Democracy: the cleverest tool for oppression in the history of the world

Thomas Jefferson’s legacy is much admired in the US and beyond, and for good reason. Without his contributions it’s hard to imagine how the American system of “democracy” would have evolved.

I’ve always admired him a great deal, too, although for somewhat different reasons than most. Yes, he was critical to the development of democracy, but what was so brilliant about this is that democracy is arguably the cleverest tool for the oppression of the masses ever devised.

This assertion no doubt comes as something of a shock to The Average American, who tends to get all sniffly about the majesty of his “freedoms” every 4th of July as he sits in his local park watching pretty explosions in the sky and listening to the facile, self-deluded patriotism of Lee Greenwood yowling from the PA. I won’t get into the minutiae of the things the poor sap is free to do (short version: shut up and buy what you’re told), nor will I waste your time with a laundry list of the things his community could better spend the fireworks budget on, lest I risk being branded a “liberal,” a charge which would compel to waste a half-hour rolling on the floor with a crippling fit of laughter.

Like a good many other things I can think of, The Average American is wrong on this point. The unfortunate fact is that, Horatio Alger fantasies notwithstanding, America is like every other culture in history in a number of important ways. It has distinct and powerful class structures and the ability to climb the economic and social ladder is a far rarer thing than most imagine. Further, people in America are more like people everywhere else than they’d like to admit – those that have wealth, power and influence are strongly predisposed toward keeping it, and wealth, power and influence are precisely the resources needed to maintain the status quo. No one gives away advantage, although the smart “have-more” makes a grand show of appearing to do so on occasion. It’s a marvael that a culture will credit the existence of self-interest when it seems ennobling and then pretend that its dark side doesn’t exist, especially in the face of so much evidence.

The genius of Jefferson’s vision (well, part of the genius, anyway; it’s genius from one end to the other) is in its ability to make those class distinctions more or less invisible to the rabble. Overt markers were eschewed (no kings, dukes, etc.) and a great fuss was made over the idea that any man could rise in station according to his ability and willingness to work (a myth gleefully propagated by the Church), all of which made the playing field seem far more level than it actually was (and is). When you factor in the fact that The Average American will see the one-in-ten-million exception and convince himself that it’s the rule (hope triumphs over the intellect, especially in anti-intellectual societies – again, kudos to the Church), there’s really very little left for the would-be overlord to do except count his money.

So, back to Jefferson. Few people understand what a truly complex thinker he was (detractors may feel free to substitute “conflicted,” “confused,” or “contradictory” if they like), a fact that owes largely to their never having actually read him. On the one hand, he truly felt the nobility of “liberty.” On the other hand, let’s remember that this new system of freedom extended to every land-owning white man in the country. On its face, the new republic was a de jure plutocracy (which has nothing to with the planetoid or the Disney character). Let me restate this to make sure my meaning is taken, since I know that most of my readers were educated in American schools: the American system was constructed so that only rich white people had a voice in government.

This is why I laugh when I hear people criticizing Bush, Cheney and their friends for trying to “steal” all the power for the wealthy elites. “The system is broken,” they wail. Please. The system is working precisely as designed. Bush and Cheney are not stealing power, although I might entertain the argument that they’re stealing it back.

Of course, if I make it sound like Tom was trying to construct a system of tyranny, I apologize. That wasn’t his goal at all. One evening a few months before the Philadelphia Convention he and I were having dinner and a few beers at John Harvard’s place in Cambridge. After his third stout he got pretty romantic about “liberty” and started spouting some of the most wonderful nonsense (really, stuff that was on a par with what you hear at political rallies these days). I listened for awhile, trying not to laugh too hard, and finally said to him what I said to you above: Tom, you are in the process of devising the most powerful and deceptive tool for the oppression of the masses in history. He looked at me as though I’d rogered his mother.

Of course, I’ve always had a talent for foresight that he didn’t. Given his context he could barely have imagined the Industrial Revolution, and you had a time machine and could have shown him the America of today his skull would have melted. So to some measure he can perhaps be forgiven for not quite grasping the implications for what he and his fellows were setting in motion. (It was about this point that George Mason stumbled in, orderd a meat pie and a lager and started taking notes.)

In essence, I explained that this new system, once you stripped away the utopian rhetoric surrounding it, was nothing more than an innovation in elite rule, more like the monarchy in England than it was different from it. The brilliance of it, though, was that the rhetoric was bound to inflame the hearts of those who weren’t rich white landowners, and that in time more and more groups would agitate for and gain the franchise. “Imagine those slaves of yours lining up to vote for one of their own,” I said.

But, as the vote diffused through the society, a development that would appear to be bad for the elites, the actual result would be a strengthening of plutocratic control. “So long as they buy the Libertarian ideologies of our recording secretary here, they’ll believe themselves more powerful than they are, which will make them even easier to control than if you had a garrison stationed in every home.

“You’re still missing something, though. If they find you out, they outnumber you, and every damned one of them has a musket.”

By now Jefferson’s eyes had completely glazed over, but Mason had this thoughtful look on his face. And by 1791 they had their answer, codified and ratified. Mason had realized that too much activity on the part of the “governed” could be a problem, and his solution found its way, via Madison, into the 1st Amendment: free speech, free press. This established the idea that speech equaled action, which stands as the greatest lie in the history of politics. People were free to talk, gather, argue, print, and petition “their” representatives, and this invited an unusual amount of what my business colleagues these days call “buy-in.” There was no need to take up arms and man the barricades. They were already in control of the government because they had freedom and the vote. In essence, they were the system, as far as they could tell.

Over time the media-driven political landscape we see around us inevitably evolved, a world where the actual needs and wishes of the “electorate” are paid massive lip service at every turn and then ignored when actual policy is made. Officials will campaign on a single issue, be elected to change it, and then when they get in office make no changes (perhaps they will even make that situation worse by acting directly counter to the wishes of their consitutents). And then, remarkably, those same people will re-elect them the next time they get a chance.

Of course, The People are perfectly free to speak, write, criticize, agitate, and when they’ve had enough, to finally elect “reformers.” These reformers are selected from among the class of people with sufficient wealth and connections to be able to afford to mount a campaign, which means they need millions of dollars for advertising and highly paid consultants. (By the way, you can’t believe how hard it is to find a good consultant in Hell during an election cycle.)

Beautiful – truly a marvel of oppression. The Marxist term is “hegemony,” the process by which the people accept and acquiesce to their own exploitation. In the American system, though, the people don’t just accept their condition, they hold parades celebrating it.

As I said to Tom as I helped him back to his room that night, the real question is how long it will take before The Average American realizes the exquisite genius of the bill of goods he’s been sold. I’ve seen the future, and my money is on “never.”

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38 thoughts on “Democracy: the cleverest tool for oppression in the history of the world”

  1. Nicely written! I greatly enjoyed it.

    I’ve read Jefferson. I have a different take on him than you. I think he had an amazing way of being an idealist when he thought, and a realist when he acted. His opinions also changed over time, as he acquired experience.

    I’m going to agree wholeheartedly that the coming of the incredibly powerful, and incredibly expensive, television medium has shifted power towards the wealthy. Once upon a time, demagogues were the bane of the ruling class. Now, they are the ruling class.

    I’m going to disagree, though, with what seems to be a virtually perfect cynicism on your part. What Karl Marx failed to factor in to his political calculus is that ordinary people really do have some power in a representative system with relatively widespread suffrage. Communist revolutions didn’t happen in industrialized countries. They happened in agricultural economies as a backlash against heavy, feudalistic oppression. In the industrialized countries, which were almost entirely made up of representative, Western governments, the rise of the labor union acted as a safety valve, releasing enough pressure to head off Maxist revolutions. Labor unions could not have existed if corporate goons were allowed to brutally suppress them. It was public opinion that stopped them from doing that.

    I would also make an argument that the social programs of the New Deal were part of the flexibility of a system of widespread suffrage that headed off revolution.

  2. Thank you for your insightful comments, Mr. O’Brien. A couple responses:

    I’m going to disagree, though, with what seems to be a virtually perfect cynicism on your part.

    That’s perhaps the kindest thing anyone has said about me in quite some time.

    What Karl Marx failed to factor in…

    Perhaps I should defer to you here. While I have often admitted being a fan of Marx (perhaps I should say half a fan, because I thought his brilliance faded once he got through describing how things were and set in on what do do about them), I’m certainly no expert on the subject. I would venture to say that he, like Jefferson, would have had no way to anticipate what was coming. Both based their systems on what might be charitably termed “flawed assumptions.” Maybe I should read up and do a piece on that, in fact.

    I would also make an argument that the social programs of the New Deal were part of the flexibility of a system of widespread suffrage that headed off revolution.

    Do you see any similar mechanisms that might come into play in the next few years?

  3. Thank you for making this point. Although mine has been a different one, I have been trying to spread the word that “democracy” is not necessarily good for “us”. It is either mob rule or, as you point out, a phrase to hide behind as real policy makers do as they will. We need to push for the proper balance of democracy and republicanism which wil result in a better society for the majority and the minority.

  4. Bonesparkle:

    Like you, I’m worried about the long-term trends. I think that where Marx got it wrong is where John Stuart Mill got it wrong: Man is not exclusively an economic animal. The Civil Rights Movement worked because of the revulsion so many people of good conscience felt when looking at TV images of gross injustice. This is not to say that black boycotts of some white businesses weren’t useful. But they are not the reason for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    I think we can count on human decency to bail us out, through the ballot box, as long as there is at least some semblance of media attention to injustice and government malfeasance. What concerns me, as I’m sure it does you, is the consolidation of media ownership, coupled with dwindling resources available to cover important stories at major newspapers.

    We can’t be outraged enough to use the power of the vote if we don’t know enough to be outraged.

  5. DJ, is the opposite of ideology asking silly questions that have nothing to do with the conversation at hand? just wondering. when you have an original thought that you can flesh out with an argument or two please get back to us.

  6. JS:

    I like your take on Jefferson, probably because I agree with it… however, I’ve always thought that Marx got it wrong in at least three ways: man is not merely an economic (calculating) animal; man is essentially a short-sighted animal, not naturally adapted to viewing his individual experience in historical perspective; and most importantly, man is not self-sacrificing by nature, forming groups based on shared self-interest and dissolving those groups when interests diverge.

    Bonesparkle:

    Jefferson’s eyes may not have been quite as glazed as you thought; he certainly didn’t brook much opposition from the masses when it came to the governance of his university. Interesting post – thank you.

  7. JS and Ann:

    Not that Marx didn’t invite these sorts of things, mind you, but I believe both of you are overstating his point on the economic a little.

    He did not argue in exclusively economic terms. He insisted on the ultimate primacy of the economic base, yes, but he also allowed for the influence of social, cultural, political, etc. spheres. Certainly not to the degree that he might have, but if we reduce him to a thinker who worked in purely economic terms we ignore important nuance that does neither he nor us full justice.

    Maybe all this is academic, however. He was wrong enough that it’s hard to squeeze a lot of utility out of his writing as we seek solutions for what we face today, wasn’t he?

  8. Bonesparkle:

    Yes, Marx did acknowledge factors other than the purely economic, but I believe that his assertion that “The history of all previous societies has been the history of class struggles,” and by “class,” I believe he was referring to the amount of wealth one has.

    Yes, he pointed to a number of factors (most famously religion as the opiate of the masses and even including the position of females in culture), but the underpinning of what he did always came back to the struggle of the classes, and that struggle, to the best of my knowledge, was economic in nature.

    So, I’m going to stand by my original point at this time, but I’m very open to changing it if I have this wrong.

    Ann:

    It would be fun to have a discussion on human nature. I must disagree with at least one of your points, and maybe the second. That one, that man is short-sighted, would seem to indicate that man doesn’t interpret current experience in context of past experience, or the interpretation of past experience. I believe that would run contrary to pretty much all the research done in consistency theory, beginning with Heider in the 30s..

    Now, if by “short-sighted” you mean the span of a lifetime, I think we can come to some agreement EXCEPT in those cases where man uses a lens, an ideology, to interpret present and past experience. If this lens is tied to history, then I would assert that short-term experience does, in some way, mirror a long-term perspective.

    Where I must absolutely disagree with you on this statement: “man is not self-sacrificing by nature, forming groups based on shared self-interest and dissolving those groups when interests diverge.”

    This is, in essence, John Stuart Mill’s argument for “economic man.” In today’s parlance, it’s the basis for expectancy/valence motivational theory, and is indistinguishable from the idea that individuals seek to maximize individual outcomes. In fact, expectancy/valence theory doesn’t explain all sorts of human behaviors, such as a young soldier’s throwing himself on a grenade to save his buddies, for instance.

    But I’m getting wonky on you, Ann. Sorry. This is my life’s work, so I get sort of caught up in it.

  9. JSO: Yes, and it was this point I was alluding to in my earlier comment. Maybe it depends on how you read things – he allowed for the socio-political, but insisted on the primacy of the economic.

    But your point about class struggle is precisely the point – this is where I think he goes badly astray. This is the assumption on which he builds so much, and I simply don’t think it describes the reality of any culture I know of.

    I’m planning, at some point, to offer a commentary on politcal systems and their assumptions. With luck you’ll find it as cynical as you did this one….

  10. Solutions? Alternatives? I didn’t think so… Never any alternatives.

    The country has a problem. It’s Bush/Cheney. It’s looking at bombing Iran now because it can. Stay focused. It’s a short-term problem that will create long-term horrors.

    Too many countries… too many languages… We live in a world that’s comprised of 1,000s of little worlds. That’s the nonsense of it all.

    It’s easy to twist the words of any document but it means nothing unless you can profer a viable alternative – something that works.

    Is capitalism an essential root evil? From this document, it apparently is. It is a major tool in creating class distinctions. It has existed in all forms of government by various different names.

    How about religion? Is this another tool?

    Are you saying we need a benevolent dictator for this country? Or for the entire world?

    What’s your solution?

  11. I have no clue what “expectancy/valence motivational theory” is, but if it’s the equivalent of “everyone is selfish and all their motivations are inherently selfish,” then it makes sense to me.

    This may be one of the most cynical things I’ve ever said (and I’ve said it before, too), but I haven’t met a single person, hero or villain, whose every motivation wasn’t somehow traced to a personal selfish desire. Sometimes the need is positive, sometimes it’s the avoidance of a negative, but it’s always about “me” at the must fundamental level.

    And I don’t see that as a problem. I don’t see any contradiction in doing selfless acts for selfish reasons.

  12. Reboot: Let try and take your comments one at a time, if I may.

    Solutions? Alternatives? I didn’t think so… Never any alternatives.

    The world is full of alternatives. But there’s always the need for pragmatism – it does me no good to have a model that cannot plausibly be realized. Certainly there are smaller policy moves that can help, and enough of these might put you in a situation where you could begin thinking about larger-scale systemic change. Or maybe if you fix enough policies you no longer need large change.

    The country has a problem. It’s Bush/Cheney. It’s looking at bombing Iran now because it can. Stay focused. It’s a short-term problem that will create long-term horrors.

    You’re confusing the symptom for the disease, assuming I accept that things aren’t exactly as they ought to be. Whether good, bad or otherwise, Bush and Cheney are not the cause, they’re the effect. This is an important distinction that all would-be reformers would do well to note.

    Too many countries… too many languages… We live in a world that’s comprised of 1,000s of little worlds. That’s the nonsense of it all.

    So you’d favor a program aimed at … “unifying” everything? One world, exterminate other cultures, what? This is intriguing.

    It’s easy to twist the words of any document but it means nothing unless you can profer a viable alternative – something that works.

    Twist? Can you show me where I twisted anything?

    Is capitalism an essential root evil? From this document, it apparently is. It is a major tool in creating class distinctions. It has existed in all forms of government by various different names.

    You seem to be reading me all wrong. First off, I assign no evil to capitalism or anything else. I’m merely describing what I see and leaving the value judgments to others. Second, class distinctions existed long before captialism and will continue to exist long after it’s been replaced by something else. Capitalism merely has its own methods for defining class.

    How about religion? Is this another tool?

    Religion has served a number of distinct purposes. However, perhaps its greatest accomplishment has been in helping focus large masses of people away from their own self-interests. It’s no accident that the power elites in any successful culture treat the church well. Without an ideology of glorious afterlife to distract them, people would have little choice but to take note of their actual condition. Such an eventuality would inevitably lead to torches, pitchforks, barricades, and other public activities, none of which would be in the best interests of the power elite.

    Are you saying we need a benevolent dictator for this country? Or for the entire world?

    I offer no opinion on what “we” need. I’m merely pulling the curtain back on what you have.

    What’s your solution?

    You keep insisting that I provide a solution, which is odd, given that I never suggested there was a problem.

  13. Brian:

    It has long been obvious to me that there’s no such thing as “altruism.” As you say, all action is a response to some impulse to self-gratification. Mother Teresa and Donald Trump are the same – both act(ed) to make themselves feel good.

    “Altruism” is best understood as an external assessment of pro-sociality. Only a self-deluded twit would argue for the selflessness of human nature.

  14. JS:

    Laughing like a loon (as you might be, if you knew me) at an apology for wonkiness… you can’t go far enough in that direction to lose my interest.

    However, Brian and Bonesparkle already answered you for me – and much more succinctly than I might. I do draw the line at Boney’s possible assessment of you as a self-deluded twit – I can’t see fundamental generosity of spirit as a fault, even when I disagree with one or two of its philosophical manifestations.

    Cynical yet hopeful,
    Ann

  15. Ann, Bonesparkle, and Brian:

    I’m not entirely sure what a “non-self-deluded twit” might be. I believe that most, if not all, of our delusions are self-inflicted in one way or another. I will certainly plead guilty to being self-deluded. I know there are surely areas in my life in which this is true, the most probable being my strong belief that I’m a dead ringer for Leonardo DiCaprio.

    As for being a twit, I’m guilty as charged.

    When it comes to human motivation, on the other hand, I think my research into the topic, in support of what I do for a living, is fairly extensive, so that I lost my self-delusions about human behavior long ago and any misconceptions I may now have are the products of misunderstanding and/or faulty research on the part of the academic community.

    The fact is, I don’t have a philosophy about human behavior, because one no longer needs philosophy to explore it. Science does a pretty good job, I think. Besides, how could I possibly pit my pitiful philosophy against those who, judging from their comments, must surely worship at the feet of Ayn Rand ;-).

    Human motivation is a BIG topic and requires books to explore well, not a few blog entries and certainly not a response like this one. Having said that, I’m going to give this a bit of a go.

    Recent (and fascinating) research in neuro-psychology confirms that behavior is, to a large degree, about pleasure and pain. Not surprisingly, the trick is to maximize one and minimize the other. What’s fascinating, though, is that SOCIAL behavior causes pleasure, as does PUNISHING those who engage in anti-social behavior or, for that matter, any behavior not sanctioned by the social group. This is why economic games theory is so utterly useless in describing human behavior at the micro level: Sometimes, things like revenge and battling unfairness bring us more pleasure than simple monetary gain.

    In that sense, it is correct to say that altruism is connected to self-interest, since altruism in healthy humans is connected to pleasure. What is not correct is to suggest that altruism is always connected to the idea of give and take; that is, all giving to others must be connected to a reasonable assumption of debt and obligation. This is where the economic man theory falls short and has always fallen short (well, it’s ONE place anyway. There are others.)

    One thing that many fail to realize, or deliberately decide not to realize, is that we are animals and much of our motivation comes from hard-wired, mammalian and reptilian responses. Moreover, we are herd/pack animals who, like our close cousins the chimpanzees, are extremely territorial, reward social and punish anti-social behavior, and will cheerfully kill strangers in our territory.

    But, for whatever group we define as “our own,” evolution-determined altruism is both the norm and that which allows us to hold society (a very big herd) together.

    (BTW, of the four major Greek schools, I had to reject Epicureanism because I can’t afford it, Stoicism because I hate hair shirts, and Cynicism because it makes me unhappy. I prefer Skepticism, and I think I’ll stick with it ;-).)

  16. JS:

    See, I think we’re agreeing again, especially in the area of hard-wired brain responses. Maybe it’s terminology; yours is much more specific and well-researched than mine. Isn’t “altruism always connected to self-interest” what Brian was saying; action followed by reward, whatever form that reward might take? A warm gooey feeling deep inside is certainly a reward, though intangible.

    We’re monkeys with car keys, my friend.

  17. Ann:

    Yes, we are agreeing on one level. But I left out quite a bit, which include the influences of drive/habit (Pavlovian conditioning sorts of stuff) and consistency theory, which is the only theory that explains such things as self-defeating behavior, and resistance to changes in behavior that are obviously needed.

    At some point, yes, it all comes down to the way an individual’s personal psychology causes him or her to react to things based on a perception of personal pain and pleasure, but I think it’s quite unfair to paint humans as completely “selfish,” when what most people mean by “selfish” is behavior that is anti-social.

    (BTW, I read your blog and responded to one of them. You, my dear, are one helluva writer. For what it’s worth, I’m impressed.)

  18. JSO:

    In that sense, it is correct to say that altruism is connected to self-interest, since altruism in healthy humans is connected to pleasure. What is not correct is to suggest that altruism is always connected to the idea of give and take; that is, all giving to others must be connected to a reasonable assumption of debt and obligation. This is where the economic man theory falls short and has always fallen short (well, it’s ONE place anyway. There are others.)

    I’m not sure I have suggested that, at all. In fact, my impression is that I was saying the exact opposite. Let me put it more succinctly, and forgive me if I essentialize: in terms of internal motivational dynamics, altruism is indistinguishable from hedonism. It is a dressed-up expression of id.

    But, for whatever group we define as “our own,” evolution-determined altruism is both the norm and that which allows us to hold society (a very big herd) together.

    And this is important. That which we call altruism certainly serves a productive purpose – pro-social activity improves the lot of the herd and the individual. However, this doesn’t prove the existence of selflessness. On the contrary, it adds depth to our understanding of its non-existence.

  19. Bonesparkle, my underworld friend, one must define “selfless” before we can proceed. If you MUST define “selfless” only as that for which there is no internal, chemical reward (or reduction of negative reward), then that word, and the word “selfish,” become virtually useless. To say that your failure to offer me a stick of gum is “selfish” would cease to have meaning, since all behavior is selfish. We would need to invent a different term for behavior that is not herd-centered/socially centered. The term “anti-social” is already tied to criminal behavior, so I don’t think we can use that.

    Perhaps we should shy away from using the term “selfless” and go with “selfish” and “charitable.”

    What thinks thou, o thou unholiness?

  20. Bonesparkle, my underworld friend, one must define “selfless” before we can proceed. If you MUST define “selfless” only as that for which there is no internal, chemical reward (or reduction of negative reward), then that word, and the word “selfish,” become virtually useless. To say that your failure to offer me a stick of gum is “selfish” would cease to have meaning, since all behavior is selfish. We would need to invent a different term for behavior that is not herd-centered/socially centered. The term “anti-social” is already tied to criminal behavior, so I don’t think we can use that.

    I’m no Webster, but when I use the term I think I’m referring to an act that benefits others and offers no benefits, and is potentially detrimental, to the actor. We laud Mother Teresa for leading this life of poverty, which is harsh and awful and all sorts of other things that we think are undesirable, and she does it only to benefit others. My argument is that regardless of how it looks, people only do the things that set off the endorphins, as it were. MT gets the same charge out of helping the poor that Trump gets out of building a new tower.

    I’m open to the idea that there are better ways of looking at it.

    What thinks thou, o thou unholiness?

    Hey, I’m just a diplomat.

  21. Bonesparkle:

    Once again, I believe it comes down to definition. Of what use is it to say, “Bonesparkle is being selfish because he won’t lend me his wife for a fortnight of pleasure” if, in fact, ALL behavior is selfish. The term “selfish” then loses its usefulness, because it is so broad that to accuse someone of being “selfish” would be the same as accusing someone of being a vertebrate.

    And, yet, there is behavior that is pro-herd and behavior that is anti-herd, would you agree? And since, traditionally, this behavior has been described as being “selfish” and “selfless,” where are we to go if we no longer have useful terms to describe this behavior.

    I would submit that you are devilishly attempting to frustrate your heavenly adversaries by convincing human beings that there is no such thing as pro-herd behavior.

    I believe that, if you were to really probe the semantic issue with the average human, you would find the term “selfless” attached to that behavior that has no EXTRINSIC reward, or even negative extrinsic consequences. The guy who jumps on the live grenade to save his buddies may feel a few agonizing seconds warm gooiness before his entire body becomes warm and gooey, but I hardly think it’s appropriate for the newspapers to write, “Private Gorfnozzle selfishly jumped on a grenade to give himself a few seconds of pleasure, selfishly saving his buddies from certain death.”

    If you MUST do away with the term “selfish” as a useful term, then we certainly must replace it or find ourselves entirely unable to describe certain events. I think THIS is where our disagreement lies. I have testified to my belief that we are wired to have good feelings from doing good things for others. So it’s clear that I believe there are intrinsic rewards in doing good for others. Where we differ is that I believe the term “selfish” should apply exclusively to extrinsic rewards in order to give the word useful meaning.

  22. The term “selfish” then loses its usefulness, because it is so broad that to accuse someone of being “selfish” would be the same as accusing someone of being a vertebrate.

    Ah – yes, I think that’s my point exactly! You say it better than I did.

    And, yet, there is behavior that is pro-herd and behavior that is anti-herd, would you agree?

    I would.

    And since, traditionally, this behavior has been described as being “selfish” and “selfless,” where are we to go if we no longer have useful terms to describe this behavior.

    I’m not suggesting that there is not pro-herd behavior. I’m merely noting that it stems from the attempt to act on selfish principles.

    I would submit that you are devilishly attempting to frustrate your heavenly adversaries by convincing human beings that there is no such thing as pro-herd behavior.

    Not true at all. In fact, I believe basic Liberal theory suggests that individuals acting on their own interests produce a greater good for the whole, right?

    I believe that, if you were to really probe the semantic issue with the average human, you would find the term “selfless” attached to that behavior that has no EXTRINSIC reward, or even negative extrinsic consequences. The guy who jumps on the live grenade to save his buddies may feel a few agonizing seconds warm gooiness before his entire body becomes warm and gooey, but I hardly think it’s appropriate for the newspapers to write, “Private Gorfnozzle selfishly jumped on a grenade to give himself a few seconds of pleasure, selfishly saving his buddies from certain death.”

    Let’s not get into journalistic standards here. However, a lot of soldiers wouldn’t have jumped on that grenade, right? Those soldiers were clearly driven by the sense that living was better than flying off into many directions at once. Pvt. Gorfnozzle, on the other hand, acted on an impulse that saw “sacrifice” as more rewarding. Maybe there’s a martyr complex in play there, but the example hardly refutes my position.

  23. Boner:

    It’s not a matter of refutation. We agree on the fact that people do get some sort of reward, or avoid some sort of pain, from their actions, and choose accordingly. What I’m suggesting is refinement of principle.

    Is it true, to you, that a person who puts a bullet in a man’s head and steals his wallet, and a person who jumps into a freezing river and nearly loses his life saving a little kid’s dog should both be described as “selfish?”

    If so, “selfish” has now become a useless word, because it is no longer of use in classifying particular kinds of behavior.

    What term(s) would you suggest to replace pro-herd and anti-herd behavior?

  24. Good morning, Bonesparkle.

    What a deliciously miserable missive! I enjoyed it immensely. One item that you mentioned, too briefly I think, was the Industrial Revolution. In particular, the extension of Human Rights to Corporations was something I firmly believe TJ would have railed against as a fraud on the people, just as the selling out on the newspaper’s part would have dismayed him, surely.

    As to selfless acts, there are indeed those that are done with no recompense, though they be distateful. Having said that, you both have covered enough of that topic, thanks. 😉 JS O’Brien and Ann, your well reasoned comments here are a pleasure to peruse as well!

    Youse guy’s are a lily bit outta my league, so I’ll just sit back here and enjoy reading from now on!

  25. JSO – Thanks for the explanation(s). It’s one thing to think about this stuff off and on for fun, it’s something else to have access to someone who works with the science of behavior on a daily basis, so it’s nice to have a more informed view than my own around.

    In my world (not necessarily the real world, since I hardly have enough experience in behavioral sciences to know how things are defined), the words “selfish” and “selfless” describe behaviors that are fundamentally individual-focused, not herd/socially focused. Phrases like “you’re being selfish” or “it was a selfless act” are fundamentally meaningless because even supposedly “selfless” acts are done, as you pointed out, to maximize personal pleasure or minimize personal pain.

    But I’m quite willing to open up the conversation to the social arena, where we divorce inherently selfish motivations from their social context and their impact on social situations, networks, etc. But, again in my world, I’d prefer different words to define those situations than “selfish” and “selfless.” You’re proposal of “charitable” is a good starting point.

  26. What a deliciously miserable missive!

    Thank you – what a kind thing to say.

    One item that you mentioned, too briefly I think, was the Industrial Revolution. In particular, the extension of Human Rights to Corporations was something I firmly believe TJ would have railed against as a fraud on the people, just as the selling out on the newspaper’s part would have dismayed him, surely.

    I go back and forth on what I think Tom would have made of Corporation as Citizen. On the one hand, it doesn’t seem to fit with his stated ideals, but on the other, his ideals didn’t necessarily anticipate the Industrial Revolution. In his context, citizenship was automatically vested in the financial elite – the agrarian landowner. And he was clearly okay with locating political power within that financial elite.

    Youse guy’s are a lily bit outta my league, so I’ll just sit back here and enjoy reading from now on!

    You should never let being out of your league keep you from over-participating. I know I certainly don’t, and as I think I’ve suggested, that’s just not the American way. >:)

  27. Brian said:

    “In my world (not necessarily the real world, since I hardly have enough experience in behavioral sciences to know how things are defined), the words “selfish” and “selfless” describe behaviors that are fundamentally individual-focused, not herd/socially focused. Phrases like “you’re being selfish” or “it was a selfless act” are fundamentally meaningless because even supposedly “selfless” acts are done, as you pointed out, to maximize personal pleasure or minimize personal pain.”

    Thanks Brian. Yes, this is what I meant, though I didn’t say it very well. If we are to define “selfish” so broadly that ALL human behavior falls within that definition, then we have no good way to categorize behavior by that which is individual-focused and that which is herd-focused. I think some people might vote for “social” and “anti-social,” but those terms are also misleading, since individual-focused behavior is not necessarily anti-social in the sense that it is criminal (which is how “anti-social” is so often used).

    And I think it gets even deeper than this. I believe that most of our perceptions of good and evil behaviors are wrapped up in herd-focused and individual-focused behavior. Redefine terms like “selfish” and “selfless,” and one finds no symbolic distinction between Mother Theresa and Adolph HItler, since both were acting “selfishly.” We end up with moral equivalency in all behaviors, since they are all “selfish.” The mugger and his victim, being motivated by the same avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure, would be the same, morally.

    I think this is a dangerous concept, and it really doesn’t suprise me that a denizen of Hell advanced it.

  28. JSO:

    If we are to define “selfish” so broadly that ALL human behavior falls within that definition, then we have no good way to categorize behavior by that which is individual-focused and that which is herd-focused. I think some people might vote for “social” and “anti-social,” but those terms are also misleading, since individual-focused behavior is not necessarily anti-social in the sense that it is criminal (which is how “anti-social” is so often used).

    I think there’s an unwarranted obsession here with motivation. What’s so hard about this: all motivation is ultimately self-oriented. However, self-oriented action often leads to pro-herd effects.

    Redefine terms like “selfish” and “selfless,” and one finds no symbolic distinction between Mother Theresa and Adolph HItler, since both were acting “selfishly.” We end up with moral equivalency in all behaviors, since they are all “selfish.” The mugger and his victim, being motivated by the same avoidance of pain and seeking of pleasure, would be the same, morally. I think this is a dangerous concept, and it really doesn’t suprise me that a denizen of Hell advanced it.

    Oh, now I see. You want a way to be “morally” advanced.

    If this is the real point, then why are you talking about Mother Teresa and Hitler, who are not famous for their motivations at all, but instead for the effects of their actions? In your formulation I should equate Mother Teresa with those whose actions lead to disaster, but they did so with the best of intentions, right?

    What’s that old saw about “the road to hell”?

  29. Popping in because I actually recognized a term or two, but you have to scroll way back up to find the post.

    “Social behavior causes pleasure, as does punishing those who engage in anti-social behavior…” Agreed. Unfortunately, there’s no way to test that response in a truly controlled situation, i.e., a human animal with no previous social contact placed into a social group. So, hard-wired or conditioned? I’d love to know. (Behavioral science is not my thing, man, but I can tell you this: every budding linguist, no matter how humane, secretly hopes for a wolf boy to turn up.)

    Also, in terms of reward, I’ve never been sure where extrinsic shades into intrinsic, since group approval certainly reinforces inner satisfaction, but is not always guaranteed even in extremely controlled societies, and can be expected but not relied upon.

    And finally (thank heavens) consistency theory – the term I recognized. Hugely important, no debate there. If relief from cognitive dissonance isn’t motivation, nothing is. I quote:

    “We fear the unknown. We hate the unexpected. We shit ourselves when the lights go out suddenly…”

    I’ll leave the “selfish” definitions up to the rest of you, because that’s precisely the kind of wonkery that can keep me glued to the keyboard for hours.

  30. Ann:

    You’re a LINGUIST! I’m so impressed! Some of my best friends are linguists. It was a linguist who first turned me on to semantics and began to change my life. He’s a Hittitologist, if you can believe it.

    I agree that teasing out hard wired and conditioned responses is very difficult. In your example, taking a human being with no previous social contact would probably rewire the brain, since it would appear that this wiring may be done in early childhood. Lock up an infant in a closet and feed it intravenously and I’m sure you will get a product that is not quite human in the way we know it (ergo, your longing for a modern Romulus or Remus).

    The term “extrinsic reward” tends to refer to something tangible that can be seen and measured. Usually, it’s capital goods or specie of some kind. And, yes, it is common for humans to closely associate intrinsic rewards with extrinsic ones, such as the sales rep who closely associates money with success and success with love.

    Thanks for the conversation.

  31. You’d be more conniving if you were not so opinionated. However the replies are on the same level which makes me think, that most of you are as lost as I.

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