People tend to treat other people who differ from them, even in seemingly small and insignificant ways, as less than fully human.
Having just listened to the recent Philosophy Talk show with David Livingstone Smith, I find myself thinking that he is on to an extremely important phenomenon, but that he mischaracterizes it. Furthermore, the way he mischaracterizes it represents a big oversight about the way humans experience other humans.
Smith seems to hold that a typical human’s unbiased experience of another human will be as a human. The default—when there’s nothing at stake—is to take other humans as humans. “They look like people,” he says, “and that’s our default position. Isn’t it?”
For Smith, this default results in a tension, whenever an individual has a compelling interest in selfishly mistreating another person. Smith repeatedly referred (with suitable irony) to this tension as a “problem.” The so-called problem can be seen this way: how does one overcome one’s tendency to treat other humans well, when it is in one’s selfish interests to treat them badly?
Dehumanization, then, is a sort of psychological “technology” (another word Smith used) that helps us overcome our tendency to treat other humans like humans and, in overcoming our nice tendency, thereby achieve our selfish goals. It’s a self-deceptive solution to the “problem” of being inclined to treat other humans morally.
We can schematize Smith’s theory of dehumanization with four components:
- Humans have a tendency to see other humans as humans.
- A human or group of humans has a selfish interest in acting contrary to the tendency mentioned in 1.
- That human person or group fosters cognition of the other person or group as being “less than human.”
- That human person or group treats the other human person or group in the ways dictated by their selfish interests, having been freed (through the process mentioned in 3) from the feeling of moral constraint that would otherwise prevent them.
I suspect that this is how the repugnant treatment of other humans goes some of the time. For example, in the show John Perry discussed the case of Thomas Jefferson and his slaves, and it does seem that Jefferson was rationalizing for the sake of giving himself permission to maintain his substantial, slave-supported material wealth—as Smith’s theory predicts.
But there are two facts that strongly suggest that Smith’s picture is leaving something out and may even be wrong when it comes to explaining most cases of inhumanity.
First, humans form in-groups and out-groups (“us” vs. “them” groups) extremely easily, often without any selfish incentive whatsoever. There are scores of psychological studies that demonstrate this effect. Famously, it is not even that hard to turn blue-eyed and brown-eyed school children against one another. And it is entirely unclear that there is some antecedent selfish interest that would motivate this process. And out-groups, even arbitrarily formed ones, are quickly and easily described and thought of in negative terms—“dirty” is particularly common.
Second, humans often harm members of out-groups when it is actually contrary to their own interests. Examples of this sort are easy to find. When I was in Johannesburg, a black friend and I attempted to enter a bar, when he was rudely turned away for wearing a hat. This was technically against the rules of the establishment (“NO HATS”), but when I pointed out to the bouncer that a white person inside had a hat on, the racist exclaimed, “That’s not a hat. That’s a cap.” Obviously, my friend was discriminated against for his skin color. What is significant is that the bar lost money due to its prejudice—both what my friend would have spent and what I would have spent.
Note how dissimilar this is to the Jefferson case: Jefferson makes money by mistreating black people; the bar lost money. And the case of my friend and me at the bar is the tip of the iceberg. According to Robert Jay Lifton, a full 13 percent of doctors in Germany prior to the rise of the Third Reich were Jewish. When they were kicked out of the profession, they were often replaced by doctors far less competent, who had to be scrounged up to fill the void. In other words, the persecution of Jews constituted a major health risk for the German population at large. In sum, people will often sacrifice their own interests just to harm members of an out-group.
In order to accommodate these facts, I think we need to emphasize an element of human psychology that is both fundamental and unfortunate.
When we humans encounter other humans—prior to any awareness of issues of self-interest—we experience the other humans as “us” or “them.” This may be so even if we are aware of their humanity all along, and even if there is no selfish interest to be served by mistreating them. The issue here is salience in experience: the “us” vs. “them” dimension trumps other dimensions in the experience of other persons, contrary to what Smith seems to suggest.
One caller to the show, Charles, made this point very well. He said he had been going to (white) working class bars for forty years, and he noted that the people at the bars tended to talk about black people not as non-human, but simply as “just different” or “not as apes per se, but just a different kind.” In other words, we should treat the fact that humans form in-groups and out-groups as fundamental.
This in-group vs. out-group cognition turns vicious in times of fear and insecurity. I think we should see dehumanization as an extension of this very basic human tendency to experience humans in terms of “us” vs. “them.” It is, no doubt, an extension that can occur and even be fostered under the pressures of various interests and self interests. But to think of dehumanization as a psychological “technology” is to miss the fact that it extends a tendency to categorize people that is pervasive in human thought and experience.