Judging the violence of others

January 15, 2009 | By | 4 Replies More

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written an excellent multidisciplinary work on the meaning of life, entitled The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (2006). I am presently reading Haidt’s book for the second time, paragraph by paragraph.  This is clearly one of the books I would take to a desert island if I were only allowed 10 books, because it is so packed with of deeply-researched and clearly-articulated thoughtfulness.

One of the chapters is called “The Faults of Others,” and it is the story of hypocrisy.  Haidt explains that we are all hypocrites and “in our condemnation of others’ hypocrisy we only compound our own.” He explains that recent psychological studies demonstrate the mechanisms “that make us blind to the logs in our own eyes.”  It is within the context of this chapter on hypocrisy that Haidt deals with the problems of violence and cruelty.

What causes violence and cruelty? Many people would suggest greed or ambition, but Haidt argues that these only explain a small portion of violence. Other people suggest that sadism explains violence, but Haidt argues that sadism explains almost none of the violence that plagues the world.  What is it then, that motivates most of our violence?  Two things normally thought to be good. I will quote the relevant passage in full:

Outside of children’s cartoons and horror films, people almost never hurt others for the sheer joy of hurting someone. The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. Having high self-esteem doesn’t directly cause violence, but when someone’s high esteem is unrealistic or narcissistic it is easily threatened by reality; in reaction to those threats, people–particularly young men-often lash out violently. [Psychologist Roy] Baumeister questions the usefulness of programs that try to raise children’s self-esteem directly instead of by teaching them skills they can be proud of. Such direct enhancement can potentially foster unstable narcissism.

Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism– the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end. The major atrocities of the 20th century were carried out largely either by men who thought they were creating a utopia or else by men who believed they were defending their homeland or tribe from attack. Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it, almost inevitably, the belief that the ends justify the means. If you are fighting for good or for God, what matters is the outcome, not the past. People have little respect for rules; we respect the moral principles that underlie most rules. But when a moral mission and legal rules are incompatible, we usually care more about the mission. The psychologist Linda Skitka finds that when people have strong moral feelings about a controversial issue– when they have a “moral mandate”– they care much less about procedural fairness in court cases. They want “good guys” freed by any means, and the “bad guys” convicted by any means. It is thus not surprising that the administration of George W. Bush consistently argues that extra-judicial killings, indefinite imprisonment without trial, and harsh physical treatment of prisoners are legal and proper steps in fighting that Manichean “war on terror.”

I found this passage to be an extraordinarily well phrased explanation for large-scale violence. It dovetails well with many of my own observations and many observations of others I respect, e.g., from the documentary, “War Made Easy.”  Yes, whenever idealism and self-esteem run rampant, those in positions of power face enormous pressure to bend the rules.

Can legal rules really be so easily bent?  Consider that a couple of months after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered the establishment of “domestic military areas” which could be cleared of anyone deemed to be a “threat to the United States.”  Based on that Order, in late 1942, more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans were forced out of their West Coast homes and jammed into detention camps. I’ll quote George Hodak’s December, 2008 Journal from Harper’s Magazine for the rest of this extraordinary story:

Bay area welder Fred Korematsu, who twice tried to enlist, defied the order. He briefly avoided custody but was arrested, convicted and sent to a Utah camp.  Korematsu asked the United States Supreme Court to review his case.  In a 6 to 3 decision, issued the day after plans were announced to end the internment, the court upheld the conviction, arguing that security concerns justified the race-based incarceration. It was later revealed that military officials had exaggerated the domestic threat.  Korematsu’s conviction was vacated in 1984, but the ruling in Korematsu v. U.S. still stands.

Once again, who decided to throw 110,000 innocent Japanese-Americans into prison camps?   It wasn’t a splinter group of ignoramuses. I’m talking about the highest court in the United States, run by nine highly educated judges who had been appointed for life, presumably a position where they had a safe buffer between themselves and the political pressures of those times.  Was Korematsu an outlier?  Not at all.  This is the same Court that issued Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, an opinion establishing that “Blacks” and “Whites” were separate but equal, as though anything that needed to be separated could be equal.

Can rules so readily be bent to accommodate high self-esteem and idealism?  Without a doubt.  When George Bush decided that God was telling him what to do, we threw out the rule books on how to treat prisoners humanely.

Haidt’s writings provide the proper interpretation for the Bush years.  I don’t believe that Bush was a sadist or that it was Bush’s greed that caused him to invite widespread torture.  I believe that it was his intense narcissism and his willingness to adopt a strongly idealistic world view, a view that was (as we all now know) thoroughly Manichean.

If nothing else, I hope more of our leaders can learn Haidt’s lesson about the real causes of widespread violence based on the price we have all paid for the past eight years.


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Good and Evil, ignorance, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Reading - Books and Magazines, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Johnny Walker Purple says:

    I'm surprised that Jon Haidt would be make such an obvious mistep as saying, "Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it, almost inevitably, the belief that the ends justify the means. "

    The ends justify the means is a legitimate moral theory and doesn't mean that an end justifies any means, which is what he's talking about here.

    See here for more exploration on the misuse of the phrase "the ends justify the means": http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2008/12/do-en

  2. Johnny Walker Purple says:

    I also don't think idealism is the right word here. Absolutism fits better hear than idealism. Having ideals is good. Ideals and principles drives us to make the world a better place. It is absolutism that decries all others a place in our vision of a better world.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Johnny Walker Purple: Haidt is contrasting morality based on ideals with virtue ethics, which is based the development of good "character" based on exemplars of good behavior combined with repeated training to drum these in. This is from Wikipedia: "Virtue theory is a branch of moral philosophy that emphasizes character, rather than rules or consequences."

    It would be most difficult for such habits of kindness to detach from their real-world practice and to turn themselves on their head in furtherance of atrocities. On the other hand, ideals are often subverted–they are employed in Orwellian ways. To restate: Kind acts, practiced regularly, don't turn into violent acts, whereas ideals are much more vulnerable. Name for me any hideous society that hasn't had decent sounding laws on its books. Consider, for instance, the Iraqi Constitution that existed under the rule of Sadaam Hussein. Consider, also, the Constitution of the U.S.S.R. from 1936 – 1977 or even consider the Constitution of North Korea. These writings are full of flowery idealistic language. Many of these provisions from these three totalitarian regimes sound quite reasonable. But, in practice, up becomes down.

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