Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Of Vice and Victimhood*

“The essential feature of Conduct Disorder is a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated..... The behavior pattern is usually present in a variety of settings such as the home, school, or the community.”
From: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association.

A remarkable and near complete metamorphosis of our basic understanding of moral character and personal responsibility—vice into sickness; virtue into health—has been under way for a long time and has moved at a highly accelerated pace in the last twenty years. The shifting preference for health over virtue as a conceptual framework for judging and sanctioning human conduct derives from two sources.
 The first is the cultural ascendance of the Left and the wide un-reflecting embrace of its view of individual human beings as disaggregated units of warring, conflicting groups as expressed in its program of identity politics. These conflicts, so the argument goes, are the ultimate source of all existing social evils, both the losers and the winners distinctively marked.  The winners are privileged exploiters, dehumanized by their own aggressive exploitation: the losers are impoverished and particularly vulnerable to social “pathologies,” e.g., drug addiction, criminality, and the like. Poverty, crime, drug abuse are all the result of the exploitation and domination exerted by the winners over the losers. “Pathology” in this explanatory framework no longer works as a metaphor – vice is now disease caused by a broken social system.  Disease gives way to knowledge and technique as discovered and determined by experts who require power to fix the broken system.       
The second and related source is the late nineteenth-century expansion of confidence in the capacity of science to explain, and ultimately produce the technology to manipulate and control everything, including human behavior. The ugly, seamy, corrupt sides of the human personality and the vice produced, regarded by our ancestors as the unfortunate elements of human imperfection, have come to be seen not as perennial manifestations of weaknesses or limitations inherent in human nature, but as technical problems that can be eliminated with the application of the right kind of technical knowledge. Vice has been, considered a perennial human propensity to be tamped down, but now as disease it becomes a “social problem” for which “cures” can be discovered and applied by technicians. Perhaps no better articulation of this “social problem” view of vice—curable by enlightened, empowered, informed expertise— is the following, written in the 1980s by Berkeley sociologist Neil Smelser.

[A]nother necessary part of what defines a social problem is that we believe we can do something about it.  It has to be something at which we can successfully throw resources; something we can ease by getting people to shape up; something that can be cured through social policy legislation and decisions and the application of knowledge; something that can be ameliorated. Otherwise it is seen as one of those ineradicable scars on the social body that we have to live with, a necessary evil, one of those inevitable frailties of human nature.**

Smelser’s summary of the perspective is superb—succinct but complete—not only in content but in style as well. The opening sentence puts up the Straw Man as if everyone before the author had given up on trying to make the world better.  Though Smelser’s academic residence is in the Sociology department, he fancies himself as an engineer – “shaping people up,” applying expensive tools (“successfully throwing resources”) and “the application of knowledge” to solve technical problems, otherwise known as “social problems". These social problems—he cites as examples crime, violence, alcohol, and drug abuse—are manifestations of human behavior that can either be viewed as an inevitable consequence of limitations of human nature (“frailties”) or as failures of social functions remedied with the enlightened application of “resources.” Smelser does not want to believe that there is something like “human nature” with moral and social limitations that we should recognize and work with. Containment or correction is unacceptable when the problems can, in his words, “be cured.” The medical metaphor of the “cure” he invokes, with all of its positive, healthful connotations, however, quickly gives way to the more literally-expressed means of practical application, which is political action and legal coercion, that is, “social policy and legislation.” The cure, in effect, for social problems is the right dosage of social policy: the real cure will be the direct result of incorporating social science research into law, a translation of social science theory into public policy. Coercion is to play a large part in the “cures.”  

*Excerpted from Stephen Paul Foster, Desolation's March: the Rise of Personalism and the Reign of Amusement in 21st-America, Bethesda, Md. Academica Press, 2003.
 Complete electronic copy free on demand.

**Neil J. Smelser, “Self-Esteem and Social Problems: An Introduction,” The Social Importance of Self-esteem, Andrew M. Mecca, Neil J. Smelser, and John Vasconcellos, editors, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, 4.

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