Categorizing Humans

12 January 2015

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:

  1. Humans have a tendency to see other humans as humans.
  2. A human or group of humans has a selfish interest in acting contrary to the tendency mentioned in 1.
  3. That human person or group fosters cognition of the other person or group as being “less than human.”
  4. 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.

Comments (8)

David Livingstone Smith's picture

David Livingsto...

Monday, January 12, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Neil, you're certainly right

Neil, you're certainly right that people harm others in situations in which harming them is against their own interests.  There are loads of examples of this.  It's also true that the tendency for people to polarize into mutually antagonistic groups need not be selfishly motivated (or, indeed, motivated at all).  But polarization and antagonism need not involve dehumanization.
I don't have any problem with the proposal that we can treat others badly, cruelly, or even lethally without dehumanizing them.  Most cases of racism, for instance, are not cases of dehumanization (in my sense of the word).  I think that dehumanization is ONE (very important) way that we both motivating violence and disabling inhibitions against performing acts of violence, but it's not the only way.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, January 13, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

If you know you will never

If you know you will never need kindness from another you can feel free to be unkind to them. But how is this possible? How, that is, can we know kindness unneeded and how can we know, as a separate matter, kindness unneeded of this person or this kind of person? These are two issues complexly entailed to each other. One is intimate, can I know in any sense at all that I will ever not be in need kindness? And the other social, for how can I know I will never need kindness from this one person or this kind of person unless there is a social context supporting the unkindness that can result? For there is one thing for which we are always in need. Understanding. It is no trivial matter that we can speak and listen to each other so fluidly. The origin of such a mysterious ability is the certain knowledge that we do not understand and are not understood by each other. By the time we reach age four or five we have already reduced the need for kindness in this to such finely drawn terms that we take it for granted that the whole system of language is somehow mysteriously just given to us, or "wired in". But this reflexive prejudice does nothing to reduce the need of the kindness of others in responding to the misunderstandings we encounter. This kindness is intimate, for there can be no term in the taken-for-granted language that can resolve the issue. Only an intimacy amongst us that breaks through that impediment of established terms can so revise the language we share that that language grows more capable of supplying the facile meaning through which we are able to forget how much in need of kindness we are. Habermas wrote voluminously in an effort to bring that dynamic of need and intimation into the "public sphere," in a futile effort to render the language bureaucrats use more capable of that kindness we need to intimate meaning not yet available in terms of the broader society. But the main issue is to distinguish the personal dynamic from the social support required to produce the more limited meaning we can share in a social context in which it is possible to forget how much we need and how much kindness we need of each other.

Neil Van Leeuwen's picture

Neil Van Leeuwen

Wednesday, January 14, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Okay, I think I'm a little

Okay, I think I'm a little clearer on what I want to say after reading the above comments, and I'm less sure that I have a real disagreement with David. 
@Grue: I think we shouldn't talk about "the" default position. I think what happens is this: when we experience another entity of whatever sort, we consciously and unconsciously put categories on it (RED, INANIMATE, SHORT, SQUARE, etc.). Now some of those categorizations will be more salient (RED!), and others less so (SQUARE, for example).
My claim is that the us-them dimension ("He's BLACK!") of humans experiencing other humans is typically *more* salient then the human dimension, which sort of just sits in the background most of the time.
Still the human dimension of experiencing other humans may be, even if not always that salient, a sort of backstop the typically prevents us from being too cruel. Dehumanization may then be an effort to remove the backstop--a psychological technology after all--as David argues.
But still, I think the start of the cruelty in just about every case arises with the us-them dimension.  

mwsimon's picture


Wednesday, January 14, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I think an important factor

I think an important factor is a limit to compassion.  It's said that our biology allows us to fit roughly 150 people into our sphere of empathy - we can actually share empathy with only that many people, and only after getting to know them.  With everybody else, we can use logic to know we should feel compassion towards them (I know they are human, so i should care for them), but i dont think true compassion is felt with such strangers and acquaintances.  This is what allows people to do awfult things to other people.  They can see them as people, but not empathize with them.

Patrick D. Knowles's picture

Patrick D. Knowles

Wednesday, January 21, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

It seems to me there are

It seems to me there are several closely related but potentially distinct ways of regarding and experiencing another in play here:
1. Regarding another as a fellow human being.
2. Regarding another as a fellow person.
3. Regarding another as one of us.
4. Regarding another as one possessed of an intrinsic worth equal to one's own.
5. Regarding another as one to whom one has moral obligations.
6. Regarding another as one with whom one can or should empathize.
7. Empathizing with another.
There may be other relevant ways of regarding and experiencing others that should be added to this list. With the exception of 4, I think, all of those listed admit of degrees. It's interesting to consider how each of these modes of regard can or should relate to the others. We can ask which ones are or should be necessary and/or sufficient for others.
How we answer questions about the logical relations among these modes of regard may help us to get clearer about what we mean by them. But will it help us do a better job of honoring the dignity and worth others? Will it help us regard, experience, and treat others as we ought to regard, experience, and treat them?
Only if we are actually committed to working on ourselves, to becoming more ethical persons.

Or's picture


Friday, January 23, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Considering a human or a

Considering a human or a group of humans as ?less than human? cannot morally justify treating someone badly.
Dehumanization does not explain why somebody would treat someone or something else in a wrongful way ? an SS Officer would consider there to be superior and inferior races, with Jews being not a race, non-human, and according to the concept of dehumanization, he would justify his lack of morality. And yet, this same officer would treat a dog (non-human, i.e dehumanized) well (with some sense of morality). So dehumanization cannot be the sole explanation for racist behavior.
We could think of it in this way: a person suffers a dehumanization of himself in a transitory moment, therefore becoming a ?non-human? with no moral compass, and thus treats selected others as belonging to other ?non-human,? perhaps animalistic, groups in an aggressive manner. Therefore, the topic becomes not dehumanization but animalization of the self.  

jennygunn's picture


Monday, January 26, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

I agreed with Mr. Smith and I

I agreed with Mr. Smith and I also experienced that some humans not treat to other sincerely even though they treat like animals and if they treat so they must be had interest behind this ,but humanity not teach this type of things . I already discuss this topic when I was UK Expert Assignment Done Writers platform I raised this point to all of us.

N. Bogdanov's picture

N. Bogdanov

Thursday, February 5, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Certainly an ?empirically

Certainly an ?empirically oriented? account! If it really is the case that our ?us? vs. ?them? drive is so central to our experience of other people, can we be held as morally accountable as we would like for acting on the various ?-isms? towards which this drive naturally inclines us? In fact, recent research on implicit bias adds force to this account. This is not to say that we should discontinue our pursuits of defeating this drive (where it leads to immoral action). Rather, knowing the centrality our biology plays in creating these ?us? vs. ?them? groups might help us combat their influences.