The Revenge season finale could not have been better, and this was the perfect song.
It's funny that the comments at the video are about the show.
Alienation, animal use, and veganism
It’s difficult to imagine a more alienated relationship between living beings than that between humans and farmed animals. The 50 billion animals slaughtered each year are literally commodities (the commodification of nature can be seen in other realms as well). We discuss them in abstract language, and render their experiences, their suffering, and often their very existence as living beings invisible. They’re viewed as objects to be exploited for human pleasure, as the quotation that opened this subseries, with its reference to the importance of the “total sensory experience” of eating meat, shows.
Despite the superficial insistence on the great sensual joys of consuming animals, the psychic distress caused by this alienated relationship and the moral wrongs it entails reveals itself in a number of ways. Symptomatic are the psychological defense mechanisms Melanie Joy describes
which make it evident that these relationships are problematic and causing deeper psychological strain.
As I mentioned in the previous post, Fromm regarded sentimentality as alienated emotion – there’s a need for emotional relatedness but no relationships in which to give it form. He offers this illustration:
It is like a person crying at the movies when the heroine loses a chance to make $100,000 and people cry and the same people in real life can witness a great tragedy around themselves and around their own lives, and they don’t cry, and don’t feel anything, because they are really unrelated. They are not concerned. They live in that vacuum of abstraction, of alienation from reality of feelings. (PoN KL 793-5)
We see something similar, I think, in the popularity of the many sentimental films featuring humans helping or saving individual animals or animated animals gaining their freedom, of which there seem to have been many recently. The response to these movies indicates that there’s still a widespread longing amongst all but the sickest people for a genuine and loving relatedness to nonhuman animals, but since most relationships most people have with them in actuality are extremely alienated and destructive, and this poisons those few nonalienated relationships they do have, that longing is subverted and what’s left is alienated emotion or sentimentality.
All of this suggests that the fleeting satisfaction of a juicy burger or cheering Drew Barrymore as she rescues whales are simply alienated practices of consumption that, we’re dimly aware, reveal our lack of relatedness to our fellow animals and the rest of the natural world. Beyond the conscious or unconscious psychological effects of this alienation are the opportunities lost for our knowledge of them, and thus of ourselves; for the development of our reasoning and emotional capacities; and for our development through mutually beneficial relationships with them.
Veganism is the minimal starting point for reforming our relationships with the nonhuman world, as it removes the alienated relationship of exploiting and consuming animals, with its poisonous effects on any other relationships with animals such as conservation work or companion care. It’s a necessary foundation for developing a genuine biophilic ethics.
Alienation, faith, and science
I opened this subseries with a quotation about eating meat that I thought captured perfectly the sad alienation of our relationship to farmed animals. Parallel examples in discussions of religion and atheism appear frequently, but, even though the imbalance of not having a faith quote bothered me aesthetically, I didn’t want to spend time searching for a specific one. Fortunately, reading a post at Jason Rosenhouse’s EvolutionBlog I came across a beauty from Robin Hanson. “A few days ago,” he offers, “I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak?”
He provides the most frequent answer from atheists: that we value truth. It’s not the only answer, since atheists by no means concur that the claims about religion’s supposed benefits are supported by the evidence or accept the premise that the evidence for religious beliefs is merely “weak.” But it’s a perfectly valid and ethical answer. Behind the reference to truth as an abstract value are both a moral and a political argument, and I’ve yet to see a convincing refutation of either. The moral argument explains the duty to believe according to the evidence. Once that case is made (and thus far the response on the part of religious people and accommodationists has been to ignore rather than engage with it), it’s the same as any other ethical argument: we don’t typically place our personal desires above the duty to behave ethically.
The political (also an ethical) argument is also strong: if we value truth so little, we have no defenses against the evidence-challenged truth claims of powerful, self-interested people and organizations – not just religious fundamentalisms but corporations and governments - that mean great harm. Both suggest that to accept beliefs that we suspect or know to be false because they have desirable consequences for us personally, even if we wanted to and were somehow able to do it, would be an affront to our dignity and abdication of our responsibilities as reasoning beings.
So the argument about valuing truth (and, by implication, for rejecting bad epistemic practices) is strong. But, somewhat unlike ethical arguments about harming animals, it has an abstractness about it that seems to concede too much. It stipulates, basically, that human well-being and a key value of atheists might be in conflict, and that in this case atheists value an abstract principle above human happiness or well-being. So when the faithful or accommodationists raise the absurd extreme hypothetical case in which a faith has only benefits (to humans, presumably) and ask “Would you still oppose it? Would you still tell people not to believe?” a response in the affirmative sounds callous, because the question has pitted “abstract” truth against “real” human well-being.
Of course, it isn’t really, because we don’t live in this impossible fantasy world, as the people posing the question well know. (I find this sort of ridiculous rhetorical posturing unethical in such a context, but leaving that aside…) The problem with the perfectly valid ethical-political argument about truth and believing according to the evidence is that it’s too general to move the discussion into the deeper realm of alienation, with its more integrated understanding of ethics and well-being. It’s incomplete in that it doesn’t address the meaning of faith for our real relationships.
A comprehensive argument, and one that shows the impossibility of the hypothetical case, would emphasize that what we value are truths, plural – truths about real entities, including ourselves and other human and nonhuman beings. Capital-T Truth is not, in fact, abstract, but just the set of these individual truths. And science is practiced at the level of these individual truths - at the level of our relationships with real, concrete natural entities.
Seen in these terms, faith as a practice is revealed as, fundamentally, an alienated relationship with the world, or, better yet, a set of alienated relationships. Even if it were true that faith exclusively afforded all of the benefits its proponents claim (including the experience of awe and wonder at “the world”), these would come at the extent of profound losses. In Fromm’s terms, in contrast to science, faith lacks “humility, in which one ha[s] the strength to look at the world objectively,” undistorted by “our own wishes and fears and imagination.” It lacks respect for the independent reality of the beings and things it encounters. It subverts our ability to gain knowledge about ourselves, about other beings, and about our relationships.
Learning to practice faith is an education in how to be alienated from ourselves and the rest of the natural world. This isn’t only unethical but harms our development as reasoning, feeling beings. Science, in contrast to a narcissistic and alienated faith, is an example of a loving and unalienated relationship with the world. By way of the scientific attitude and concrete relationships of understanding with other beings – regardless of whether these are part of institutional science or not – we relate ourselves lovingly and productively to the world.
It might be surprising how different this understanding of scientific practice is from the common view of science and scientists as cold, distant, and uncaring, as opposed to faith, seen as connected and loving. Fromm’s framework, if taken seriously, forces a reversal: science, ideally, is love.
Even superficially, the benefits to our well-being of animal consumption and of faith are certainly arguable. And even if this weren’t the case, they face strong ethical challenges. But even the ethical challenges don’t address the fact that what’s lost, in both cases, is our relationship to the world, our understanding, the fullness of our existence.
Alienation needs to be a central concept today, not just for ethical-political reasons, but for reasons of our own well-being. We need to think seriously in these terms about whether ours are healthy relationships for human beings, for human cultures, to have with the world.
The great part of all this, as Fromm recognized, is that we don’t have to believe what we’ve been told (often by corporations) about our needs and the bases for our well-being and development. We can end our alienated relationships and rebuild or develop new unalienated ones that will nourish not just our mental health but our development as human beings.
As I hinted at in the previous post, writing about Fromm’s view of alienation from other living beings and the means of overcoming it is somewhat challenging. First, like Marx, he just didn’t talk about this aspect of alienation (from other animals and the rest of the natural world) that often. While he generally included it when listing the many ways we’re alienated in industrial-capitalist society, his focus was overwhelmingly on relationships amongst humans ourselves.
Second, when he did talk about developing new relationships in this sphere, he often fell into patterns of thought that were regressive and inconsistent with his broader visionary perspective. In this sense, he was a product of his time, place, social position, and intellectual influences. He often uncritically followed Marx in seeing nonhuman nature as simply the raw material for human subsistence and creative and technological expression, and other thinkers in viewing our animal nature as something to be transcended and nature as a thing to be mastered. These views are similar to his ideas about the need to separate from and transcend the relationship with our mothers, and these arguments are not unrelated. In fact, he often argued that (“primitive”) cultures emphasizing “mother earth” or a deep connection with other animal species were at a lower level of human development.
These problems stem, I think, from his background in a patriarchal society and his intellectual milieu. The beliefs that men needed to separate from, transcend, define themselves against, and in some sense “master,” nature and all that deemed feminine in general are all related and symptomatic of his formation in a patriarchal culture. They’re also wholly incongruous with his larger vision for overcoming alienation: these gendered ideas are a combination of nonrelationships and relationships of domination and exploitation, which Fromm otherwise sees as unhealthy and counterproductive, and completely ignore nonhuman consciousness and interests.
Third, aside from these lazy formulations, his proposals for rebuilding our connections with nature were rather shapeless. (I haven’t yet read all of his books, and there are hints in his later work that he was influenced by the ecology movement, so I might just be unaware of more concrete proposals in this area. If anyone knows of writings of his specifically on this subject, please let me know.) Interestingly, it was Fromm who introduced the useful concept of biophilia, an active love of and commitment to life, the positive personal and political attitude he championed in opposition to harmful and unhealthy necrophilous tendencies. But in terms of the form of our relationships with the nonhuman world, biophilia appears more a negation of destructiveness than a concrete set of positive practices. Biophilic ethics, for example, is vague: “Good is all that serves life; evil is all that serves death. Good is reverence for life, all that enhances life, growth, unfolding. Evil is all that stifles life, narrows it down, cuts it into pieces” (AoHd, p. 406).
Moreover, Fromm looks to religious traditions, and particularly to mysticism, for ideas about recovering our relationships with other life. Though frequently raised, the how of mystical practice isn’t fleshed out to at all the same extent as the practice of concrete human-human relationships. Left vague (and, again, I may well be ignorant of some of his work on the subject), it seems inconsistent with both his recommendations for human relationships and science, which are grounded in real action in engagement with other beings.
Despite these challenges, we can build on Fromm’s insights in thinking about overcoming human-nonhuman alienation for two reasons. First, his discussion of the ideal practice of science does offer some important concrete suggestions to counter the distortions rooted in the prejudices of his time and place. Second, unalienated scientific practices can be appreciated as just a subset of the loving practices Fromm advocates. Although his discussion of loving relationships is extremely human-centric, the form of the relationships Fromm describes is applicable to a great extent to our relationships with nonhumans. Recognizing this, we can give some substance to the “biophilic imperative.” I’m confident that he would approve.
Science: an unalienated relationship
Fromm was a critic of the character and social role of the science of his day, including, as I discussed in an earlier post, of psychiatry and the social sciences. He challenged what he considered the worship (including the vicarious, nationalistic worship) of an alienated practice and technology not grounded in humanistic values. Ironically, it’s here in the criticisms of the modern worship of technology and alienated research, in his distinction between alienated intelligence and unalienated reason, that we find the vision for an unalienated scientific relationship with other natural beings that was consistent with and rooted in his understanding of alienation.
Crucially, he appreciated the practice of science as a form of relating to the world, in exactly the same way we relate to other human beings. (As defined by Fromm, the scientific attitude and practice could extend well beyond the “official,” institutional sphere of science and out into everyday life.) Viewed in this way, science could be understood as an unalienated means of relating like any other, with equivalent consequences for the mental health and human development of those engaging in it.
For example, Fromm believed an unalienated scientific relationship was necessary to the development of reason. Just as he saw sentimentality as alienated emotion (“feeling under the condition of unrelatedness,…the feeling flows over, but it is empty because there is a need to feel, but nothing the feeling is related to,” PoN, KL 891), so, he argued, did reason suffer from the lack of genuine engagement:
Something similar happens to our reason, or to our thought processes, if we are not related to what we think about. To put it differently: if we are not concerned, then all that is left of our thought processes is intelligence. By intelligence, I mean an ability to manipulate concepts, but not to penetrate through the surface to the essence of things, to manipulate rather than to understand. This faculty of understanding, one might call reason, in contradistinction to manipulating intelligence. Reason indeed operates only if we are related to what we think about.” (PoN KL 891-6, emphasis added)
Intelligence in Fromm’s sense is alienated reason. Scientific practice, broadly defined, is an unalienated relationship that makes reason possible. We achieve an unalienated connection with the world through humble scientific objectivity:
All this is connected with our old concept of science. The scientific attitude is indeed one of the great achievements of the last few hundred years. What was this scientific attitude? It was an attitude of objectivity. It was a human attitude in which one had humility, in which one had the strength to look at the world objectively. That is to say, as it is and not distort it by our own wishes and fears and imagination. It was a human attitude, where one had the courage to see and examine whether the data that we gathered confirmed our idea or disproved it, and whether one had the courage to change a theory if the data showed that they had not proved it. That was the essence of scientific thinking.” (PoN KL 900-909, emphasis added)
Here, in his discussion of science, Fromm begins to overcome the limitations of Marx’s ideas concerning our alienation from the rest of the natural world. Nature, in this view, isn’t reduced to the raw material for our use or self-expression, and other living beings aren’t deprived of their own reality. Scientific objectivity respects other living beings on their own independent terms.
Science isn’t the only such unalienated relationship with the natural world, but we can use it as a model. In these relationships, embodied in action, we have to accept and try to respect and understand other natural entities as independently existing rather than imposing our wishes and emotions on them or viewing them as abstractions or commodities. In the process, we develop our knowledge, our capacity for reason and emotion, and ourselves. It’s not about whether the moment is pleasant or difficult at the superficial level we’re used to talking about; what’s important is that the relationship with the world that we establish through the practice of science is unalienated. So scientific objectivity (or, better yet, a broad intersubjectivity) isn’t just necessary to the development of our understanding of the world but is ethically sound and conducive to mental health.
And science and other similar relationships with the nonhuman world are, of course, just a subset of unalienated loving relationships. As noted above, the loving relationships Fromm focused on were those between and among humans. But the form of these relationships – ideally, as he describes in The Art of Loving, characterized by care, respect, responsibility, and knowledge - is reasonably, and necessarily, extended to scientific and other relationships with the nonhuman world.
While Fromm didn’t much explicitly connect the science and love aspects, the link comes through in his separate discussions of each, and is especially apparent in his choice of people to single out for admiration. He often mentions, for example, Albert Einstein, among other leading 20th-century physicists,* as a model. In his view, Einstein – a proponent of vegetarianism, by the way – approached the natural world with a laudable humanistic, unalienated, loving attitude. He saw Einstein’s scientific work as part of, and even formative of, his humanism.
Probably the person who most embodied Fromm’s vision of an unalienated, loving relationship with other living beings was Rachel Carson. I don’t know if they knew of each other, but she shared several of Fromm’s critiques and her work expressed his ideas in action. From "Rachel Carson's Environmental Ethics" (oddly unsigned):
[Carson] emphasized the complementarity in the great majority of cases of the three basic goals of protecting human health, preserving non-human life, and promoting human flourishing….
As philosophers, we are inclined to ask: what are the 'foundations' of Rachel Carson's environmental ethics? Otherwise put: how does she justify her three main evaluative premises (or her two controversial ones, concern for human health presumably needing no justification)?...Perhaps she believed that by implying such general ethical principles as "cause no unnecessary suffering" or "preserve opportunities for human knowledge and experience", she was resting on ethical ultimates which were beyond justification.
…Ultimately, I think, her ethical foundation is experiential. Aesthetic, intellectual, sensual, imaginative, personal experience grounds ethical judgments and action. In the main, Carson's writings are concerned to facilitate such experiences, rather than to argue for particular ethical positions. They certainly do not argue for particular religious beliefs.
…Like the failure to prevent unnecessary suffering, the failure to understand and appreciate nature lessened our stature as human beings.
…Carson never doubted that increased knowledge was more precious than increased material wealth, or that a more widespread knowledge of nature would motivate people to protect it. And knowledge, for her, was not simply learned, but lived and experienced, engaging and developing the senses and emotions as well as the mind, our imaginations as much as our analytic abilities.
…Carson's ethics were non-anthropocentric: she recognized the moral considerability of non-human beings. But Carson's work reminds us that non-anthropocentrism is both an ethical position and an intellectual task, and the latter demands as much from us as the former. In particular, it demands repeated attention to the non-human world: the setting aside of our works and purposes and a concentration on nature’s own stories and realities. [emphasis added]
Carson’s message, the author argues, was that a full “physical and intellectual engagement with the natural world” was foundational both to a humanistic ethics and to our own flourishing. In her actions, we see Fromm’s ideas come to life.
In my next post, I’ll tie this all together and talk about the alienation of animal consumption and faith in light of these ideas.
*Many physicists were, like Fromm, active in SANE.
In a recent conversation about the dynamics of animal rights debates and the social factors shaping them, a correspondent noted what seems to me an important factor: “the animals themselves aren't making counterarguments.”
This doesn’t capture the whole picture if we remain cognizant of instances of animal rebellion and the way they’re dismissed and framed as anything but. In this important but often neglected sense, there’s no qualitative difference: in similar ways, the experiences and voices of humans in liberation struggles throughout history – slaves, women, workers, colonized people - have been subverted, ignored, and discounted.
It’s true, though, that of all the liberation movements, this one faces a peculiar challenge. While nonhuman animals can and do resist and rebel, none of those participating in actual arguments about animal rights are the animals whose liberation is at issue. This makes it easier for those who oppose the movement to ignore them and speak as though the arguments only concern humans.
This not only contributes to furthering the invisibility of animals, but leads the dynamic of argumentation toward one in which animal rights supporters can be portrayed as aggressively* harassing and judging those they’re arguing with, allowing the proponents of animal exploitation or defenders of the status quo to see themselves as the aggrieved party in the dispute and to have this view validated.**
People arguing for social justice readily mock and dismiss that sort of self-representation coming from Men’s Rights or War on Religion wingnuts – “Oh, sure, you’re the suffering, downtrodden ones. Look at our reality.” In none of these cases, of course, do the people arguing for liberation come exclusively from the group fighting for its rights, but ideally it’s recognized that allies (who are often oppressed in related ways) are partnering with this group to help in their struggle. The struggling people in question and their experiences can’t be erased so thoroughly that their allies can convincingly be portrayed as aggressors or the liberation struggle itself as a form of oppression. Just who the privileged are is hard to deny.
That weird privilege-reversal is far more possible when it comes to discussions of animal liberation because these take place only between allies of the animals – vegans and other activists - and those opposing animal rights. So, to answer the question posed in my title: vegans aren’t any preachier or more judgmental than any other liberation activists. They’re just easier to portray that way because the defenders of the status quo don’t have to defend it to the animals themselves.
**A man’s suggestion, for example, that he feels a special bond with women he stalks, attacks, or kills is rightly viewed as a sick understanding of an immoral act. Comparable claims from hunters that they experience a deep connection with nature or the animals they stalk and kill or from cockfighting enthusiasts that they love “their” birds or are being oppressed and denied their cultural rights due to legal prohibitions, in contrast, are often regarded seriously and empathetically.
In my previous post in the series I began to argue that the framework in which becoming a vegan (or animal rights activist) or atheist (or science activist) are often discussed – one focusing on alleged psychological needs or pleasures as distinct from ethics and our relationships with other living beings – reflects and in turn contributes to our alienation from the world, each other, and ourselves. It’s harmful not just to others, human and animal, but, in a way that when glimpsed superficially might seem ironic, to the very psychological health with which it appears to be most concerned.
If our ethical relationships and our well-being really were as distinct as this vision implies, if we really did potentially have to trade off a good measure of our health and happiness to have ethical relationships with other living beings, the situation would be far more vexing. In fact, the concerns are inseparable: none can be understood apart from the others, and progress in each one grows from progress in the others. The questions “Why become a vegan?” and “Why embrace science and reject faith?” unite these three spheres - psychological well-being, ethics, and our active relationships with the world - as we can appreciate if we look at them through the lens of alienation. The beauty of the concept of alienation is that it’s inherently relational, capturing the dynamic connections between our interactions with and effects on other beings and our individual mental health and development.
Marx on alienation and our “species-life”
Marx developed the idea of alienation in the nineteenth century. He described the various dimensions of alienation under capitalism, including – most relevant for my purposes here - our estrangement from the rest of nature and so from our “species-being”:
It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.
So in capitalist society, according to Marx, our best relationship to nature, which he views as one of creative expression through manipulating nature to give concrete form to our visions, is subverted.
Also central to the idea of alienation under capitalism is that everything, including ourselves, comes to be seen as a commodity – recognized and valued not for its inherent characteristics but as an abstraction. As Fromm, following Marx, puts it:
[I]ndeed, if you take your own attitude toward things, if you analyze it a little, you will find that you relate yourself to things to a large extent, not as concrete things, but as commodities. (PoN KL 660-661)The question…is, whether this mode of production, this mode of behaving economically hasn’t had a tremendous influence on all our personalities, and has not transcended by far the shop and the business, and has gone into our whole life, so that the man who owns the flower shop not only doesn’t think of a concrete flower, but of a fifty-cent thing when he makes a balance, but he never thinks of a concrete flower. He might sell cheese tomorrow or atomic energy or shoes the next day. All these things have very little concrete meaning, but they are essentially experienced as things which have this abstract value. (PoN KL 734-739)
These abstractions come to seem more real than the things or beings themselves.
There are several serious problems with Marx’s discussion of alienation, including his emphasis on differences from other animals that supposedly “make us human” and which we should value apparently for this reason; his focus on “Man [of course] the Worker/Builder/Creator” and the resulting view of our “ideal” relationship with the rest of the natural world as one in which nature is merely a means by which we externalize our consciousness – our creative material (“Nature is man’s inorganic body”[!!!]); and his lack of attention to our relationship with the rest of the natural world (and particularly other animals, bizarrely grouped together and then subsumed under “nature”) outside of our role as artists, artisans, and developers of technology. But the general argument that there is a desirable human-nature relationship that is broken under capitalism, and that this causes something to be broken within people in capitalist society, is an important and fruitful one.
Fromm’s understanding of alienation
“[T]here is probably no period in which alienation has reached such a degree as it has reached today in Western society,” Fromm argued (PoN KL 1345-6), and the concept was central to his thinking. He frequently noted, correctly, that alienation was a concept that had received insufficient attention in the thought and movements influenced by Marx (except for anarchism, as he acknowledges, but that’s for another post).
Fromm followed Marx in defining alienation in terms of broken relationships, often using “unrelatedness” as a synonym for alienation (e.g., “What happens to love in this situation of self-alienation, of unrelatedness?” (PoN KL 934). As with Marx’s, his concept of unrelatedness wasn’t solely about loss or distance - it was the nature of the relationships that mattered. Crucially, Fromm recognized that our ethical relationships – with other people especially, with the things we create, and with the natural world - are at the same time relationships with ourselves, and so when these are fractured our psychological and emotional health is compromised. Our emotions and our understanding of ourselves and the world are actively formed in real interactions, and become warped or atrophy when these are broken.
The connection between alienated relationships and mental health
Fromm developed the concept of capitalist alienation in a neglected context - mental health. An argument he made repeatedly is that “If one is concerned with mankind…capitalism…should be criticized [not just for its economic effects but] for what this mode of production and consumption, this mode of social organization, does to man’s soul, to man’s life, to man’s feeling, to man’s concept of himself” (PoN KL 1018-1023).
This is especially true of our engagement with the world outside us. He saw our genuine relatedness to the world as necessary to our capacity for reason and to our emotional well-being, arguing that “All this state of abstraction, of being alienated from the concreteness of one’s own experience, has far-reaching consequences for one’s mental health” (PoN KL 804-810). “Joy, energy, happiness,” he wrote,
all this depends on the degree to which we are related, to which we are concerned, and that is to say, to which we are in touch with the reality of our feelings, with the reality of other people, and not to experience them as abstractions which we can look at like the commodities at the market;…in this process of being related, we experience ourselves as entities, as I who is related to the world.” (PoN KL 812-18)
Again, and as the quotation above suggests, it isn't mere relatedness that is significant. The form of the relation is key. So, for example, domination, objectification, exploitation, and destruction are forms of engagement with other beings, but these are in Fromm's view completely contrary to mental health and human development.
Alienation and depression
This is where Fromm brought the concept of alienation into new territory. He saw alienation as a root cause of depression, which he defined not as overwhelming sadness but as a form of extreme boredom, a state in which it’s difficult or impossible to have real feelings or interests – “nothing but the expression of an unrelatedness to the world and to love” (PoN KL 826-31). While real emotional pain that responds to experience is a part of mental health, Fromm argued, depression is the intolerable condition of not being able to feel any emotions:
In a culture wherein we become alienated from ourselves, from others, in which our own human feelings become abstractions, cease to be concrete, we become awfully bored. We lose energy. Life ceases to be exciting in a true sense. I believe that boredom is one of the great evils that can befall man. There are few things which are as terrifying and unbearable as being bored. (PoN KL 823-6)
For this reason, he believed that mental health rests in large part on “the overcoming of alienation” (PoN KL 1213-1217). But alienation can’t be overcome through a change of attitude alone, because relationships exist only in action. My next post in the series will talk about some unalienated relationships, particularly science.
In need of inspiration?
It's part of HBO's The Weight of the Nation series, which as a whole is, frankly, bad and I don't recommend it. I viscerally loathe that "corporations will have to be our partners" nonsense, which is why I appreciated the "hold their feet to the fire" perspective these young kids appear to understand better than most of the adults involved.
Watching these kids, I cheered, I sang along with Allen Toussaint (and the sappy Whitney Houston song playing in my head), and I just felt hopeful.
Now if only they could also start rethinking animal consumption....
“Any substitute would have to mimic the total sensory experience elicited by meats.” – Tara Parker-Pope, “The Challenge of Going Vegan,” New York Times, April 16, 2012
“I should like to speak about what seems to me to be the central problem of mental health: self-alienation, that is, the alienation from ourselves, from our own feelings, from people and from nature; or, to put it still differently, the alienation between ourselves and the world inside and outside of ourselves.” – Erich Fromm. PoN, KL 625-7
(I mentioned in my first post in the Fromm series that it would likely jump around some, and this is the first instance. I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, and will have a lot more to say about all of the subjects raised in these posts later on.)
Via vegan.com (which I guess has just gone on hiatus), I learned of Tara Parker-Pope’s recent “wellness” article in the New York Times, “The Challenge of Going Vegan.” I agree with Erik Marcus – it’s a hack job and offers no useful practical information. Its few scattered points, moreover, are trite: habits can be hard to break, some people don’t enjoy meat or dairy substitutes, communities can be unsupportive and hostile. News to no one.
It’s not my intent at the moment to get into any discussion about the ease or difficulty of my or anyone else’s transition to veganism. There are many good resources available for people looking to change. What I want to talk about here is the problematic common vision of ourselves and our relationship to the world that articles like Parker-Pope’s promote. (The next posts will offer an alternative.)
Parker-Pope’s piece starts off by mentioning that celebrities like Bill Clinton and Ellen DeGeneres have been “singing the praises of a vegan diet.” We don’t learn why, and the impression the reader is left with is that adopting a “vegan diet” is about nutrition and weight loss primarily if not entirely (this is not the case for DeGeneres, who has spoken publicly about her objection to animal suffering). We want to be healthier, happier, and thinner, the story goes, and this is the current faddish form of consumption thought to satisfy that desire.
There’s only one place to go from such a starting point - you talk about people’s experiences with the change in consumption. Your personal opinions will become apparent in whether you give more weight to the relative ease or difficulty, or benefits or costs, of animal consumption vs. veganism. Parker-Pope’s biases seem pretty clear from the opening of her second paragraph: “As countless aspiring vegans are discovering, the switch from omnivore to herbivore is fraught with physical, social and economic challenges — at least, for those who don’t have a personal chef….”
There are parallels with contemporary discussions of atheism. Religious people frequently want to dwell on the alleged personal psychological benefits of religion and the needs to which it responds. And atheists often accept this framework, focusing on the personal ease or difficulties, joys or pains, benefits or drawbacks, of leaving religion.
As with dietary change, people’s positions on religion and atheism come into relief as they talk about the psychological process of becoming or living as an atheist or skeptic. Do they focus on personal losses or benefits? How do they characterize the religious and nonreligious social experience? Do they view atheism as a mere substitute for religion, possibly necessary but ultimately unfulfilling? Parker-Pope’s suggestion about veganism above could easily be repurposed by some accommodationists: “Any substitute would have to mimic the total experience elicited by religion.” On the other side, many atheists seek to promote atheism and skepticism as liberating, dignified, and personally fulfilling.
I’m concerned here not with the empirical basis for the claims of the different sides but with the consumerist orientation at the heart of many of the arguments. There are significant differences between the phenomena of veganism and atheism, but in both of these cases the issue has misleadingly been presented as a superficial one of alleged personal wants or needs and their satisfaction. The questions of atheism vs. religion and veganism vs. carnism are understood as questions largely of human consumption and pleasure.
To people whose overwhelming concern is the suffering and deaths of animals, even those for whom food and the enjoyment of eating are important and who want to promote veganism as a joyful and healthful way to live, this framing of the issue can seem obscenely shallow and narcissistic.* Similarly, to many atheist activists for whom truth and the harms of epistemic abdication are paramount, the fixation on the alleged comforts and pleasures afforded by faith looks selfish, childish, and beside the point.
Given this, the arguments often come to be about what people should do vs. what (they insist) makes them healthiest and happiest. This, too, contributes to the problem, because it accepts that there’s a basic distinction between ethics on the one hand and health and happiness on the other, and, worse, that that these might be in conflict. It’s even claimed – often unopposed - that trying to convince someone to go vegan or to adopt a scientific attitude is callous in light of their psycho-physical reliance on and enjoyment of animal consumption or faith.
These false premises are a symptom of how alienated we’ve become from nonhuman animals and from the rest of nature, including (necessarily) ourselves. My next posts in the series will discuss this alienation and some of the means by which it might be overcome.
[W]e don’t claim a customary right to experience an endless array of pleasure in other arenas of sensual life. The pleasures of food are often compared to the pleasures of sex. Still, few of us live life under the impression that we can indulge every sexual desire that tickles the imagination just because it creates pleasure. We don’t have TV shows featuring figures such as Anthony Bourdain traveling the world sampling local and exotic sexual indulgences. To the contrary, we structure the quest for sexual pleasure within a framework of reasonable, morally bound regulations. Whether we adhere to these regulations or not isn’t the point–we generally assume that they serve an important societal function. As I see it, the only reason food gets a pass from this form of regulation is that animals cannot provide their consent. Thus our quest for pleasure trumps their right not to be needlessly violated.
I've mentioned Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself - and the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future briefly in the past. Here's award-winning author and serial Powerpoint offender Harriet Washington talking about it on Book TV (I wish you could embed these). I have my criticisms of the book, but it covers the major territory fairly well and explores some significant and disturbing new areas.
It sounds like the participation of the Occupy movement and other “outsider” activists added some life to this year’s American Psychiatric Association meeting.
Here’s a piece on the Radical Caucus meeting. My favorite passage:
The key mantra of all medical activism—from Women’s Health, to ACT-UP, to Disability Rights, to Mad Pride—is NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US!!! There’s a deep injustice built into the heart of healthcare where the primary stakeholders, the service users, are not included in creation of healthcare priorities, research, education, practice, and institutions. It’s so obvious a flaw that no one can seriously argue against it. Would women want men to decide “womens’ issues?” Of course not. It’s absurd. It wouldn’t help if the men said that they were trying their best and that they really cared. It also wouldn’t help if they said they were being “scientific” and therefore “objective, value free, and unbiased.” Trying hard and using science is not enough. The only solution to exclusion is inclusion.
And here’s an interview with Ted Chabasinski about Occupy the APA and plans for next year (the setting couldn’t be more drab, but the content makes it worthwhile):
The focus on children seems especially urgent. I was just reading this unhappy news from the UK.
“The reasons why social scientists have not considered the question of the optimal social conditions for man’s* growth a matter of primary concern can be easily discerned if one recognizes the sad fact that, with a few outstanding exceptions, social scientists are essentially apologists for and not critics of the existing social system.” (Erich Fromm, AoHD, 292)
“The majority of psychologists, like most social scientists, are not prone to doubt the system. In fact, their theories are not only influenced by it, but help to support it ideologically. They do not transcend the basic axioms even in their experiments, most of which tend to prove the basic premises of our society scientifically.” (Erich Fromm, PoN, KL 1662-5)In this first substantive post of the Erich Fromm series, I’ll discuss Fromm’s critique of mainstream psychiatry and social science – that they’re a tool of the status quo, aren’t grounded in humanistic values, and have become alienated and scientifically shallow - and his vision for a humanistic psychiatry,which would serve human needs, be dedicated to realizing humanistic values, and be genuinely scientific and unalienated. The discussion will draw primarily from The Pathology of Normalcy (PoN)
and also from The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (AoHD)
In Fromm’s time - the mid-twentieth century – though psychoanalysis still dominated in professional psychiatry, other models were strong in the social sciences and the popular imagination. The corporate-neuropsychiatric model that’s triumphed today was then in its infancy, but it would come to elaborate so many of the features Fromm challenges that his work can be read as a prescient indictment of it as well.
Psychiatry’s service to the status quo
Fromm argues that society, any society, pushes people to fill useful molds, and preferably to do so willingly. “One of the great efforts which every society makes,” he argues,
in its cultural institutions, educational institutions, religious ideas, and so on, is to create a type of personality that wants to do what he or she has to do; which is not only willing but eager to fulfill that role which is required in that society, so that it can function smoothly. (PoN, KL 197-200)
The profession of psychiatry isn’t immune to these societal demands. The most basic criticism Fromm has of psychiatry and social science is that they tend to serve the needs of the system in which they operate. They accept the definition of mental health embodied in societal norms, and work – not always consciously, of course – to adjust people to the system and to supply more to feed it. The “principle of adjustment” underlies psychiatry, in Fromm’s time and in ours. This defines mental health primarily in terms of adjustment to the needs of the society and mental illness as “a deviation from what is the personality type that this society wants” (PoN, KL 171-174).
As Fromm explains, the assumptions underlying the principle of adjustment are of two types. The first is relativistic: the desired personality types of any “functioning” society represent an acceptable norm. The second rejects this relativism but claims that our society has reached such a pinnacle of human development – “the American way of life happens to be the end and fulfillment of human aspiration” (PoN, KL 214-17) - that a person’s failure or refusal to function contentedly within it must be due to pathology.
In both cases, the role of scientific psychiatry is to determine the individual causes of maladjustment and to help the person to resume functioning in their role in society. Psychiatry assumes, Fromm argues, that
the aim of mental hygiene, the aim of psychiatry, the aim of psychotherapy, is to restore man to the ways of the average personality, regardless of whether they are blind or he is blind.** What matters is that he is adjusted and that they are not disturbed. (PoN, KL 171-174)
It would be hard to find too many people today who would explicitly make the claim that our society (much less every one of those in which the brain-pathology model is applied) is ideal or even particularly sane, such that mental illness could be judged with reference to it. Few would argue outright that the problems of, say, a woman in Afghanistan are caused by an imbalance of neurochemicals. But one or both of these assumptions are at the heart of the contemporary model, in which psychological problems are understood to be located in individual brain chemistry or thought patterns. Problems, the model assumes, are not with society but with people’s brains. At the very least, the nature of the society a person lives in is largely irrelevant to the question. Regarding problems as essentially individual amounts to assuming the social context is fine and should be adjusted to.
The loss of humanistic values in psychiatry
“[T]he relativism with which the social sciences are imbued,” Fromm argues, unmoors psychiatry from humanistic values:
Whereas we still pay lip service to the great humanistic tradition, most social scientists have adopted an attitude of complete relativism, an attitude in which values are considered a matter of taste but of no objective validity. Because it is a difficult task to probe the objective validity of values, social science has chosen the easier path of throwing them out altogether. In doing so, it has neglected the fact that our whole world is endangered by the increasing loss of a sense of values, which has led to an increasing incapacity to use constructively the fruits of our thoughts and efforts in the natural sciences. (PoN, KL 1445-1450)
While Fromm speaks of the social sciences generally here, we can focus specifically on psychiatry. (Again, the narrowness and value-relativism are not always conscious or explicit, but are nevertheless inherent features of the model.)
Psychiatry has been overwhelmed by a corporate model based implicitly on the principle of adjustment and on value-irrelevance, in which psychiatry’s role is to find the pathologies in individuals and help them to be “happy,” and, more important, functioning members of capitalist society. This model effectively treats the causes of personal difficulties as irrelevant. Larger societal factors are simply ignored, while more immediate individual experiences are relegated to the background.
Proponents can thus argue – leaving aside the very basic problems with the premises that drugs “work” or do so in some exclusive manner or that they don’t come with serious risks and side effects – that any physiological effects can and should be treated*** with drugs or other therapies focused entirely on the individual. Again, not many people would claim this model would be suited to, for example, Stalin’s Russia or Pinochet’s Chile, but this globally applicability and the principle of adjustment are in fact among its implicit premises.
Alienation and superficial science
This system-serving psychiatry is alienated from people and empirical reality in several ways, according to Fromm. First, clinical practice has tended toward treating individual people as objects rather than full human beings. More broadly, the study of humans and their psychological problems has been abstracted from real lives in real political and economic contexts:
What one really means by scientific approach, both the layman and the social scientist, is essentially something that is done by manipulating intelligence. It is taken for a scientific approach to a psychological problem if one can express it in abstract figures, if you count, if you measure, even if your basic data doesn’t make any sense and has no meaning whatsoever. (PoN, KL 919-922)
Given the bashing the social sciences often take today from the ignorant, it seems useful to note that Fromm was not arguing that strong empirical work can’t be done in the social sciences. He himself was arguing for a scientific approach, and the work of many in the social sciences today is far different from the sort of “abstracted empiricism” Fromm and C. Wright Mills complained about (undoubtedly due in some measure to their influence). Mainstream psychiatry, though, has become even more severed from the humanistic tradition and used in the system’s employ. As Fromm notes, the “erroneous results and superficial treatment” of this abstracted and highly partial model “have a useful function as ideological ‘cement’, while the truth is, as always, a threat to the status quo” (AoHD, 292).
Fromm’s rejection of the principle of adjustment and argument for existential human needs
Seeking to contribute to a humanistic psychiatric model, Fromm rejects both bases for the principle of adjustment, arguing that, rather than accepting that any given society is a picture of sanity just because it exists (which no one who thinks about all of the societies that have existed and exist today could seriously believe) or making the patriotic assumption that not all societies are sane but ours is, a humanistic science of psychiatry should study human experience and seek to discover the empirical bases for human mental health and well-being.
He argues that humans’ existential needs – our requirements for experiencing real joy and fulfillment – transcend individual societies, and that we can’t simply assume that they’re represented in any given society’s norms. Rather, we have to discover these all-important transcultural and transhistorical needs empirically. “According to the relativists,” he contends, “any norm is valid once it is established by the culture whether it is murder or love. Humanism claims that certain norms are inherent in man’s existential situation, and that their violation results in certain consequences, which are inimical to life” (PoN, KL 1481-1487). Mental health is, then, the condition in which these needs, the needs of life, are consistently satisfied. (I’ll describe these basic needs and Fromm’s definition of mental health in upcoming posts, but what’s important here is that Fromm thought the foundational job of humanistic psychiatry was to determine what we need, what’s best for human thriving, and to help individual people and societies construct mentally healthy lives.)
The renewal of humanistic values as the foundation of psychiatric work
So Fromm thought the values that should guide psychiatry, or any humanistic discipline, weren’t relative and couldn’t simply be discerned or assumed from those prevalent in a given society at a given moment. We have to derive them through sustained analysis of past and present societies and by investigating scientifically the requirements inherent in our nature and our existential condition. He argues that on the basis of this work, general scientific statements about these needs can be made with confidence,
[j]ust as the doctor or physiologist can make an objectively valid statement that we begin with one axiom, and that is: to live is better than to die, or life is better than death, then indeed this food is better than another one. (PoN, KL 186-189)
Modern anthropology and psychopathology and psychology can show that by studying the nature of humanity, by studying the problems of human existence, one can find, with as much empirical evidence as we have for the usefulness of vitamins, that these are the aims which make for the best and only satisfactory solution of the complex problems of living and existence. (PoN, KL 378-81)
These needs should form the basis of humanistic values, and psychiatrists, like everyone else, should work to create those conditions and relationships that are conducive to their realization. This might seem obvious, until we recognize how far the current system and the mainstream alternatives have moved from this vision. While over the past several decades many in the social sciences have embraced more humanistic approaches, psychiatry has become even more alienated and empirically superficial.
(Fromm’s focus on the realization of human needs counters the simplistic straw man that all critical psychiatry merely reverses mainstream psychiatry’s judgments, exalting what’s considered insane behavior as sane and vice versa, as well as the suggestion that humanistic psychiatry denies real psychological suffering. Fromm’s is not a negative of the image of contemporary psychiatry; it’s a far more sophisticated vision grounded in an evidence-based humanism.)
For many, psychiatry’s turn away from humanistic commitments hasn’t been experienced, at least consciously or fully, as a loss, because as it’s moved further away from those messy humanistic concerns it’s gained in some circles the status of science, which itself is alleged to transcend the humanistic tradition, as well as the support of corporations. But Fromm argues that a scientific status based on a severance from humanistic concerns makes of psychiatry a sham science:
It is often said by social scientists that one condition of scientific enquiry is the absence of any self-interested or preconceived aims. That this is a naive assumption is clearly shown by the development of the natural sciences: they are to a large extent furthered and not hindered by practical aims and necessities. It is the task of the scientist to keep the data objective, not to study without aims - which are what give meaning and impulse to his work. (PoN, KL 1466-1471)
These general aims can be accomplished only if methods proper to the study of man are examined and developed. The problem is not that of choosing between a scientific and a non-scientific study of man, but of determining what constitutes the proper rational method for the understanding of man and what does not. (PoN, KL 1461-1464)
In contrast to the view that a scientific psychiatry would eschew value commitments, then, Fromm contends that only by developing and embracing humanistic values can the field become meaningfully scientific and useful to humans rather than to corporations and governments. Psychiatry, social science, and science should not simply try to win contentment and functioning within or adjustment to existing social conditions, but should seek to determine the conditions most suited to human well-being and development and work for their realization. This requires the study of evolution and nonhuman animals, comparative anthropology and sociology, and the history of ethical thought (for Fromm, unfortunately, religious thought plays far too large a role here, which proves quite detrimental to his analysis), including that of modern liberation movements. It’s only on the basis of this understanding that people can talk about mental health from a humanistic and rigorous position and work toward realizing it in individuals and societies.
Fromm’s call for an unalienated and less superficial approach
Fromm suggests that a psychiatric approach that treats people as isolated objects, that ignores human needs and the values derived from their appreciation, that fails to concern itself with societal determinants of mental health, does not deserve to be called humanistic or scientific. In order to achieve these humanistic aims, of course, psychiatry needs to move beyond the clinical realm and appreciate the character of contemporary society, to recognize how the larger system affects the possibilities for mental health.
While Fromm did argue that “The main form of coping with mental illness and trying to achieve mental health, is not primarily individual therapy, but is primarily the change of those social conditions that produce mental illness or lack of mental health in the various forms that I have tried to describe” (PoN, KL 1422-26), he didn’t hold that psychiatry should disappear as scientists came to focus on analyzing and changing social conditions, or reject clinical work, in which he engaged himself. But he argued that all relevant work should be unalienated in concrete practice – should refuse to treat people as objects:
It has to be established what differences in approach exist between the study of things and the study of living beings, especially man. For instance, there is a difference between “the objective” approach, in which “the object” is nothing but an object, and an approach in which the observer at the same time relates empathically to the persons he observes. (PoN, KL 1471-4)
In a telling example, he characterizes an approach that contrasts with the emphasis which has grown so strong in our day on developing reliable (ahem) diagnoses and labels:
On the basis of such considerations, the Meyerian psychiatrists and Laing decline to use nosological labels at all. This change has largely resulted from the new approach to the mentally ill. As long as one could not approach the patient psychotherapeutically, the main point of interest was the diagnostic label, useful for the decision of whether or not to put him in an institution for the mentally ill.**** Since one began to help the patient by psychoanalytically oriented therapy, the labels became unimportant, because the psychiatrist’s interest was focused on understanding the processes going on in the patient, experiencing him as a human being who is not basically different from the ‘participant observer’. This new attitude toward the psychotic patient may be considered an expression of a radical humanism, which is developing in our time in spite of the process of dehumanization that is predominant. (AoHD, 394, n.35)
As I said in my introductory post, a truly humanistic psychiatry can’t simply consist of a rejection of religious or superstitious approaches or of criticism of the contemporary corporate, drug-based model. It has to be built on the secular concerns of (post-)humanism. Fromm imagined that psychiatry could be positively based – in aims and in practice - in humanistic values, that, instead of helping humans serve the system, it could become one force among many working to create systems that serve human needs.
*Fromm’s writing is ridiculously sexist. It doesn’t read as misogynistic, but it is, like I said, ridiculously sexist, as well as Eurocentric, in that way that only mid-twentieth-century thinking influenced by Freudianism, Marxism, and religious study could be. At the beginning of AoHD, he states that using more balanced gender pronouns is fetishistic and he has no intention of doing it, which wouldn’t. perhaps, be a major problem if women weren’t almost entirely ignored throughout his work and he weren’t so all-fired insistent on referring to “Man” in virtually every paragraph. In many instances, this can be brushed aside and the arguments read as applying to all humans even if he didn’t really seem to be thinking of women at all. In others, the sexism (and speciesism) is a fundamental problem for his arguments, and I’ll discuss those problems when they appear. There’s no way to get around the fact that his work is shot through with this annoying “Man” language, though, so I’ll simply note it and move on.
**This is a reference to H. G. Wells’ “The Country of the Blind,” a story Fromm mentions in several works.
***I don’t have time right now to address the numerous problems with this article, some of which are extreme, but this argument is indicative of the more fundamental issues.
****In our time, this is more about the usefulness of these diagnoses for drug prescriptions.