An Almost Interesting Moral Question

berlin holocaust memorial

So we were in Berlin last weekend, and we passed the Holocaust Memorial next to the Reichstag. Our 5 year old son was intrigued by the structure and went ahead of us and entered it. He then started to use it as a playground, a maze, to play hide-and-seek. Of course, I wasn’t seeking. He still had a lot of fun, but I had mixed feelings, as you can probably understand.

On the one hand, he was showing a lack of respect for the dead. This – given his age – is understandable though still jarring. I felt ashamed of him and of myself for allowing him to do what he did. On the other hand, maybe his display of innocence and vitality was an appropriate antidote to the burden of national guilt and cosmic morbidity expressed by the memorial (which is beautiful by the way).

National guilt is a concept that is becoming less and less relevant, although you sense that Germany still suffers from it. In addition, the morbidity of holocaust remembrance, although it expresses a fitting form of respect for the dead, is also in a sense an expression of respect for the perpetrators. It makes the perpetrators more important than they should be. Perhaps the Nazis were just a bunch of ridiculous losers which should be laughed at instead of morbidly feared.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (52): Not Enough Bias

If I count correctly, I have blogged about at least 12 ways in which our psychological or mental biases can lead us to violate other people’s rights:

  1. spurious reasoning justifying our actions to ourselves post hoc
  2. the role distance plays in our regard for fellow human beings
  3. the notion that what comes first is also best
  4. a preference for the status quo
  5. the anchoring effect
  6. last place aversion
  7. learned helplessness
  8. the just world fallacy
  9. adaptive preferences
  10. the bystander effect
  11. inattentional blindness, and
  12. stereotype threat

So it may come as a surprise that rationality – in the sense of the absence of biases that distort our proper thinking – can also cause rights violations. But when you think about it, it’s just plain obvious: whatever the irrational basis of Nazi anti-Semitism, the Holocaust was an example of rational planning; many people argue that Hiroshima and Nagasaki made perfect military sense; and others say the same about torture in the ticking bomb scenario.

However, the point is not just that rationality can be harmful, but that biases can be helpful. For example:

Take crime. The rational person weighs the benefit of mugging someone – the financial reward and the buzz of the violence netted off against the feeling of guilt afterwards – against the cost; the probability of being caught multiplied by the punishment.

But we don’t really want people to think so rationally because it would lead them to actually mug someone occasionally. It would be better if they had the heuristic “don’t mug people.” Such a heuristic is, however, irrational in the narrow economistic sense, as it would cause people to reject occasionally profitable actions. (source)

Given the low probability of getting caught for any crime, we would encourage crime if we would favor rationality over bias. If, on the other hand we could adopt a bias that people like us are highly likely to get caught (or, for that matter, another bias, such as the one that rich people deserve their wealth), then crime would go down.

All this is related to the question of whether false beliefs are useful for human rights.

More posts in this series are here.

What’s So Special About the Holocaust?

History has seen many genocides and large scale killings. Some of those resulted in more deaths than the Holocaust. So why is the Holocaust special? It’s special because it was the first and last example of the industrial production of corpses. It was, quite literally, a murder machine. The murders were not the actions of specific individuals who did what they did because of their identity, motives or pathologies. They were not like the brutalities of the Roman Emperor Nero, which were clearly his. Nor were they like the crimes of Saddam Hussein or any other identifiable criminal. In the case of the Holocaust, it was impossible to recognize an identity in the deed. The killers were impersonal, insignificant, loyal, conscientious and hardworking civil servants operating together in an organized, efficient, systematic and planned extermination, characterized by division of labor and the industrial production line. Everyone knew exactly what to do, and often that was a very small part of the process. Shared responsibility is often seen as diminished responsibility, and makes it easier to produce corpses. The detailed planning, organization and execution of the project sets the Holocaust apart from other genocides. Eichmann protested against spontaneous pogroms in the east, not because he was a humanitarian but because those unorganized interventions messed up his bookkeeping and made it difficult to count how many exactly were killed by the otherwise machine-like operation.

The Holocaust was not the action of an individual or a small group of people. Nor was it motivated by egoism, the will to power, money, hate, rage, revenge, sadism, war or the elimination of opposition. The victims were not guilty of opposition or even crime. The perpetrators weren’t motivated by self-interest (for example, the Nazis prohibited private confiscation of Jewish goods for personal use). Neither was it primarily the hatred of Jews that led the Nazis to try to exterminate them. It was the love of humanity – or better what they considered to be true humanity – and the need to protect it. The Holocaust wasn’t a war crime either and wasn’t part of the normal atrocities of war. It started well before the war and the German war effort suffered substantially from it: potentially useful labor forces were eliminated, soldiers and other means that could have been used in the war were diverted to the extermination effort etc. The Jews were murdered, not because that would have allowed soldiers to fight rather than guard prisoners, but because they were Jews. The extermination continued even in the final days of the war, when Germany was losing and all military resources should have gone to the war effort. And, finally, the purpose of the Holocaust wasn’t to instill fear. Normal state terror serves to scare the population and convince it to submit and to behave in ways that are acceptable to the rulers. Not in the case of the Holocaust. Fear had become useless because it couldn’t serve to guide actions and to steer away from danger. Danger would have found you anyway. Everyone knew that you were a Jew, and tactical maneuvering motivated by fear could have helped you escape only in very few cases.

Self-interest, power hunger, sadism, revenge or other utilitarian motives were seen by the Nazis as diversions from the genocidal operation that was undertaken for the benefit of mankind. As was the military self-interest of Germany’s success in the war. The project of extermination of the Jews and the protection of mankind was more important than the risk of a possible military defeat of Germany. Pity as well could not stand in the way of the demands of nature and history. The pleas of the victims were not heard and people convinced themselves of the historical and natural necessity of the Holocaust. Like pity, the taking of money from a victim as a bribe for letting him or her live was a betrayal of nature. Germans had to be the superhumans that they were destined to be, free from all that makes us ordinary humans: pity, self-interest, hate and the will to power.

The Holocaust wasn’t a crime. A crime is a deed that goes against social order and established law and that challenges the powers that represent social order. In this case, we have an atrocity that emanated from the state and that had become the moral and legal law. Murder had become a form of government. Evil no longer had to fight the Good, and no longer had to hide and to be hypocritical. Evil ruled. There was only evil. The world was without a horizon, without hope or salvation. Another reason why the Holocaust can’t really be called a crime is the fact that the perpetrators didn’t have criminal motives. They just carried out the verdict of nature and implemented the laws of nature. A deeper legality defined the actions of government. Murder had become the law of nature as well as the legal law and the law of morality.

More on the Holocaust here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (55): The Widening Circle of Equality

Allow me to engage in some simplistic historical generalizations. Although, like most us, I have abandoned my youthful illusions about the overall progress of humanity, I still think we’ve taken giant steps towards the moral ideal of human equality. See what you think about this:

  • During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, with the formation of the nation state in Europe and the development of the virtue of patriotism, citizens of those new states – and their copies elsewhere in the world – stopped acting as if members of neighboring tribes were somehow subhuman. Human equality, equal concern and equal rights were extended from the tribe to the nation.
  • After the end of the religious wars in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the gradual acceptance of religious liberty, adherents of other religions were no longer viewed as sinners who had to be destroyed, but rather as equal citizens enjoying the same rights.
  • From the middle of the 19th century (with the abolition of slavery) to the middle of the 20th (with the Civil Rights movement), non-whites gradually won equal rights.
  • During roughly the same period, workers and the workers’ movement convinced the other social classes that someone who has to sell his or her labor power for a living isn’t destined to an animal-like life in filth and misery.
  • From the beginning of the 20th century (with the suffragette movement) until the end of that century, women gradually won their equal place in many areas of society: politics, the labor market, etc. This movement, like all the previous ones, isn’t complete, but at least nowadays it’s rare to encounter the view that women are lesser men and should be relegated to the home.
  • The Holocaust, ironically, resulted in a dramatic acceleration of the emancipation of Jews.
  • The end of colonialism in the mid-20th century was the culmination of a long process during which westerners convinced themselves that the people they had colonized were not animals or subhumans but rather human beings like themselves.
  • The latest step forward in the history of human equality can be witnessed in our own time: gays and lesbians are now in the process of achieving what other outgroups have achieved before them.

So these are all consecutive steps during which the circle of people who are considered as “people like us” has been widened again and again. Sure, this is history painted with a very rough brush. I obviously don’t mean to say that the inclusion of new groups into the class of “equal human beings” has been complete or final after each step. There are many racists left after the Civil Rights movement; many intolerant religious fundamentalists after the acceptance of the right to freedom of religion etc. Also, there have been major steps backward: nazism came after a long period of Jewish emancipation; the end of slavery in the U.S. resulted in renewed racism etc. And neither do I mean to imply that prior to the abolition of slavery there wasn’t a single soul who believed blacks were equal human beings, or that there were no women considered as equal before the victories of feminism.

There’s no reason to believe that this inclusionary movement is about to stop. I can see at least three additional steps:

  • Our current treatment of criminals may come to be seen as unacceptable. There’s already a strong movement for the abolition of capital punishment, but I’m convinced that our whole system of criminal punishment is without justification. And I’m not just talking about overcrowding, prison rape, excessively long sentences etc. Read more here.
  • Migrants as well may become more accepted, to the point that an open borders policy will be generalized. Currently, we still condemn people to misery for no other reason than the fact that they are born in the wrong place, like older generations condemned people to slavery for no other reason than their skin color. The causes of this exclusion are an insufficient awareness of the benefits of immigration and lingering prejudices against outgroups.
  • And, finally, the inclusionary movement may one day lead to better treatment of animals: our current system of industrial meat production will then be considered barbaric.

Do I forget something?

Measuring Human Rights (17): Human Rights and Progress

We’re all aware of the horrors of recent history. The 20th century doesn’t get a good press. And yet, most of us still think that humanity is, on average, much better off today  than it was some centuries or millennia ago. The holocaust, Rwanda, Hiroshima, AIDS, terrorism etc. don’t seem to have discouraged the idea of human progress in popular imagination. Those have been disasters of biblical proportions, and yet they are seen as temporary lapses, regrettable but exceptional incidents that did not jeopardize the overall positive evolution of mankind. Some go even further and call these events instances of “progressive violence”: disasters so awful that they bring about progress. Hitler was necessary in order to finally make Germany democratic. The Holocaust was necessary to give the Jews their homeland and the world the Universal Declaration. Evil has to become so extreme that it finally convinces humanity that evil should be abolished.

While that is obviously ludicrous, it’s true that there has been progress:

  • we did practically abolish slavery
  • torture seems to be much less common and much more widely condemned, despite the recent uptick
  • poverty is on the retreat
  • equality has come within reach for non-whites, women and minorities of different kinds
  • there’s a real reduction in violence over the centuries
  • war is much less common and much less bloody
  • more and more countries are democracies and freedom is much more widespread
  • there’s more free speech because censorship is much more difficult now thanks to the internet
  • health and labor conditions have improved for large segments of humanity, resulting in booming life expectancy
  • etc.

So, for a number of human rights, things seem to be progressing quite a lot. Of course, there are some areas of regress: the war on terror, gendercide, islamism etc. Still, those things don’t seem to be weighty enough to discourage the idea of progress, which is still quite popular. On the other hand, some human rights violations were caused by elements of human progress. The Holocaust, for example, would have been unimaginable outside of our modern industrial society. Hiroshima and Mutually Assured Destruction are other examples. Both nazism and communism are “progressive” philosophies in the sense that they believe that they are working for a better society.

Whatever the philosophical merits of the general idea of progress, progress in the field of respect for human rights boils down to a problem of measurement. How doe we measure the level of respect for the whole of the set of human rights? It’s difficult enough to measure respect for the present time, let alone for previous periods in human history for which data are incomplete or even totally absent. Hence, general talk about progress in the field of human rights is probably impossible. More specific measurements of parts of the system of human rights are more likely to succeed, but only for relatively recent time frames.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (21): Hate is Just a Word Away

It’s shouldn’t be surprising that there are so many human rights violations. Psychologists have shown how easy it is to induce cruelty, prejudice and hate. There’s for example the famous Milgram experiment. People seem to be very obedient to authority figures, even if they are told to be cruel to other people (giving them electric shocks in this case; the shocks were fake but the subjects didn’t know that). Milgram’s test suggested that the millions of accomplices in the Holocaust were violent and cruel because they were following orders. Authority made them do things that violated their deepest moral beliefs. If you see how much pain people are willing to inflict on another person they don’t even know, simply because they are ordered to by an experimental scientist, you can imagine how easy it is for real authority figures to “convince” them. Which doesn’t mean that ordinary perpetrators of genocide or other acts of cruelty are guiltless tools of central command.

(The Milgram experiment was recently “reproduced” in a game show on television).

A similar experiment is the Hofling hospital experiment. Nurses were ordered by unknown doctors to administer what could have been a dangerous dose of a (fictional) drug to their patients. In spite of official guidelines forbidding administration in such circumstances, Hofling found that 21 out of the 22 nurses would have given the patient an overdose of medicine, even though they were aware of the dangers.

Then there are the Asch conformity experiments. One subject and a series of fake subjects were asked a variety of questions about an image containing lines, such as how long is A, compare the length of A to an everyday object, which line is longer than the other, which lines are the same length, etc. The group was told to announce their answers to each question out loud. The fake subjects always provided their answers before the study participant, and always gave the same answer as each other. They answered a few questions correctly but eventually began providing incorrect responses. You wouldn’t expect a majority of people to conform to something obviously wrong, such as “line A is longer than line B” when it’s clear to the eye that the opposite is the case. However, when surrounded by individuals all voicing such an incorrect answer, many participants also provided incorrect responses. This kind of group pressure and tendency to conform can explain mob violence and government organized genocide.

In the Stanford prison experiment, also called the Zimbardo experiment, people were selected to play the roles of guards and prisoners and live in a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford psychology building. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond what was expected. The guards became authoritarian and effected draconian, sadistic and abusive measures which were even accepted by the suffering prisoners.

And, finally, there is the Third Wave experiment demonstrating the appeal of fascism for ordinary people.

These social psychology experiments show that government efforts to mandate and enforce cruelty, prejudice, racism, hate and even genocide fall on fertile grounds. Human nature’s dark side seems to lurk just below the surface, ready to come out, and merely awaiting the wink of the boss or the group. A negative dialectic quickly settles in between government prejudice and private prejudice.

The Ethics of Human Rights (20): Why Are There Genocides?

How can there be genocides? Genocides, and especially the holocaust, seem to be impossible to understand. They leave even the most astute thinkers perplexed. What is it that makes ordinary people, people who have never before engaged in violence or crime, turn on their neighbors and even friends in the most extreme way, without any apparent rational reason or provocation?

Hannah Arendt has written a lot about this, and she made the following observation while watching the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem:

Eichmann committed his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. (source)

Under extreme circumstances people seem to lose their “moral compass”. They are

swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes in. (source)

This is what Heidegger called the “dictatorship of the They“: society, the general cultures or mores and the common practices force individuals to act in certain ways and undermine their independent judgment.

It is indeed difficult to tell right from wrong, independently, if almost everyone around you tells you that wrong is right. People’s sense of morality – or moral compass – is deeply influenced by the society they live in and grow up in. If you live in a racist society, chances are high you end up being a racist.

When this “dictatorship of the They” is purposefully cultivated by political elites, propaganda, indoctrination etc, and when, furthermore, it is combined with thoughtlessness or the willingness to give up on thinking – as was the case of Eichmann – then evil and genocide are just a small step away. Thinking, according to Arendt, makes it hard to engage in evil. Thinking is the silent dialogue with yourself. Since people generally want to be in harmony with themselves, it’s better to be the victim of an injustice than the perpetrator (in the words of Socrates), because the perpetrator has to live with the criminal. In this way, a conscience is a byproduct of thinking (Arendt), and the absence of thinking leads to immorality.

However, this explanation of evil, immorality and genocide is unsatisfactory, because it abandons moral responsibility and the possibility of moral and legal judgment. Arendt was acutely aware of this. If we again take the case of Eichmann, how can we possibly judge and convict him if his actions were the result of social pressure and his inability to think? Civilized legal systems as well as moral systems understand that the intent to do wrong and freedom of choice are necessary prerequisites for the commission of a crime.  No responsibility without mens rea: “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”, “the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind be also guilty”.

It’s good to understand how morality is influenced by circumstances and culture, and how crime can result from education, society and thoughtlessness, but that’s not the whole picture. People aren’t just products of their environment. They can think and choose, except perhaps under the most extreme circumstances (such as torture). And I don’t think Eichmann lived in such extreme circumstances. This element of moral freedom is shown by the fact that evil people can arise from the best of circumstances.