Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Does the Heart Revolt at Evil? The Case of Racial Atrocities

Below is a short piece I just published at The Journal of Confucian Philosophy and Culture, on the ancient debate between Mengzi and Xunzi about whether human nature is good and the light that 20th century racial atrocities might cast on the question.  It's short and simple enough that blog readers might think of it as a long blog post.


One of the most ancient disputes in Confucian philosophy concerns the relationship between morality and human nature (xìng 性). Mengzi held that human nature is good (shàn 善). Xunzi held that human nature is bad (è 惡). What exactly Mengzi and Xunzi meant by the mottos xìng shàn and xìng è, respectively, is a matter of scholarly dispute. However, I think this is near the core: If human nature is good then some part of us is bound to be revolted by acts of great evil, if we reflect on those acts carefully. This natural revulsion is a universal part of the human condition. It requires no special cultural learning, nor can it ordinarily be eliminated through cultural learning. If human nature is good, as Mengzi holds, people have an innate moral compass. Everyone has the “sprouts” of morality – not full-grown moral goodness, but the beginnings of moral goodness, which moral education can nourish into mature moral excellence.

In contrast, if human nature is bad, as Xunzi holds, we have no such innate compass, no natural aversion to evil. Morality is an artificial construction, a cultural invention. Morality was created by our ancestors to solve a certain set of social problems. We no more have an innate guide to solving those problems than we have an innate guide to the correct manner by which to fire pottery. What’s morally good does not correlate with what we naturally desire, and there are no culturally universal moral inclinations to be discovered, independent of what we learn from cultural experience and the teaching of our elders.

One crucial point of disagreement between these approaches – not particularly highlighted by Mengzi or Xunzi, but following from their disagreement as I have just characterized it – concerns the ability of people to rise above their cultural circumstances. Consider people raised in the racist U.S. South in the early 20th century. Consider people raised in anti-Semitic Germany in the mid-20th century. If Mengzi is right, then those ordinary people, despite the bigotry of their upbringing, ought nonetheless to have an innate inclination to be revolted by at least the most heartless and terrible acts committed against Blacks and Jews. As Mengzi famously suggests, anyone who suddenly saw a child about to fall into a well would feel alarm and compassion (Mengzi 2A6). Even the callous King Xuan, upon seeing the suffering of an ox, was moved to pity that ox (Mengzi 1A7). Mengzi urges King Xuan to “measure” (度) his heart and extend his compassion for the ox to the people suffering under his reign. If a Mengzian perspective is correct, then we might expect that post-Reconstruction racists in the U.S. South and ardent German Nazis under Hitler should likewise be able to measure their hearts and find a compassionate part of themselves revolted by the wrongness of gross racial injustice. On the other hand, if Xunzi is right, we might expect that people surrounded by moral authorities who support extreme forms of cruel bigotry would have no separate, internal, culture-independent urging of their heart that might guide them to a better moral vision.

I am, perhaps, oversimplifying a bit. As is generally the case with great philosophers like Mengzi and Xunzi, there are nuances in their views and resources to accommodate diverse possibilities. Nonetheless, I would suggest that it sits more easily with the Mengzian view to suppose that everyone, regardless of cultural background, would find the cruelest bigoted behavior at least a little morally revolting; and it sits more easily with the Xunzian view to suppose that people raised in a sufficiently bigoted culture might find their consciences entirely untroubled by acts that the rest of the world would see as plainly evil. In this way, we can think of the dispute between Mengzi and Xunzi partly as an empirical dispute. How much variation is there in our moral psychology? Is it always the case that ordinary people are revolted by gross evil – at least a little bit, at least in some corner of their hearts, discoverable with the right kind of reflection or introspection? Or alternatively, when that evil is grounded in, for example, a deep, toxic bigotry in their culture, will ordinary people participate gladly, with no discoverable qualms and no innate sense of moral right and wrong that might lead them to a better vision?

Consider two specific historical acts that I hope everyone can agree are profoundly evil.

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 U.S. dollars). Stacey denied involvement, and nothing was ever reported that connected him with the alleged crime apart from the dubious identification procedure. 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.[1] 

[See here for the full photo.]

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.[2] In picture after picture, you can see the proud 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”.


In July 1942, the German men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were ordered to kill about 1500 Jews in the small village of Józefów, Poland. Jewish men capable of work were to be trucked off to slave camps, but all of the women, children, elderly, and disabled were to be killed – on the spot, if they could not walk, or after a brief march side by side with their killer into the forest, if they were capable of walking. This reserve police battalion might have seemed an unpromising group for such a murderous task: They were draftees into a reserve force, not volunteers. They had no special training or dedication to the cause. Only a minority belonged to the Nazi party. They had families and careers at home, from which the draft had plucked them. Nor were they impressionable youngsters: Their average age was over 36 years old. These men were essentially a sample of ordinary men from around Hamburg, excluding the most dedicated Nazis and military men, who would have volunteered rather than have been drafted.

These men were given little ideological training and little preparation for their task. They were simply driven to the village and told what to do. The commander of the battalion called the men together to announce their mission, saying that it was not especially to his liking and that men who wished not to be involved could choose other duties instead. Of the approximately 500 men, a dozen or so did in fact choose to refrain from the genocide, and they were in no way punished. The remaining men proceeded, apparently voluntarily, to shoot the elderly in their beds and to grab babies from the arms of their presumably screaming mothers, shooting those babies on the spot. Most of the victims walked side by side with their killers, one at a time, into the forest. The men then demanded that the victims lay down, or they forced them down, and shot them in the back of the head. When the victim was dead, they returned to the village to repeat the act. Ordinary men – electricians, merchants, desk-workers, and drivers from Hamburg – were politely asked to kill a village full of Jews, and 98% did so, with no serious protest.

Over the next several months, these men killed repeatedly, occasionally exterminating whole villages, more frequently hunting small groups of Jews in hiding, as well as doing regular policing of the occupied region. They made Jewish men dig their own graves, then lie down in those graves to be shot, then they had the next set of men lie atop the corpses of the previous set. They demanded that Jews squat for hours in the sun, not permitted to sit or to stand, shooting those who broke these arbitrary rules. They mocked the Jews’ beards and religious clothing as they marched them through the streets to their deaths. Sometimes, as with the lynchers, they took proud and happy photos of their exploits, which they then shared afterward and displayed in common rooms.

Of the 500 men, only one man consistently refused to kill. This man, a lieutenant named Buchmann, far from being punished for his refusal, was transferred back to Hamburg and promoted. The men had opportunities to transfer, if they found their genocidal task too unpleasant. For example, at one point there was a call for volunteers to transfer to a communications unit elsewhere in Poland – not difficult work, and not near the front lines. Only two of the five hundred men apparently applied. Some of the men found the genocidal activities gruesome, while others seemed to relish the killing, but overall the men seemed to enjoy their mostly easy duty in the beautiful countryside of Poland, where they bonded with their comrades.[3]


I love Mengzi. I want Mengzi to be right, and I believe that he is right. But cases like these trouble me.

Mengzi of course knew evil. He lived in a violent time, the Period of the Warring States, and he advised violent kings. In Mengzi 1B11, we learn that King Xuan – the king who pitied the ox – invaded the neighboring state of Yan. The people of Yan welcomed King Xuan’s troops with baskets of food, thinking that Xuan would be a better ruler than their previous king. King Xuan returned this kindness by killing the old, binding the young, and destroying the ancestral temples. After this episode, Mengzi left King Xuan’s court.

If Mengzi is right, or if my interpretation of him is right, then had King Xuan reflected on the natural inclinations of his heart as they manifested in his pity for the ox, he would have seen the wrong of killing the old people of Yan who welcomed his troops, and he would have felt a moral impulse not to have them killed – an impulse he could have listened to, and which it would have pleased his heart to follow. If King Xuan saw an old man of Yan about to be killed after having offered food to his troops, or if he learned news of such a case, and if he really stopped to reflect on the matter, “measuring his heart”, he would have been revolted. He would have known it was wrong to kill the man.

We cannot of course know much about King Xuan’s heart at this historical distance. But unfortunately the lynchers of Rubin Stacey and the men of Police Battalion 101 did not seem to be troubled by their atrocious deeds.

Is it simply that they did not reflect? That seems hard to imagine. The lynchers potentially had hours to reflect on their way to the lynching celebrations, and they knew that the Northern U.S. press condemned lynching on moral grounds. The men in Police Battalion 101 had months to reflect, including during furloughs back home. For many of these men, this was probably the first time in their lives that they killed a human being. For all but the most shallow and callous among them, it’s hard to imagine that wouldn’t be an occasion for moral reflection. A man rips a baby from a woman’s arms and kills it in front of her. That night, won’t he think about the deed? Won’t he worry that maybe it was a wrong and terrible thing to do? Did the perpetrators reflect, then, but always only badly, rationalizing their evil actions rather than properly weighing their hearts? Was the prompting of the heart there, but always drowned out by noise?

Xunzi has an easier time with these cases than Mengzi. On a Xunzian view, the lynchers and the men of Police Battalion 101 might be entirely untroubled. Maybe they would feel some visceral bodily disgust at the gore, like the disgust of a medical student first witnessing a surgery, but we ought not expect them to feel moral disgust. With no innate moral compass and only cultural learning of morality, people from such toxically bigoted cultures as the U.S. South in the 1930s and Germany in the 1940s should on a Xunzian view be expected to conform to the morality of their local culture, a morality that says that Blacks should be lynched if suspected of crimes and Jews are the poison virus destroying Germany. Ordinary non-sages have no reliable resource by which to learn otherwise, at least not unless they have the opportunity to seriously engage with liberal, humanitarian values or philosophical ethics from a radically different point of view.

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 with one of the middling men of Police Battalion 101, and I want to 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? This ten-year-old Jewish girl that you’re walking beside in the forest, who cannot have done anything wrong – do you really feel okay shooting her in the back of the head? 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 Mengzian view. I can’t help but feel that most ordinary people, if they paused in this way to think through the situation and measure their hearts, would see past the horrible bigotry of their culture, feel the pull of sympathy and humanity, and be morally revolted by such deeds. I imagine, and I hope, and I believe, that they could 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 1935; New York Times 1935; Reading Eagle 1935; Brooks 1988; Allen et al. 2003, plate 57 and page 185; Florida Lynchings Files 2014; Bryan 2020.

[2] For general overviews of the history of lynching, see Dray 2002; Allen et al. 2003; Wood 2009; and for the personal recollections of a survivor, Cameron 1982/1994.

[3] For in-depth portrayals of the activities of Police Battalion 101, see Browning 1992 and Goldhagen 1996.


Allen, James, Hilton Als, John Lewis, and Leon F. Litwack (2003). Without Sanctuary. Twin Palms Publishers. 

Brooks, Brian (1988). The day they lynched Reuben Stacey. Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale) (Jul. 17), p. 10.

Browning, Christopher (1992). Ordinary men. HarperCollins. 

Bryan, Susannah (2020). A lynch mob killed a Black man in Fort Lauderdale in 1935. His name was Rubin Stacy. South Florida Sun Sentinel (Sep. 11). https://www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/fort-lauderdale/fl-ne-rubin-stacy-lynching-memorial-20200911-u3f6jg26izerllal7vva6nz3wi-story.html [accessed Sep. 17, 2021].

Cameron, James (1982/1994). A time of terror. Baltimore: Black Classics Press. 

Dray, Philip (2002). At the hands of persons unknown. New York: Random House. 

Florida Lynchings Files (2014). The lynching of Reuban Stacey. https://floridalynchings.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/the-lynching-of-reuban-stacey.pdf [accessed Sep. 17, 2021]. 

Fort Lauderdale Daily News and Evening Sentinel (1935). Coroner’s inquest clears sheriff’s office of blame in lynching of negro here. Fort Lauderdale Daily News and Evening Sentinel (Jul. 20), p. 1.

Goldhagen, Daniel J. (1996). Hitler’s willing executioners. New York: Random House. 

New York Times (1935). Negro is lynched by mob in Florida. New York Times (Jul. 20), p. 28. 

Reading Eagle (1935). Negro hanged by mob in sight of home of woman he slashed with knife. Reading Eagle (Jul. 20), p. 2. 

Wood, Amy Louise (2009). Lynching and spectacle. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


Shimon said...

Here's what the Three Character Classic says about this:

人之初 (rén zhī chū) People at birth,
性本善 (xìng běn shàn) Are naturally good (kind-hearted).
性相近 (xìng xiāng jìn) Their natures are similar,
習相遠 (xí xiāng yuǎn) (But) their habits make them different (from each other).


Also, none of the two links to the published article work for me, in any browser... can I please get a PDF?

Howard said...

If you define good and evil according to a prompted innate response, is there room for both, as Freud and Fromm in his own way would divine?
Your philosophy leans toward behavioral measures and I'm not sure how circumstances affect your assessment. I would say, and this is a paraphrase of a quote from Julius Caesar by Shakespeare that good deeds die at the grave.
Evil gets more press.
How would you operationalize both good and bad tendencies?

Howard said...

So here's what you do to answer your dilemma:

Make a survey part experimental philosophy, part social psychology:

Part 1 asks questions or a question inquiring whether people are evil or good
Why? It's just like asking citizens whether the economy is good; you get lots of local answers which add up to a complete answer, factoring out the noise

Part 2 combines authoritarianism and psychopathy (the Dark Triad in general) which picks up natural and historically caused indifference to the suffering of others

Together you have a picture in any time and place whether man is good or evil

Arnold said...

So a baby is born influenced by heredity and environment...
...some could call this occurrence: another tension in the cosmos-universe-...

Beings' taught balance in all things from birth...
... also see life more as a object of balance...

Mind body being struggle for balance in front of here now...
...Babies learn their own balance: starting with gravity of one's feet on the ground...

Good and bad may be a evolutionary dead end for us humans...
...can we teach ourselves to allow our evolution beyond good/bad...

Anonymous said...

Reflection on their inclinations isn't enough because inclinations are malleable. If they are not recognizing the humanity of those they are involved with and not extricating themselves from their morally repugnant ignorance, their hearts will never speak to the humanity or worth of the victims or the wrongness of their deeds. Or put another way, if disregard has been inculcated into them, there is no hope for their possessing goodness in their hearts (although it would emerge if they were to emerge from their fragmented darkened perspective.) I think human beings are born good and the 20th Century has shown there is nearly no limit to the corruption that a human being can undergo in life by way of social pressures, ideologies, and so on, because there is no limit to his capacity for disregard and unfortunate condition of being born ignorant of many things


Check out this forthcoming excellent book by Ditte Marie Munch-Juricic.


Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I think it does. At least hope it must. If not, there is something incomplete about the owner of the heart. Or something broken.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Shimon: Yes -- more influenced by Mengzi than Xunzi! Please feel free to email me for the paper. I have also made the final manuscript version available for free on my academic website here:

Howard: It's hard to operationalize! When I'm thinking about this particular question, I prefer to start at least with cases on which I suspect there would be widespread consensus, to avoid questions about whether it's really an act of evil or not. Your two-part questionnaire actually somewhat resembles a study my student Nika Chegenizadeh did for her honors thesis last year. Check it out here:

Arnold: I agree that we are not constrained by our evolutionary heritage but can rise beyond it with the right kind of training and self-shaping -- as Xunzi thinks is necessary.

Anon: Yes, that's still another plausible view -- born good but then corrupted. Closer to Rousseau, perhaps!

David: Thanks for the suggestion! I'll keep an eye open for when it's released.

Paul: I hope and believe (but don't fully completely believe) that you are right about that.

Vaughn P said...

At least based on the account in Ordinary Men, most of the men from Police Battalion 101 did experience at least some disgust/discomfort at their own actions (though it's not clear how much was moral disgust vs the physically disgusting nature of their task), at least on their first time, in Jozefow (see ch. 7), though apparently they adapted by as early as their second time, at Lomazy. The Mengzian hypothesis doesn't have to predict that this disgust would be enough to actually change their actions. It also doesn't have to predict that it would persist - Mengzi thinks it's possible for the sprouts to be killed.

Arnold said...


About the Way; Is this beyond good bad...
..."Heaven was sometimes... but in Xunzi’s view Heaven is much like Nature: it acts as it always does, neither helping the good or harming the bad. The Way is not the Way because Heaven approves of it, it is the Way because it is good for people."

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks!

Vaughn: I agree, absolutely, that Mengzi wouldn't say people have to *act* according to those inclinations. Whether the sprouts can be killed is less clear. In 6A8, he seems to be supposing that the sprouts continually reassert themselves, and in 2A6 he says that everyone has a heart that is not unfeeling toward others.

Arnold: Yes, that's a reasonable interpretation.

Matt: I confess I have no expertise on COVID.

chinaphil said...

The asymmetry of the two positions as you present them is doing my head in! I think I have a comment to make, but I can't work out what it is for the life of me...
It seems you've interpreted shan and e as moral and amoral, rather than moral and immoral. This makes sense as an idea, but I'm not sure it captures either the way the words were used in Classical Chinese (though my reading of texts from that time is very limited); or is necessarily the way morality has to be positioned.
I think the shanxing and exing distinction usually looks pretty symmetrical. Mengzi sees someone doing something good, and he says, that guy's expressing his natural character. Xunzi sees the same guy and says, that guy was trained to be good. Mengzi sees someone doing bad, and he says, she's doing what she's been conditioned to do. Xunzi sees the same woman, and he says, she's expressing her natural character.
In particular, the problem with thinking of morality as a psychological or cultural *addition* that can be bolted on through a process of Xunzi-like training seems to... overintellectualise Xunzi, perhaps? Because I don't recall him ever talking much about giving people their own morality. I don't even think he spends much time talking about the Dao, which would probably be the early Chinese way of expressing this idea (I know you're not really trying to critique or parse these writers; I mean that the Xunzi position doesn't seem to be about taking an abstract outside thing, "morality," and bolting it on; it seems to be about the concrete process of training habits.) If either of them approach the idea of morality as an abstract, it's Mengzi, who imagines that it can be found through introspection.
And so... and so... I dunno! And so I now want to go and read Mengzi and Xunzi, which is always a good thing, so thank you for the prompt. Maybe one day I'll manage to develop a coherent idea on this symmetry/asymmetry thing, but I won't hold my breath.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, chinaphil! Xing e for Xunzi seems to mean that human nature is bad, so it is meant to be parallel and symmetrical as you describe, I think. Not just amoral, but positively bad. I can see how my brief treatment of Xunzi might lead one to think otherwise, though. I think this is partly because in chapters other than the Xing E chapter it's not as clear that people are naturally bad -- sometimes it seems simply that they have chaotic impulses including some good ones (like the animal caring for its young or the person who mourns their parents but not in the right way). So in my summary, I might have too much downplayed the badness, with my eye on the whole of the Xunzi.

As for overintellectualizing, I'm not quite as much seeing what I said that engendered your critique here. One thing Xunzi is clear about is that surrounding yourself by the right people and cultivating the right repetitive habits is central to moral development. But also, as a good Confucian he doesn't neglect the importance of memorizing the classics and deferring to your teacher.