On Selfishness

From Pope Francis’ Christmas Day homily – emphasis added:

Only God’s mercy can free humanity from the many forms of evil, at times monstrous evil, which selfishness spawns in our midst.

The paragraph does not mention ISIS (or whatever the label of the month is), but much of the homily is concerned with violence in the Middle East and in Africa. In context, Francis is blaming terrorism and other forms of political violence and coercion on selfishness.

Sorry, no. Coming from a Jesuit, this is astonishingly sloppy. It’s on a par with attacking the 9/11 terrorists as cowardly, a mistake which Tim Noah and Paul Krugman correctly called out: a suicide bomber is necessarily very brave.

The medieval typology of deadly sins allows a better classification of al-Baghdadi’s as pride and anger. Anger may depend partly on pride – excessive self-esteem – but its expressions are often reckless and self-destructive.

The Seven Deadly Sins only get us so far and do not account for the core of jihadi or other religious fanaticism: the paranoid world-view, unlimited and unrealistic revolutionary agenda, and jettisoning of normal moral restraints.

Modern social science may not have a full explanation, but it has developed at least two pieces of it. One is the mechanism of confirmation bias, the universal tendency to seek out evidence fitting a preconception and disregard evidence that does not. In the strong form, in arrogant and credulous personalities, this can create a positive feedback loop and lead us from a common prejudice (such as social and economic antisemitism), with some distorted basis in fact, to a radical dogma (the Jewish conspiracy for world domination) entirely detached from reality. Another insight applies to the followers: social pressures of group conformity and the psychological process of habituation can easily transform quite ordinary people into monsters. See Milgram’s fake torture experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, and Browning’s Ordinary Men, a study of an SS battalion recruited from unremarkable reservists, not enthusiastic former brownshirts.

These two factors do not explain everything. In particular, the European recruits to ISIS chose the movement over other Islamic, even radical Islamic, authority figures.  Still, I think the case is clear that we cannot account for the movement’s rise by any appeal to simple selfishness. The Devil has many other tunes.

Postscript

Selfishness, in the form of common greed, accounts perfectly for the irresponsible marketing of prescription opioids, as much as the political variant explains Herod’s alleged Massacre of the Innocents. I’m not defending it like Ayn Rand.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]