Monday, May 29, 2006

Happy Lynchers

To render the photos below less viscerally disturbing, I've blanked out sections. They remain, I think, ethically quite disturbing.

The blanked out parts of the pictures are, of course, the victims of lynchings (all African-American) in early 20th-century United States. I won't risk the sensibilities of readers any more than I already have by describing the details of the corpses, but to put it blandly, in the first and third pictures especially, they are grotesquely mutilated.

I post these pictures not (I hope) from any motive of voyeurism, but to share with you my sense that they powerfully raise one of the most important issues in moral psychology: the emotions of perpetrators of evil. Though it's a bit hard to see in these small pictures (the maximum size Blogger allows), I hope it's nonetheless evident that most of the lynchers look relaxed and happy -- though they're only feet from a freshly murdered corpse. It was not uncommon to bring small children along to lynchings, to collect souvenirs, to take photos and sell them as postcards. (These pictures are from a collection of just such postcards: James Allen's Without Sanctuary.)

Although I'm attracted to a roughly Mencian view of human nature, according to which something in us is deeply revolted by evil, when that evil is nearby and "in one's face" as it were, I find pictures like this somewhat difficult to reconcile with that view. Are these people inwardly revolted, under their smiles?


Brad C said...

Some thoughts:

(1)When you say we are naturally revolted by evil, do you mean that we can naturally recognize evil and are naturally revolted by it OR just the latter?

I ask because one take on the people in the pictures is as follows: the people in the pictures are not revolted because they do not recognize the evil in front of them.

I would think that the capacity to recognize evil is in part a natural capacity (acquired but natural, on your def of natural) so you could say that the people in the picture are in bad epistemic shape but that that is an unnatural state for them to be in.

This strategy seems better to me than reading the people as being unrevolted by a recognized evil.

(2) To flesh this out I would suggest the following: in the cases in question a person can adequately recognize the evil at play only if they recognize that the the victims are human beings who share a set of properties/capacities that they have. I am no expert, but I assume that there were ideologies/practices aimed at de-humanizing the vicitims (in the eyes of those in the audiences) in these cases.

This brings to mind the (alleged) indoctrination techniques that were used on soldiers who ended up commiting bad acts at Abu Ghraib. The idea is that they were taught to no longer see the victims as fully human.

(3) But even if this line of thought works, the problem you raise seems to persist in an attenuated form.

Assume that the people in the pictures think of the victims as sub-human - say animals. Now consider another case in which people gleefully kill animals or gleefully watch it. We might think something bad is being done in that case (I would, but some deny that, e.g. bull fighting is evil). If so the same is true of their responses to what they take to be the treatment of "sub-human" people.

About this residual problem, I would think that the failure to be revolted by torturing or killing animals is an affective, not an epistemic failure; in most cases, it would be implausible to hold that there is a failure to recoginize the animals as being capable of feeling pain.

In sum: I would be inclined to say that people in the pictures above lack (i) the natural epistemic capacity to recognize evil treatment of other human beings and (ii) the natural affective response (revulsion) to the cruel treatment of beings who can feel pain.

Finally I note it may be hard to hold the line that they *rationally* believe the people are not human, in the light of the fact that they hold the people responsible for violating norms an animal could not understand.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting points as usual, Brad!

I agree with your first point. But also the Mencian in me wonders whether, somewhere deep in their hearts (as it were) they feel discomfort and displeasure with their actions, but this quiet voice of conscience is overwhelmed by other things.

Re (2) and (3): I have trouble believing that a person can look at another person and fully, simply see a non-human animal, something with exactly the moral status of a squirrel. People *say* this, sometimes, in discussions of genocide and torture, and it is often part of racist propaganda. But even if a perpetrator is willing to say that, I suspect it's only words sincerely endorsed and not something deeply, implicitly, and genuinely believed (see my posts on racism and on belief in God and Heaven).

So I think the analogy to the abuse of non-human animals misses the mark. The moral psychology is more complex than that. (Also, I think the abuse of non-human animals, though it may be morally wrong, does not rise to the level of *evil*.)

Brad C said...

I agree with what you say (esp about the moral psychology being more complex), but am also more on the fence about human nature as a result of thinking of cases like this. In any case, after posting last night, I read an interesting article on "the Terror" in the new New Yorker. Here is a link to the full thing (I broke it in two so as to avoid wrapping):

I mention it because, in it, Gopnik also casts doubt on the idea that people can come to think of other humans as non-humans - or at least that that explains cases like the French revolution. To make the point stick, he points to aspects of the mistreatment that tell against that explanation:

"It is often said that terror of this kind is possible only when one has first “dehumanized” some group of people—aristocrats, Jews, the bourgeoisie. In fact, what motivated the spectacle was exactly the knowledge that the victims were people, and capable of feeling pain and fear as people do. We don’t humiliate vermin, or put them through show trials, or make them watch their fellow-vermin die first."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

That sounds right to me -- assuming it's appropriately balanced with an appreciation of the fact that people who say such things also aren't just straightforwardly lying. At least to some extent, to some degree, those who deny the humanity of their victims often *think* they are telling the truth and that what they're saying reflects their deepest beliefs.

So I'll have to check out the Gopnik! But right now, I have to dash off to catch a plane to the Society for Philosophy and Psychology meeting in St. Louis.