Defenders of the free market insist that virtue is essential to a just and thriving economy. If morality is relevant to economics, it is equally so to allied fields of social science, all of which have as their object of investigation the human person. Indifference to the moral dimension distorts the study of human action in economics. So, too, does it deform the discipline that reaches behind that action to the human mind: psychology.
Built on a sound anthropological foundation and guided by an equally sound morality that is clear on the proper goals of human life, the empirical findings and practical techniques of psychology can foster the flourishing of both persons and communities. Unfortunately, as Theodore Dalrymple argues in his most recent book, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, contemporary psychology has long been not only hostile to traditional morality but also indifferent to and dismissive of the larger context of Western culture within which it arose. As a result contemporary psychology, according to Dalrymple, “is not a key to self-understanding but a cultural barrier to such understanding as we can achieve.”
Operating within its own limits, psychology can be helpful. Too often, however, we appeal to psychology for assistance without a proper understanding of the empirical and moral limits of the discipline. Like all social sciences, psychology’s findings are expressed in probabilities that are narrowly defined by the researcher. In other words, given a specific set of variables (which ignore others for the sake of the research), in a given percentage of cases this or that is likely true. Like all sciences, psychology knows the general but it does so at the expense of the particular, about which it knows only probabilities.
Dalrymple’s observation about behavioral psychology is true of the whole discipline (and as Hayek reminds us, economics, as well): “What started as methodology became ontology.” Rather than situating itself modestly within the larger context of the Western intellectual tradition, psychology set itself up as a critic of the culture. This isn’t limited to the deformative aspects of culture and personal behavior that have been the concern of critics since Socrates and the Old Testament prophets. No, like Freud’s Oedipus, psychologists and psychology have increasingly sought to undermine the culture itself.
And so, Dalrymple says, “the overall effect of psychological thought on human culture and society … has been overwhelmingly negative.” Why? Because, he says, “it gives the false impression of greatly increased human self-understanding where none has been achieved, it encourages the evasion of responsibility by turning subjects into objects where it supposedly takes account of or interests itself in subjective experience, and it makes shallow the human character because it discourages genuine self-examination and self-knowledge.” Unmoored from the Western Christian tradition as canonical, contemporary psychology “is ultimately sentimental and promotes the grossest self-pity, for it makes everyone (apart from scapegoats) victims of their own behavior.”
Nevertheless, used “sparingly and with discretion” psychology can “be very useful to carefully selected individuals.” Though narrowly defined, we ought not to minimize or reject the real insights and benefits of psychology. That said, Dalrymple warns that we must be mindful of “the self-aggrandizing nature of most modern ‘caring’ professions that alleged competence in and sovereignty over matters which are beyond the reach of technical understanding or solution undermine any residual modesty, realism, or judgment that they might otherwise still have had.”
Human flourishing is never simply a technical matter but requires “appreciation of the tragic dimension.” Without this, “all is shallowness; and those without it are destined for a life that is nasty and brutish, if not necessarily short.” Whether, as Dalrymple concludes, “it is psychology’s vocation to deny and hide” all this “from view with a thin veneer of science” is for me an open question. That said, he makes a good case for the proposition that, psychology “is a watered-down secular version of Christian redemption, with Man in the place of God.”
Dalrymple’s critique is a salutary reminder that, while our efforts to build the Kingdom of God benefit from the scientific knowledge provided by the methods of economics and psychology, we are still more dependent on the wisdom supplied by Christian revelation and moral philosophy.