Friday, January 19, 2007

Are we evil?

Norm and Paulie (and Norm again) have been talking about evil, specifically in relation to genocide.

Norm thinks:

“It is not uncommon to hear those who are more 'optimistic' about human nature putting the whole weight of explanation for this kind of human conduct on the external conditions - social, political, ideological - that produce or encourage it. But while it is essential to give these conditions their appropriate explanatory weight (for we need to know when people are more likely and when they are less likely to behave in cruel and murderous ways), that doesn't meet, much less dispose of, the thesis that there are impulses towards evil within the human make-up. Without that inner potentiality, the conditions could not produce the forms of cruel behaviour which the human record contains in abundance. We might just have been a species incapable of such behaviour - in the way that a cat is incapable of living on a vegetarian diet. But we are not.”

Meanwhile, Mark Braud writes about Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, from self-interest and punishment avoidance, through interpersonal accords and respect for authority, to social contracts and universal principles. Braund writes:

“If groups of human beings were to coexist peacefully, Kohlberg thought, it would have to be on the basis of some shared morality, common to all. … Kohlberg… did find evidence that all humans have much in common in terms of their moral reasoning and how it develops. In the current climate we need all the help we can get working out how to prevent the further deterioration of relations between opposing groups and cultures. Professor Kohlberg devoted his life to helping articulate a fundamental aspect of our common humanity.”

And it occurs to me, as I’m sure it’s occurred to many others before me, that perhaps the essential defining feature of human nature, our tendency to form groups, is both at the root of all in us that is good – empathy, cooperation, altruism – and at the root of much in us that is evil.

(I can’t say all evil – there’s plenty of purely selfish individual cruelty.)

It depends how big a group is. We find it easier to define our group contrast to another. And those outside tend to be viewed less favourably and valued less highly. Double standards apply. ‘Us’ doesn’t necessarily make ‘them’ the enemy, but it often works out that way.

If one has a stark dividing line, then in certain circumstances all sorts of atrocities against outsiders may be legitimated, with in-group solidarity helping the perpetrators to maintain some sense of self-respect. Whether Hutus turning on their Tutsi neighbours or slave-owners proclaiming “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, there’s a ‘them’ who just don’t matter.

Can we learn to define our distinct groups more respectfully? Or can a universal humanism have the emotional appeal to satisfy the need for a group identity?

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