Psychological disorder and the dream of Utopia

The view of humanity that we get from the ancients (and by extension the Abrahamic religions) is both deeply deceptive and very influential.  If people are the creation of beings of (more or less) perfection, then it is reasonable to expect that humans are naturally orderly creatures.   Or, at the very least, we are disordered in some sort of systematic way.  According to this view, the psychological and social disorder experienced by all people and societies to varying degrees is a shortcoming.  The behavior and lived experiences of humans fall short of some meaningful ideal, because they fail in some way to reach their full potentials.  Of course, we might think that humans cannot reaching their full potentials without the grace of God or unadulterated contemplation of the good — or perhaps humans cannot possibly reach such a point of perfection — but all of this presumes that there is some sense to the idea of human perfection.

Certainly, we can conceive of what a “perfect” human might look like, but this has little to do with humans as they actually are.  Evolutionary theory in fact is able to provide us with a simple yet profound insight in this regard: the natural state of a human is to be a jumbled mess that gets the job done better than the next local competitor.  The same goes for a community.  We all know this to some degree, but we typically ignore what this means for our lives and society.  The human body and psychology has certainly been “finely tuned” by various evolutionary forces, so that individuals can produce offspring and provide them with various advantages.  We have also been made naturally cooperative in certain ways, so that we can more easily form societies of individuals to provide mutual advantages to each other, but this in no way guarantees healthy psychologies or societies of peace and happiness.

In fact, it is reasonable to think that a society of perpetually unsatisfied humans, who continually seek to compete with one another, will have an advantage over those containing people who have reached a state of inner peace and unconditional love for their neighbors.  This matters, because it seems to call into question the widely lauded goal of promoting universal happiness and social tranquility.  Not only does such a goal take a too optimistic view of the power of social reform, but it also promotes a false vision of human nature.

Many of us also think that finally getting our psychological act together would make us happier.  If we could only take account of all of our disparate (and often maladaptive) motivations and feelings and put them into proper order, then we would finally be living in a virtuous and happy way.  Social reformers often take a similar view of our social ills; if only our institutions were made to function well enough (providing all of the needed resources and incentives) to bring about virtuous and happy lives among the populous, then social order and prosperity would also be achieved.  They of course recognize that such a utopia is not likely in our messy world, but they still think that the ideal is meaningful.

I think we should doubt that the ideal of utopia is meaningful.  This is not simply because humans are deeply flawed.  Rather, it is because human psychology is not the sort of thing that is likely to achieve either internal (psychological) harmony nor external (social) harmony.  Again, this is nothing new, but it is largely ignored by optimistic social theorists and reformers who hope to create environments and education that promotes pro-social motivations and subsequent behaviors.  This includes both social theorists on the left as well as the right.  Some socialists, for instance, think that once the capitalist power structure is removed (or at least substantially weakened) then the motivations of people will be transformed, becoming more pro-social.  An extreme version of this comes form Marx and Engels, but a somewhat weaker one persists among many modern socialists and social-democrats; something about the current economic paradigm makes us slavish and vicious consumers, that once removed will free us from that sort of behavior.

On the right, libertarians have a similar utopian ideals.  They think that when people are left alone to live, create, and trade, they will live cooperative and virtuous lives, because it will be prudent to do so.  When the government’s only role is to provide for public goods and a system of public justice, and it does so rather effectively, then the only way for someone to get by is to be productive.  Cheating and stealing are promptly punished, and begging for subsidies does no good.  Many libertarians seem to have an idea that such a society would be a rather happy place to be, where people are able to safely pursue their own interests.

If people are naturally disordered, then there is little reason to think that non-coercive social systems will bring about a happy and peaceful world.  It cannot be assumed that more just social institutions can automatically lead to a more just and well-functioning public.  It leads us to a social theory more in line with Thomas Hobbes and “classical” conservatives like Edmund Burke than the modern social muses of Locke and Marx.  Cultural norms certainly provide a form of internal control, but these forms of control are typically inadequate, especially in pluralistic societies with weaker cultural norms.  And if many people experience a great deal of psychological disorder, disorder that will never be fully resolved, then their ability to internalize and behave according to a complex set of social norms with any consistency may be limited.  Ultimately, greater levels of social organization may require greater levels of external coercion, or at least the threat of it.  This coercion may be subtle, though nonetheless real and backed by state violence.  It may even be subconscious, like that which comes from messaging and marketing.  Those in marketing have long known that you often need to trick people to buy a product; likewise, you may need to trick people to bring about a good society.

In societies (like the U.S.) with relatively weak social control through culture, promoting greater levels of the public good may require greater degrees of social coercion.  I’m not sure what we should conclude from this.  It may, of course, mean that there are limits to how well the public good can be promoted in free societies.  Some people will always choose private violence in order to settle disputes.  Others will make poor choices about when to start a family or what purchases to make.  Still others will adopt hateful attitudes toward their fellow citizens because of prejudice.  What we can do to get people to change their behaviors on their own may be far more limited that we would hope.   However, it may also mean that we should be open to greater levels of social coercion, at least if we are serious about improving human lives.  I’m not sure which we should choose, but it seems that the disordered character of human nature pits freedom and well-being  against one another.

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