Thursday, September 30, 2021

Does the Heart Revolt at Evil? The Lynching of Rubin Stacey

I'm thinking about evil and human nature again. I'd like to think that everyone has some part of them that is revolted by the grossest acts of evil.

Let's consider the lynching of Rubin Stacey. (Warning: potentially upsetting text and images below.)

On July 16, 1935, a Black man appeared at the doorstep of Marion Jones, a thirty-year-old mother of three in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, asking for water. Accounts differ about what happened next. On some accounts, Jones screamed upon seeing the man’s face. On other accounts, the man cut Jones with a penknife and she fought him off (in one picture, Jones has a bandaged hand). Either way, the man soon fled. Rumors spread that the man had attempted to rape Jones. Fort Lauderdale citizens were in a "lynching mood" and a manhunt began.

Three days later and twenty-five miles away, a motorist informed the police that he had seen a Black man -- Rubin Stacey, an agricultural laborer -- ducking into some bushes. When deputies approached, Stacey attempted to flee. After apprehending him, instead of putting Stacey in a lineup according to standard eyewitness identification procedure, the deputies drove him to Jones' house. Jones claimed Stacey had assaulted her and both she and the deputies were given a $25 identification reward ($475 in today’s dollars). Stacey denied involvement.

As Stacey was being driven to jail, a mob seized him and, using Jones' clothesline, hung him from a tree near Jones' home. A gun was passed around and spectators were invited to take shots at Stacey, who might or might not have already been dead from hanging. Many of the shots missed, but 17 shots hit. White newspaper coverage accepted the deputies' claim that they had involuntarily released Stacey to the mob after being run off the road. However, doubts about the story were raised in 1988 when one participant in the lynching revealed that the mob had been led by the sheriff's brother, who was himself a deputy and who later became notorious for killing Black detainees for minor acts of disrespect.

Stacey's corpse hung for hours while thousands of White Floridians came to view it and celebrate. They brought their families, posed for photos with Stacey's corpse, and cut off pieces of his clothing to keep as souvenirs. One famous photo shows four young White girls in casual summer dresses gazing at the corpse from only a few feet away, with men – presumably their fathers – standing behind them. One of the girls appears to be positively beaming with delight.

Here's an edited version of the famous photo, with Stacey's corpse edited out. I've left it big, so that you can zoom on the spectators' faces.

[unedited version here]

Stacey's lynching was typical of the era, which saw dozens or hundreds of lynchings every year. Only about one-third of victims were even accused of capital crimes, and some were accused of no crime at all, but instead were associates of the accused or were "troublemakers" who complained about racial oppression. Rarely was any serious attempt made to accurately identify the accused. In perhaps the majority of cases, the accused was already held by police, thus posing no immediate threat and likely to face a criminal justice system already biased against them. Spectators often arrived from miles around, sometimes renting excursion trains and bringing picnics. As mementos, they collected pieces of the victim’s clothes, or even pieces of the victim’s body.

White men took turns shooting, torturing, or abusing the living victim or the corpse, often bringing women and children with them. Lynch mobs posed politely for photos, which were often printed on postcards that quickly sold for a dollar or so. In 2003, James Allen and colleagues published a collection of these postcards along with historical details, including the photo of Stacey’s corpse with the smiling girl. In picture after picture, you can see the proud White faces of the murderers, standing near shot, charred, tortured, whipped, skinned, and/or castrated corpses, apparently happy to have their deeds memorialized, printed, and shared via postcard around the country, with handwritten comments on the back like "this is the barbeque we had last night".[1]

I want to travel back in time. I want to sit down, not with the worst lyncher -- not with the murderous, mob-leading deputy – but with just an ordinary member of the mob. I want to find a quiet space and think through the case with them. Does Rubin Stacey really deserve to die, right now, in this way, with no trial and no assurance of guilt, based on a rumor, for an act which is not even a capital offense? Do you really want to hang him from a tree with a clothesline and pass around a gun taking shots at him? Is there really no part of you that knows this is wrong and screams against it?

When I imagine sitting with the perpetrators like this, I find myself pulled toward the view that something in them could understand the repulsive evil of the act. I can't help but feel that most ordinary people, if they paused in this way to think through the situation consider how they ought to feel, would be able to see past the horrible bigotry of their culture. They could feel the pull of sympathy and humanity, and come to feel appropriate moral revulsion. I imagine, and I hope, and I believe, that they could, without too much work, find their moral compass.

But I confess that this opinion is more a matter of faith than a conclusion rationally compelled by the historical evidence.


[1] For accounts of Stacey's lynching, see Fort Lauderdale Daily News and Evening Sentinel, Jul. 20, 1935, p. 1; New York Times, Jul. 20, 1935, p. 28; Reading Eagle, Jul. 20, 1935, p. 2; Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), 1988, Jul. 17, 1988, p. 10; Allen et al. 2003, plate 57 and page 185, Florida Lynching Files, 2014; South Florida Sun Sentinel, Sep. 11, 2020. For general accounts of lynching in the period, see Dray 2002; Allen et al. 2003; and Wood 2009. For the personal recollections of a survivor, see Cameron 1982/1994.


  1. Dear Eric:

    I will give the matter the due reflection. That is what philosophy should do in the domain of ethics: allow stepping out of the situation and to reflect. Like evil everywhere, most perpetrators delude themselves they are doing the world some great good. These lynchers must have thought likewise. Evil also involves group identity and feeling threatened by some outside force. Unless you believe that these two considerations are just secondary to some drive people have to do evil, that's your explanation. It almost seems like some frenzied holiday on the part of the lynchers and there are paradoxes involved: if you think someone is subhuman why bother? To dehumanize someone is oddly at some level to acknowledge and deny their humanity

  2. Plus, their horrific acts, more than just expressing something within, articulate a worldview or the way the world is and their social order

  3. It is a very difficult problem. The evil is so great, and yet so many people appeared untroubled by it.

    I suppose if you went back and told them that today, we think gay marriage and trans rights are good, they would be horrified by us. Which only makes the moral chasm between us deeper…

  4. Let’s say that the vast majority of people who have personally done horrible things, or at least support those horrors, can be reasoned with in a way that helps them “find their moral compass”. As things stand I’m not even very pessimistic about this. But would this be better than the converse? Observe that strong evidence suggests that each of us here would engage in barbaric atrocities if we lived under somewhat different circumstances. Imagine if you made your living in the underworld where you’d sometimes torture captive people mercilessly in the line of your job. As such, would it be positive for humanity if it were possible for you to be reasoned with in a way that you’d understand how wrong your behavior was, feel horrible remorse, and then mend your ways in the future? I’m not sure that this would be such a wonderful thing, or indeed, is such a wonderful thing. Even if true, sometimes the human does still do horrible things to sentient beings such as other humans. Note that a person who is tortured to death seems no better off whether or not the perpetrator could potentially be changed into a better person.

    Rather than simply hoping that we are something that we might actually be, I’d like us to develop broad general reductions of our nature so that we might use these understandings to more effectively lead our individual lives, as well as structure our various societies. Observe that we currently have engineers who use hard sciences to make us more powerful. From this it follows that if our soft sciences were to also harden up then we’d develop engineers who specialize in using such understandings to assess how various individual people and societies could maximize their value. And what has prevented our mental and behavioral sciences from developing effective broad general descriptions of our nature? Are we simply too complex to grasp ourselves? Instead I suspect that we’ve been too biased to grasp ourselves given the personal nature of this particular topic. Science is still quite young however and so should succeed in the end. That’s essentially what drives my own academic efforts.

  5. Good and Bad may not be about the function/behavior of faith...
    ...but about rational and irrational function...

    Can rational function be irrational... I I know I need to know more...

    That a human function can be irrational... I I know I need to know more...

    This kind of self-knowledge seems about our minds and our emotions... I have any feelings about good and bad...

    Are feelings/emotions different from thought...
    ...but also for the function of our minds...

    Learning about our sensations, mentations, emotions for a more rational mind...
    ...and for a more rational inner life...

  6. Eric -

    I'd like to recommend 2 recent books for reflections on the question you struggling with: Right/Wrong - How Technology Transforms our Ethics, by Juan Enriquez (2020); and Bernoulli's Fallacy - Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science (2021). The first provides some excellent thought experiments about the difficulty of judging morality across time. Juan's point is that morality does evolve through time based on new information (incl science), better communication, mixing of peoples and cultures, etc - and HOPEFULLY most will agree that the evolution is positive. Compare, e.g., the events you describe in 1935 and the events of 2020 surrounding the death of George Floyd. Some would say that is barely an improvement, but Derek Chauvin will be in jail for a long time. Imagine now how our great grandchildren might react to an ancient photo from 2021 of a beef or pig slaughterhouse. Might they say - "how incredibly disgusting - they ate the flesh of sentient mammals?"

    Bernoulli's Fallacy is a book with a far greater scope (and, hopefully, impact - anyone concerned with the replication crisis or with the mathematical foundations of modern statistics should read this book very very carefully and thoroughly. The relevant chapter for purposes of this post is "The Frequentist Jihad." Aubrey carefully documents the crafting of what are now ubiquitous statistical procedures from within the framework of eugenics ideology in the late 19th and early 20th century. Francis Galton, Karl Pearson and Ronald Fisher each drove the process with a higher goal of validating their sociological aims of creating a "scientific" basis for "improving" the human race by means including forced sterilization, war against inferior nations and even - yes - genocide. What is most amazing is their very sincere claims of moral justification on the grounds of what they argued would be best for humanity.

    It would be a far stretch to think that anyone attending Rubin Stacey's lynching would know anything about the statistically based eugenicist claims in the halls of academia -- but those ideas were clearly "in the air and water." The individuals at the lynching were born, grew up, were educated (maybe) and lived, worked, and worshipped in a culture where black people were presumed inferior. (Juan makes some very good points about this.) This does not EXCUSE them of committing or condoning terrible violence against other human beings - but may help to understand the cultural influences that led them to that point.

    PS - You really have to read Bernoulli's Fallacy. I'd be happy to put you in touch with Aubrey if you'd like - he lives nearby.

  7. Thanks for the comments, folks!

    Howard: Yes, that seems mostly right. I'm a little mixed on the question of whether those who do great evil generally think they are doing great good. There's a tendency to rationalize evil with bad moralizing. But also sometimes I think people are willing to set aside moral consideration or admit that what they are doing is morally bad.

    Carl: Yes! I find it fascinating and troubling -- as well as an occasion for some self-doubt.

    Philosopher E: Right, and I think part of figuring out how to change people and society for the better is figuring out our moral psychology. If my speculation, my "faith", as expressed in the post, is correct, then that's a fact about our moral psychology that could hopefully be used in thinking about how to make things better in the future.

    Arnold: Philosophers love rationality! I am a philosopher. Therefore, I too love rationality. But of course there's also more than that.

    George: Thanks so much for those book suggestions. Both books sound very interesting and relevant. Ah, so many books -- you should see the stacks of books around my bed and on the floor of my office! I'll take a look at descriptions of them and see how inspired I feel to add them to my stacks.

  8. The idea of sitting down with and thinking through is presumably this: you forge some kind of a human link with the perpetrator, and thus activate their social responses. Because of the normal processes of human engagement, they will be forced to hear and take in your doubts or different moral position; and maybe to think about their moral relations to other people in the process as well. It's a bit like a therapeutic process.
    But would it work? There's something arrogant about the thought that your connection and your questions would be able to arouse their moral feeling, when the connections with their black neighbours and less bigoted white neighbours did not. It's not clear what this engagement process could produce that we don't have already. There's plenty of testimony available from those periods that tell us exactly how those people felt.
    I think... I think I'm pretty sceptical about the power of human connection to drive morality. Think of all the thousands of years and billions of deeply intimate connections that failed to eliminate sexism or racism. So I guess... it takes philosopher kings. If we believe that the morality we have settled on now is right, perhaps we have to look squarely at the fact that it took war and law to drag us here. It's a slightly depressing thought, I fear.

  9. That thinking can end with fear, which to face, fear or emotion... the independence of our functions and their behaviors for our mind's function...

  10. Thank you Eric

    Totally different tack- social psychologists refer to the 'honor culture' of the south.
    I wonder if that instigates scapegoating and spectacles of eviscerating of African Americans.
    So this would involve Freudian projection and a violent inflating of the collective "White" self.
    And note the charge is of threatening the honor of the white south through rape
    I'd say every social group has a fault line or many where they are prone to evil.
    As someone who is Jewish and served in the IDF I can think of fault lines that make us as Jews, prone to evil

  11. Since you seem receptive professor I’ll provide some relevant elements to my model:

    The main thrust of what I think you want to believe the human has, seems to often be referred to as sympathy, or care. In order to encourage certain mothers to do more than just algorithmic parenting, evolution seems to have created a dynamic where personal perceptions of offspring welfare came to feel good/bad to the mother. Here separate purposes (or what each individual animal independently feels) should become somewhat joined. Thus care/sympathy shouldn’t be unique to the human at all. Given how social we humans happen to be however, this seems to have helped found many of our relationships. Note that as opposed to popular accounts, sympathy/care should be considered hedonistic rather than altruistic in the end — here we personally feel good/bad given our perceptions of the states of others.

    How might this square with my assertion above that each of us here might instead have led a life where we’d engage in the horrors of actually inflicting unspeakable pains upon others for a living? Perhaps various circumstances would make us hateful enough to bracket our sympathy in certain cases? That may help explain certain elements to the noted lynching festivities. Furthermore consider theory of mind sensations, or that our perceptions of how we are perceived by others also tends to feel good/bad to us. A white culture that blames black people for what’s generally wrong should feed on each other’s theory of mind support for general revenge against the perceived problem — an outlet for general anger.

    In any case how might an effective hedonistic model of our nature help us do better than we do today? Mainly by chucking various popular moral notions and replacing them with effective personal and social proposals. Note that the personal and social may often be at odds since the interests of one subject should naturally be different from the interests of another.

    I agree with Chinaphil that merely sitting down with a moderate member of the lynching festivities and discussing this matter shouldn’t generally be sufficient to turn them our way. To get someone’s sympathy and guilt sufficiently going might require a mind warp more like Lewis Carroll’s ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. In isolated cases such reprogramming should at least be possible for us today, though in generally that shouldn’t improve much.

    The point of an effective model would be to help people in general grasp what’s best for themselves (even when contrary with what’s best for various societies), and to help societies grasp what’s best for them (even when contrary with what’s best for various individuals). On the whole things should get better this way in either case, and yes even given various repugnant hypothetical implications of such models. Sometimes things do seem to suck, and perhaps because reality itself sucks.

  12. Actually I shouldn’t say that reality sucks, but rather that it can suck. This might help explain why academia has such trouble with the concept of sentient welfare. From the standard morality paradigm it’s presumed that if there are any repugnant implications associated with a given proposal for what’s “good”, then that proposal must be false. Derek Parfit argued against hedonistic notions this way as I recall. Conversely from an amoral perspective which simply seeks to understand how things work, there’s no reason at all to presume that what’s real regarding sentient welfare shouldn’t horrify us sometimes.

  13. But how things work is far far away from what things work...
    ...Our question and example is towards fear, yes?...yes!...

    That things work, Do we want things to work... we set things aside that don't work...
    In being obligation-obligated to things working...
    ...from paradise to work and Adam and Eve...

    Civilizations have come and gone in our 50,000 years... it we forgot to work or maybe we are learning to work-for...

  14. Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

    chinaphil: "There's something arrogant about the thought that your connection and your questions would be able to arouse their moral feeling, when the connections with their black neighbours and less bigoted white neighbours did not." -- yes, that's fair!

    Howie: Yes, honor culture might have something to do with it.

    Phil E: I'd push back on the hedonism view. I'm not inclined to think that the best model of human psychology is hedonistic. We often act quite contrary to what brings us pleasure, in the service of socially approved goals, personal ambition, a sense of ethics, and simple habit.

  15. Professor,
    I’d like you to think of a person you’ve known who lived their life in a manner that seemed to contradict what I’ve uncharitably referred to here as “hedonistic”. It’s up to you, though you might choose a person who tended to help the most troubled or least fortunate of humanity. Got one?

    I bet you’d say that this person also had a relatively enjoyable or fulfilling life. Observe that if I’m right then this person would be an example of pragmatically functioning in a hedonistic way — their choices must have tended to make them feel good regardless of any disdain they might have for those who seek base pleasures. It’s kind of like people who say that they believe things which conflict with their actual behavior, though here people assert that personal happiness is not what’s important in life, only to then become personally happy.

    Or did you instead think of an anti hedonist who for whatever the reason also had a relatively tragic personal existence? I suppose they can exist as well.

    In any case it’s widely agreed that non-human sentient creatures are naturally motivated by a desire to feel good in a conscious sense. Does our species unparsimoniously contradict its origins? And in truth, few seem to suggest that the human doesn’t at least partly seek happiness. Rather it’s thought (or hoped) that we are more as well. As you’ve noted in this post, faith may play a role, which is to say belief without evidence. Ironically by not permitting ourselves to acknowledge that all conscious function is motivated by means of punishing and rewarding sensations in the end, we may not be able to grasp ourselves well enough to sufficiently deal with less savory elements of our nature.

    I’m still working on my belief outline, though belief will be presented as just one of many cogs that make up our nature itself. Some of them can promote apparent altruism in the highly social human.

  16. Phil E: I believe "hedonistic" was your own word to describe your view, so I hope I wasn't being uncharitable in using it.

    I am inclined to agree that doing good feels good. The empirical evidence seems to support that, within limits. But that's not sufficient to warrant a hedonistic view of motivation. Hedonism about motivation, as I understand it -- and as you seem to be using it? -- requires doing good *because* it feels good. That's quite different! It requires seeing [your favorite moral hero] as choosing to do good as a means to make *themselves* feel good, rather than out of a desire to alleviate others' suffering or out of a desire to do good in the world.

    I'm disinclined to accept a simple evolutionary psychology story in which non-human sentient creatures are motivated by a desire to feel good. It's more evolutionarily plausible, I think, to hold that behavior arises, and is reinforced, and becomes habitual, for a wide variety of reasons and via a range of mechanisms. Furthermore "a desire to feel good" sounds metacognitive -- a desire to have a certain mental state -- which is either fairly cognitively complex or requires some non-obvious reinterpretation.

  17. Metacognitive is a very hot topic, in that philosophy physiology neurology psychology psychiatry...are finding themselves in the same fields of study today...

    Could we begin with a reinterpretation of fields... view, fields are where growth of quality and quantity take place...

  18. Yes professor I did characterized my position under the uncharitable “hedonism” title. It’s somewhat like a person who is extra advance in years referring to themselves as “old” rather than using a more favorable term such as “senior”. And what term might I use that’s more favorable to my position? I often avoid “utilitarian” since I’m not satisfied with what Bentham, Mill, or modern advocates such as Singer have done with it. I suppose “psychological egoism” isn’t too bad, but mind you that I have little use for Ayn Rand’s demand for self sufficiency. As I see it, big government can potentially be good government.

    You make a good point about hedonists requiring people to do good only *because* it feels good. Thus for a non hedonist the requirement to feel good for doing good needn’t exist (even if one does tend to go with the other). So that does seem sensible to me. But here’s the thing. I focus upon description rather than prescription. Thus I don’t *require* anyone to do anything, but rather seek to effectively understand the human and other sentient creatures psychologically. Note that the phenomenal motivation which drives them, or what’s ultimately “good” for them, should be a key element for such descriptive function. Also observe however that if one does effectively describe what’s ultimately good for something, then this information might also be used prescriptively. Conversely if we begin with prescription, or what we’d like to be good for sentient creatures, then we shouldn’t expect this to reduce back to what they descriptively are.

    Here you also seemed to get into good/evil and thus freewill. Under my own metaphysics of naturalism none of that can exist in an ultimate capacity, though it can exist from the often tiny human perspective. So as I see it naturalists can believe in good and evil epistemically to the extent that we’re ignorant of the factors which ultimately force us to do what we do. And indeed, I do consider people to generally choose to help others for the sake of others rather than for the sake of themselves. But would they make those choices if the heart didn’t, for example, revolt at evil? Or at least if they had no concern whatsoever about how they were thought of by friends, family, and others in general? There are a number of reasons that I doubt you’d attempt to justify that position.

    On there being a wide variety of reasons and mechanisms associated with our psychology, I certainly agree. But there are also many such dynamics associated with what’s known today as “physics”. Furthermore with the rise of science in recent centuries various effective reductions have been made which permit us to predict physical dynamics and even build things on the basis of those regularities. In the still new age of science I suspect that our soft mental and behavioral sciences will make such progress as well, and even given how difficult it is for something subjective to assess itself with a reasonable degree of objectivity.

    On “a desire to feel good” sounding metacognitive, actually I am able to think of an obvious reinterpretation. Observe that thought about thought requires a language equipped with sufficient terms, as well as a phenomenal entity which is able to effectively use that language. Non-human sentient creatures on this planet seem not to do metacognition given that they lack such features. How much metacognition might you or I do if we had no terms from which to potentially grasp “thought”, and then think about it? Surely in that case you and I would have no capacity for metacognition. Nevertheless I think it’s quite fair for us to say that other sentient creatures “desire to feel good” no less than we would if we had no languages from which to think about thought. Actually as the “sentience” term is commonly used, this seems a priori!

  19. You don't have to go back in time or go to another place to find this kind of evil. In our society, the mob e.g. would support such violence and worse. Just one example, take a look at wars the US has been in. In all modern US wars of aggression in the last few decades, the US public has initially supported them even though we know they are crimes. Maybe the mob at the beginning didn't know but I'm sure there is a part of them that suspected it was unjust based on the lack of justification /evidence for war. And there is something to the old adage that knowing evil and doing it anyway makes evil acts even more evil.