by Timothy Lane 4/25/15
Theodore Dalrymple has a new book out, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, which Mona Charen reviews in the April 20 National Review. (I can imagine some liberals, if they notice it, commenting on the fact that this was Hitler’s birthday.) My comments here are based on her review.
Dalrymple basically argues that modern psychology has actually led to a regression in understanding of the abnormal mind. Before Freud, there were some basic notions that were little less scientific, and also less devoted to excusing and rationalizing misbehavior. Modern psychology, he argues, takes “to understand all is to forgive all” as its maxim. (This has been true, at least for many, for at least a century, as can be seen in Clarence Darrow’s discussion of the subject in his closing arguments in the case of Leopold and Loeb.)
The net result of providing a wide array of excuses for misbehavior is not only that criminality is excused, but also that virtue is disregarded. To behave well merely means that no one mistreated you or otherwise caused you to misbehave, not that you might have a stronger moral fiber than the transgressor. Dalrymple also points out that statistics of the prevalence of abnormal behavior are unreliable, partly because people who look for it tend to find it, and partly because the search can actually encourage the abnormality (known as the Werther effect from the many suicides that followed Goethe’s novel).
Charen herself thinks Dalrymple is a bit harsh, pointing to some of the benefits resulting from modern psychological study. But she agrees with his basic point. I think many will find the review interesting, and (for those who follow the subject) the book as well.
Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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