Licenses to self deceive: How much of the Dark Triad can be packed into a single ideology?
Psychologists identify the Dark Triad as being made up of Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy.
Psychologist John Vervaeke has a nice discussion of narcissism as being an inner emptiness that requires the light of attention to be shown towards the narcissist, otherwise they are left with the dark emptiness inside.
Machiavellianism is manipulative behaviour towards others displaying a high level of callousness and indifference to norms, particularly moral norms.
Psychopathy is a somewhat contested concept, but involves high social assertiveness (boldness), poor impulse control with a demand for instant gratification (disinhibition) and a lack of empathy, use of cruelty to gain empowerment, exploitative tendencies, and defiance of authority (meanness).
Ideology can be reasonably understood as a framing for understanding the world. Political ideologies often ask good questions, but their answers tend to be rather less valuable. Indeed, an inherent problem with an ideology is precisely that it tends to pre-commit to some particular sets of answers.
In providing a set of presumptive answers as a framing for understanding the world, an ideology can encourage emotional reactions towards things in the world and other people. In doing so, an ideology can definitely encourage a collective narcissism; creating or amplifying the demand for positive attention while its intellectual and emotional thinness generates an inner emptiness. An ideology can encourage a manipulative attitudes to others, especially if its normative structure encourages discounting the concerns, including the moral concerns, of others. An ideology can, especially via dramatic claims about social transformation and/or pervasive evil, encourage high assertiveness, undermine contrary impulses, justify use of cruelty to gain empowerment, be a vehicle for exploitation and for defiance of (contrary) authority.
So, the answer to how question of how much of the dark triad can be packed into an ideology is: close to all of it. Particularly any ideology that adopts the Jacobin model of political action. This a secular model of political action first developed by Robespierre (1758–1794) and his supporters during the French Revolution (1789–1799).
By the Jacobin model I mean politics unlimited in means and unlimited in scope. That, is, politics that does not rule out any means (including killing and repression) to achieve it ends, and is willing to expand into any and every aspect of society and social interaction. A model of politics that relies on its sense of profound moral purpose, of moral grandeur, to justify its refusal to accept limits in its means or its scope. The Jacobin model also tends to rely on a sense of profound social understanding to give the required confidence that what it does will lead where it intends.
The Jacobin model can be applied to a wide range of political projects. Lenin very self-consciously applied the Jacobin model to Marxism. So, Leninism (or Communism as it named itself) is Marx + Robespierre. Mussolini, the former revolutionary socialist, applied the Jacobin model to Italian nationalism. So, Fascism was Mazzini (1805–1872) + Robespierre. Hitler applied the Jacobin model to Aryan racism. So Nazism was Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855–1927) + Robespierre.
As one can see by how they operated, and the human wreckage they left in their wake, these were all ideologies that incorporated a great deal of the Dark Triad into their workings. They mainly did so by adopting the Jacobin model of politics.
The scale of the project also matters. Italian Fascism created orders of magnitude less human wreckage than did Communism or Nazism because the project of Italian nationalism was far less in scale than either the elimination of capitalism to create a society without alienation or creating continental-scale Lebensraum for those designated to be Aryans.
Communism did far more damage than Nazism but in the service of a goal far more encompassing in its alleged beneficiaries. This helps account for why Nazism is more systematically reviled. That, and that without the example of Nazism, the “progressive” Communist regimes would be more starkly distinctive in their tyrannical murderousness. Hence “progressive” education tends to dwell on Nazi crimes far more than Communist ones. The adoption of the Jacobin model of politics, making their political projects more effective and more destructive, is the point of commonality between Nazism and Communism.
Rationality and self-deception
In order to understand the dynamics whereby moral grandeur leads to great human suffering and oppression, we need to understand the human capacity for self-deception. Psychologist John Vervaeke argues that you cannot lie to oneself, as it is impossible to make yourself believe what you don’t believe. But you can bullshit oneself, you can adopt beliefs without regard to their truth because they are in some other way congenial.
Often, these beliefs will be true but not accurate. That is, they will have some element of truth that it is congenial to focus on but not be an accurate description of social reality. In this way, particularly if motivated by a shared sense of moral grandeur, mountains of bullshit can be built out of molehills of truth.
The trumping (i.e. prescriptively dominant) nature of moral claims encourages persuasion and rhetoric to be cast in moral terms. Sublimation of self-interest behind a shield of morality, including as a shield from self-awareness, can make someone a more persuasive and effective advocate. Aggression and competition (such as over status and resources) can be sublimated by expressing moral concern; itself a play for higher status. (My ever-expanding essay on structural equilibria examines the wider dynamics of status and norms.)
We can differentiate between logic, the structure of inference; reason, the ability to purposefully infer; and rationality, the ability to coherently manage inference and action. Vervaeke argues that rationality increases as self-deception decreases.
A certain level of self-deception can be a successful strategy, as it allows the more complete and effective use of prescriptively dominant moral claims within a status-seeking and resource-acquiring strategy. Especially if it enables stigmatisation of contrary concerns. Thus, embracing a level of irrationality — for example, adopting standpoint epistemology, privileging particular experience over inconvenient facts or social nuance and complexity — can be an effective dominance strategy, if it is seen to invalidate contrary concerns or evidence. Of course, it will not look irrational from within, however much it may do so to outsiders. It is the licensing of self-deception, via moral grandeur, to discount contrary concerns and evidence that both expresses and hides the irrationality.
Dark Triad dynamics
The embrace of whatever morally urgent project the Jacobin model is applied to sets in train adoption of the Dark Triad characteristics. Validation by external social aim requires the light of outward moral purpose to be constantly shining to cover up inner emptiness, hence the collective narcissism.
The justifying moral purpose is so morally and socially grand, that it requires systematic strategic manipulation of people and events, without regard to contrary norms or concerns, hence the Machiavellianism.
The aim is so morally and socially grand, that it must reject any contrary authority. It also empowers through deemed moral intensity and purposiveness of action, thereby justifying cruelty. That it is a social dominance strategy, as any contrary concerns or limits have no legitimacy in the face of utterly morally urgent aim, creates great capacity for exploitation of others. That provides the psychopathy.
All aspects of the Dark Triad are thus achieved.
All of this generates politics unlimited in means (justifying any action that works towards the grand moral goal) and unlimited in scope (seeking to intrude into every aspect of social to achieve the grand moral goal). Or, to be put it another way, collectively narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopathic politics. Which, of course, entirely accords with the history of Communism and Nazism.
Self-deception is a crucial part of the dynamics. The movements became successful precisely because they used the prescriptively trumping rhetoric of grand moral urgency or common purpose to create a mirage of common moral grandeur that permit adherents to bullshit themselves into adopting Dark Triad politics.
In some ways, it is politics being unlimited in scope which shows the Dark Triad pattern most clearly. Having politics unlimited in scope means that it does not matter what sphere of social action is involved, whether football, knitting, young adult fiction or whatever, it will be subject to political action and political censure. This is fairly obviously a social dominance strategy. But the insistence that one’s political purpose is so grand that all must defer to it in every social space is narcissism. The expansive intrusion of political strategy everywhere, regardless of ancillary costs, is Machiavellian. The uninhibited imposition of your political concerns at often great costs to others is psychopathic. The Dark Triad in operation.
Status is at the heart of this; taking the prestige of moral grandeur and transmuting it into a social dominance strategy. Prestige is the currency of social cooperation. Add in the benefits and pleasures of dominance, and moral grandeur can become a deeply destructive social force.
If enough collective impetus can be generated, “everyone who disagrees is evil” is a powerful mechanism for social dominance, as it both stigmatises opposition and energises self-deceiving commitment. For instance, the destruction, actual or attempted, of reputations, careers and businesses is social cruelty justified by moral purpose.
All political action involves, or implies, explicit or implicit imposition on the will of others. Moral grandeur both justifies and expands this.
A principle that Nassim Nicholas Taleb identities — that it is easier to macro bullshit than to micro bullshit — has particular force. It is a problem of feedback. Precisely because one is making grand social claims about society as a whole, the elements of factual feedback are much weaker than if you are trying to do some practical bit of physical work.
Thus any highly status-driven environment with weak factual feedback is likely to be highly conducive to the social selection for ideas which promote Dark Triad status-and-resource strategies. Circumstance that can be found in the less scientific parts of academe and in administrative bureaucracies. Somewhat less intense version of such circumstance can also be found in highly abstract or imaginative occupational fields such as entertainment, online IT, media and education generally.
The abandonment of the normative constraints of liberal politics makes adoption of the Jacobin model that much easier.
So, does this seem to be describing anything we can see around us? Do see Dark Triad politics acting destructively while claiming great moral urgency? Do we see cruelty and destruction being justified or downplayed on grand moral grounds? Do we see resource grabs underway in the guise of morally urgent social transformation?
Of course we do. With great amounts of self-deception involved. Great amounts of producing bullshit while consuming it themselves.
Critical social theory, the latest oh-so-urgent grand moral project using the Jacobin model of politics, is a series of exercises in creating mountains of bullshit out of molehills of truth.
History tells us that the Dark Triad politics of self-deception, wrapped in suitable moral grandeur, can be both incredibly effective and incredibly destructive. Each time the claim goes out, this time is different. Again and again, it turns out that, no, the basic underlying dynamics are the same. Dark Triad politics never, ever leads to good social and human places. How can it?
We are in the middle of a struggle between social action and historical awareness. Highly motivated self-delusion could prove, once again, to be an effective social dominance strategy. Or the awareness that we can collectively learn from history may actually break through, and not generate a new form of recurring disaster.
It is fascinating to watch this struggle play out, scary to live through.