By James Garbarino, PhD
How can Trump Republicans—like Jeff Sessions and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, to cite but two notable examples—justify the cruel and psychologically abusive separation of children from their parents at the US border, simply because those parents crossed into our country seeking asylum as undocumented (“illegal”) immigrants? It’s not principally a matter of their values. The content of morality is very important, of course. But of at least equal importance is an appreciation of to whom and for whom that moral content applies. I call this the “circle of caring.
Human behavior reflects, in large part, a struggle between the impulses of our “caveman brain”—the brain that evolved many thousands of years ago—and our capacity for “humanistic psychology”—the consciousness that comes with advanced civilization, reflection, and profound introspection. It seems that the “evolutionary psychology” that comes with our caveman brains pushes us towards a small circle of caring. In the strictest evolutionary terms this means a morality relevant only to our particular gene pool. This certainly includes our family (at least for those among us who are not psychopaths, and who therefore care for no one and no one’s future except themselves).
The commitment that “normal” people have to “family” is, from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, arranged in a precise descending order across extended family as a function of relative genetic overlap: thus, our children are a higher moral priority than our nieces and nephews, who are in turn a higher priority than the children of unrelated persons. But evolutionary psychology does not stop there when it comes to a broader circle of caring—call it altruism if you will. It also resulted in a self-interested commitment to members of our community, those upon whom we depend for our own survival (translated as “for the survival of our genetic heritage”). Beyond that? Evolutionary psychology cannot take us much beyond that, and certainly not to a globalized circle of caring (in part because psychology in the evolutionary period did not involve much beyond family, clan, and community—and perhaps eventually, race).
In contrast to evolutionary psychology, humanistic psychology aspires to a circle of caring that extends beyond an individual’s narrow gene pool as defined by direct genetic heritage. It seeks to create a moral space beyond self-interest, and even beyond the altruism of indirect genetic self-interest. For Americans, confronting globalized issues like immigration can stimulate the expansion of circles of caring to global proportions, by building upon “traditional” American values like justice, liberty, and equality, and upon “universal” values like caring for children. Or, it can bring out the caveman worst in us.
One impediment to the humanistic development is the fact that “global sociopaths” play a significant role in our political life. While true psychopaths are rare, and have virtually no circle of caring, sociopaths are more common, and are distinguished by the fact that they do have a circle of caring in which they may operate “morally.” However, outside that circle they demonstrate the same moral insanity that is at the core of being a psychopath. Enter Jeff Sessions and Sarah Huckabee Sanders—and Donald Trump, and, apparently, much of the Republican Party.
Appeals to biblical morality (for better—“Suffer unto me the little children”—or for worse—“the law is god given”) are not enough if the core problem lies with a small circle of caring. How can otherwise “moral” and “good” people justify and rationalize the barbaric and abusive treatment of the immigrants at the border who come seeking asylum from violence, trauma, and poverty in their homelands? They can do so without sacrificing or even compromising their “values,” by virtue of the fact that their circle of caring does not include these parents and their children. Once you accept the proposition that these are not “our” children, the moral battle is already lost. The only remaining question are these if this barbaric practice is to stop: Will enough Republicans enlarge their circle of caring to “claim” these children? Will Independents and Democrats allow this to continue unabated through “politics as usual” (in the Trump era meaning “politics as unusual”). Answers please, America!
James Garbarino is the author of 26 books and is currently writing a book entitled “Globalization from the Outside In: A Psychological Perspective on the American Experience (University of California Press)