Imagining Being Very Different

Like Carrie, I’ll be kicking around TAR from now on. If I have anything to say about the philosophy of logic and language, I’ll probably be cross-posting it to my old blog as well, but I’m hoping that TAR will be a venue for writing about other things.

Like the following question:

Is it easier to imagine being a serial killer than it is to imagine being like David Lewis?

I was at the AAP in Canberra this year, and one of the talks I went to was Steffi Lewis’ presentation of David Lewis’ correspondence. This was Steffi’s third talk on the letters and it’s striking just how prolific and reliable a correspondent David was. I’ve come away from each talk with the sense that he regularly wrote 5-6 page letters, largely filled with serious philosophical content, and replied to his correspondents within 3 days or so of hearing from them.

And I find it almost impossible to imagine being like that.

Perhaps it’s also hard to imagine being so clever, yet what I’m really puzzled by is what it would be like to be such a serious correspondent. I can barely keep my email straight, and plenty of dear friends (not to mention my brother) would attest to my failure to respond to detailed, clever, inviting and lengthy emails that they’ve written me. And that’s email. David did it all by post. Back in the days when I paid my bills by mail I struggled to get the bill, my chequebook, a pen, an envelope and a stamp together, and then get the resulting “letter” to the postbox in time for the due date. There’s nothing to writing a cheque, it takes, what, 20 seconds? 30? David produced pages of elegant philosophical prose, without a computer, and mailed it to his correspondents within days of receiving a letter from them.

And yet thanks to Adam Morton‘s book On Evil (no really, thanks Adam), I now find that I can imagine what it would be like to be a serial killer. One of Adam’s main messages is that we’re wrong to think that the motives and psychology of evil-doers need be so different from our own that their inner lives are entirely alien and unimaginable. Here’s his attempt (in my case a successful attempt) to get his readers to admit that they can imagine what it would be like to be a certain kind of serial killer:

The individuals vary greatly, and there may be no single psychological pattern behind the cases that evoke the standard cultural image. So you should treat a profile like the one I am about to present with caution. As much caution perhaps, as the reports of the killers themselves. But imagine the following. A person has a tendency to obsessive thoughts and a fascination with violence. He may not often act violently, but when thoughts of harming others occur to him, especially when combined with sexual fantasy, they persist and go round and round in his head. These are not the only thoughts that go obsessively round in his head. He also tends to have chains of both self-degrading and grandiose thoughts filling his mind uninvited. The self-degrading thoughts are often accompanied by feelings of painful depression.

Then at some point he kills someone, most likely on impulse in a sexually charged atmosphere, and is lucky enough not to be caught. Although he is horrified at what he has done, he also has an elated and relaxed feeling from letting down the barriers against fantasies that have long been with him. He feels less depressed, more alive. But the barriers now become more strongly policed, since he knows what they can lead to. Then when he is feeling very low again he kills again, and learns that he is addicted to the feeling of release that it gives. He is now dependent on killing for his mental balance.

…The point of presenting the K-profile is not to make a claim about killer psychology but to demonstrate that one can describe in commonsense intuitive terms a mentality that can be responsible for serial killings. This should give some support to the idea that perpetrators of the most awful acts are not completely beyond our powers of intuitive understanding.

I’m with Adam here (though maybe some of you will find this shocking and depraved, I’m not sure.) But I know what it’s like to feel tempted to do something I shouldn’t, and I know what it’s like to give in to that temptation. It doesn’t seem that hard – in imagination – to change the cause of the temptation to something else.

But can anyone tell me the story which allows me to imagine being a prolific and reliable correspondent?

3 Replies to “Imagining Being Very Different”

  1. But can anyone tell me the story which allows me to imagine being a prolific and reliable correspondent?

    Perhaps your best shot at getting a description of a prolific and reliable correspondent is to submit a written request for one to a prolific and reliable correspondent.

  2. Hi Gillian, I was wondering what had happened to L&L.

    Anyways, the conclusion drawn at the end of the Morton quote looks a lot weaker than yours. He says he’s trying to convince his readers that one can describe killer psychology in ‘commonsense inuitive terms’, with an eye towards convincing us that ‘perpetrators of the most awful acts are not completely beyond our powers of intuitive understanding’.

    It’s a pretty big jump to imagining that I’m ‘dependent on killing for [my] mental balance. I’m not sure I can imagine that, however familiar the terms used to describe the kind of mental life I might have in that scenario might be. I read Christopher Browning’s shocking ‘Ordinary Men’ a couple of years ago. He argues, pretty convincingly in my book, that many of the men involved in some of the most attrocious acts of the Holocaust weren’t any more disposed to perpetrate such acts that you or I, and he details the descent of one battlalion from being an assembled group of bankers and the like from Berlin, to being mass-murderers and child-killers. In a lot of cases, driving that change were perfectly familiar pressures; wanting to obey orders, not wanting to look cowardly in front of one’s peers, etc. Nonetheless, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be one of those men, responding to those pressures in the way they did. It’s an extreme case, of course, but I think it does serve to highlight the gulf between Morton’s conclusion and yours.

    I’m sure there are standard issues about imaginative resistance looming here. But I’m just not convinced that the Morton case motivates as strong a conclusion as you draw; perhaps you can on that basis imagine what it would be like to be a serial killer on that basis, but I’m not sure how wide-spread that reaction will be even amongst those honestly reporting their reactions.

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