Intellectual Disgrace


How do people with a shred or more of superego assuage the pricks of an uneasy conscience knowing they are sliding down a slippery dark slope?


After two horrendous crashes of a widely purchased new plane, an aeronautical industry giant stands suspect of making a crucial safety device a buying option, instead of incorporating it into every craft at no added cost.

A big pharmaceutical company stands suspect of hawking a highly addictive opioid, as well as treatment for those addicted to that very product.

Wealthy parents, many celebrities, stand accused of buying kids’ college admission-inter alia-through hefty donations to athletic programs for a minor sport. Their children often with little if any experience in archery, air hockey, whatever.

These alleged or actual despicable deeds occasion some reflections on the psychological tactics that facilitate living with oneself, fully aware of complicity in gross wrongdoing. It’s conceivable that some involved may be malignant psychopaths. Not my concern: I believe such warped characters sleep well, even after being caught out. Hitler killed himself arguably ridden with narcissistic rage and despair. These days it seems more likely for bigtime sociopathic offenders, notably in business and politics, to have their legal fixers get them off-or into a tennis court in a minimum risk penitentiary for a few years.

But how do people with a shred or more of superego assuage the pricks of an uneasy conscience knowing they are sliding down a slippery dark slope? Denial and rationalization certainly comprise trump cards in this enterprise. One need not be a malignant narcissist for a modicum of wealth and fame to make one feel entitled to do the slimy in aid of assuring their youngster’s glittering future. To which add the lulling rationale that every neighbor in Beverly Hills or on Park Avenue is doing the same. Of which more presently.

A stressed out, highly stratified corporate milieu could easily seduce one to equivocate over or otherwise minimize malfeasance:

“Maybe I’m exaggerating my responsibility . . .”

“Maybe I’m rushing to judgement without all the facts . . .”

“Maybe what I’m calling wrong is part of a wonderfully helpful, totally safe project the higher ups haven’t revealed to me yet . . .”

“OK, I’ve done bad-but maybe somebody up there will catch it and get me off the hook . . .”

“After all, I’m just a cog in a big machine . . . plenty others share the blame-especially the really BIG big shots!”

One recalls the famous Nast cartoon of the Tammany Hall Boss Tweed Ring, a literal ring of crooks in which each point to the chiseler on either side. In this vein, group psychology has addressed a leader’s role in seducing followers into collective noxious actions they would never take on their own-the Nazis a notable case in point. It’s been theorized that identifying with Hitler’s absolute certainty that his baleful wrong was gloriously right encouraged his followers’ identification and consequent loosening of ethical constraint.

One conjectures that a charismatic corporate chief-or leadership cadre entire-blandly assuring employees about the benefit and safety of the company’s mission/product could engender an analogous loosening of moral fiber. Big bonuses grease the wheels. Fear of being axed, blackballed, with no employable future can be an even more potent reason to keep the whistles unblown. Two of my patients are currently wrestling with this dilemma.

The airline industry, Big Pharma, and college scandals didn’t happen in a socio-cultural vacuum. It’s no less true for sounding trite that the bar for acceptable ethical behavior has been set so low as to reside in the Stygian depths. The articulating reasons for the decline are too many to enumerate here. But the unslakeable pursuit of wealth for its own sake, not merely for accompanying power, is a major contributor.

The lust for lucre pervades our culture at every level. I submit it articulates with a general coarsening of our very social fabric the crucial responsivity to and responsibility for others that hallmarks a viable community.

Increasingly one hears people say that in the boardrooms of business, the halls of Washington, “everyone gets away with everything” in the financial and sexual spheres (to name but two). I expect the statement reflects public distaste and disenchantment. But one must be concerned about a corollary potential to identify with the compromised ethics whether in the halls of business and government, or the mansions of Lalaland.

In his famous poem on Yeats’ death, W. H. Auden wrote “Intellectual disgrace stares from every human face.” Greedy indifference may not yet comprise an Audenesque pandemic in our land. But the fundamental justice and decency native to the American spirit has never been threatened so direly with imminent disgrace.

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