Psychopathic Benevolence

I’ve mentioned before that I think many folks on the Statist side of things actually mean well — perhaps even most of them. I’m also not averse to admitting that folks on my side of the political fence have their fair share of rotters, blackguards, and swine. However, I would suggest that those very good intentions are precisely a reason why we should keep them as far as possible from the levers of power.

It’s not a new idea, of course, but a combination of readings led me back to it this morning. In my British Lit survey this morning, we looked at Byron’s Manfred, the title character of which is (unsurprisingly) something close to a pure draught of what would become known as the Byronic hero. Manfred is constantly seeing himself as a bird of prey surrounded by beasts of burden, living, feeling, and thinking far too intensely for ordinary folks like us to understand. He is accountable to no one but himself, treating witches, demons, and priests with equal disdain. He also spends a significant portion of the play bemoaning the fact that no one can understand the intensity of his inner torment, stemming from the fact that he destroyed his true love (whom he unsurprisingly describes as a feminized version of himself.) In short, he’s something between a narcissist and a full-on sociopath, convinced of his superiority to those around him; he’s a harbinger of a sort of Dostoyevskian Extraordinary Man, willing to transform the world without subjecting himself to it, or of Ahab, who would smite the sun if it offended him.

After class this morning, I read Roger Kimball’s remarks introducing a conference on “Limited government in an age of uncertainty.” Along the way, he strikes a point that encapsulates many of my problems with the Left:

In the aftermath of November’s election, President Obama several times pleaded with opponents to “put politics aside.” I know there is a cynical interpretation according to which this admonition was merely Chicago-style political hypocrisy. Perhaps that is part of the story. But I think there was something more or other than hypocrisy involved. I think that President Obama was sincere. Like many friends of humanity, Barack Obama believes that politics are what his opponents—those whom he in an unguarded moment recently referred to as “enemies”—engage in. His occupation is less politics than benevolence. Essentially, he believes, he has already “put politics aside.” Sure, it might be necessary to indulge in politics occasionally to get things done, but his goals, he believes, transcend that grubby, partisan business. They occupy, he thinks, a realm of virtue that may guide politics but is not subject to politics’ selfish imperatives.

What’s interesting here is that transcendence. Because his dreams are benevolent, their fulfillment transcends little things like the individual desire for self-determination. Like Manfred, Obama and his supporters see us as mere beasts of burden, our eyes cast downward, blind to the perception held by the high-flying eagles and falcons of DC. In short, these folks see themselves as what Thomas Sowell calls “the Anointed.” This is, after all, a man who announced that he would “transform America.” This is a man whose wife informed us that we would not be allowed to return to our ordinary lives. They are so certain of their own superiority that their whims are to be indulged, and we’d recognize it if we only knew what was good for us. If benevolence makes them feel good, then we are obligated to let them have their benevolence, even if we are the ones who must suffer for it.

As Kimball observes:

The sad truth is that theoretical benevolence is compatible with any amount of practical indifference or even cruelty. You feel kindly towards others. That is what matters: your feelings. The effects of your benevolent feelings in the real world are secondary. Rousseau was a philosopher of benevolence. So was Karl Marx. Yet everywhere that Marx’s ideas have been put into practice, the result has been universal immiseration. His intention was the benevolent one of forging a more equitable society by abolishing private property and, to adapt President Obama’s famous phrase, by “spreading the wealth around.” Every Marxist society has spread it wide and spread it thin.

We have a word for people who are concerned with their own feelings and who regard others as means toward the end of the gratification of those feelings, rather than as ends-in-themselves. We call them psychopaths, and we should not allow this to be obscured even if the feeling to be gratified is one of benevolence.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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2 Responses to Psychopathic Benevolence

  1. dave schutz says:

    The Giveaway
    from The Love Letters of Phyllis McGinley

    Saint Brigid was
    A problem child.
    Although a lass
    Demure and mild,
    And one who strove
    To please her dad,
    Saint Brigid drove
    The family mad.
    For here’s the fault in Brigid lay:
    She WOULD give everything away.

    To any soul
    Whose luck was out
    She’d give her bowl
    Of stirabout;
    She’d give her shawl,
    Divide her purse
    With one or all.
    And what was worse,
    When she ran out of things to give
    She’d borrow from a relative.

    Her father’s gold,
    Her grandsire’s dinner,
    She’d hand to cold
    and hungry sinner;
    Give wine, give meat,
    No matter whose;
    Take from her feet
    The very shoes,
    And when her shoes had gone to others,
    Fetch forth her sister’s and her mother’s.

    She could not quit.
    She had to share;
    Gave bit by bit
    The silverware,
    The barnyard geese,
    The parlor rug,
    Her little
    niece’s christening mug,
    Even her bed to those in want,
    And then the mattress of her aunt.

    An easy touch
    For poor and lowly,
    She gave so much
    And grew so holy
    That when she died
    Of years and fame,
    The countryside
    Put on her name,
    And still the Isles of Erin fidget
    With generous girls named Bride or Brigid.

    Well, one must love her.
    Nonetheless,
    In thinking of her
    Givingness,
    There’s no denial
    She must have been
    A sort of trial
    Unto her kin.
    The moral, too, seems rather quaint.
    WHO had the patience of a saint,
    From evidence presented here?
    Saint Brigid? Or her near and dear?

  2. profmondo says:

    Very nice, Dave — I hadn’t seen that before.

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