Making this even more complex is the reality that our notions of concepts like “good” and “evil” are intrinsically linked to how we process traumatic events but are not necessarily constant throughout humanity. This poses a significantly bigger problem for the sheepdog paradigm than most are willing to admit.
Grossman wrote that “If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath–a wolf.” But notice a key word there: citizens. What if you have great empathy for citizens and a complete lack of empathy for non-citizens? Where does vehement nationalist-themed violence fit into this framework?
This is where we would have to dig deeply into the concept of cultural mores versus universal moral truths—do the latter exist? If so, how does it affect the concept of citizenry in this analogy? If not, do we not then just reduce everything to a form of tribalism, whereby the whole sheepdog concept only applies at a local level and somewhat discredits Grossman’s platform?
But we do not need to get that deep to see other flaws. The use of “wolf” as a category implies that all wolves are the same, yet we know from even a cursory study of wolves that this is demonstrably untrue. Within a wolf pack there are alphas and betas, and the way wolves primarily operate is in a pack—not as singular, autonomous agents.
In other words, labeling an individual who has a capacity for violence and no empathy as a “wolf” ignores the obvious reality of wolves themselves. They work cohesively as a team that, at some animalistic level, depends upon some form of empathy for one another (assuredly in a way we cannot fully grasp; but it still relating to each wolf relating to others in the pack).
So, even apart from the massive problem of universal evil versus cultural mores (which is no small thing in relation to how an individual psych processes acts such as taking the life of another human being), we have base-level problems of categories that are attributed to namesakes that do not themselves obey the framework necessary to make the category work in the first place. That, in a nutshell, is where all of this begins; i.e. that is the original azimuth the path starts with.
As I pointed out from the beginning, the main issue I have with this analogy is not necessarily in its inherent limitations (though as I have just shown, those are noteworthy), but rather in its application. We have an entire culture latching onto this paradigm because it makes sense at a surface-level glance and enables one to simplify the entire populace into one of three categories—naturally with themselves finding a coveted spot in a more righteous calling.
This, as I have argued, not only oversimplifies, but does so in a harmful fashion by creating overconfidence about things we cannot fully understand. Like categorizing everything in the political world as being “right” or “left,” using the sheep, sheepdog, wolves analogy leads us to misattribute not just someone else’s ability and station in life, but our own, as well.
And that is where it becomes a big problem. If you are simplifying the complex in a manner that does not ultimately make sense, you are in fact setting yourself up for failure.
Do not make assumptions. Do not pretend everyone is in one category and you are in another so that you can feel like a badass. It does not serve the public and it puts you in a position of succumbing to massive cognitive biases that are quite difficult to overcome.
Our roles in life are malleable, and so are those of others. Thinking that you are always one thing and someone else is always another is arrogant and fails to appreciate the beauty in the chaos of this thing we call “life.” Appreciate that and you will have a better starting point than most.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal October 6, 2018.
In a time of hyper-specialization, Gregory is an accomplished and educated generalist who understands that knowledge from a multitude of disciplines is necessary for true wisdom. A continuous wanderer and seeker of knowledge, he has worn three different colors of beret for the US Army and worked in everything from metal fabrication, music, and bar tending to politics and publishing while on a constant search for life’s meaning.