, because they skirt around core issues, their arguments too often seem meaningless or beside the point to outsiders.


So I have fallen out of love with philosophy. But as the song says, breaking up is hard to do. I still have personal friends who are philosophers, but as time goes on, I find I have less and less to talk about with them, and they with me. We have come almost to speak different languages on many philosophical issues. I am always ready to bring in arguments from other disciplines with which I am enamored (e.g. history or economics), and of which they are largely ignorant. I in turn, find their unwillingness to engage with other disciplines maddening. I want an open relationship. I want to see other people, and I want philosophy to do the same.

One of these philosopher friends is a case in point. I still run into her occasionally, but most of our interaction these days is conducted through Facebook, which perhaps is for the best. Even so, I keep expecting any day now to find that she has “unfriended” me for my heterodox views. This friend flies her flag high on all issues concerning “social justice” (a term of art I find almost meaningless, since it has become merely a catch-all for whatever boutique ideas are fashionable among left-leaning intellectuals on any given week). It’s not so much her particular views that stick in my craw, since I actually agree with her on a few of them. And sometimes our disagreements are more over means than ultimate goals. She wants a better world with less poverty, and so do I. I just think that in general her ideas are more likely to hurt the poor than help them. No, it’s not her ultimate goals that annoy me. It is rather the way she assumes that all “reasonable” people (i.e. privileged intellectuals like her) believe what she believes, and that if you don’t believe them, you are either stupid or morally degenerate.

I have genuine disagreements with her, and the positions that I have taken are not stupid (not to say they are not possibly mistaken), and I hold them out of genuine moral conviction rather than mere self-interest. And the fact is, when I have tangled with her intellectually on these issues, it has never taken me very long to back her into some tight corner of intellectual self-refutation. You see, she spends so much time talking among like-minded left-leaning intellectuals that she seems to become paralyzed when presented with an opponent who strays from the accepted dogmas of “social justice”, who comes at her from outside her comfortable echo chamber. And because she only communicates with the like-minded, she is never called out on those of her “arguments” that are, frankly, bullshit. So I like to play this role for her. Socrates would do no different.

In honour of Labour Day this year, this friend posted what she thought was a clever little item on Facebook. It was a Victorian picture of a child working at what looked like some kind of loom or weaving machine. The caption read:


Her like-minded Facebook friends, most of them fellow academics, slapped their flippers together in approval at this cleverness. Rather than do the same, I looked upon this as a “teachable moment” for her. My comment consisted of a link to the Wikipedia entry on the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, along with the following remark:

“Actually, you can thank a certain Tory politician and aristocrat. It’s rather anachronistic to credit labour unions.”

The sound of flippers stopped, to be replaced by the sound of proverbial crickets. Labour unions, in more or less the form we now have them, arose in the last thirty years or so of the 19th century. By then, factory labour by seven-year-olds had been abolished by such legislation as Shaftesbury’s Factories Act of 1833 (outlawing the employment of children under nine in textile factories) and its successors. Unions had little or nothing to do with the outlawing of child labour in industrial nations, since that had already been largely accomplished before unions existed.

To be fair, if unions had been around, they likely would have pushed for an end to child labour, but only because children were competition, representing a downward pressure on adult workers' wages. It is for much the same reason that unions used to try to exclude Chinese and black workers from the labour force.

But hey, an academic philosopher rarely lets facts get in the way of a pet theory, especially when the theory lies entirely outside the philosopher’s professed area of expertise. I should know: I’ve devoted an entire blog to expounding ideas outside my area of expertise (tongue planted firmly in cheek).

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Cole Berlin: An Elegy

Cole Berlin, towards the end
Who remembers Jobriath? Who listens to his music now? And yet, for a brief summer afternoon in popular culture, he was an occurrence in fame’s sky, as present and as cosmically superfluous as a solar eclipse. The eclipse appeared in the year of my birth, 1973 and was officially over by 1975. Jobriath is now only a very small footnote in the history of glam rock. He was overhyped, he was cursed with stupendously bad management, and just as importantly, he was very openly gay. He was not half-assed about his homosexuality. He was never bisexual, as the other glam rockers of the time played at being. No, Jobriath took pride in his self-description as the “Fairy Godmother of Rock”. He was musically talented, though his music — much like the man himself — was complicated. He was a showman, and he had an aesthetic sense that makes Lady Gaga seem rather jejune. But the world simply was not ready for Jobriath. Would it be ready now? It's hard to say. But alas, Jobriath is no more.

Jobriath’s real name was Bruce Wayne Campbell. For reasons I can only partly explain, I am less interested in Mr. Campbell’s glam career than I am in the persona he adopted later, the New York City piano player and cabaret singer named Cole Berlin (the name is a portmanteau of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin). Cole Berlin plied his trade in the lounges of New York City, with a regular gig at a restaurant called The Covent Gardens. He lived in a pyramid-shaped apartment on the rooftop of the Chelsea Hotel. He supplemented his relatively small income by occasional prostitution. He also wrote plays, without success, and he tried to start an acting career, to much the same effect. At some point in 1981 Cole began to feel ill. The disease from which he suffered was new at the time, and as yet it had no settled name. By the time it killed him in August of 1983, it was being called AIDS.

To my knowledge, there are only two songs of Cole Berlin’s available in recorded form. One of them consists of his performance in a 1981 BBC program about the Chelsea Hotel and its inhabitants. He is interviewed in his pyramid apartment, and he plays a ditty called “Sunday Brunch” on his white piano. He looks a bit puffy, maybe from the booze and pills, and it’s possible that he was already feeling ill (I’m not sure precisely when it was shot, although it was possibly as early as 1979). But still, you can’t help noticing that he was a natural performer.

Why does the story of Cole Berlin fascinate me? I’m not sure. I suppose it’s because all such stories of abject failure fascinate me. You see, despite all the lies that theologians and self-help gurus profit from peddling, failure — not success — is nature’s default position. No matter how fortunate and successful one may be, each and every one of us eventually ends up a failure, even if only in that one thing we generally try hardest to succeed at: remaining alive. The sad ending of Cole Berlin merely administers this valuable lesson to us in distilled form.

Sad as Cole Berlin’s ending sounds, it gets even sadder. Consider this story, told by Hayden Wayne, a musician who had been in Jobriath’s band. After Jobriath’s career ended, Wayne lost touch with him.  A certain actress had landed a big role in a popular soap opera. Her career was flourishing. She recently moved into a new apartment in New York City, which happened to be in the Chelsea, and she was proudly showing it off to some friends, one of whom was Wayne. This was sometime in December 1983. She pointed out all the furniture and the white-lacquered piano and mentioned that she had managed to buy the contents of the flat for a mere $4000. Her lawyer advised her that she could get it even cheaper. However, she didn’t wish to haggle with the seller, a man who was plainly distraught at the recent death of his son.

The Chelsea Hotel… the white piano… the rattan furniture… the pyramid-shaped apartment. It suddenly dawned on Wayne whose apartment this had been.

The actress went on to relate how the man’s son had been dead for four days before they found him. The neighbours had apparently been complaining about the smell. And thus ended the life of Cole Berlin, a.k.a. Jobriath, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne Campbell.

What does one do with a story so sad? Well, I wrote song lyrics. I woke up at 3:15am one day with these lyrics in my head. I had to write them down. I know many people claim to write lyrics or poems in such flashes of inspiration, and often they are not telling the strict truth. In my case, I do not exaggerate. Well, except for the “West 23rd” line — I had to look up the address. Although I write a lot, I have little inclination towards the sort of writing that rhymes or has a meter (my Christmas haiku are a rare exception).

I have no music for these lyrics, nor am like to. So if you can set them to something, be my guest. I only ask that you credit me and that, if recorded, you send me a copy.

*    *    *    *    *

I rang the bell, she let me in
To her pyramid in the New York dusk.
She dragged me through from room to room,
I trailed in her complacent musk.

“I just love this place,” she said.
“Isn’t it divine?
The furniture’s all rattan,” she said.
“And all of it is mine.”

Cole Berlin, the Pharaoh’s boy,
Two-twenty-two, West 23rd,
Was NYC’s new Sunday brunch,
The Covent Gardens’ native son,
The Hotel Chelsea’s naked lunch.

“Don’t you love this place?” she asked.
“Isn’t it superb?
The white piano’s a baby grand.
It was headed for the curb.”

Living in a pyramid
Kept Cole’s razors very sharp.
His coughing bounced around those walls,
But no one heard him in the end.
No one was listening in the end.
His hand was unheld in the end.

“I think I’ll put a bar right there —
I must apologize for the smell.
My cleaner has been everywhere,
But that smell, my God! It’s always there!”

Cole Berlin, the Pharaoh’s boy,
Two-twenty-two, West 23rd,
Was NYC’s new Sunday brunch,
The Covent Gardens’ native son,
The Hotel Chelsea’s naked lunch.

© James Pratt, 2012.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Noble Savages and Jesuitical Relations

Jesuit Relations


In the winter of 1985, I went on an overnight class trip to Sainte-Marie among the Hurons (Sainte-Marie-au-pays-des-Hurons), a reconstructed 1640s French Jesuit mission near Midland, Ontario. The purpose of the mission was to bring Christianity to the local Huron Indians. We were there in February. It was cold. As such, it gave a very good idea of the kind of harsh conditions the blackrobes would have endured. Although I must have learned a lot about life in the early seventeenth-century Canadian wilderness, mostly what has stuck with me is the constant desire to be warm. At night, I seriously wondered whether I would still be alive in the morning. We slept in sleeping bags on cold pallets that were only about four feet in length (apparently the blackrobes were rather short of stature), so besides being cold, I was also very stiff and sore.

I remember a few other things about the trip. For instance, I can recall the film we were shown upon arrival at the site. It told of how the Hurons were ultimately destroyed by smallpox and war with the Iroquois. And of course, we learned in great detail about the death and martyrdom of Fathers Brébeuf and Lalemant at the hands of Iroquois captors in 1649. They died bravely, we were taught, without uttering a cry or groan, after suffering the most savage of tortures. I use the word “savage” advisedly: the Jesuits were scalped, they had boiling water poured over them, they were forced to wear “necklaces” of red-hot axe hatchets, and they were flayed and otherwise mutilated. After death, their hearts were removed and eaten. Such gruesome stories seemed tailored to the imaginations of eleven- and twelve-year-old children, especially boys. In any case, it was made clear to us who wore the white hats and who wore the black ones in this story. The blackrobes were the good guys, the Iroquois were the villains, and the Hurons were caught somewhere between them. Obviously, the real story must have been rather more complicated than this film would have us believe.

Brébeuf and Lalemant must have been men of almost superhuman faith and strength of character, or so we were instructed. Imagine, then, my surprise on a return trip to Sainte-Marie nearly two decades later, when I again sat down to watch the film. You see, it has since been heavily edited to tell a different story. First of all, the Indians the mission served were no longer called “Hurons”; they were now “Wendat”. This makes sense, since it is what they called themselves. We learned about how the Wendat were a peaceful people who lived at one with nature, how they thrived, and how everything was just idyllic for them before the Europeans arrived on the scene with their diseases and their new religion. Of Fathers Brébeuf and Lalemant we now heard next to nothing; they were killed by Iroquois, end of story. No martyrdom, no gruesome torture. As a matter of fact, the film even somehow managed to blame Europeans for the warfare between the Wendat and the Iroquois that led to the destruction of the mission (on very tenuous grounds, to put it charitably). The historical interpretation throughout the Sainte-Marie site seemed to follow the film’s change of focus: the mission now had little if anything to do with the Jesuits who built it and lived in it. Instead, it was a merely a prop, a slightly embarrassing backdrop to showcase Canada’s First Nations peoples and their preternatural nobility in the face of diabolical European evil. The purpose of Sainte-Marie now seems to be to make its mainly white visitors feel a due sense of shame and regret for nebulous crimes they had no hand in.

Seeing the film was an excellent lesson for me in how history may be shamelessly re-written to suit the tastes of civil servants and lobby interests, and how certain unpalatable facts can be made to disappear down the memory hole. Now don’t get me wrong. I am all for having the history of the Wendat taught in more detail. They were an inextricable part of the Sainte-Marie story, and in precisely the same way that the Jesuits were. Without both the Jesuits and the Wendat, there is no Sainte-Marie. However, we do no favours to anybody in erasing or whitewashing facts. And the fact is, Brébeuf and Lalemant were brutally butchered, and the Indians were every bit as capable of savage violence as the Europeans who were arriving on their shores in ever greater numbers. I am a firm believer in the notion that as human beings, we are all savages or potential savages. There is very little of moral superiority in the history of any people when it is looked at in the harsh sunlight of truth.


About eight or nine years ago my wife and I spent a day helping with the archaeological excavation of a Huron (Wendat) village near Stouffville, Ontario, dating to the period from 1500 to 1530. At the time we were there, the excavation was at a fairly early stage, but it was already evident that this village was huge. The dig was fascinating. Here are a few things we learned: The Wendat were obviously hooked into some extensive trade links, as was made evident by the large quantities of flint on the site, of a kind that would need to have been imported from hundreds of kilometers away. We learned that in order to build the defensive palisades of the village, and to clear the land to grow enough corn to support a large population of some 2000 souls, they must have cut down all the forest within an 80 to 100 kilometer radius of the site. The fact is that all of these villages were temporary; the inhabitants would remain on a site only until the soil was exhausted, or until they could no longer walk the vast distances necessary to gather the remaining wood or to plant and harvest corn ever further afield. Once they had stripped the land bare, they would pull up stakes and moved on. Like a plague of locusts. Like a plague of… us.

These Wendat paid great attention to the building of palisades and used a staggering quantity of wood in their construction. That fact, in addition to the prevalence of carbonized post holes representing layers of palisade that had burned down, made it plainly evident that warfare seemed to occupy the inhabitants almost as much as trading or cultivation. So much for the image of the peace-loving noble savage, living at one with nature.

Nevertheless, even the archaeologists at the site, who knew better, wanted us to believe in this “noble savage” mythology, for they kept a sort of Indian-for-hire on site. His role seemed to be to burn a little sweet grass and pray native prayers on command, all to assuage the spirits that inhabit the place. It was all nonsense, of course, but white folks tend to find such mumbo-jumbo somehow spiritually edifying. It was all part of making the experience “authentic” for us weekend excavators. I could have happily done without it. It stank of fraud. It was about as “authentic” as a cheap plastic dream catcher. The only real question was whether this Indian actually believed in this nonsense, or whether he simply knew how dumb and gullible white people are. I suspect the latter.

What’s worse, this particular Indian-for-hire was Iroquois. The archaeologists didn’t trouble themselves to find an actual Wendat elder. After all, an Indian is an Indian, right? The supreme irony of having Wendat culture interpreted by someone from a tribe that was the Wendat’s mortal enemy was not lost on me, I can assure you.

Interestingly, the village we excavated, now called the “Mantle” site, has recently been in the news. Besides the fact that it ended up being one of the biggest such villages ever excavated, archaeologists recently found an iron axe buried very deliberately beneath one of the longhouses. Thanks to a maker’s mark, the axe could be identified as being of Basque manufacture. Astoundingly, the axe must have made its way, through long and complex trade linkages, from a Basque whaling station in Newfoundland, all the way along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, and up into the interior. The Wendat acquired the axe in the pre-contact period, a century or so before the actual arrival of Europeans in their territory in 1610.

CBC radio ran a news piece about Mantle that was notable mainly for its adherence to what is now a standard narrative structure when any Canadian media outlet runs a story about “First Nations” people and culture.

(The very term “First Nations” is dubious. Even if it makes sense to call them “nations”, many of these so-called “nations” are of relatively modern construction. And many of them were not the first such nations at all in the territories in which they now happen to reside. Many of these so-called “nations” fought each other to the death over those lands before the arrival of those Europeans from whom they now claim them. As far as I’m concerned, “First Nations” is pure Canadian political cant, inflationary linguistic nonsense foisted on gullible and well-meaning Canadians of European descent by their cowardly political class. I avoid using it, much as I avoid such other terms from the CBC Newspeak lexicon as “sex worker” (prostitute) and “sovereigntist” (separatist traitor). Be advised that whenever I use the term herein, it will always be within scare quotes.)

The CBC narrative structure for stories involving Indian history and culture involves interviewing one or two white experts, whether archaeologists or historians, followed by a self-appointed native “elder” or other Indian-for-hire who is allotted space to make absurd statements with zero plausibility, and backed by zero evidence, but which are presented by the CBC as if they represent objective fact, because based on supposed oral tradition that never existed until this “elder” was invited to speak on the CBC. These statements usually involve magic spirits, demons, and further peddling of the “noble savage” myth.

Here’s how it played out in the CBCs story on Mantle. An archaeologist in charge of the excavation dutifully describes the site, the finding of the axe, how its provenance was ascertained, the likely route it would have taken in arriving at Mantle, etc. Why was it buried under the longhouse? Don’t really know, he says. It’s a bit of a mystery. You see, he’s an archaeologist, and the material record simply doesn’t allow him to answer this question.

 Now cue the obligatory wise old Indian, brought in to fill the gap in the evidence with fairy stories, prejudice, and superstition. The wise old Indian proceeds to weave a tale about how the Wendat were a peaceful people who lived in harmony with nature, thereby directly contradicting the material evidence. And then he offers his theory of why the axe was buried beneath the longhouse. The Wendat buried it there because of its bad karma, because it shadowed forth mysterious omens of the coming doom the natives would suffer at the hands of the white devils. And so they naturally buried it to protect themselves from the evil. Or something like that. In all honesty, what he was saying made little sense to my narrow Western mind, hobbled as it is by the curse of critical thought.

It was all very predictable. After all, what CBC story with a “First Nations” angle would be complete without a reminder of how evil the white man is, and how morally and naturally superior are their hapless native victims? Yet they rather outdid themselves this time, managing to work an “Indian good/white man evil” subtext into a story that had little if anything to do with white men (the meaning of the term “pre-contact” seems to have been lost on the producers). Apparently, the Wendat lived in a topsy-turvy world of backwards causation, where white people whom the Wendat had never met are held morally responsible for bad things they won’t be in a position to do for another century.

Yet, this native man’s nonsense was peddled by the CBC with the deepest gravity, as if it had some kind of validity by virtue of the mere fact that it spewed forth from the mouth of an Indian.  One man’s half-baked tale of spirits, premonitions, and bad juju magic was presented as if it were a valid or useful complement to the archaeological evidence. That is like presenting astrology as if it were a valid or useful complement to astronomy.

Even on its own terms, the “bad mojo” theory of the axe’s burial there doesn’t hold together. If its possessors truly believed the axe to be evil (and leaving aside the question of why they would acquire — presumably at great expense — such an evil object in the first place), would they not bury it far away, at least beyond the village walls? Would you bury such an object right underneath your home and hearth? Would you bury nuclear waste within your town’s limits, or would you want it as far away and as deep underground as possible?

The fact is, we can never know for sure why the axe was buried where it was. Any conjecture on the subject is just that — conjecture. Other opposing theories can be offered which have as much plausibility, or more. For example, the owner might have thought that the axe would bring good luck, and so buried it under his house, much like we might hang a lucky horseshoe over a doorway. Or else, it might have been buried there to hide it from thieves or from Iroquois raiders, precisely because it was such a treasured object. After all, it is not hard to believe that whoever acquired it didn’t get it cheaply. I don’t imagine metal axes from Europe were a commodity easy to get one’s hands on in Ontario circa AD 1500.

There is a sort of cultural schizophrenia in the way a story like that of the Mantle village is typically presented. On the one hand, an Indian-for-hire spins an outlandish tale for the consumption of a largely white audience; the audience is meant to find the story enchanting while finding the Indian people depicted in it as quaint, innocent, vaguely noble, and very much a valorized “Other”. At the same time, archaeologists stress the ways in which the lives the Indians led and the structures they built are little different from ours. Thus, the village is described as the “Manhattan of its time” or as a medieval European walled town of the same period. Their society and economy are described as being highly organized, complex, productive, sophisticated. In short, their form of life is made out to be recognizably our own.

But it is a double-edged sword: If the Indians were “just like us” in all these ways, then it is likely that they were just like us in their vices too. They polluted their land, they depleted their resources, and they devoted a lot of time and effort to slaughtering one another. Their problems were our problems, only on a smaller scale.

I sometimes think we do neither ourselves nor “First Nations” peoples any good by pretending that the latter are anything more than human beings with human problems. Of course, at least this is better than the old way, of pretending that they are something less.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Sociopath as Character Type

Exhibit A?
I find psychopaths fascinating. I’ve known one or two in my time, as most likely have you, since best estimates are that psychopaths comprise somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of the general population. Being in the presence of a true psychopath is an experience which, once you realize it’s happening, is not quickly forgotten, even where the realization is not the result of having been harmed or ripped-off by one. To be alone in a room with a psychopath is to be, well… alone in a room. I once owned a boa constrictor for a brief period, and it projected about as much presence as a psychopath generally does. I imagine the experience is much like the feeling the PMO Chief of Staff gets from being alone in a room with Stephen Joseph Harper.

Psychopaths are people almost without qualities. Take Gillian (this is not her real name, but it is one of the actual aliases she uses). Over the course of the many years I knew Gillian, she never once laughed genuinely at anything except the misfortunes of others. She smiled when she needed to, and a few times she laughed in a very controlled fashion at her own ill attempts at humour (while others cringed). But the humour or joy of others never seemed to positively affect her in the way that their misfortunes, their pains, and their humiliations did.

Although I have thankfully lost touch with her, if I wish I can still track Gillian’s dubious activities online, through the fake presence she has created for herself there: the many blogs she begins but never continues for more than a post or two, and on which she posts material she has cut and pasted from other websites and passed off as her own; her narcissistic, shallow and puerile online philosophical musings, obviously cribbed and bowdlerized from the latest self-help books; her multiple profiles on LinkedIn, each with its own fabricated CV (despite the fact that Gillian is a high school dropout); her Facebook accounts under multiple aliases; the online chatter of web users warning each other about her cons; her criminal and demi-criminal business ventures. What little I know about how she earns her living makes me want to know less.

I heard Gillian lie so often, so brazenly, so incoherently, so pointlessly, that I stopped even trying to keep track of what was true and what wasn’t. It was safer simply to assume that whenever she spoke she was lying. So many were her lies in fact, that to this day there is a sense in which I’m not really sure if there is a real existing Gillian. Once all the lies are peeled back like the layers of an onion, it is doubtful that anything that is truly Gillian would remain. She is all persona and no person — a person without qualities.

Even her tastes could be described as quality-less: she liked whatever current tunes were in the top forty at any given time, simply because, being unable to respond affectively to any kind of art, she simply “liked” whatever songs the charts told her that a reasonable facsimile of a person would statistically like. The same goes for her tastes in reading. Her “personality” only seemed capable of being projected through brands, through her choice of clothes, purse, smartphone, or sunglasses. And she would quickly let you know what these brands were, just in case, like me, you couldn’t care less and therefore failed to give her the respect she thought she deserved for possessing them. Someone whose only way of differentiating their character is through mass produced items is someone who fails to have a character at all, at least insofar as character individuates a person.

Gillian aside, my interest in psychopathy is as much academic as personal. My doctoral research was in moral psychology, and in particular, the moral psychology of character. Central to the concept of moral character is the notion of integrity. Since integrity is something conspicuously lacking in psychopaths, I’ve always seen them as a limiting case of lack of character. This is in contrast to lay views of the psychopath as a person of single-mindedly evil character. Even single-minded evil is a form of perverse integrity, and psychopaths lack even that. I contend that a necessary condition for the possession of character is to have the well-formed capacity to experience the so-called “emotions of self-assessment”, pride, shame, and guilt, for example. Since for the most part psychopaths lack this capacity, they are largely incapable of possessing moral character. Indeed, it’s an open philosophical question whether they can even be considered moral agents at all.

In what follows, I will give you the draft of a paper I have long given up hope of finishing. I simply lost interest in it. Since it was intended for an academic audience, I apologize for the unsociable scholarly apparatus of footnotes and bibliographical citations. It is very rough. For instance, you’ll notice that it doesn’t have a proper introduction, and I’m no longer even sure what the intended thesis was. It was never even given a title. It was stillborn. However, it may contain a few arguments and observations which may serve to divert the interested reader. Since I don’t know what else to do with it, I give it to you.

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First off, we must clarify our terminology. Generally “sociopath” is used interchangeably with “psychopath” in psychological literature. If there is a difference it tends to lie in researchers’ differing beliefs as to the etiology of the phenomenon. Those who study psychopathy tend towards biological explanations of its causes (Hare 1999: 23-24). However, such academic disputes need not detain us here. For our purposes, I prefer “sociopath”, simply because it is relatively free from distorting media-generated preconceptions invested in the term “psychopath”.

A sociopath, in lay terms, is often described as a person who knows the difference between right and wrong but does not care. “Knowing the difference” between right and wrong is here intended in the purely intellectual sense: they know what is considered by people generally to be right and wrong, but that is not to say they understand the concepts in the way we understand them. It is the phrase “but does not care” in the definition that most interests us. Sociopaths lack the moral scruples that constrain the rest of us; particularly, they seem to lack what have been called emotions of self-assessment (Taylor 1985). Thus, they do not feel guilt or shame at having done things that would cause the rest of us to lose sleep. Again, like their “knowledge” of right and wrong, they “understand” emotions only on an intellectual level. They may spend much time and effort learning to simulate emotions that they do not actually feel. Their emotional deficits have been demonstrated experimentally (see for example Levenston et al. 2000). Because they are not constrained by moral sentiments, they can at best be constrained through fear (of the consequences of getting caught doing bad things). In fact, part of their intellectualized concept of “bad” is “things people tend to punish”. Thus, constraint may come from fear of punishment, not from an aversion to shame, which they are incapable of feeling. And even when they are caught and punished, they feel no remorse, only perhaps resentment at having their intentions thwarted.

Conceptually speaking, we could divide sociopaths into two types: a) those who lack moral constraints and do bad things, and b) those who lack moral constraints but do not do bad things, or at least no more so than the rest of us. I have never seen the existence of type b) remarked on in the literature on sociopathy, but it is at least a logical possibility. Such a person would be prevented from wrongdoing only because, for whatever reason, he lacks the sorts of desires commonly associated with such wrongdoing. Owen Flanagan alludes to a similar phenomenon in his discussion of Plato’s famous example of Gyges and his magic ring (Flanagan 257-259). The figure of Gyges was used by Glaucon in the Republic to show that if a person were to have all external restraints removed, he would no longer attend to justice, and that therefore, justice is a merely artificial virtue. Given a magic ring, we are all Gyges. Flanagan argues that the conclusion does not follow. Gyges’ motives for wrongdoing are underdescribed (indeed, they are not described at all). Why does he seem to have so many evil desires in him that he instantly acts on when he gets the opportunity? Why does he perceive his self-interest to lie only in such antisocial ends? And why should I believe that I would do no differently were I in his shoes? It is at least conceivable that not everybody who had Gyges’ magic ring would behave so deplorably, for the simple reason that they lack the same antisocial desires Gyges seemed to have. Perhaps it is also possible that a sociopath lacks Gyges-like countermoral desires, and so would commit no wrongs, even though they are morally uninhibited. I suppose such people, if they exist, do not come to the attention of psychologists because they do not cause anybody any trouble. [1]  Let us return to the other, full-blooded wicked sociopath.

The moral sentiments, including the emotions of self-assessment, can serve to lend integrity to our agency, making our actions intelligible and reasonably consistent. They enable us to pursue our ends across changing circumstances. Thus, we should be able to predict that someone who lacked the capacity for such emotion is apt to be impulsive, flighty, seemingly unable to focus on longer-term goals, unable to meet obligations, unable to form emotional bonds with others, and less likely than most to keep promises (making them untrustworthy). These are exactly the kinds of qualities characteristic of sociopaths: “Psychopaths tend to live day-to-day and to change their plans frequently. They give little thought to the future and worry about it even less. Nor do they generally show much concern about how little they have done with their lives” (Hare 1999: 59). They tend to drop out of school, to be unable to hold down jobs, or to think beyond immediate gratification. Indeed, even their criminality tends to lack consistency. One of the characteristics of the sociopathic criminal’s arrest record is its diversity: petty theft, burglary, assault, drug and weapons offences. Contrary to the media images of single-minded serial killers, the criminal sociopath is typically not a specialist, nor is he particularly good at what he does.

One of the conspicuous things people notice about sociopaths is their unshakeable belief in their own cleverness. They honestly tend to believe they are the smartest people in the world, despite all objective evidence to the contrary, such as the lack of accomplishments, the steady string of failures, the lack of intimate relationships, the long arrest record. Whatever goes wrong is someone else’s fault, never their own. This is all to be expected of someone who lacks the emotions of self-assessment. Someone who, for example, never feels guilt or shame lacks the “early warning system” that most of us have, which tells us that we are about to do something for which our conscience is apt to bite us; a sociopath’s conscience never bites. And because he feels no shame, he has no inkling that anything about himself is in need of change. [2]  This singular lack of capacity for honest self-assessment has led some researchers to recommend that resources not be wasted on trying to rehabilitate sociopaths. As a matter of fact, such rehabilitation may have the effect of helping the sociopath to become more skilled at manipulation (Hare 1999: 192-205).

It is hard to tell whether this sort of self-delusion should be properly characterized as a rational or an emotional deficit. It is likely a bit of both: it is a rational deficit aided and abetted by an affective deficit. Even if the sociopath is candidly apprised of his shortcomings by a third party, because he will be unable to feel the bite of conscience, he is likely either to rationalize his conduct, or to infer that the third party is mistaken. We will have more to say on the relation between rationality and affectivity below.

Media images often portray the psychopath as an alternative character type, an evil but sometimes slightly glamorous one. What I wish to contend by offering the above rough sketch of the sociopath — and I may as well be frank about it — is this: Sociopaths lack character. They are not an alternative character type. They are not characters at all. They represent what we might call the limiting case of the person without character. I shall offer some reasons why.

First, let us bring to mind for a moment the notion of a character in the literary sense. It has been remarked on by some that sociopaths are singularly uninteresting as literary characters; they are too thin. Robert Hare, the foremost expert on these people, tells the following story about how he was a consultant on a Hollywood film project about a couple of sociopathic serial killers:

The filmmakers had great concern for accuracy and had researched the subject as thoroughly as they were able. But the scriptwriter phoned me one day in near desperation. “How can I make my character interesting?” he asked. “When I try to get into his head, try to work out his motivations, desires, and hang-ups in a way that will make some sort of sense to the audience, I draw a blank. These guys … are too much alike, and there doesn’t seem to be much of interest below the surface.”

In a sense the screenwriter had nailed it: As portrayed in film and story, psychopaths do tend to be two-dimensional characters …. The philosophy of life that these individuals espouse usually is banal, sophomoric, and devoid of the detail that enriches the lives of normal adults. (Hare 1999: 140-141)

If we take the poor screenwriter’s words at face value, the sociopathic “character” lacks enough depth for it to perform the individuating function that the concept of character plays. Similarly, if the screenwriter for a Star Trek episode were to take the implications of the “character” of a Vulcan seriously, without deviating from it (as happens all too often), she would find it difficult to differentiate one Vulcan’s character from another’s, short of dressing them in different coloured uniforms. There is no depth, and therefore room for a character ascription that points to the agent’s identity as a person.

Not only that. The screenwriter’s comments offer the tantalizing possibility — which would take another complete study to explore — that some depth of character is a requirement for the mere intelligibility of others’ complex behavior. Without being able to attribute complex and essentially human motivations to others, we find ourselves unable to understand or explain their actions and practices. With sociopaths, it is not that they are too complex to understand; rather, they are too simple, too reptilian.

Second, sociopaths lack the integrity or unified agency that enables them to form and carry through longer-term goals and projects. This is shown in the fact that, though they often express extremely grandiose intentions, few of them ever bear fruits, usually because the effort required is too much for them. The result is aimlessness, lack of concrete accomplishment, and lack of close relationships like marriage and parenthood, which require a large investment of time and effort.

Third, because the sociopath lacks the capacity for self-assessment, both emotionally and intellectually, he is incapable of moral progress. We all do bad things from time to time, but the psychopath typically does not learn from his mistakes. If he were participating in the Milgram experiments, he is the obedient subject who would feel no remorse; indeed, he may even feel a twinge of sadistic pleasure (because he has never learned to associate causing pain to others with shame or guilt), and if so, he might even be that rare bird who would shock again on a reiteration of the experiment. He has not acted out of character when he has shocked a subject. He has no character. Nor is he likely to follow what I call the Characterological Imperative:  “Always choose a course of action as if you were setting a precedent or laying down a law for your character”. He is unlikely to do so because he cannot honestly or accurately assess what sort of person he is or what sort of person he would like to become. Instead, he can at best decide what sorts of things he would like to do and have — at least until other sorts of things usurp them.

At this point someone might wonder what difference it makes. The sociopath cannot see that he is wrong, and cannot be made to see it. If he is satisfied with his life and does not care what we think, then, character or no character, so what? The sociopath seems to undermine the claim that character is, all things considered, a good thing to have. He seems to bear witness to the possibility that character is a moral concept that does no work. We may be justified in doing what we must to protect ourselves from him, but what we cannot do is truthfully claim that we are right and he is wrong, morally speaking. This is because whatever moral arguments we could possibly offer him would be to no effect. At best, we could convince him using prudential arguments that appeal to his present interests — a sort of Parfitian Present Aim Theory applied to sociopaths (Parfit 92). [3]  What can be said in response to this?

First, I would say that the objection is absolutely correct in a certain respect: we probably cannot convince the sociopath that he is morally wrong. But why should that undermine morality? I do not know where the burden of proof should lie here. I confess, it is not immediately clear to me that it is our duty to justify morality to such a creature, any more than he perceives it as his duty to justify his amorality to us. Either way, we would be talking past each other. If he is incapable of understanding morality, then the deficit is his, not ours. We understand something that he does not, much as I understand morality in a way that my cat does not. My cat does not make me question my commitment to morality, so why does the sociopath? This seems like a case of the tyranny of the weak over the strong.

But even if I should feel the need to futilely engage with the sociopath on this point, I might point out to him a peculiar incoherence in his position. So many of the games that sociopaths play, such as the grasping for power and advantage, the preening, the joy at the pain and sorrow of others, the egoistic desire for praise and esteem at all costs, all of these I say, depend on the existence of other people. It is the attention of other people that he wants when he seeks attention. It is the pleasure derived from being richer than others that drives him to steal. All his games are played with (or at the expense of) other people. He does not play them with rocks and trees. Therefore, we ought rightly to ask the sociopath why we matter so much to him. And if we matter so much, then why are we treated with such contempt?

Sociopaths are not the perfect example of people who utterly lack moral sentiment; they are merely the closest that we can get, empirically speaking. For instance, they are able to experience certain emotions, anger and resentment being conspicuous among them. But if morality is a sham, then why should one feel resentment at another? Imagine feeling resentment at the actions of another, and thinking “How could he do that to me?” while at the same time not believing in the possibility of moral wrong. It takes some doing. That is perhaps part of what makes sociopaths incomprehensible. They suffer from a kind of blindness, caused by their inability to empathize. For example, a sociopath is capable of suffering “injustice”, which he might define as “that which is done by others against my own interests”. The blindness here consists of an inability to see that others can also feel injustice at the things that he does. [4]  We should not waste time convincing the blind of the existence of colours, nor should we waste time convincing sociopaths or amoralists of the existence of morality. We can argue over its content, but not its existence.

In any case, the sociopath will not be convinced. His lack of sentiment contributes to his inability to be convinced by any non-prudential argument for morality. This in turn illustrates one aspect of the necessity of the moral sentiments to the moral life.

Before taking our leave of the sociopath, I should clarify my position with regard to a certain debate in the literature on sociopathy (among both psychologists and moral philosophers). The debate is between those (e.g. Nichols 2002) who see sociopathy as a phenomenon involving primarily an emotional deficit, a deficit in affective capability, and those (e.g. Maibom 2005) who view is as primarily a systematic deficit in practical reasoning. For convenience’s sake, we may call the former “sentimentalists” and the latter “rationalists”.

At the risk of seeming bland, I fall somewhere between these two positions. In the foregoing I have stressed, for purposes of my own, the sentimental side of things, characterizing sociopathy as a systemic failure of emotions of self-assessment. However, it is not so easy to separate sentiment from rationality. For one thing, emotions are often — if not always — heavily laden with cognitive content. Second, there are complex connections between sentiment and reason that are often overlooked and which the study of phenomena like sociopathy can shed light on in interesting ways. For example, it was noted above that the sociopath has the tendency to believe that he is much cleverer than the regular run of mortals. He overestimates his talents and abilities. Put another way, he is blessed (or cursed?) with a tendency toward positive self-delusion. As such, we could categorize this as a deficit in practical reasoning, as it involves blindness to certain pertinent facts, which will tend to lead to other mistakes in practical reasoning (for example, irrational risk-taking). It is exactly the sort of deficit that supports the rationalist position.

However, to complicate matters, we can also say that the sociopath’s inability to feel emotions of self-assessment is implicated in the persistence of his lack of capacity for psychological insight. He lacks the emotional “alarm-bells” that might direct his attention to areas of his personality that might not be perfect. People who are positively self-deluded but who are not necessarily sociopathic also lack insight, but the world from time to time “corrects” them through means of mistakes and subsequent negative emotions like regret and shame, which may (though not always) lead to psychological insight. The sociopath, lacking such emotions, lacks an important means of self-improvement. Thus, at the same time that the sociopath believes himself to be clever, he leaves in his wake a trail of failed relationships, incarcerations, lost jobs, and lost opportunities that put the lie to this belief. More to the point, his lack of capacity for shame or guilt manifests itself in an unhealthy lack of cognitive dissonance between his self-assessment and his actual accomplishments (or lack thereof).

Even a supposed rationalist like Heidi Maibom admits that there is room for both sentimentalism and rationalism. [5]  Indeed, I would go a step further and assert that a plausible characterization of the disorder must involve both, and my stress on the emotional deficits of sociopaths should not be taken as a repudiation of rationalism. Antonio Damasio characterizes sociopathy as an “example of a pathological state in which a decline in rationality is accompanied by diminution or absence of feeling” (Damasio 178). In fact, I would say that the rational and emotional deficits do not just happen to accompany one another, but are in fact related to each other.

Much, much more could be said about the relation between reason and sentiment. For example, while we often normally think of them as in some way diametrically opposed, there may be models of emotions available which close the gap quite dramatically. It is worth briefly mentioning one of these, as it may be a useful antidote to the possibly crude picture of the emotions of self-assessment I have laid out thus far.

Using guilt as an example, Jon Elster (p. 303 ff; see also Tesser and Achee 1994) proposes a “catastrophic” model of emotion. Rather than thinking of guilt as a dark, irrational — or at least arational — feeling that wells up from some unknown place inside us (a common lay view), we ought rather to think of it as the experience of a perception of dissonance between our conduct and our values. Here, guilt is experienced as a sort of alarm bell (that metaphor again) bringing to our attention the possibility that all is not well. It is the awareness of dissonance. However, because behaviour tends to be path-dependent (i.e. we tend to continue in a set pattern of behaviour based on previous behaviour), an agent will tend to continue on a course of conduct, looking for reasons to support it. If such reasons cannot be found, the tension caused by the dissonance increases until a behavioural “switch” occurs. Such path-dependency followed by sudden switching is what I call “moral hysteresis”. It could be the subject of another paper on its own.

On the simpler “cost-benefit” model, an agent engages in some conduct, experiencing displeasurable guilt as a negative utility. On this model, provided the guilt is felt strongly enough, we should expect immediate change in conduct. On the other hand, the catastrophic model accounts for the path-dependent nature of conduct: there is delay while the agent rationalizes his current course; meanwhile tension builds up, precipitating a switch — that is, unless the tension can be resolved by rational means. I have oversimplified the model, but its implication is clear: practical reasoning is not trumped by a strong emotion. Rather, reason and emotion work hand in glove.

Elster rejects the cost-benefit account of emotions in favour of the catastrophic model, by reasoning along the following lines: if guilt were merely experienced as a disutility, as an experienced or anticipated cost, then if guilt prevents me from, say, stealing a book (which I otherwise desire to do), I should be willing to purchase a guilt-erasing pill. But someone who is capable of feeling guilt will also feel guilty about buying and taking the pill, because “taking the pill in order to escape guilt and be able to steal the book would be as morally bad as just stealing it” (Elster 303). It just turns stealing the book into a two-step rather than a one-step operation. If I feel guilty about having stolen a book, thereby experiencing tension, I would — where possible — prefer to resolve the tension not by taking a pill, but rather by finding reasons not to feel guilty. Guilt is, on this model, an integral part of practical reasoning, not an epiphenomenon to be dealt with by erasure.

Before ending, since we have been discussing the sociopath, a brief glance at his fictional cousin, Hume’s “sensible knave”, might be in order. Perhaps much of what was said about the sociopath can be said about him. But we might be able to say more.

Hume introduces the knave as follows:

And though it is allowed, that, without a regard to property, no society could subsist; yet, according to the imperfect way in which human affairs are conducted, a sensible knave, in particular incidents, may think, that an act of iniquity or infidelity will make a considerable addition to his fortune, without causing any considerable breach in the social union and confederacy. That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule; but is liable to many exceptions: And he, it may, perhaps, be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions. (Hume 1957: 282-283) [6]

I would characterize the sensible knave in this way: he differs from the sociopath in that though he understands morality, and for the most part is motivated by it in the way the rest of us are, yet, he is overall better off than us because on the occasions where morality does not pay (in terms of overall personal utility), he can disregard morality. He is morally motivated like the rest of us, except where he can get away with something without getting caught. In this sense, he is more complex and troublesome than the sociopath, because we cannot simply write him off as morally blind. In fact, it could be argued that his sight is better than ours, more evolved.

Hume attempts to meet the challenge by in effect saying that such a knave would not always get away with his cavalier attitude to morality. However, Hume speaks as if the knave is more or less equivalent to our sociopath, in that he is not motivated by morality (“If his heart rebel not against such pernicious maxims, if he feel no reluctance to the thoughts of villainy or baseness…”, etc.). My construal of the knave is as someone who is motivated by morality the way we are, but only when it pays. When immorality pays, he can turn his conscience off. So Hume’s rather weak reply will not do.

I believe that such a creature as I have described is probably empirically non-existent, or at least very improbable. For one thing, we must ask ourselves how one could become such a person. One must first become the sort of person who can participate in morality at all, in order to become the kind that can turn it off. But part of becoming a moral person involves the sort of development and habituation that makes violating morality difficult without experiencing consequent feelings of shame and guilt. In other words, before we can become a sensible knave as I have described it, we must become inculcated in morality. This will involve at least two things.

First, it will involve a degree of habituation to moral conduct that may then be harder to break. One will occasionally break it, as we all do. But we do not all do it in the systematic way the sensible knave is supposed to do it.

Second, it will likely involve an internalization of the morality he has learned in such a way that he will not be following it merely from self-interest. Self-interest is not his main moral motivation. This makes it highly implausible that he would systematically violate that morality on the basis of self-interest. If he has properly internalized his morality, he believes that moral conduct is not based on mere self-interest. So self-interest cannot be a motivation for violating it, at least not in a systematic way. And not without emotional consequences. Morality does not come with an on-off switch. Even if one could turn morality on and off at will, I suspect such an agent would more often than not, like Hume’s version of the knave, be tempted to use the switch too much, making fatal mistakes and ending up violating morality more than is helpful. He would be a sub-optimal sensible knave.

Furthermore, it is still difficult to see how having received anything like a proper moral training, he could escape the negative moral sentiments like shame and guilt that come with violations of morality, once he turned his moral switch back on again. Such sentiments would, at least, represent a considerable disutility that would have to be factored into his moral calculations, or at least factored into our assessments of his overall flourishing. The only way around this would be to imagine that there is a radical discontinuity between the knave when he is morally “switched on” and when he is “switched off”. Basically, the former would have to be either unable to remember the latter’s deeds, or else would have to be “disengaged” enough from them to essentially regard them as the deeds of another agent. Either of these scenarios describes a condition of agency which can only be characterized as pathologically dissociative.

A related observation applies to a person of evil character, such a person being one whose values are largely the inverse of ours, but who still has the capacity for the moral sentiments, and has achieved a certain (perverse) integrity, of the kind outlined in this chapter. Such a person would not only desire and value evil things, but would also feel guilt or shame at having been weak-willed enough to, say, miss an opportunity to harm or cheat someone.

We would have to ask a couple of things about him. First, where might his uncharacteristically kind impulse have come from, that leads him to act “shamefully” by refraining from harming or cheating? Perhaps it is randomly generated akrasia (weakness of will), pure and simple, a nervous tic of the will, and thus is not really a “kind” impulse at all. But if his practical reasoning was accompanied by even a momentary thought like “perhaps this is not quite right”, then this is what we call conscience. Might this betoken some “sparks of better hope” within him, as Shakespeare might describe it (Richard II V.iii.21)?

Second, how did he manage to avoid all of the training and character-enforcing messages that we all receive, even the most dissolute among us, if only by accident in the course of our development? There is something perverse in his ignorance, something willful about it. He would somehow have to have systematically failed to acquire the most basic moral training that we are all exposed to in our lifetimes. And not only this, but to separate him from the mere sociopath, he must have somehow, learned the opposite of what he was taught, to have somehow ended up attaching his moral-affective responses to exactly the wrong things. When a student of any other art, science, or skill does this, we say he is extremely stupid. We shrug. We cannot explain it.

Maybe this is the essence of the evil character; he has an original seed in him that makes him averse to what we consider to be the good. I admit I cannot explain such a person. But perhaps just as tellingly, I have also never met or heard of one living and breathing. R. M. Hare once considered a literary example in Milton’s Satan, who famously said, “To do ought good never will be our task / But ever to do ill our sole delight” (Paradise Lost I.158). However, as Hare pointed out, Satan would have had to play for both teams before he could switch from one to the other (Hare 101). At the risk of sounding Platonic, I cannot imagine him wishing to make such a switch after truly having had such knowledge of the good, unless he was never a committed member of the good team to begin with. But my lack of imagination is no argument against its possibility. All I can say is that, if Satan knows what is good but consistently prefers evil (and if he is not a sociopath — whom we have already considered), then he is responsible for this character. He will possess integrity of a kind, according to the scheme of this study, and he may accrue whatever advantages go along with that integrity. But we will tend not to like him, and we will do what we can to ensure that he does not flourish. Speaking counterfactually, his life may very well have gone better for him overall if he had any talent for goodness. But we will be unlikely to convince him of this.

Before we take our leave of the moral sentiments, an apology should be made to the reader. We have merely scratched the surface of an important topic; much about the role of emotions in the moral life had to go unsaid. For example, we have mainly focussed on a particular kind of moral sentiment, what were called emotions of self-assessment. Obviously, the moral emotions run in wider circles than this. The reader might, for example, be dismayed by a lack of attention devoted to that major moral player, sympathy. Obviously, sympathy will have a large role to play in the functioning of moral character. Just as obviously, it is a capacity which the sociopath also conspicuously lacks. And historically speaking, much has been written about sympathy by moral philosophers. However, I was more interested in the emotions of self-assessment, mainly because of their close connection with integrity, which, as I have hopefully made clear, I see as being at the core of the concept of character. I therefore apologize to those who hunger after more, but some matters had to be sacrificed in the name of economy.


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DAMASIO, Antonio. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: Putnam, 1994.

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ELSTER, Jon. Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

FLANAGAN, Owen. Varieties of Moral Personality: Ethics and Psychological Realism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

HARE, Robert D. Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. New York: Guilford Press, 1999.

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[1]   However, these people would seem pathological in other ways. For one thing, they would be unable to form any close relationships with others that are based on sentiment, the capacity for which they would lack. On the other hand, it is unlikely they could be made to see that they might be missing out on something that the rest of us enjoy. But to others, they would seem a rather empty and one-dimensional figure. Aside from criminality, many of the characteristics of criminal sociopaths would still apply to them: lack of depth, impulsivity, coldness, underachievement, etc.

[2]   I am aware that another of the emotions of self-assessment is missing from this picture, namely pride. I presume that sociopaths have the same capacity for this emotion as the rest of us, though researchers do not devote any attention to it, mainly concerned as they are with the sociopath’s morally salient incapacity for shame and guilt, which tends to get them in most trouble. If sociopaths have the same capacity for pride as non-sociopaths, then this shows that they are not exactly the limiting case of the person without character I have made them out to be (though they are still closer to that end of the spectrum, and therefore still make for a good case study).

[3]   The Present Aim Theory of agency, according to Derek Parfit (1984), says that my future self at any given future time has the same relation to me as another person does at present. Thus, a future desire has less of a claim to normative priority than a present desire does. This is because my present desire is my desire, whereas my future desires are in relevant respects the desires of some other agent(s): “when we are considering theoretical and practical rationality, the relation between a person now and himself at other times is relevantly similar to the relation between different people” (Parfit 191).

[4]   Some have framed this phenomenon in more technical language by claiming that sociopaths lack a “theory of mind” (Dolan and Fullam 2004). I would avoid such terminology as being overly rationalistic and because there is research disputing the claim (Richell et al. 2003).

[5]   “Since it is clear that psychopaths have emotional deficits of the sort relevant to sentimentalist view of morality [sic.], the question I will be concerned with is whether they also have deficits in their practical reason…. I will argue that although psychopathy supports sentimentalism it does not speak against rationalism” (Maibom 238).

[6]   There is a similarity of form between Hume’s sensible knave and his account of the artificial virtues. An artificial virtue (like justice) has the general tendency to contribute to the overall good, while on particular occasions it can actually be detrimental to it (Treatise 3.2.2; Buckle 259-260). The sensible knave recognizes that virtue may be generally to his benefit, but takes advantage of those occasions where it is not, by acting counter to virtue. In both cases, the problem turns on how to keep people loyal to virtue even in the face of seeming exceptions to it.