We have seen in grim detail recently just what the Republican program for “solving” our deficit problem is going to entail when Representative Paul Ryan (now Chair of the House Budget Committee) presented his plan for cutting nearly $6 trillion from the deficit. It involved big cuts in spending for social programs—especially Medicare and Medicaid—and NO raising of taxes, especially on the rich. The bitter pill prescribed by the Republicans, in brief, puts the onus of sacrifice on the poorest, most helpless of our citizens in order that the wealthiest, most powerful can avoid sacrifice altogether and continue to thrive beyond all imagining. The House passed this plan April 15 on a strictly party-line vote, nearly all Republicans voting for it, and all Democrats opposing it.
What we have come to in this country, then, is a situation where a major party makes little attempt to hide its callousness toward the poor and weak and its devotion to the strong and rich. Oh, Republicans prate on about the “great crisis” of growing deficits, but their emphasis is on the unsustainability of the “social handouts” instituted by Democrats: Social Security, Medicare, and other attempts to mitigate the suffering of the least among us.
What I keep wondering is what kind of people could adopt programs and policies of this kind. Who could be so heartless as to essentially thumb their noses at the vast majority of human beings on this planet (see also Republican-led House vote April 7 to kill EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases and the science they’re based on)? A recent book by Sam Harris (The Moral Landscape) may offer a few answers. It is not that Harris’ book proposes any kind of socially conscious program. It is that in reviewing neuroscientific and psychological research on the possible cognitive bases for morality, Harris cites studies that are quite revealing indeed about such subjects as psychopathology, religion, belief, and the human capacity for empathy.
Begin with a series of studies by the psychologist Paul Slovic, especially concerning our capacity to reason morally about suffering. What Slovic has found is that humans seem to have an innate mechanism that predisposes most of us to show concern when a single, identifiable human life is threatened, but to decrease our concern almost to indifference when more lives are involved. In other words, there is a “psychic numbing” that sets in as the number of victims of any kind of disaster rises. Instead of being MORE concerned the more people are affected by an earthquake, say, our concern grows progressively less as the death toll rises. This is revealed in donations: people give generously when they are shown a single child suffering; but with two children, the donations drop, while, as more children are shown suffering, the donations (and compassion) grow progressively less. There’s even a name for this: the “identifiable victim effect.” What I wonder is if Republicans/conservatives operate in a more exaggerated way than others in this regard. They pride themselves on being very compassionate to their own. But when it’s thousands or millions of inner city kids who are starving, or millions of homeless who have fallen on hard times, or many millions of seniors who depend on the pittance they derive from social security or medicare, Republican compassion disappears. Let them eat cake.
Such focus on the concern (or lack of it) for the suffering of others brings to the fore another area of research, the study of psychopathology. Psychopaths (and we seem to have had some great examples in high office recently) are characterized by able intelligence and even “sanity” (they understand the difference between right and wrong), but a kind of deficit in their ability to feel compassion for the pain or suffering of others. Many violent criminals are categorized as psychopaths: they simply seem unable to feel anything for their victims. Neuroimaging work now suggests that psychopathy is
…a product of pathological arousal and reward. People scoring high on the psychopathic personality inventory show abnormally high activity in the reward regions of their brain (in particular, the nucleus accumbens) in response to amphetamine and while anticipating monetary gains. (p. 98)
Researchers speculate that since psychopaths respond excessively to anticipated rewards (I’m gonna get rich!), their ability to learn from the negative emotions of others is correspondingly reduced or blocked. In fact, in tests asking psychopaths to identify the mental states of other people from photographs, psychopaths do as well as others except in one area: they seem “unable to recognize expressions of fear and sadness in others.” This failure in emotional learning (a human trait crucial to socialization that is shared even by our primate relatives) seems to be one key to psychopathy: neuroscientists believe that impairments in the amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex are associated with the emotional failure. Thus blind to the suffering he causes, the psychopath keeps reinforcing his callousness and cruelty, and simply never learns to care about others. While no one would say that all Republicans or conservatives are psychopaths, surely we can see that their apparent failure in empathy (or perhaps their reduced “circle of empathy”—i.e. limited to only those with whom they have close relations) resembles in alarming ways the indifference to human suffering exhibited by the psychopathic personality.
Finally, we see that Republicans/conservatives often tend to be those who demand open, public fealty to religious belief, more specifically, belief in the literal Christian dictates of the Bible (“57% of Americans think one must believe in God to have good values and to be moral, and 69% want a president guided by strong religious belief”). Their demands to end abortion (Rick Santorum recently made a speech in which he attributed the allegedly failing Social Security system to a high abortion rate—so many children not born means too few contributing to Social Security income!), and to make religion more prominent in public forums, schools, and social legislation, are but a few examples of this mania. Harris is very hard on the effects this has for American public life and for morality in general. For if, as Harris maintains, morality can be understood as fostering the well-being of the highest number in any population (rather than with how many profess belief in God), the United States falls far short of other developed nations. Though the U.S. scores extremely high on the religiosity scale, it scores far lower than many allegedly atheistic nations on the well-being/equality scale. As Harris writes, “In addition to being the most religious of developed nations, the United States also has the greatest economic inequality.” By contrast, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands, among the most atheistic societies on the planet, all do better on measures of well-being like life expectancy, infant mortality, crime, literacy, GDP, child welfare, education, political stability, charity to poorer nations, and so on. As the capper to this critique, Harris cites a 2010 study (Hall, Matz, and Wood, “Why don’t we practice what we preach?” Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14(1) indicating that American religious commitment is “highly correlated with racism” (146). If this isn’t strong enough, Harris also cites a recent Baltimore court case in which a small Christian group (One Mind Ministries) was accused of murdering an 18-month-old infant, Javon Thompson. His sin: he stopped saying “Amen” before breakfast, an act considered rebellious by the group’s leader, Queen Antoinette. His punishment: being deprived of all food and water for days. The mother agreed to help the prosecution indict the others on condition that all charges against them would be dropped if her dead child was resurrected. Though the group carried the corpse with them for some time, the resurrection has yet to take place. (Dan Morse, “Plea deal includes resurrection clause,” Washington Post, March 31, 2009.)
Harris does not contend that religious training and/or belief trains people in murder or racism. He does suggest that ignorance and such beliefs go hand in hand, as indicated by these statistics: “42% of Americans believe that life has existed in its present form since the beginning of the world” (149). This is tantamount to saying that evolution, as confirmed by virtually all scientists, simply does not exist. Another 78% believe that the Bible is actually the word of God, while 79% of Christians believe that Jesus will “physically return to the earth.” The point is clear: If so many Americans believe in such “truths,” how can anyone expect them to be able to discern truth from falsehood, or right from wrong in any arena whatever? How can they be expected to understand or exhibit compassion towards all the “unbelievers” out there—including the billions who will be most affected by global warming? How can anyone expect them to care in the least for those homeless “sinners” on our streets who have “failed” to provide for themselves?
When I contemplate the fact that much of this nation has fallen into the hands of such fanatics and incipient psychopaths, I have to tell you, it is very hard not to despair.