Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 8

Chapter 8 (pages 89-99), “Persecution Mania”

The insane version of persecution mania “is only an exaggeration of a tendency not at all uncommon in people who count as normal [p. 89].” The milder form destroys happiness, but is capable of self-cure.

We are all familiar with people who claim to have been victimized by a multitude of others. At first the claims are plausible, but as the number of purported villains increases, the realization dawns that the self-proclaimed victim has either imagined the injuries or might be at fault for any actual misdeeds. Sympathy becomes withheld, and this withholding helps to build the perceived persecution cascade, by being another wrong incurred. But even the bestowal of sympathy leads to the cascade, as the offer of fellow-feeling motivates the victim to try to keep the sympathy flowing, by embellishing the bad treatment to the point of incredulity. Outsiders can offer understanding when they come across such a person, but the persecution maniacs themselves – and almost all of us have a dose of this disease – also can diagnose and remedy their situation.

Consider malicious gossip. We all do it, but when we learn that others have engaged in this at our expense, we are terribly aggrieved. No one is perfect, and we shouldn’t be too concerned that our friends let slip the fact that they do not think we are perfect. After all, we like our friends, whom we recognize as quite fallible.

“Persecution mania is always rooted in a too exaggerated conception of our own merits [p. 92].” Russell gives the example of a playwright whose lack of success is blamed on a refusal to fawn or some other creditable reason, and the inventor whose failure is blamed on a conspiracy of insiders. One of the worst cases is someone who really has a legitimate unacknowledged insight or complaint, but then makes that situation much more central to the working of the world than it is. Again, the lack of interest by others suggests conspiracy, at least to the victim, who attaches “undue importance to facts which are perhaps exceptional rather than typical [p. 93].”

Some philanthropists feel aggrieved by the lack of gratitude from the beneficiaries of their largesse. The motives to do good generally are not pure, however – a sense of power can enter into philanthropy. Much do-gooding involves trying to keep other people from pursuing pleasures such as alcohol, tobacco, or gambling. One motive here might be envy of those who can get away with indulgences that would come at too dear a social price for the philanthropist. The absence of thanks for the moral guidance will be noted by those who think they have sacrificed for public betterment. Politicians also can convince themselves that they are motivated to serve the common good, and resent the public when it doesn’t seem sufficiently grateful.

Russell draws on the previous examples to suggest four general precepts that can help ward off persecution mania. First, your motives aren’t as pure as you would like to think; second, “don’t overestimate your own merits [p. 94]”: third, others are rightly less interested in you than you are; and, fourth, most people are not sufficiently interested in you to have a motive to attack you.

Russell singles out business people and philanthropists for overestimating the purity of their motives, and for their conviction that the way they think the world should be is in fact the correct world order. Vanity plays a role in maintaining this conviction. For a third instance, Russell draws on his own personal history. “The high-minded idealist who stands for Parliament – on this matter I speak from experience – is astonished by the cynicism of the electorate which assumes that he only desires the glory of writing the letters ‘M.P.’ after his name [p. 95].” But reflection shows that the cynics are largely right.

Standard moral teaching calls for a basically unattainable level of altruism, though the would-be virtuous can convince themselves that they meet the infeasible goal. But the majority of everyone’s behavior is rightly “self-regarding [p. 95],” which is a good thing for survival. [The term “self-regarding” is at the heart of John Stuart Mill’s analysis in On Liberty; according to Mill (Russell’s godfather), society cannot legitimately coerce decisions by adults if those decisions involve matters that are self-regarding – that is, do not involve any significant, direct harms to others.] Further, it is hard to maintain enthusiasm for any work if there is not some self-regarding motive at play – though aid for close family members should be considered self-regarding in this context. Altruistic motives that extend more broadly do not seem to be consistent with human nature. Those who believe that morality requires them to harbor such altruism are likely to be deceived in the degree of success that they have achieved, leaving them ripe for persecution mania.

If you are not meeting success in your profession, you should seriously consider the possibility that you are not very good at it. “It is true that there are in history cases of unrecognized merit, but they are far less numerous than the cases of recognized demerit [p. 96].” How can you tell if you are an unrecognized genius or a rightly dismissed hack? Here is one diagnostic test: if you produce your work primarily because of a compulsion to express yourself in a certain manner, then persist; if you are motivated primarily by the desire for applause, then shift gears when the applause is continually withheld. Your pain at recognizing that you are not as talented as you hoped will be fleeting, and you will prepare the ground for renewed happiness. This notion applies just as well to those who expect too much from others, and to those who believe that the rest of the world is sufficiently interested to maintain a conspiracy against them. “No satisfaction based upon self-deception is solid, and however unpleasant the truth may be, it is better to face it once for all, to get used to it, and to proceed to build your life in accordance with it [p. 99].”

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