Against Narcissism

I have been consistent in speaking of the past as the “bad old days” rather than the “good old days.” Overall, things are much better now than they used to be. (In my first three months of blogging, I posted “Things are Getting Better: 3 Videos.”) But it would be quite surprising if there weren’t a few dimensions of our national life getting worse. One negative trend is the rise in obesity, that I talk about in my diet and health posts every Tuesday. Another negative trend is the rise in midlife “deaths of despair” by non-Hispanic Whites who never attended college that Anne Case and Angus Deaton have documented. A third negative trend is the decline in a sense of “noblesse oblige.”

Noblesse oblige can be summed up in the this line from Luke 12:48 in the New Testament: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” It is no use pretending that some people don’t have much more than others. Our natural tendency to think on a logarithmic scale makes it hard to comprehend just how much more it is to have $10 billion vs $1 billion, how much more it is to have $1 billion than $100 million, and how much more it is to have $100 million than $10 million. (The best way I know to get a greater comprehension of this is to read Richistan, by Robert Frank.) There are two basic approaches to such inequality at the top. One is to bring those at the top down; the other is to inculcate in those at the top a sense of responsibility to make the world better. Because it is hard to bring those at the top all the way down without bad consequences, these approaches are not mutually exclusive. We may need both. (You can see my approach to doing both at the same time without too big an expansion of the government in “How and Why to Expand the Nonprofit Sector as a Partial Alternative to Government: A Reader’s Guide.”)

In the Democratic Party, Franklin Delano Roosevelt set a good example of noblesse oblige. In the Republican Party, George H. W. Bush set a good example of noblesse oblige. Here is Ross Douthat on George H. W. Bush, writing soon after George H. W. Bush’s death on November 30, 2018:

The nostalgia flowing since the passing of George H.W. Bush has many wellsprings: admiration for the World War II generation and its dying breed of warrior-politicians, the usual belated media affection for moderate Republicans, the contrast between the elder Bush’s foreign policy successes and the failures of his son, and the contrast between any honorable politician and the current occupant of the Oval Office.

But two of the more critical takes on Bush nostalgia got closer to the heart of what was being mourned, in distant hindsight, with his death. Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart described the elder Bush as the last president deemed “legitimate” by both of our country’s warring tribes — before the age of presidential sex scandals, plurality-winning and popular-vote-losing chief executives, and white resentment of the first black president. Also in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer described “the subtext” of Bush nostalgia as a “fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment … sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige.

There are many ways in which the younger generations now are better than the older generations in society. In particular, on the whole they have less of the intertwined racism and nativism that continue to bedevil our society. And the idea of social action for the sake of social betterment is still there. But the idea that it takes a lot of good people doing good things with skill to keep things from getting worse seems less visible in our culture. This is, in part, the idea that there is a role for an elite. Ross writes this about a strategic wrong turn of the elite in America:

So it’s possible to imagine adaptation rather than surrender as a different WASP strategy across the 1960s and 1970s. In such a world the establishment would have still admitted more blacks, Jews, Catholics and Hispanics (and more women) to its ranks … but it would have done so as a self-consciously elite-crafting strategy, rather than under the pseudo-democratic auspices of the SAT and the high school resume and the dubious ideal of “merit.” … The goal would have been to keep piety and discipline embedded in the culture of a place like Harvard, rather than the mix of performative self-righteousness and raw ambition that replaced them.

Most psychological traits and conditions have a continuous spectrum. And culture can shift the mean of the distribution of people on that spectrum. While our current era has shifted people away from other disfunctions, it encourages people to flirt with narcissism. What is narcissism? Here is what the current version of the Wikipedia article for “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” says:

The DSM-5 indicates that persons with NPD usually display some or all of the following symptoms, typically without the commensurate qualities or accomplishments:[6][9]

  1. Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people

  2. Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.

  3. Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions

  4. Needing continual admiration from others

  5. Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others

  6. Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain

  7. Unwilling to empathize with the feelings, wishes, and needs of other people

  8. Intensely envious of others, and the belief that others are equally envious of them

  9. Pompous and arrogant demeanor

Note that the standards for a formal diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder shift over time: “The DSM-5 indicates that the traits manifested by the person must substantially differ from cultural norms, in order to qualify as symptoms of NPD.” That is, even if you are indeed narcissistic, you will only be diagnosed as having narcissistic personality disorder if you are more a lot more narcissistic than average. The worse the average is, the more people will be narcissistic without being tagged as having narcissistic personality disorder. It is worth being concerned about the undesirable narcissistic tendencies people at the median level of narcissism in our society have. And of course, at least half of everyone is above median in narcissism.

To me, some notion of noblesse oblige seems helpful in fighting the narcissism within us. The message of noblesse oblige is this:

If you think you are special, that means you have a duty to serve and take care of other people more. It doesn’t mean that other people should do more for you! If you do genuinely good things, you can legitimately expect that 10% of the time when you do good things, someone will make some expression of thanks. But that is the main entitlement you can expect—not more. In particular, nothing entitles you to step on other people to get ahead. The only thing that can justify breaking rules is either helping other people directly or setting an example that will help other people along the lines of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

If you do try to do something that will make a big difference to society, you should expect a rocky road. And, with rare exceptions, you will not succeed without a lot of patience and fortitude and courage. Leaving aside whatever he may have accomplished supernaturally, Jesus got his message across only by dying on the cross. Doing good isn’t easy! And if you aren’t doing good, you don’t deserve admiration from others.

Finally, some aspects of narcissism are simply bad strategy. A pompous and arrogant demeanor is unlikely to get you ahead in life. Being envious of others can easily get in the way of alliances that could make your career. If you are exploitative and get caught, it can destroy your career even if you have been successful by conventional standards up to that point.

Few of us are entirely free of aspects of narcissism that are damaging to us and to those around us. I hope that we can not only fight the narcissism within ourselves, but that we can be able to talk about our efforts to fight our own narcissism, so that we don’t have to fight this fight alone.

Don’t miss these other posts that have a similar message: