Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Happy Lynchers (repost)

I'm headed off to the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association (where, hopefully, I'll get some data of interest to readers of this blog); and I just taught a class on the psychology of lynching, so I hope readers will forgive me for my first-ever repost. (This post harks back to the early weeks of this blog -- May 2006. I only got 511 visitors in May. Now I get that many in about 3 days!)

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?

(The old comments and replies are here.)


Sam said...

Hi Eric,

Although we agree on little, you are a very good philosopher Eric. I would take these photos as evidence that evil is banal. I've seen (I've come close to witnessing such an event - I was just around the corner) it in the abuse of children. Interestingly enough, the child in question was morally disgusted at his parent for being drunk. I think this is evidence for an innate moral sense of some kind.


Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree, Sam, that evil is (often) banal, and that these photos are evidence for that. Child abuse is indeed a very interesting example of banal evil. I wonder to what extent child abusers rationalize what they do as not harmful to the child, or even good for the child -- versus what proportion, instead, recognize and regret their activity, then or later.

Unknown said...


The good folks over at The Situationist have been posting a lot lately about the very issue you raise--namely, not only how bad people come to be bad people but how otherwise good people come to do really evil things. So, you might want to check out some of their recent posts.

Anonymous said...

I agree with thomas! This looks like a nice intersection of interests.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right! I'm actually planning to post soon on what I see as some shortcomings of Zimbardo's advice on how not to do evil. Stay tuned!

Criminally Bulgur said...

Hi Dr. Schwitzgebel,

Isn't there a way of reading these sad pictures that suggests the following?:

Human nature--in the sense of a set of deep-seated behavioral dispositions--is simply too complicated to be a reliable determinant of whether someone acts morally in any given case. Our moral emotions are easily manipulated, such that how our “moral environment” is constituted in any given instance —e.g., are the people around us being honest and open with information?--is almost more important than how we are morally constituted as individuals.

The evidence from the social sciences, for example, seems to be that contextual factors are by far the most salient in determining whether people do what is intuitively good or bad. These contextual factors are things such as whether someone is possessed of adequate information about the choice she is facing, is late for work or otherwise in a panic, etc.

This is something I first discovered in papers that Gilbert Harman has posted to his website (e.g., ).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Ignacio. I completely agree with your claim about the importance of situational factors in governing our behavior. Besides Harman, John Doris has done an excellent job of bringing this issue into the philosophical literature in moral psychology.

I'm not sure to what extent situationism is in tension with positive or negative views of "human nature" -- maybe a bit, because it seems an alternative type of explanation of evil, rather than an explanation appealing to our "natures". But also, there's much that's situationist in spirit, I think, in Rousseau, Locke, Mencius, and Xunzi (in my mind the leading philosophical theorists about the morality or amorality of human nature). I should post a bit more about that sometime -- but in the meantime let me recommend Eric Hutton's essay on situationism and Xunzi in Phil Studies.