altruism, bystander effect, Evil, Human nature, Milgram experiment, nationalism, Nazism, nihilism, personality, personality disorder, Psychology, sociopathy, Stanford prison experiment, systems, virtue ethics
Those who believe in the innate amorality (or more precisely immorality) of humanity inevitably quote 3 key studies: the Stanford prison experiment, the Milgram study of obedience of authority and the Asch conformity studies. Added to these are the following concepts: the bystander effect, hand-picked components of the theory of social identity and similar experiments that “clearly” expose the inherent evil of humanity. Arguments supposedly drawn from modernism, existentialism and postmodernism are added to the mélange. There is no truth you say? Morals and ethics are completely subjective? Next, evolutionary theory is used to “explain” altruistic behaviour as a purely selfish reflex.
Much of this line of thinking is designed to answer the question of how the profound evil of Nazism came to be. It appears on the surface to answer how one ends up with Nazism, fascism and genocidal massacres such as in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Rwanda. In fact it excuses genocide, sociopathic behaviour and idiocy as “just human nature” as if we’re preprogrammed to conform with evil.
However what it cannot answer is why nationalism is a new concept, why most societies do not descend into massacres and chaos spontaneously, why even many large industrialised countries still have populations with genuine empathy, why many Germans sheltered Jews, why sociopathic behaviour is rare, how different cultures develop and why we are individuals.
My counter-theory follows.
What is personality? It is a description of the outward behaviour and innate beliefs that emerge from our brains-as-system. Just like the underlying systems, there is a great deal of variation from person to person; there are healthy and unhealthy personalities; each system has flexibility that allows it to act differently depending on the cultural or family or company system. And through it all there is a common thread of system behaviour and emergent consciousness that is the individual.
Similarly, societies, corporations, families, nations behave as systems. They can, through circumstances and history, become unhealthy or sociopathic. Unlike people however their “neurons” die and are replaced and thus there is a great deal more plasticity and change.
Germany can become sociopathic in the face of deprivation, punishment, poverty, isolation and in the setting of the rise of nationalism. Unlike a person who is a sociopath, it can change entirely post war and become empathetic, healthy, experience guilt and become accepting and progressive. It can later become stiff, vain and cautious of course.
Of course if you cut what you are measuring in an experiment to binary outcomes then obviously it seems as if people have only 2 types of personality and that this personality is entirely dependant upon the circumstances.
If you also ignore the dissenters, recruit participants in a method clearly prone to bias or keep repeating the experiment until you get the result you want then you are guilty of serious methodological flaws and bad science.
Even more troubling is if you conduct experiments where you incite the participants into ever worsening violence because they are not violent enough or condition small boys into being scared of everything. This is not just unethical, it is fucked up. It is evil. Nazi medical experiment style evil.
The next step is also troubling. Clearly a swathe of university educated people who may or may not have not enough knowledge to understand but just enough to be dangerous have cherry picked these flawed findings to create an incorrect, nihilistic and scary view of humanity. Instead of using their information, education and resources to overcome the ugly side of humanity and better the world, they become dying swans who just give up on humanity or worse, excuse atrocities and let them occur.
These sorts of arguments are common, insidious and a symptom of a deeper evil. It is the misuse of science and philosophy to advance an unhealthy viewpoint. Is it because such people feel powerless to stop evil, or because it is a way of excusing their behaviour and that of others around them?
In Australia where atrocities and genocide are committed daily, I would argue it is both.
I have seen an unbelievable callousness how indigenous people, immigrants, refugees, rape victims, the mentally ill, homeless people, the disabled are treated- by bystanders, the government, random individuals, doctors. How do you reconcile national identity with these horrors? You don’t. You withdraw into a kind of moral paralysis and blame “human nature”.
Laziness and cowardice are no excuse for moral bankruptcy is no excuse for laziness and cowardice.