A Puzzle for Humanism


I should start by saying: unlikely my previous posts, this isn’t properly a book review. The major ideas in the discussion spring out of Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: The Logic of Mysogyny. I do give a general review of the book over on Goodreads; TL;DR: The book is excellent, timely, and thoughtful; people should read it. Manne illustrates a particular problem that I think is worth raising on this blog, given the discussions of ethical positions around humanism, feminism, Atheism+, etc.

Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is one of the most widely cited phrases in public ethics and social justice, but it is often egregiously misused. Somewhat famously, Chelsea Clinton cited it in discussion of a man casually committing a horrific act of violence; political scientist Corey Robin was quick to point out that this is not the way Arendt was using the phrase. Documentarian Ada Ushpiz has similarly pointed this out in criticizing Eva Illouz. To gloss over these longer responses there, the dialectic goes like this.

Many folks think that “the banality of evil” refers to the attitude of indifference towards humans by the person causing harm; the idea that evil can be regarded as banal by the person committing the evil act because they have dehumanized the victim. This is the wikipedia gloss on Arendt’s view, butthe focus on dehumanization actually gets the point entirely (and dangerously) wrong.

Manne points out, as Arendt did as well, that many callous and casual acts of violence are not the result of dehumanization of the person against whom one directs the violence, but rather the result of paranoid or vindictiveness. The effort to dehumanize Jews holds far less prominence in Nazi thought than the thought that Jews were manipulating the political state of affairs, exploiting gentile Germans, and the like. It was not regarding them as inhuman, though there are tropes that track dehumanization, but rather the paranoia around “the Jewish Question.”

In discussing misogyny, Manne cites the manifestos of mass murderers who targeted women and perpetrators of sexual violence. In those cases, it was not the dehumanization of women, but rather the idea that women were wronging the perpetrators of violence in some way. That is, the women were blameworthy for some slight, almost exclusively denying sexual or emotional attention to which the perpetrators felt entitled.

So the problem isn’t dehumanization; there are certainly cases where dehumanization allows for the perpetration of serious acts of violence. (This isn’t to say that there are no cases that fit the bill; just that a lot of the cases aren’t getting captured.) The problem is another set of beliefs about the world and how it is acceptable to behave in that world. This seems reasonable enough; a guy who commits violence against a woman who won’t give him the attention he believes he’s due isn’t mistaken about the humanity of the woman, but rather is mistaken about whether he’s entitled to attention.

This seems pretty intuitive, but it actually creates a pretty serious problem for many humanist approaches to understanding moral education and addressing these social problems.

One of the common approaches advocated by humanists is to suggest that if an offending person or group has a better understanding of the lived experience of others, then they will behave better towards that group. If they recognize the humanity and relevant similarities with others, then they see themselves and are less likely to behave badly. Again, this seems pretty intuitive. But the above phenomenon creates a wrinkle.

I’m glossing a little bit here on the issue of what humanism is. Part of the reason is that popular discussions rarely give a version of humanism that is articulated to my satisfaction; my point is to give this as a sort of common point of agreement and emphasis among many humanists.

If a subject know about their own ambition, their own desires for control or disinterest in and malice towards others, and see more of themselves in the group, there can be some projection. If Jones would suppress the rights of other religious groups through shady means, then that means that atheists or gays must want to suppress the rights of his religious group. If Alex knows that he holds disdain for women he finds unattractive or otherwise not a prospective date, then that means those women must hold disdain for him. This sort of projection is where a lot of the danger in these moral motivations live, and in recognizing this psychological phenomenon, it is easy to see how modern political and cultural rhetoric latches onto it.

We can think of this as two phenomena. The first is the humanist inadequacy, that the standard approach of humanizing and regarding as human others outside of our immediate community does not actually get us all the way to the desired ethical position. The second is the humanist puzzle, that there are some circumstances where humanizing others can actually create motivation to behave in ways that are unethical. I have some thoughts on a provisional solution to this, but I want to hold back on that for a bit just to get the problem on the table.

Comments

  1. says

    In those cases, it was not the dehumanization of women, but rather the idea that women were wronging the perpetrators of violence in some way. That is, the women were blameworthy for some slight, almost exclusively denying sexual or emotional attention to which the perpetrators felt entitled.

    Three mass shooters sprang to mind immediately upon reading this.

  2. says

    Yeah. The only implication that a another person being human, by itself, carries is that they are an existential danger to your material interests.

  3. chrislawson says

    Dehumanisation was definitely part of the Nazi anti-Semitic program (“untermensch”), but you’re right that it’s not a complete explanation — after all, the Nazis were also steadfast champions of animal welfare.

  4. Ed Seedhouse says

    Hmm… I sort of suspect that believing another human being “owes” you love, approval, sex, or whatever is really denying their humanity in some sense. But I’m not totally sure about it.

  5. consciousness razor says

    One of the common approaches advocated by humanists is to suggest that if an offending person or group has a better understanding of the lived experience of others, then they will behave better towards that group.

    I would say you “can” do so, not that you “will.” More understanding makes you more capable in that respect, but of course it isn’t necessary, logically or physically or otherwise.

    If they recognize the humanity and relevant similarities with others, then they see themselves and are less likely to behave badly. Again, this seems pretty intuitive. But the above phenomenon creates a wrinkle.

    I think you’re getting this “explanation” all mixed up, and your intuitions (or merely the ways you happened to set up the argument) are jumping over a bunch of intermediate steps that need to be settled and clarified first. If I understand what you need, what your goals are, what interests you, how you feel, etc., then what I have is information about you which will make it possible for me to do things which will benefit you, create situations that align with your goals/needs, and so forth. I have the ability to use that information (or not), but that kind of thing doesn’t typically happen by accident, since the world isn’t naturally a very accommodating place for entities like us which have so many needs. It’s a fairly hostile (albeit life-permitting) place, but helping each other out can make a big difference. However, the point is, I can intentionally try to help you — I may have various reasons why I would try such a thing, which is another story altogether — first, I have to reflect on my experiences and make decisions about how to act on what I know (or think I know) about you and your situation. I’m capable of being mistaken about it, of course, which is where much of the trouble lies; but that’s the best I’ve got. You couldn’t very well blame me for not doing better than I’m capable of doing, so we just work with what we’ve got.
    Anyway, the similarities between me and any other person (to the extent that there are similarities) can often be a useful guide. They may remove the need to go to all of the trouble of learning lots of facts about you, which can normally be taken for granted about people. I already learned lots of stuff about myself, so it’s pretty safe to infer that much of it will be relevant to you too. But it’s not as if what I just said above is a statement of the Golden Rule or some such thing. It’s not as if just being similar or recognition of similarity could explain how I’m able to help you in ways which (1) would actually be helpful to you and (2) regarding things about which you actually need help, as opposed to how I may only perceive you, your situation, what could be done about it, etc. It’s fairly obvious that I also need to genuinely understand how we’re not similar — in very general terms, to understand what it is which would and would not be beneficial to you, given everything I’ve learned, which isn’t necessarily the same as what would be beneficial to me.
    All that said, I don’t know that the confused thing you’ve presented here is “the standard approach” of humanists, nor do I even see what exactly it has to do with humanism proper. I have other issues with humanism (and the term “humanism”), and I’m not trying to defend it here. I just think that sloppy reasoning is a common issue in ethics, no matter what kind of ideological framework it may be, since people are kind of sloppy sometimes. If you were just saying “here’s some sloppy reasoning; please don’t do that,” then I think just about everybody could appreciate that.

  6. Marshall says

    I think that most people are scared of or are in denial about the baseline level of violence that we humans are willing to commit if we think someone else is wrong/hateful, and we haven’t learned to curtail our tendencies. The result is a trend in thinking that there must be a dehumanization act involved–for surely, nobody would honestly do that to another human, right?

    The wrinkle this creates is contrary to this trend–yes, we are perfectly capable of inflicting awful violence on other humans, whom we know rightfully so are humans, we just hate them enough to hurt them.

    I realize that violence isn’t exactly what this discussion is about, but I think it extends to other areas of assault as well.

  7. =8)-DX says

    Thanks for the article and links, PZ, very thoughtful read. =8)-DX

    @consciousness razor #6

    I would say you “can” do so, not that you “will.”

    Geez, excessive nitpicking that misses the point. ‘Will’ wasn’t used as “make a conscious choice to do” or “always behave in this way”. The sentence says that “one common approach … is to suggest that … they will”, meaning if you take two groups, A and B and divide B in half, explain the lived experience of group A to one half of B and that half of B in fact as a result treat people from group A better overall, the suggestion is already correct, even without explaining the internal psychology. The idea that people, in general, tend to make morally good choices over bad ones if properly informed is the one being tested by this proposition, so it’s not a logical necessity, rather it’s an general assumption about human nature which would hold even with individual exceptions, or fully informed people making bad moral choices, so no, not all those “intermediate steps [..] need to be settled and clarified first.”

    That people are moral beings by nature and will tend to make good moral choices if they understand (and therefore value) other humans as similar to themselves is not some odd confused hot take, but an entirely bog-standard humanist position.
    =8)-DX

  8. ewilde1968 says

    I rather like the work of philosopher and educator Nel Noddings. In a nutshell, it’s a bit of an extension of Carol Gilligan’s ethics of care; but, with a systematic approach to what type of interaction is needed for obligatory care outside of our immediate circle of loved ones.

  9. Owlmirror says

    @philosotroll:

    Many folks think that “the banality of evil” refers to the attitude of indifference towards humans by the person causing harm; the idea that evil can be regarded as banal by the person committing the evil act because they have dehumanized the victim. This is the wikipedia gloss on Arendt’s view

    Huh. That’s not what I thought it meant, nor is it what I can find on Wikipedia (which is in line with what I thought):

    Her thesis is that Eichmann was not a fanatic or sociopath, but an extremely average person who relied on cliché defenses rather than thinking for himself and was motivated by professional promotion rather than ideology. Banality, in this sense, is not that Eichmann’s actions were ordinary, or that there is a potential Eichmann in all of us, but that his actions were motivated by a sort of stupidity which was wholly unexceptional.

    (I suppose that “stupidity”, above, might be better worded as “indifference”)

    My understanding of “the banality of evil” is simply that the Nazis were not exceptional as humans; as people. They led lives not so different, for the most part, from those of who were opposing them. The vast majority did not choose to be horribly cruel to Jews, Roma, etc, because they liked being horribly cruel, but because the entire society around them was directed toward that cruelty. Orders were accepted because they came from authority seen to be legitimate; and I suspect that for most giving those orders, the fact that they were accepted normalized them; a feedback cycle of normalization and legitimization. Or something like that.

    As Terry Pratchett put it in Small Gods: There are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.

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