The Pope is wrong to blame the crimes of ISIS on selfishness.

From Pope Francis’ Christmas Day homily – emphasis added:

Only God’s mercy can free humanity from the many forms of evil, at times monstrous evil, which selfishness spawns in our midst.

The paragraph does not mention ISIS (or whatever the label of the month is), but much of the homily is concerned with violence in the Middle East and in Africa. In context, Francis is blaming terrorism and other forms of political violence and coercion on selfishness.

Sorry, no. Coming from a Jesuit, this is astonishingly sloppy. It’s on a par with attacking the 9/11 terrorists as cowardly, a mistake which Tim Noah and Paul Krugman correctly called out: a suicide bomber is necessarily very brave.

The medieval typology of deadly sins allows a better classification of al-Baghdadi’s as pride and anger. Anger may depend partly on pride – excessive self-esteem – but its expressions are often reckless and self-destructive.

The Seven Deadly Sins only get us so far and do not account for the core of jihadi or other religious fanaticism: the paranoid world-view, unlimited and unrealistic revolutionary agenda, and jettisoning of normal moral restraints.

Modern social science may not have a full explanation, but it has developed at least two pieces of it. One is the mechanism of confirmation bias, the universal tendency to seek out evidence fitting a preconception and disregard evidence that does not. In the strong form, in arrogant and credulous personalities, this can create a positive feedback loop and lead us from a common prejudice (such as social and economic antisemitism), with some distorted basis in fact, to a radical dogma (the Jewish conspiracy for world domination) entirely detached from reality. Another insight applies to the followers: social pressures of group conformity and the psychological process of habituation can easily transform quite ordinary people into monsters. See Milgram’s fake torture experiment, the Stanford prison experiment, and Browning’s Ordinary Men, a study of an SS battalion recruited from unremarkable reservists, not enthusiastic former brownshirts.

These two factors do not explain everything. In particular, the European recruits to ISIS chose the movement over other Islamic, even radical Islamic, authority figures.  Still, I think the case is clear that we cannot account for the movement’s rise by any appeal to simple selfishness. The Devil has many other tunes.


Selfishness, in the form of common greed, accounts perfectly for the irresponsible marketing of prescription opioids, as much as the political variant explains Herod’s alleged Massacre of the Innocents. I’m not defending it like Ayn Rand.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

13 thoughts on “Selfishness”

  1. Of course, Ayn Rand wasn't defending what you think of as selfishness, either. She was being in your face by appropriating the term to describe enlightened self interest, or alternately, forced to defend it under that name, because it was being called "selfishness" by advocates of altruism, the idea that you should pursue the welfare of others without regard to your own welfare. Which she rightly pointed out would be a deadly morality if anybody was actually stupid enough to follow it consistently.

    She did make it easy to caricature herself, I'll give you that.

    Francis is certainly being incomplete in attributing the troubles in the middle east to selfishness. There's certainly a large component of it at play, disregarding the welfare of others in your pursuit of your own welfare. But the problems there are extremely complex, and there are major reasons at play for not being frank about what the root cause of them is.

    1. I wouldn't know, because Rand was such a hopelessly bad writer that I can't get through any of her stuff.

      1. Seriously? Somebody's a best selling author, even years after their death, (The Virtue of Selfishness sold 400K in the first four months after it's release, and well over a million copies by 2014.) and when you can't get through her stuff, you conclude she's a hopelessly bad writer?

        It couldn't be that you're a hopelessly bad reader?

        1. She was a hopelessly bad writer, though I've really only tried her fiction. Fifty Shades of Gray sold a lot more copies than Rand's total output, but that doesn't mean it's well written.

          1. Maybe a bad writer of fiction, she had some convictions about how fiction should be writen, that make her novels a whole separate genre of their own. If you don't like that genre, "long-winded philosophy pulp", you're going to have trouble with them. Try reading one of her non-fiction works, like The Virtue of Selfishness, if you really want to understand her philosophy. It's quite readable, and not all that long. Even available for download as a free PDF.

    1. I thought Browning, and before him Arendt, nailed that one. In fact the SS were less sadistic than the Brownshirts: Streicher was an anomaly by the time of the bureaucratised Final Solution. Sadism requires a personal relationship, at odds with the required alienation from human empathy. IIRC SS camp guards were punished for striking disobedient camp inmates with rifle butts, instead of shooting them at a hygienic distance. There may well be sadism involved in the public beheadings by ISIS, a less well-developed state than the Third Reich. The mass enslavement of women, genocide of Yazidis, and expert use of social media show a more modern face.

      1. I think there's a distinction to be made. You describe the bureaucrats well, but among the camp guards there was plenty of sadism. They may have been instructed not to administer beatings, but they did so anyway. Rapes certainly weren't unheard of. And it's very hard to imagine that the medical experiments were conducted wholly on a dispassionate, scientific basis.

        1. I think you are right on the Nazi medical experiments, a grisly sideshow of pseudoscience. They were IIRC scientifically worthless. Not so the "well-conducted" Japanese experiments with poison gas carried out by Unit 731 on Chinese POWs. The US occupation authorities amnestied the perpetrators in exchange for the valuable information.

          The camp guard question is complicated by the large-scale recruitment of Eastern Europeans to meet the manpower needs of the camp empire. For German SS, camp duty was better than front-line combat. The Ukrainians etc. were presumably volunteers, many of them strongly anti-semitic thugs. You would expect more straightforward sadism in this population. Data anybody?

  2. Right. Selfishness is simply a description of behavior, which can't be a cause. One can be urged to follow the rule "don't be selfish". But then you must be able to define what type of selfishness you're talking about. Indeed, a Christian worrying about saving my soul from eternal damnation or the protection from murder of an unborn baby is either very unselfishly thinking of others, or selfishly caught up in a delusion which ignores the rights, feelings, perspectives, etc. of myself and others.

  3. I'm happy to see we are all against sadism! Hurrah.

    My reading of the homily does not agree with yours. The mention of selfishness comes quite early, and the body of the homily is basically a summary of all the armed conflicts taking place, and a wish that they might end. I don't expect the Pope to come up with some mathematical explanation of human frailty, and certainly not in so few words, and in a holiday greeting.

    Moreover, I think the 9/11 guys were in fact cowards, in the sense that they launched surprise attacks on unarmed civilians. They could have sued us to leave Saudi Arabia. They could have tried a petition drive. Yes, that is only one definition of cowardice but I think it fits. If they were also "brave," in the sense of being suicidal *and* homicidal, well goody two shoes for them. (Not.)

    Still a huge fan of yours though! And again, here we all are, united against sadism. Dangit, it's *something.* Happy bleeping New Year, everyone!

    1. Isn't "monstrous evil" new? Popes have been condemning violence in the Middle East for decades. Nothing changes in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Syrian civil war started in 2011. What's new is ISIS and its innovations in atrocity: beheading on social media, enslavement of women, massacres of Yazidis, Chaldean Christians and others, and aggressive warfare on principle. I think a reading that links the phrase to ISIS is natural. To be on the safe side, I attributed the selfishness clause to a wider category of political violence.

      1. You know, I can't really tell exactly what he's referring to there. You may very well be right – ISIS, ISIL or Daesh do seem to be the worst we've got right now, and I will be happy when they're gone. And I think they will be, and I hope, soon. Preferably dispatched or made ineffectual by neighborhood actors, as is proper. Something to pray for, for sure.

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