Vox - All by Sean Illing
The grounds of the former Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany.
A psychologist explains why humans are so terrible to each other.
Why are human beings so cruel to each other? And how do we justify acts of sheer inhumanity?
The conventional explanation is that people are able to do terrible things to other people only after having dehumanized them. In the case of the Holocaust, for example, Germans were willing to exterminate millions of Jews in part because Nazi ideology taught them to think of Jews as subhuman, as objects without the right to freedom, dignity, or even life itself.
Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale, thinks this explanation of human cruelty is, at best, incomplete. I spoke to him about why he thinks its wrong to assume cruelty comes from dehumanization — and about his grim conclusion that almost anyone is capable of committing staggering atrocities under the right circumstances.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Can you sum up your argument about the roots of human cruelty?
A lot of people blame cruelty on dehumanization. They say that when you fail to appreciate the humanity of other people, that’s where genocide and slavery and all sorts of evils come from. I don’t think that’s entirely wrong. I think a lot of real awful things we do to other people arise from the fact that we don't see them as people.
But the argument I make in my New Yorker article is that it’s incomplete. A lot of the cruelty we do to one another, the real savage, rotten terrible things we do to one another, are in fact because we recognize the humanity of the other person.
We see other people as blameworthy, as morally responsible, as themselves cruel, as not giving us what we deserve, as taking more than they deserve. And so we treat them horribly precisely because we see them as moral human beings.