Friday, August 25, 2006

Goldhagen's Challenge

Daniel Goldhagen's provocative (and controversial) book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, despite -- no because of -- its simplifications, powerfully raises a question that every moral psychologist should consider: When one's culture, or subculture, embraces a noxious set of values, what resources do ordinary individuals have to discover the immorality of those values?

In the early 1940s, Reserve Police Battalion 101, composed of a fairly arbitrary slice of 300 or so ordinary men from northern Germany -- men with no particular commitment to Nazism and little ideological training -- was sent to Poland to kill Jews. They killed thousands of men, women, and children. The two most prominent histories of this event -- Goldhagen's book and Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men -- concur on the basic facts of the case: That these ordinary men committed this slaughter willingly, without threat of severe punishment, and largely without objection. Browning thinks that at least some of the men felt pangs of conscience and remorse; but he concludes this (as Goldhagen points out) largely based on self-exculpatory claims ("well, I didn't want to do it") that these men gave at trial. If we dismiss such self-exculpatory claims, and look at the evidence of the time and the claims made by these men about the feelings of other men, Goldhagen argues, it is very difficult to find signs of genuine remorse or moral disapproval. The men posed for pictures of themselves tormenting Jews; almost none applied for transfer (one who did -- the one clear objector who consistently refused to participate in the genocide -- was actually transferred back to Germany and promoted!); there were plenty of volunteers for "Jew hunts"; etc.

Goldhagen points out that these men were given plenty of time to reflect: They had considerable free time between their genocidal activities. They had furloughs during which they could go home and gain perspective. And given the evident significance of what they were doing, reflection would certainly be natural. Based on their behavior, this reflection seems largely to have confirmed the permissibility, perhaps even praiseworthiness, of the genocide.

I would like to think that reflection tends to lead to moral improvement, to the discovery of right and wrong -- and that it has the power to do so, at least to some degree, even in an environment of noxious values. I'd like to think that an ordinary man, anti-Semitic but not brainwashed, asked to walk into the forest side by side with an innocent Jewish girl then shoot her in the head, could, by reflection, see that what he has been asked to do is gravely morally wrong.

But maybe not. (After all, ethical reflection doesn't seem to help philosophy professors much.)


kboughan said...

It would be nice if people generally were simply reflective in the way you described, but they just aren't.

Take the students I had at the Citadel. I had a good rapport with most of them. I even had a small following. They liked me, and I came to like many of them.

But I am quite sure that, if ordered by a military commander or political official to shoot me in the head for my political opinions -- which all my students knew were opposed to the far-right correctness of the Citadel community -- most of my former students wouldn't hesitate a second to pull the trigger.

Such is the power of fascism.

(Goldhagen's HWE is one of those books that I must read, but has to take a backseat to all the literature in my own field. The thesis seems pretty sound to me; given what I know of medieval antisemitism, it's surprising a book like that did not come out sooner. But I don't have any anti-Israel ax to grind.)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'd hate to think things are as bad as that. I used to believe that human nature was good, that there's something in us that rebels against evil, that people will reflect on the moral ramifications of killing defenseless people (if not before they do it then at least afterward)....

Maybe I still believe those things. That's why I think of it as Goldhagen's "challenge" rather than his proof.

Anonymous said...

Hi Eric,
I agree with you people are naturally good, maybe I would say that doing good is... well, normal. But that it is clouded with different emotions.
I think there are two thing. One is, I think, specific for humans in general, no matter the society... Anger, hate, jealousy, obsessions of all kinds, fear,... who knows what else, they take this normal innate wisdom and shrink it to a line. Everything else gets black.
Maybe I'm being overly metaphorical, but if you was ever very angry, or very afraid, or very of any of those emotions, I guess the description will be easily recognizable.
The other, is brainwashing by paradigms. The theory and conceptual system is accepted from social groups, which becomes way of thinking.
If those two come together, I can imagine person doing anything.

Brad C said...

I have not read that book (yet), but your question brings out the many conditions that need to be in place for people to engage in serious reflection and to then act well when it is not in their "self-interest".

Actually, I doubt that simple "reflection" is enough. It would be interesting to know why more robust forms of self-control were (as far as I can tell) tracked into monastic settings and not taught to "ordinary people". I guess assessing Foucault's work on "care for the self" might be a place to start.

Thankfully, that trend seems to be turning around with the dissemination of psychological appropriations of stoic (cognitive therapy) and buddhist practices (mindfulness based therapy).

On another note: I have found Jonathan Glover's "Humantiy" an impressive, and somewhat depressing, reminder of the challenge we face when we try to understand how people can overcome the tendency to be inhumane to one another.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, Tanasije and Brad! I think the empirical evidence is on your side, Tanasije, that there's pretty much no limit to the evil people can do if the circumstances and emotions are right -- or I should say, wrong! But whether there continues to be that "line" -- the knowledge of what's genuinely good and evil, somewhere in them, that can be brought out by the right kind of reflective process -- well, I've been bashing my head on that one for years.

I'll have to look at Glover's book, Brad. I confess I don't know it! What I seem to be converging on after my head-bashing on this, is the idea that knowledge of good and evil is discoverable by the right kind of reflection, even in toxic circumstances -- definitely not by just only old kind of reflection though. The question then becomes, exactly what kinds of reflection lead to moral improvement? Stoic and mindfulness practices are definitely possibilities....

kboughan said...

Brad, why are systematic practices of self-discipline and deep introspection historically owned by monks and not common folk?

Because common folk have to *work.* There's no time. It's plow, hunt, trade, hustle -- or starve.

Monks, like scholars, priests, and kings, make a privileged elite.

Indeed, a monastic life -- despite that one of its defining characteristics is austerity -- is one of the most self-indulgent, luxurious pursuits around.

(One could say something similar, alas, about any kind of extended involvment in psycho-therapy or analysis.)

Other people (including other elites) are simply too busy making and doing to afford it.

It's a nice dream, the morally self-reliant, self-sufficient soul, but I think we will always need others' help to be humane.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Good points, kboughan! I'm interested in the difficult-to-assess empirical question whether all this luxury to reflect actually leads to moral improvement. And if so, in what traditions it does, and in virtue of what further conditions!