Book Sale

Friday 28 April 2023

The Potential Evils of Specialization


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Specialization is a necessary requirement of any reasonable civilised people. To have a complicated society you need some people to focus on some things and get good at them, and you need other people to focus on other things and get good at those as well. You need people like surgeons, a highly specialized skill, because they play an important part in keeping your civilisation well, but not everyone has the time, money, intelligence or inclination to be a surgeon. You need specialists like mechanics, and plumbers, you need engineers and scientists, and all sorts of other specialized people and professionals to help your civilisation function at a high level and in a healthy and stable way. You need men to be men and provide, and you need women to be women and be mothers and nurturers and carers of all kinds. These and other forms of specialization are integral, vital, and good. So, one would be foolish to say specialization is inherently evil.

Despite this it needs to be acknowledged that specialization has an inherent flaw, we could call it the “checkout” flaw. That is in a heavily specialized society like ours many people will use the excuse that they are not an expert or a specialist in a certain field as an excuse to checkout rather than thinking critically about certain policies and agendas. But many people will even go further than this. There is a tendency among people who have chosen just to rely on the experts to then turn around and attack those who question such authority. Great evil can happen because of this tendency. M Scott Peck[1] explains this for us very well,

“For many years it has seemed to me that human tend to behave in much the same ways as individuals— except at a level that is more primitive and immature than one might expect. Why this is so – why the behaviour of groups is strikingly immature – why they are, from a psychological standpoint, less than the sum of their parts—is a question beyond my capacity to answer. Of one thing I am certain, however: that there is more than one right answer. The phenomenon of group immaturity is – to use a psychiatric term—'overdetermined'. This is to say that it is the result of multiple causes. One of those causes is the problem of specialization.

Specialization is one of the greatest advantages of groups. There are ways groups can function with far greater efficiency than individuals. Because its employees are specialized into executives and designers and tool- and diemakers and assembly-line workers (who are in turn specialized), General Motors can produce an enormous number of cars. Our extraordinarily high standard of living is entirely based on the specialization of our society. The fact that I have the knowledge and the time to write this book is a direct result of the fact that I am a specialist within our community, utterly dependent on farmers, mechanics, publishers, and booksellers for my welfare. I can hardly consider specialization in itself evil. On the other hand, I am thoroughly convinced that much of the evil of our times is related to specialization and that we desperately need to develop an attitude of suspicious caution toward it. I think we need to treat specialization with the same degree of distrust and safeguards that we bring to nuclear reactors.

Specialization contributes to the immaturity of groups and their potential for evil through several different mechanisms. For the moment I will restrict myself to the consideration of only one such mechanism: the fragmentation of conscience. If at the time of MyLai, wandering through the halls of the Pentagon, I stopped to talk with the men responsible for directing the manufacture of napalm and its transportation to Vietnam in the form of bombs, and if I questioned these men about the morality of the war and hence the morality of what they were engaged in, this is the kind of reply I invariably received: 'Oh, we appreciate your concerns, yes, we do, but I'm afraid you've come to the wrong people. We're not the department you want. This is the ordnance branch. We just supply the weapons-—we don't determine how and where they're used. That's policy. What you want to do is talk to the policy people down the hall.' And if I followed this suggestion and expressed the same concerns in the policy branch, this was the response: 'Oh, we understand that there are broad issues involved, but I’m afraid they're beyond our purview. We simply determine how the war will be conducted—not whether it will be conducted. You see, the military is only an agency of the executive branch. The military does only what it's told to do. These broad issues are decided at the White House level, not here. That's where you need to take your concerns.' So it went.

Whenever the roles of individuals within a group become specialized, it becomes both possible and easy for the individual to pass the moral buck to some other part of the group. In this way, not only does the individual forsake his conscience but the conscience of the group can become so fragmented and diluted as to be nonexistent. We will see this fragmentation again and again, one way or another, in the discussion that follows. The plain fact of the matter is that any group will remain inevitably potentially conscienceless and evil until such time as each and every individual holds himself or herself directly responsible for the behaviour of the whole group-the organism-of which he or she is a part. We have not yet begun to arrive at that point.”

I hope you can see the important application of what Peck is teaching in this section of his book. He is explaining why people in society will tolerate great evil committed by their representatives. It is because they can simply say, it’s not their own fault, or it’s not their job, or it’s not really their concern, it’s all on the authorities. Peck also explains elsewhere that the basic human attitudes underpinning this are laziness and narcissism. That is people are just too slothful and apathetic to do anything about great evil being committed, and too focused on their own little world to care what others are doing in society at large. As long as they can live their lives and be left alone as much as possible, they will tolerate their national or business leaders doing terrible things and live quite at ease. They will easily be able to console themselves that it is someone else’s problem or fault.

This came up often in the Covid years where many in the church, many who were even not ok with what was happening, would say to pastors who spoke out: “Shouldn’t you just be focusing on preaching the gospel?” This was a cynical attack on people who were doing something, by those who were too afraid or too cowed or too lethargic to say or do anything themselves. But they weren’t just acting out of these motivations. They were also under the false assumption that it was our leader’s job alone to handle this, and the rest of us should all just leave them to it. But this is precisely the kind of thinking that leads populations to tolerate their governments doing unjust wars, or unjustly persecuting their fellow citizens, or committing other evils. It is a necessary condition for evil to be able to prosper.

In other words, Peck has outlined part of the psychology behind the old saying, “Evil triumphs when good men do nothing.” He has explained how otherwise rational and decent men and women can become participants in evil, simply by convincing themselves it is not their job to do anything. They can ignore their conscience because they have created a bunch of assumptions for themselves that excuse them from having to act. This is how groups can essentially become conscienceless, because most people, or all the people in the group, pass the buck onto someone else, usually an authority figure.

A friend of mine noted on social media the other day that he was disturbed by the fact that most people did not appear to have a line in the sand when it comes to evil being perpetrated on their fellow citizens. But when you think about it, this makes sense for people who have compartmentalized in their mind and in their society who can do what and when. If they say to themselves, “well this is the responsibility of the authorities”, then they have successfully washed their own hands of any participation in the evil. And to some degree they are correct. They did not do it themselves, so all of the blame is not on their shoulders. However, if they continue to do nothing when afforded the opportunity through voting, political advocacy, or protests, writing, lobbying, meeting with politicians, or just helping those in need and standing with them, then what they have really done is excused their own evil by pretending it is not an issue. There is sometimes a limited amount of things people can do, but if people excuse themselves from having to do any of these things, then they must accept that they share some of the moral responsibility.

The truth is though in a society where we all get a say, we are responsible for how we use that say, and we should use it for good (Prob. 31:8-9).  

Peck also notes that, “Specialization contributes to the immaturity of groups and their potential for evil through several different mechanisms.” What he is saying here is that blind trust in the experts, simply by virtue of the fact that you are not one of them, is a primary mechanism for allowing society wide evil to happen, and it manifests itself in different ways.

It does take wisdom to know when you can and when you cannot trust these experts. But it takes more than that, it also takes effort. Peck notes that a lot of people are not willing to make this effort, because it is personally and socially difficult. You have to reject the desire to just focus on your own corner of the world, you have stop the apathy and sloth that demotivates you from investigating further, and you need to take some ownership for the direction of your society and then you need to act on this within your means peacefully. If you have done this, then you can say you did what you could to oppose evil. If you did not, then you checked out, and helped contribute to the evil. You may not like hearing this, but it is the way things are.

Evil triumphs when good men do nothing. It can triumph when they do, but the least you can offer your brother, sister or neighbour, is to try to speak out against it when it raises its evil head. Often you cannot do much more than this. Sadly many people over the last few years were not willing to even do this. But what about next time?  


[1] M. Scott Peck 1990, People of the Lie, Arrow Books, pp248-250.

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