From Dorothea Dix to Dorothea Puente: The Incremental Evaporation of Altruism

Hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue. — Francois de La Rochefoucauld

It’s not too difficult to understand how cultural values influence and reinforce personal values. In America, a top-down approach to formulating values is driven by solipsistic avarice, inequitable wealth, and the insatiable demand for external validation as manifested through consumer materialism. The wrong incentives are conditioning a society towards relative indifference when it comes to the suffering of others—meanwhile, social and economic inequality ensues at unprecedented levels. Inconvenienced by having to admit that private-sector political interests and time-honored structural systems perpetuate disenfranchisement, a popular position is to blame the unfortunate for all of society’s transgressions while denying or ignoring the unsustainable nature of unmitigated greed. This is why the fundamental attribution error is absolutely fundamental to understanding how rationalization precipitates solution aversion.

In an earlier post entitled Can’t Get There From Here, I discussed how institutionalized systems of injustice encourage us to be complicit with the status quo by internalizing imbalances of power. Likewise, imbalances of power are a one-way street designed to maintain undisputed leverage for some at the expense of many others. For example, a recent paradigm in community mental healthcare involves fee-for-service commodification of the clientele. When human flourishing is reduced to high-volume billable services, the incentive for establishing social welfare is usurped by a competitive motivation for profit. Similarly, if a client’s eligibility to receive treatment services and community resources is based on their reimbursement potential via subsidized revenue and insurance benefits, it becomes easier to think of people as interchangeable assets or financial liabilities. This motif extends to employees when corporate interests reduce the value of workers to fixed or variable costs. The distance from being indispensable to becoming disposable seems to be diminishing with unregulated intensity given today’s cultural milieu.

When it comes to the spectrum of compassion versus the spectrum of inhumanity, two women with diverse interpersonal “styles” immediately come to mind. One woman was an advocate for humanitarianism; the other was a purveyor of short-terms gains, dehumanization, and annihilation. Dorothea Dix was a renown United States activist who worked tirelessly to reform hospital conditions and treatment for the mentally ill during the nineteenth-century. Following the Civil War, Dix expanded her efforts even further to improve conditions for prisoners and the disabled while focusing on legislative campaigns to reduce suffering among indigent populations. Dorothea Puente, conversely, was a twentieth-century “caretaker” and boarding house manager in Northern California who murdered at least nine elderly and mental health residents from 1982 until 1988. Puente had a peculiar talent for cashing the Social Security checks of her victims shortly after burying these unlucky guests in her backyard.

Efforts to establish a global civil society seem futile when provincial, regional, and national sentiments are reduced to pathological self-interest. Even worse, fabricating compassion to achieve monetary interests only magnifies the loathsome commonality of duplicitous agendas. If the moral trajectory of society resembles anything like its current state of unsustainable affairs, it won’t be long before rank-and-file citizens become surrogate apologists for humanicide.



Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible. Frank Zappa

The German language contains clever words and phrases to describe complex subject matter. For example, weltanschauung basically means “world view.” From the long-winded pronunciation side of the Saxon-influenced spectrum, the German word for fire insurance, just in case you really need to know, is feuerversicherung. In keeping tradition with the Deutsches Wörterbuch, my favorite German word used to describe world weariness is weltschmerz. Weltshmerz, according to English translation, refers to apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state. In more complicated terms, weltshmerz describes the existential dilemma and lugubrious predicament between what the philosopher David Hume described as the is and the ought. Whatever ought to be the case is usually brought down to the prosaic level of what actually is the case, and the subsequent realization can result in frustrated resignation or despair (but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to improve conditions anyway).

An English word of dubious origin that has become a popular neologism is protopia. Protopia is a word I’m rather fond of because it squares the circle between the concepts of utopia and dystopia. Protopia essentially means a state of being that is better today than yesterday. The unrealistic fantasy of utopia and the devastating contemplation of dystopia are usurped by a proactive model for realistic social progress built on daily increments (cue the “one day at a time” trope). Whether this improvement is social, economic, or ethical; gradual remediation starts with acknowledging how things currently are while incorporating human ingenuity to implement the best that our scientific advances and educational disciplines have to offer. For example, if universal human suffering can be reduced by a marginal fraction, it would be senseless and morally insane not to endorse that equation. Likewise, instead of advancing technologically faster than we can evolve psychologically, perhaps a minor shift in priorities could result in the crucial difference between what is sustainable and what is inevitably annihilative. Sometimes only a modicum of adjustment in existing social structures is necessary to create a windfall of improvement.

To be honest, it’s often tempting to bathe in the cascades of nihilism and disavow all promising trajectories for human civilization, but some of us still enjoy drinking our coffee in the morning, and there should be nothing in principle to prevent us from developing a better brew.