Thursday, September 11, 2014

Theory of Mind and Social Regulation in Post-Guilt and Post-Shame Cultures

Most people think that intellectual work is solitary work, that scholars sit alone and think, then write. And there is some truth to that. But there is a reason intellectual work has been connected to higher education, and it is the classroom conversations.

The two postings on shame and guilt emerged from my own preparation for a class at SMU where we are discussing the various permutations of the Phaedra/Hippolytus myth. Each permutation was written during a "tragic age," an age wherein tragedies were written. These ages are rare and come about in the aftermath of drastic cultural change, to try to figure out what just happened.

After discussing the shift from a shame culture to a guilt culture, as dramatized in Euripides' Hippolytus, one of my students came up to me and asked about my claim that when shame is breaking down and hasn't been entirely replaced by guilt (or, equally, when guilt is breaking down and hasn't been entirely replaced by ???) that people begin to look to something outside of themselves -- religion or government -- to regulate their behaviors. He asked me if people really wanted religions or governments to control THEMselves, or if they really wanted others controlled.

This is where the theory of mind comes in.

How do you know others need to have their actions controlled? Or, equally, what makes some people think others can control themselves?

One has a theory of mind if one thinks that others have a mind like you have a mind. Of course, humans also tend to overgeneralize. Thus, we assume that others' minds are exactly like our minds. When people violate our expectations, we don't assume that they have different minds than we have, but rather that they are mentally ill or immoral or irrational. That is, they should be identical to ourselves, and so any deviation is an evidence of some sort of error or mistake.

What this means is that most people favor the kind of society they believe will be best for themselves. Those who think that everyone needs to have their morals enforced by something outside of themselves really think that they themselves need to have their morals so enforced (and this necessarily precedes the emergence of those institutions of enforcement, which of course act in their own self-interest and hasten the decay of the degrading institution). And those whose behaviors are regulated by either shame or guilt think everyone else's behaviors are so regulated as well, and thus do not need religion or government to ensure good behavior.

Things are pretty straightforward in "pure" shame or guilt cultures, or even a solidly transitional culture like Medieval Europe, but what about contemporary, complex societies like the U.S., where you have people controlled by shame, others transitioning from shame to guilt, others controlled by guilt, and others transitioning out of guilt? One would expect a combination of rebellious people (teens, gangs, etc.), religious conservatives, classical liberals, and progressives. What kind of society is best for this mixture of people who believe themselves to be internally controlled and those who believe themselves to require external control?

The answer to this last question will depend on where you are at on the above spectrum. Rebels and classical liberals (libertarians as a group probably include both of these) will tell you that nobody needs government or religion to tell anyone how to live. And if you do feel you need that stuff, go find a voluntary organization to help you out. Religious conservatives and progressives will tell you that nobody can be trusted and everyone must be controlled. Each group is talking past the other three. (The rebels and the libertarians differ on the best inner control; religious conservatives and progressives differ on the best external control.)

If we look at things historically, though, we can see a pattern emerge. The shame culture of ancient Greece and Rome breaks down and becomes Medieval Europe, dominated by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church emphasized guilt, and thus moved Europe through the transitional culture it dominated into the guilt culture that (ironically) no longer needed the unity created by the Catholic Church. Individuated by guilt, Europe underwent the Protestant revolutions, followed by the Scientific Revolution, capitalism, and classical liberalism. This occurred because the external social control created by the Catholic Church was no longer needed -- precisely because the Church was able to successfully instill guilt throughout Europe.

The guilt culture of Modernism began breaking down in Postmodernism, resulting in the rise of Progressive politics. With guilt breaking down as a social control, and nothing there to replace it, it was believed that social control could only be achieved with an externalist institution. In a post-religious time, the solution was government rather than religion. In places where this world view was imposed on more Medieval-type societies (like Czarist Russia), we saw truly oppressive religious-government fusion. In places where this world view emerged naturally out of Modernism, such as Europe and the U.S., we saw the rise of the regulatory welfare state. In both cases, people who were certain they could not be trusted to run businesses without someone telling them the right way to behave made sure everyone was properly regulated since they falsely projected onto everyone the belief that nobody could be trusted to run businesses. But not just businesses. The drive to regulate the food you eat and the amount of soda you drink arises from this same world view.

Given the Catholic Church gave us guilt with which to replace themselves (they were really using what was already on the rise), we may wonder what the State is helping develop in us, which will allow us to replace the State (or at least decentralize and weaken it, as happened with the Catholic Church).

Speaking personally, I feel neither shame nor guilt. Yet, my morals are well-regulated. Unfortunately, I don't have a name for whatever it is within me that regulates my morals. I have no feelings of regret for past actions, but view them as learning experiences to become a better person and which led me to where and who I am today. But all of this comes from something inside; I don't need anything external to tell me what's the right thing to do. Which is probably why I'm a libertarian. But I'm a post-progressive libertarian (is that what a bleeding heart libertarian is?). I don't know what to name what regulates by actions, but its lack of a name hardly means it doesn't exist.
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