Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, by Theodore Dalrymple
As this is the first book by the author that I have read, I was pleased that the author was both so insightful as well as so articulate. Admittedly, the author has a somewhat dark view of his subject, namely the absence of genuine therapeutic value (with regards to public health) of psychological approaches, but with good reason. After all, the author is a retired physician who worked in Africa, the poorest areas of London and in the prison system. This experience of the criminal and social underclass globally as well as within the United Kingdom is not likely to give one a sanguine view of the advances of psychology as it is used in efforts at public health. Nor are my own views any more sanguine. The author shows an admirable appreciation for the blunt honesty and sound wisdom of C.S. Lewis’ concerns about the harm that psychological approaches can have when it comes to freedom and responsibility, and the combination of his dry and understated wit and his obvious inside knowledge make this an immensely worthwhile as well as short and pointed work. It is likely to increase my interest in reading books of his in the future.
The title of this book comes from a pointed quote from King Lear that the author refers to often when looking at whoremaster man and his desire to escape responsibility for his character faults by blaming the stars, or his genes, or his parents, or his economic circumstances and class status, anything rather than to face the truth of his own corrupt and fallen nature and his own responsibility in it. In eleven chapters that take up just over 100 pages, the author examines various ways that psychology has throughout its history sought to evade responsibility and how this tendency of evasion has led psychology to be of no net benefit, and sometimes of real harm, to society at large. Beginning with an examination of psychoanalysis, moving on to behaviorist and cognitive-behavioral theories, pharmacology, and bogus theories of self-esteem, the author skewers the cant of psychologists and their lobbyists. He points out the failures of trying to medicate mental health and the way that targeted and useful therapies have been expanded well beyond their capability and that the growth of diagnoses and drugs has not been followed by an acceptance of responsibility and a genuine desire for improvement on the part of many, a task to which the author commends the study of good literature.
It is easy to agree with the author’s discussion of the manifest failures of the psychological professions to lead to a positive change in human life over the past century or so. The question is what to do about it. The author advocates a reading of literature with a mind towards self-improvement, but given that the failures of psychology are moral in nature, ultimately any solution of that failure must itself inculcate a system of morality in people. How is this to be done? What religious means are possible in order to encourage personal responsibility as well as a sense of dignity that is tied to gratitude for the God who created us and not a futile solipsism that views ourselves as the source of meaning (or lack thereof) in our lives? It is a trivial task to point out that theories that evade responsibility fail, but it is a less trivial task to examine ourselves and to see where the responsibility lies and what we can do in light of that responsibility. If we cannot evade responsibility for our misdeeds by pointing to dark pasts and the sins of others, how can we ensure that those who sin in positions of authority are held accountable for the harm that they do to society at large? These are not easy matters to deal with.