Responsibility, Privilege, and Self-Deception



Pol Pot

This post is about the difficulties of blaming people, and how to deveop part of a philosophically coherent account of responsibility. It’s sparked off by a certain paradox:

Let’s imagine Saloth Sar (AKA Pol Pot) on trial before God. We might ask – did he at the time, when having all those millions of people killed, know that what he was doing was wrong, or not?

The problem is that neither answer quite seems acceptable. If he “didn’t know it was wrong”, or rather, believed his own rationalisations as to why it was for the good of Cambodian society, then this seems to position him as someone sincerely trying to do what he thought was right – he just happened to be mistaken. You can hardly condemn someone for being mistaken. This option doesn’t seem to do justice to the horrors that he enacted.

But on the other hand, it seems implausible to say that he did believe that his actions were wrong – that he recognised what he was doing as genocide and murder and decided to do it anyway. This seems to make him into a sort of barely human super-villian, a cynical Skeletor-figure. Even if we believe that about him, it still leaves the great majority of the world’s murderers and orderers of murder, who are clearly not Skeletor.

So clearly we need to go between the horns of this dilemma: in some sense Saloth Sar both knew and did not know the enormity of his actions, both believed and did not believe his own justifications. It seems to me that the idea that we’ll need to deploy is some sort of self-deception. Sar is guilty for allowing himself to believe his justifications; for persuading himself that he could murder thousands.

But since the same dilemma can, it seems, be produced for a great wealth of wrongdoing all around the world, it seems that we will have to deploy the concept of self-deception incredibly widely, in such a way that it applies to almost everyone at one time or other. If we want to do this then we’ll need to deal with a slight problem – that self-deception, despite obviously occurring, seems to be impossible.

The reason it’s impossible is that deceive someone into thinking X, you need to know X and they need to not know it – but if you’re the same person, how can you both know X and not know it? How can you have an intention without knowing of it? Of course the question’s incredulity is rhetorical – it’s not hard to see that it does and can happen. What’s tricky is just to express how it happens in a theoretically consistent way.

One obvious solution is to talk about ‘splitting the self’ – i.e. one agency, one part of your mind, is aware of X but is deceiving the other part, which is unaware of X. This is one way of reading some parts of Freud’s theory – the ‘censor’ suppresses certain desires to stop them reaching the ‘ego’. But this doesn’t really solve the problem. Insofar as the different sub-parts remain linked together into a single mind, the ignorance of one and the knowledge of another must be at least potentially coming into contact – this co-existence doesn’t become more intelligible just by being to a limited degree.

To put it another way, it seems like it should be the self as a whole, not its component sub-parts, that is capable of complex reasoning and calculation. But then we don’t want to attribute ‘unconscious’ component parts as much calculation as would seem to be needed for them to plan the ways to deceive each other. What it comes down to is that the issue that brings confusion is conceiving self-deception as somebody’s deliberate, planned, intentional action. So we should try to consider how it could emerge out of non-intentional processes.

Once again, Freudian theory suggests some conceptual resources for this. One is the notion of fantastic gratification: that for our desires, in their crude ‘primary processes’, there’s no distinction between satisfying a desire for X by imagining X, and satisfying a desire for X by actually getting hold of X. I am thirsty, so I imagine water. At some basic level, this ‘gratifies’ my desire.

But this clearly isn’t enough, because self-deception is more than wishful thinking – we can imagine what would be nice all the time, without actually believing it. So the other side of the story is some sort of failure: a failure to ‘come to terms with’ a certain idea. That is, the ‘secondary processes’ in Freud’s terms, the rational, reality-based, logic-chopping of our egos, are unable to deal with a certain idea. We find a lump in our little scrotal bag of lumps. The idea of us having cancer can’t be fitted into our view of the world and how it works – we can’t come to terms with it. So the ego gives up, the ego washes its hands – and the “id” takes over, where that just means, sub-rational processes, like fantastic gratification, take over.

We imagine that we have no cancer, not out of any desire to knowingly deceive ourselves, but out of the desire to not have cancer, a desire which at its most basic level doesn’t distinguish reality from fantasy. And the ego-processes that would normally exert control over that desire, aren’t working, because the ideas don’t fit into our worldview. Hey presto, self-deception, but without any intention to deceive.

There is a problem though, namely that sometimes, self-deception doesn’t seem to be geared towards believing good things. Someone might, for example, “convince themselves” that their husband is having an affair, without evidence. Here it seems bizarre to say that this is fantastic gratification of a ‘wish’ to be cheated on. How can the account sketched so far account for the possibility of persuading oneself of undesired facts?

The answer, I think, requires positing two different sorts of motivations: one world-maintaining, one operating within the world. What I mean by that is that as a precondition for our ability to make sense of life, we establish for ourselves a view of the world that fits what we might call certain ‘narrative’ constraints. It is complex enough to be realistic, but simple enough to be understood. It is bad enough to be interesting, but good enough not to be despiriting. It is unpredictable enough to surprise us, but predictable enough to give us security. It provides us with an array of possible tasks, which are hard enough to be satisfying but easy enough to be doable. In this world we find an identity, a persona which is normal enough to make us feel at home, but unusual enough to make us unique. We close off certain fuzzy edges, we impose certain priorities, we sort out what ‘”one does”, and we arrive in a world where we can live a life.

This is an idea I’m drawing from the work of Martin Heidegger, who emphasises that it is part of the nature of a human self to be “in-a-world” – that a world in this sense and a coherent identity are two sides of the same coin, so that we cannot be people without constructing a world to be people in. Of course, since the worlds we inhabit are largely socially determined, people in the same society will to a great extent have one world between them (while obviously also having many differences). This in turn means that such people will to a great extent have the same identity. This is why Heidegger says, provocatively, that most of the time, “we” as individuals do not act – most of the time, “one” acts, or “they act”. When we walk on the pavement, not in the road, when we walk into a shop and hand over money to the person behind the counter, when we do all of the things that one does, it is in a sense not us doing them, but “one” (or in German, “das Man”).

Anyway, leaving the German aside, this lets us see that in the cases where my ego cannot come to terms with a certain idea, this need not be because that idea is undesirable, but simply because it’s beyond the horizon of my world. For example, the person convinced of their husband’s infidelity might have constructed in their minds an identity and a world in which they are unlovable and in which people always eventually leave them. The idea of their husband remaining faithful and committed to them would then be ‘unacceptable’ (i.e. impossible to accept) not because it’s unpleasant, but because it does not and cannot feel real – because the worldview that defines the limits of ‘reality’ for this person is bound up with their unlovableness, anything that conflicts with that is ruled out.

This in turn suggests that we might distinguish (at least?) two sorts of ‘rationality’: rationality within the world, and rationality beyond the world. Rationality within the world means accepting the given constraints and assumptions that you have, and working out what follows from them. You have been raised to believe that the more butter you can drop into the lake, the better person you are, so you devote all your intelligence to working out schemes for how you can acquire and dump the greatest possible amount of butter. Rationality beyond the world (I know, it’s a rather over-blown sounding name) means questioning those assumptions. Why am I dumping butter into this lake? Does it really make me a better person? Why might people be trying to get me to do this?

Ok, let’s try to bring this back to Pol Pot. Let’s say you’ve set yourself up a worldview where certain things need doing (the re-starting of society without modern decadence) and where any sacrifice is justified towards this end. You find that people are dying from various causes. What do you do? The idea that your actions are a crime against humanity doesn’t fit the worldview. So you either have to seriously reconfigure your worldview, or you can’t come to terms with the fact that these people are dying and it’s terrible. So let’s say you choose the latter: maybe you believe that the deaths aren’t all real; maybe you believe they’re ok, they don’t matter, because you avoid thinking about the people involved as fully people.

This goes on for a while and then you find yourself hauled up in front of God being asked why you wanted to commit crimes against humanity, huh, kid? (God calls everyone ‘kid’). The particular thing that he is to be condemned for is not that he acted wrongly according to the terms of his worldview (because according to his own rationalisations, he acted rightly), nor that his worldview was a wrong one (one cannot be condemned simply for being mistaken), but that he failed to go beyond his worldview when it began to buckle and strain: when corpses were weighing it down, he failed to let is collapse and try to re-understand the world in a way that would take into account those corpses. His crime might be understood as a sort of ‘epistemic vanity’, a self-love or egotism not so much about seeking “his own advantage” (something defined within the world) but defending something more basic, his own understanding of reality.

This sort of criticism can also be applied quite readily to non-mass-murdering individuals like you. As imperfect people raised in an unjust society, we are likely to always suffer from a gap between the moral facts according to our worldview and those of reality. When society is biased in our favour, we have the option of maintaining the worldview we have at any moment, with its satisfying confidences and simplicities, or of letting it break apart under the pressure of new experiences or ideas. This is I think part of what various anti-oppression activists have come to call ‘privilege‘: the ways that people are both benefitted by society and encouraged not to recognise those benefits as such. The appropriate response is not some sort of guilt or attempts to ‘get rid of’ one’s privilege, but to be open to adjustments in understanding. Defense of privilege might be thought to involve the kind of blindness that Pol Pot was above comdemned for: egotistical love of one’s existing view of things.

In extreme cases, adjusting one’s worldview can seem like death, because the loss of a worldview means the loss of an identity. The necessity of being willing to ‘die’ in this way is perhaps part of what Jesus meant when he said that “he who loves his life will lose it”.

9 Responses to “Responsibility, Privilege, and Self-Deception”

  1. princeparadox Says:

    If your argument is right then there would be no way you could have arrived at an accurate conclusion about Pol Pot’s relationship with himself. How can you be sure the self-identified world through which you are judging him is less restricted than his own?

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I can’t be sure it’s not. I’m sure there are loads of aspects of reality that he had a better grasp on than I do (tbh I know little about him, I just wanted a fairly uncontroversial baddie who wasn’t the H-man).

    What do you mean I would have no way to arrive at an accurate conclusion? Obviously I’m limited as a knower, with a very imperfect capacity for understanding, but I don’t think that dooms me to never have any.

  3. Emperor Penguin Says:

    Who is this Skeletor chap?

  4. The Barefoot Bum Says:

    There’s a much easier way out of the dilemma: we can deprecate the concept of blame and promote the concept of fault. Assuming arguendo the premises of your argument, we can say that because he was mistaken with bad effects, Saloth Sar is at fault, in much the same sense that if the brakes fail on my car, my car is at fault even though the car does not in any sense deserve “blame”.

    Fault is better than blame because it puts the onus on the evaluator to analyze and correct the fault, and not merely to punish a blameworthy agent. Blame then becomes one particular mechanism to correct fault.

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I think blame is an often over-used idea, and a lot of the time isn’t of much use especially in politics. But I would be resistant to totally getting rid of the concept, or instrumentalising it into a ‘mechanism’ to correct people’s faults. The idea of some people having moral responsibility for their actions is…well it seems like an important one. Perhaps it need not be kept but instead ‘aufhegoben’, as Hegel would say, transformed but preserved as an aspect of a fuller conception. But instrumentalising it seems to leave out something important. Not a very cogent response, but hey.

  6. The Barefoot Bum Says:

    But instrumentalising [blame] seems to leave out something important.

    What precisely would it leave out?

  7. The Barefoot Bum Says:

    BTW… Warm Fork Restaurant. Thought you might find it amusing.

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I guess: the difference between the failure of the brakes and my failure – or between some of my failures (like, I have poor hearing, and so I didn’t hear someone shout ‘stop!’) which are more like the failure of the brakes, and those which are different (I heard but didn’t care). I am responsible for that last kind of failure, I can feel guilty about it, because it relates to a choice I consciously made. Those feelings, useful or not, don’t seem to be entirely explained as a mechanism for me to change my future choices – they make me change my choices because of this feeling of guilt or responsibility.

    Though obviously this might be clearer if I had a better idea of what you mean by ‘blame as one mechanism to correct fault’.

  9. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    You might find this (rather too long) entry on my blog interesting, I come to some similar conclusions from a slightly different angle. I start from the idea that actions cannot in themselves be rational, although we often kid ourselves that we have reasons for them. Then I go on to say that this can be used as a mechanism for distancing ourselves from our actions, for dodging responsibility for their consequences. In the end I propose that we should take responsibility for the consequences of our actions even if we didn’t know what those consequences would be, or even if we were strongly pressured into it. It seems to me that this is the only way to avoid the problems associated to disavowing responsibility for the consequences of our actions. And this is something worth avoiding because it gives others a mechanism for controlling us (for example, via what Jacques Ellul calls “integration propaganda”). I had in my mind the idea of the concentration camp guard who is just following orders, rather than a dictator who thinks he is doing the best for his people.

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