Monday, August 20, 2007

Authoritarianism and the Habits of Philosophers

One of the bad habits of philosophers is to try to provide argumentation from reason alone for points that need observable evidence. I call this move the "philosophers' fallacy" and even I fall prey to it. But as a wise man once said, "Baby, even the losers get lucky sometimes." (O.k., maybe not wise, but he wrote some darn good tunes.)

Such was the case with my post Conservatives Look at "Who" and Liberals Look at "What" that dates back about a year and a half or so. In it, I argued in this way:

For conservatives, the game is never in questions; it is only a matter of who is going to win. On the line is absolute power. Control is the goal and in a dog eat dog world, it is either us or them. If you are not for us having all the power, then you are for them. You are with us or with the terrorists. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The game is invariant, it is simply a question of having the combination of the power and the will to win. We have the power, without question, and thus it simply becomes a question of will.

Liberals, on the other hand, see the game itself as that which needs changing. They see conservatives from all sides locked in the international relations equivalent of stupid frat boy games of punching each other more and more viciously to see who will flinch first and they think the whole thing stupid, childish and counterproductive to the real lives of real people, people who are needlessly suffering. It is not a question of winning or losing the game, it is a question of stopping the game and playing something else, something cooperative, a game that will not convey absolute power to any side.

Indeed, the terms conservatives and liberals are the wrong terms to use here. They indicate political left and right, but that's not what is at issue here. What we are really talking about here is authoritarianism vs. anti-authoritarianism. There have been horrible authoritarians on the left and the right. We can point to the same sort of play for absolute power by American neo-conservatives, British colonialists, Augusto Pinochet,... as by those who espouse far left ideologies like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. In the same way, you can hear anti-authoritarian views on the left and the right (Karl Popper is an example from the right). It just so happens that at this place and at this time, contemporary views line up so that nationalism and the justification of authoritarian actions by it are coming from the American political right.

The anti-authoritarian left does something that the authoritarian right cannot make sense of, they broaden the scope of discussion. The left acknowledges that the system is a human construct which we can -- by considerable political effort and at considerable financial cost -- radically overhaul. We can change the sociological factors that help create the society we live in. The right ignores sociology, instead positing only a very naive atomistic psychology of freedom to individuals. This is what is behind the conservative rhetoric of "personal responsibility," it is all about making sure that the focus remains on the individual and that consideration is never given to changing the structure within which the individuals are embedded.
The claim here is that there are different sorts of people, those who defend the foundations of the power of the authorities and those who seek to undermine it for the broader well-being of all involved. That is an empirical claim, something that is not speculative philosophy, but empirical psychology. This is the sort of thing for which one would need data from working social scientists.

Thanks to this post by Moonbat, over at Mahablog, we now know of a psychologist who has not only been doing this work, but who has written a popular account of the research on authoritarian personality types (both authoritarian leaders and authoritarian followers) and has even made it available for free download.

In the first chapter, he writes:
Authoritarian followers…support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalities featuring:

* a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
* high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
* a high level of conventionalism.

Because the submission occurs to traditional authority, I call these followers rightwing authoritarians. I’m using the word “right” in one of its earliest meanings, for in Old English “riht”(pronounced “writ”) as an adjective meant lawful, proper, correct, doing what the authorities said.

In North America, people who submit to the established authorities to extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives, so you can call them “right-wingers” both in my new-fangled psychological sense and in the usual political sense. But someone who lived in a country long ruled by Communists and who ardently supported the Communist Party would also be one of my psychological right-wing authoritarians even though we would also say he was a political left-winger. So a right-wing authoritarian follower doesn’t necessarily have conservative political views. Instead he’s someone who readily submits to the established authorities in society, attacks others in their name, and is highly conventional. It’s an aspect of his personality, not a description of his politics.
Score a lucky shot for the philosophers.

The book is a wonderful read and would make a great basis for a class to be team-taught by a psychologist and either a philosopher or political scientist. Indeed, it seems to lend credence to Hanno's reading of Hobbes who argues in the Leviathan that we must have a social contract to protect us from ourselves because we are nasty, selfish, backstabbing jerks. Hanno's take is that Hobbes is not making a universal claim about all humans, but merely positing a sociological claim that there will always be some amongst us who are like that and having just a handful of such people is enough to start the political theory ball rolling. What we get from decades of research on authoritarian personality types is a modern account of Hobbes' picture.

Altmeyer recounts an his variant of the famous Zimbardo prison experiment. In the original, graduate students at Stanford were divided up into two groups, prisoners and prison guards, and put in a prison environment with the guards having complete control over the prisoners. The results were frightening. The experiment famously had to be stopped because of the increasingly sadistic behavior of the guards.

In Altmeyer's variant, he first gives a questionnaire to test the degree of one's authoritarian disposition. He then sets up a situation in which those who are on the authoritarian end of the scale are in charge and compares it to what happens when those who are on the anti-authoritarian part of the spectrum are given the chance to lead. The results are both unsurprising and incredible. Those with authoritarian tendencies destroy the whole out of selfish and vindictive aggression, whereas those with an anti-authoritarian bent are generally willing to work out creative solutions that benefit everyone. Where Zimbardo's experiment leaves us wistfully wondering if we are doomed to repeat the worst horrors of human history over and over again, Altmeyer gives us hope that if only we select the right leaders, the world can be a more peaceful place conducive to human flourishing and begins to sketch out what the qualifications look like.

Most people, of course, are somewhere in the middle of the scale and very much influenced by the world around us. We obey two masters, morality and normality, and when they disagree normality wins in the overwhelming number of cases. Consider variants the Stanley Milgram ran on his famous experiment in submission to authority. In the original, a subject is told by the experimenter when to push a button that the subject thinks applies an electrical shock of increasing intensity to a fellow subject (really a confederate). The level of intensity clearly grew as the experiment went on until the last buttons which gave what the subject believed to be lethal. In Milgram's version, the majority, 62% of the subjects followed the authority and pushed the button that they believed executed a person whose only crime was getting picked to be on the wrong side of a psychology experiment. And they only did it because an authority told them to.

In the variant, the experiment was conducted next to two confederates supposedly performing the same experiment, so as the subject was engaged in the experiment, he had a model of someone else's behavior to observe. In one set, the other "subject" would comply with the will of the authority and in the other, the he would disobey and stop the experiment. When those around them defied authority, 90% of the test subjects also did. When the "other" subject obeyed authority, 92% of the real test subjects did as well.

We are incredibly plastic beings. Alfred Adler said, "To be human is to be insecure." The pull to be normal, to fit in with the world around us is often overwhelming, even when we know we shouldn't. But when that normality contains examples of those who stand up to authority, when the norm includes rational consideration of and acting on what is right, this changes us and changes the world. Anne Herbert's sentiment "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty" may be cheesy, sappy, and crunchy, but the research seems to support its efficacy. To quote Altmeyer,
[T]he vast majority of us have had practically no training in our lifetimes in openly defying authority. The authorities who brought us up mysteriously forgot to teach that. We may desperately want to say no, but that turns out to be a huge step that most people find impossibly huge -- even when the authority is only a psychologist you never heard of running an insane experiment, and your obedience means you probably are going to kill someone. From our earliest days, we are told disobedience is a sin, and obedience is a virtue, the "riht" thing to do.
So those of us who are authorities -- parents, professors, bosses -- can our behavior in encouraging insubordination really affect the world? That, of course, tends to be another habit of philosophers, this one seems to be a good one, though.