Tuesday, 28 August 2012

It's Human Nature to examine the Nature of Humans

In this Sunday's Observer, Barbara Ellen suggests that a better way to react to the sentence handed down to the far right terrorist, Anders Breivik, is to invoke an embargo on stories about him.  She says in her article,

The victims’ families are one thing, but what information do the rest of us truly need about a mass murderer apart from “he’s still locked up”?...I’d prefer to think of him fading into the obscurity he deserves, left to the prison staff and shrinks to sort out.

I disagree with Ms. Ellen.  Certainly there are many who are strangely excited by atrocities and other violent acts.  The whole world of homi-entertainment is disturbing and a huge area to be studied in more depth, but there are also important ethical and philosophical questions that people who behave like Breivik force us to ask ourselves.  These questions cannot just be left to the psychologists and cbt.  Human nature will never be fully explained by genetics, endowments, physiology, upbringing, conditions and evolution.   All these contribute to our understanding, but even when taken together, they’re incomplete.

Despite coldly assassinating 77 people, Anders Breivik was judged to be sane by the Norwegian court which sentenced him to 21 years in prison.  How could a sane person carefully plan and carry out such a series of atrocities?  The reason you find uttered by many, even secular humanists and atheists, is that the perpetrator of such crimes is evil.  Instead of burying this story along with the others similarly unbearable, we need a deeper discussion about what evil is, where it comes from and what it means to be human.  And it’s philosophers, theologians and fictional authors who get to the heart of the nature of evil, where it truly resides and what can be done about it.

William Golding was passionate about the ways in which evil play out in our world; Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin speak more about human nature than the findings of brain scans.  Terry Eagleton, the Marxist intellectual, describes the condition of evil rather than a list of causes.  In his book On Evil he says:

It is supremely pointless.  Anything as humdrum as a purpose would tarnish its lethal purity…Evil aspires to God’s creativity but reverses it, turning the gift of being into non-being through various techniques of annihilation.  Evil, however, can only annul what has already been brought into being and cancelling what is created only intensifies our sense of the sheer goodness of being.  This drives its agents mad, and their destructiveness, where circumstances permit, reaches unimaginable pitches of frenzy if they don’t consume themselves first.

If Breivik is sane, can a secular psychological approach transform his nature?  Without spiritual redemption, is there any hope for change, for him or any of us?

Monday, 13 August 2012

A Dangerous Legacy

After months of eager anticipation, I was finally able to watch David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method on dvd.  Wonderful acting without a doubt, but what an immense disappointment and unambitious result for what could have been a powerful and important film about two giants in the field of psychology, Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud.

The film focuses largely on Jung’s relationship with one of his patients, Sabina Spielrein, played superbly by the actress Keira Knightly.  And though the relationship was rather disturbing, it was unfortunately nothing film watchers today would find extraordinarily twisted. 

The other main storyline is Jung’s relationship with Freud.  The film shows that a rift had formed between the master and student but gives us very little information as to the true details of this dispute.  And this is the major fault of the film because the legacy of Jung to this day is his point of departure from Freud. 

To my own amazement, the pivotal line in the film is one uttered by Freud with which I agree!  He’s speaking to Sabina Spielrein about her own psychological theories and those of Jung and specifically about Jung’s preoccupation with mysticism and the occult.  Spielrein explains that the point of this exploration is for psychoanalysis to provide not just an explanation to patients of their psychopathy, but to provide them with a path towards a new life: “[Jung] wants to be able to say we can show you what it is you might want to become.”  For Jung this path was to be found via the mythic world of one’s dreams linked to what he believed to be mystical, universal archetypes.

Freud replies to Spielrein that it isn’t the job of psychiatrists to play God, to tell people how to live their lives.  He says: “We have no right to do that.  The world is as it is.  Understanding and accepting that is the way to psychic health.  What good can we do if our aim is simply to replace one delusion with another?”  Though I think what Freud was attempting to do, declare that philosophy was dead (akin to Nietzsche announcing the same for God), Jung was rather siding with the existentialists, believing that a human being could choose his or her essence and destiny.  Unfortunately, however, he believed that this essence was to be found within the subconscious, accessed through mystical techniques including self-induced trances, the occult and séances.  
The primary influences for his theories were Germany mysticism, Hellenistic paganism and Gnosticism.  None of this rich material is explored in the firm, to its detriment.

An apparently pivotal moment in Jung’s life - which helped him to distil his notions into theories - occurred in 1913 when he induced himself into a trance and imagined that his head had changed into that of a lion and that he had become a god.  He believed this validated the idea that he was a pagan saviour sent to summon Aryan culture back from Christianity (which he considered to have failed) in order to save the soul of the world.  He also believed his ‘disciples’ were sent to him to perform service in his new religion, thereby fulfilling their special destiny.[1]

I believe that Jung’s legacy lives on in the self-help industry.  Psychological science is invaluable to both individuals and to the other social sciences in providing a systematic structure for understanding why people think, feel and behave the way they do.  However, I believe that due in part to the work of Carl Jung, the recommendations for a personal transformed life have tendentiously stuck to monistic mystical methods, like meditation, yoga and mindfulness.  These are prescribed as scientifically-proven calming methods; sometimes presented as secular and sometimes as spiritual, but their roots and purposes are from eastern monism, championed by one of the fathers of the dangerous method, Carl Jung.

[1] Richard Noll, The Aryan Christ, Random House, 1997.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Catastrophic Errors caused by Corporate Governance Failings

Andrew Haldane, Executive Director of Financial Stability at the Bank of England was recently interviewed by William Davies, Demos Associate and Research Fellow at Said Business School.  They discussed the causes of the financial crisis, trends in economic thinking, the financial system and policy responses.  Haldane talks about the mathematisation of the discipline of economics and is critical of the assumptions upon which many models are based, saying that many “made no intellectual sense.”

The part of the interview which I found most interesting was Haldane’s identification of corporate governance failings as a critical reason for what he calls “catastrophic errors” in decision making.  Haldane says that these problems are particularly acute in banking and financial institutions: 

this has led to a corporate governance structure in which those owning maybe 5% of the balance sheet – i.e. the shareholders – have the primary, some would say the exclusive, power in controlling the fortunes of the firm.  There is no say from the debt-holders or depositors or workers or any sense of the wider public good which we know to be important in banking and finance.  We also know that those firms are working on time horizons which in some cases are really quite short.  So to think that his will necessarily lead to the best outcome, even for the longer-term value of the firm, is questionable given the governance model.

He asks how corporate governance structures evolved into those which we see today: 

at each stage it was a sensible reason.  But it led to a corporate governance structure that looks pretty peculiar, given where we started off 150 years ago.  So what I mentioned about structures and incentives – an important thing about that is who runs the firm and how they run the firm.  I think that corporate governance in the way I’ve defined it is super important – more important than regulation in getting us into a better place.

So we have it from a director of our central bank: the reform of corporate governance is critical to the financial stability of our economic system, more important than regulation.