Tuesday, July 5, 2022
HomeNewsJohnson’s flaws may be ‘hard-wired’, but he’s still morally to blame

Johnson’s flaws may be ‘hard-wired’, but he’s still morally to blame

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‘This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars; as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on …’ 

                                             – Shakespeare, King Lear 

BORIS Johnson has behaved badly both in his personal life and in public office. The evil that has been done to us and the damage caused to this country has previously been thoroughly described in TCW by me and by fellow writers. 

Even though he has not acted alone, as Prime Minister the buck stops with him. Some commenters have described him as a ‘puppet’ of higher globalist control freaks, but if metaphorically speaking he is a puppet, he has consented to be one. Even if a thousand people were ‘pulling the strings’, his moral responsibility would not thereby be diminished to that of one thousandth. As the Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Aabye Kierkegaard put it, being one of a crowd does not reduce individual responsibility. 

It is a sad reflection on our times that even to this day a number of our fellow citizens are grateful to Johnson for ‘protecting’ them (he has done the opposite). Those in the know, however, are furious and revulsed by what he has done and – rightly – do not trust him to keep his hands off our future freedom. What troubles me, though, is those who describe him as a sociopath. Such trendy non-moral labelling implies a depersonalised view of human conduct and a misleading model of moral judgment.  

The term sociopath purportedly refers to a pattern of anti-social behaviour and attitudes, including manipulation, deceit, and a lack of empathy for others that implies a lack of conscience (seems to fit most of today’s politicians, I would have thought). ‘Sociopath’ is not a clinical term nor is it used by most mental health professionals. Yet, from the comfort of a distant armchair, people who have no qualifications to make such an assessment can trot out this so-called diagnosis regarding a public figure they have never met.  

Personality pathology, though treated as legitimate in mainstream dialogue, is fiercely debated by actual clinicians. ‘Narcissist’, ‘sociopath’ and other similar terms are not established scientific classifications. But their use effectively labels those so described as helpless victims of such disorders, (‘hard-wired’ with fixed and immutable ‘character traits’) such as to be exempt from moral responsibility, or from condemnation of their actions. 

Of course, not every ordinary person who uses the expression intends the above implication. They are using a cliché to express a high level of disgust and revulsion, without realising that this trendy mode of discourse negates the grounds for their resentment and indignation. But some do intend the implication, by conceiving of human beings as having fixed character traits that, by a combination of genes and environment, causally determines what they are, so moral reactions to their behaviour are ‘inappropriate’ and ‘useless’.  

The psychobabble of pop psychology has infected the verbiage of newspapers and TV as well as online social media, with a resultant aversion to ‘old-fashioned’, ‘unenlightened’ and more traditional and natural responses to human conduct. Children who are naughty in class are victims of ‘Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder’. Anyone (even outside of the emergency services) who is too self-absorbed and callous to care much about the suffering of friends or neighbours can now claim ‘compassion fatigue’. Any repeated proclivity to distasteful or depraved activities can be downgraded to an ‘addiction’. As Professor Frank Furedi points out in his excellent book Therapy Culture, ‘the sick role exempts individuals from having to behave in accordance with social and moral expectations … therapeutic morality encourages a permanent suspension of the moral sense … people who are sick cannot be expected to exercise critical judgment or to accept moral responsibility for their actions.’  

It is different of course with genuine cases of mental illness, such as psychosis. The schizophrenic who commits a ‘cruel’ assault on an innocent victim, because his ‘voices’ are telling him to, is not, ethically speaking, doing the same thing as someone who simply acts out of spite. So we can legitimately attempt to suspend what the philosopher P F Strawson, in his essay Freedom and Resentment, has called the ‘reactive attitudes’ of disgust, indignation and resentment, and regard the person as a fitting recipient of treatment and social policy rather than blame and punishment. Perhaps misleadingly, Strawson calls the latter an ‘objective attitude’. Misleading because the ‘objective’ attitude resides within a framework of reactive attitudes, and is therefore not exactly an attitude of detachment. It is itself a moral attitude, since we would consider it unjust and unfair to blame or punish such people, rather than considering it merely pointless or ineffective to do so. 

Morality is not an ‘institution’ which can be opted into or out of. Our moral reactions are deeply embedded in anything that could be recognisably called human life. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, some expressions in language can give a misleading picture. It is a misnomer to picture ‘moral judgment’ as a kind of optional court scene in our heads. A moral reaction is neither a mere feeling nor a utilitarian strategy, but is essentially involved in the way we conceive of human action, which we describe in language already impregnated with implied evaluation. We do not and cannot (except in idle theoretical speculation) regard people’s actions as if they were parcels dropped from mail trains. We see people as being ‘in’ their actions such that what they do expresses what they are and how they see things. Our characteristic reactions to wrongdoing are not simply ‘cognitive judgements’ but involve repulsion, indignation and resentment, and that sense of justice that calls out for punishment of offenders. 

We all have some badness in us. We are ‘a little lower than the angels’ and share a common imperfection. And it is true that our freedom is circumscribed to some extent by limits of character and vicissitudes of circumstance. But that does not make us prisoners of ourselves (and do not forget the ethical resonance of the word ‘character’, which is inadequately replaced by the shallow word ‘personality’). 

Johnson is probably no worse than hundreds or even thousands of ruthless, lying, shallow, adulterous, vain, manipulative and lustful rotters in the general population, but his sins show and matter more because he is in a position of power he does not deserve. Nothing I have said is meant to deny that he is a horrible and dangerous man, but that judgement should be expressed in moral terms.

‘Lacking in conscience’?  How can we know for certain that he never in private moments feels pangs of guilt? Who on Earth has the power to gaze into the man’s soul and be sure that he never has a flicker of recognition which so torments him that he has to resort to self-deception? Shakespeare shows more insight into the psychology of evil than most modern psychologists – how the ‘tragic flaw’ does not absolve the tragic hero from complicity with his own fate, the destruction of his soul. 

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Frank Palmer
Frank Palmer
Dr Frank Palmer is a philosopher and author. He was taught by Roger Scruton who was his PhD supervisor and during the 1980s was part of a thinktank of academics Roger formed to fight damaging trends in education. Frank’s last book was Literature and Moral Understanding (Oxford University Press).

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