Dehumanization As Prerequisite For Moral Failure

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (§III – Of Justice, Part I, Hackett Edition, Indianapolis, 1983, pp. 25-26), David Hume writes:

Were there a species of creatures intermingled with men, which, though rational, were possessed of such inferior strength, both of body and mind, that they were incapable of all resistance, and could never, upon the highest provocation, make us feel the effects of their resentment; the necessary consequence, I think, is that we should be bound by the laws of humanity to give gentle usage to these creatures, but should not, properly speaking, lie under any restraint of justice with regard to them, nor could they possess any right or property, exclusive of such arbitrary lords. Our intercourse with them could not be called society, which supposes a degree of equality; but absolute command on the one side, and servile obedience on the other. Whatever we covet, they must instantly resign: Our permission is the only tenure, by which they hold their possessions: Our compassion and kindness the only check, by which they curb our lawless will: And as no inconvenience ever results from the exercise of a power, so firmly established in nature, the restraints of justice and property, being totally USELESS, would never have place in so unequal a confederacy.

This is plainly the situation of men, with regard to animals; and how far these may be said to possess reason, I leave it to others to determine. The great superiority of civilized Europeans above barbarous Indians, tempted us to imagine ourselves on the same footing with regard to them, and made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even of humanity, in our treatment of them.

For the past couple of weeks my students in my Landmarks of Philosophy class have been reading and discussing Hume’s Enquiry. In the course of our classroom discussion this past Wednesday–on §V – Why Utility Pleases–one of my students said, “It seems that if our moral behavior depends on a kind of sympathy or empathy with our fellow human beings, then one way to make possible immoral behavior would be to dehumanize others so that we don’t see them as our fellow human beings at all.” In the course of the discussion that followed, I did not specifically invoke the passage cited above–instead, we spent some time discussing historical examples of this potentially and actually genocidal maneuver and examined some of the kinds of language deployed in them instead. (Slavery and the Holocaust provide ample evidence of the systematic deployment of dehumanizing rhetoric and action in inducing and sustaining racism and genocide.) But in that passage, Hume captures quite well the possibility alluded to by my student; if morality depends on recognizing our fellow humans as moral subjects, a feeling grounded in sentiment, emotion, sympathy, and empathy, then dehumanization–by language, action, systematic ‘education’–becomes a necessary prelude to overriding these feelings of ours so that the stage may be set for moral atrocity. This is a lesson that seems to have been learned well by all those who rely on humans mistreating other humans in order to implement their favored political ideologies; the modern tactic of the utter effacement of the victims of moral failure by remote warfare or by invisibility in media reports is but the latest dishonorable instance of this continuing miseducation of mankind.

Prisoners As Subjects Unworthy Of Moral Concern

The Intercept notes–in an essay by Alice Speri–that ‘deadly heat’ is killing prisoners in US prisons, that state governments would much rather spend money on legal fees than on installing air conditioning. In one egregious instance, Louisiana spent one million on legal fees to avoid spending $225,000 on AC. As the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections Jimmy LeBlanc put it to the Associated Press in June, installing air conditioning at Angola would open a “Pandora’s box.” and that his “biggest concern is the impact on the whole system and the cost.” As George Gale noted in response (in a comment on my Facebook page), “I suspect what he actually means is “The public would crucify us if we air conditioned prisoners!”


Not too long ago. I made the mistake of reading the comments section in an online article about Orange is the New Black. There, many commentators expressed anger and dismay over the treatment of prisoners that was depicted in the show. Unfortunately, their anger and dismay was directed at the coddling that the inmates seemed to receive behind bars: They watch television! They walk around in the prison yard! They get their hair done! They had a store where they could buy stuff! One commentator finally went right ahead and said it “These women have a better life than I do.” There was something pathetic about that claim, something that spoke to just how onerous she imagined her life to be if it could be compared to that of a prisoner locked up behind bars. (This is not to say that many living outside of prison do not have qualitatively worse lives than they would have inside but I do not think this person, with an internet connection and the time to read and comment on an article about a television show, was one of them.)

Somewhere in the retributivist argument that many folks employ, the following premise is smuggled in:

If you commit a crime, and are convicted of doing so, you thereby lose all and claims to any civil, constitutional, and human rights. Indeed, you cease being a human deserving of any sort of considerate treatment. You are, after all, a convicted criminal.

It will be noticed that in this case ‘convicted criminal’ has come to mean ‘degenerate sub-human lacking those vital features which make him or her a worthy subject of moral concern.’ It’s not an eye for a eye but rather body and soul for an eye. (It should be remembered that the ‘eye for an eye’ formulation includes proportionality in its claim.) As a result, it is not enough that prisoners are denied their freedom and choice, restricted to particular spaces, told when to wake up, go to sleep, put the lights out, exercise, served particular food items and not other (with some concessions made for dietary constraints), and subjected to–among many arbitrary exercises of power–violence and sexual assault from guards and other inmates. No matter. They deserve it, they asked for it, they got what was coming, if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime, they should have thought about this before they committed the crime: the list of stern platitudes directed at convicts is never-ending, a grand testimonial to the smugness and complacency and small-mindedness of those of us on the ‘outside’ who have lost our capacity for empathy, who imagine that the strong arm of the law will never be lowered on them, who imagine that when they make a mistake, the benevolence and forgiving that has been so carefully hidden away by the world so that it can better deal with its convicts will suddenly be directed at them. It won’t; to encourage vindictive and cruel retribution directed at others is to set up a store for oneself too.

Julian Young on Schopenhauer on Suicide

In his concise introduction to SchopenhauerJulian Young notes he considered it “incumbent on any ‘ethical system’ to commit suicide.” Indeed, that Stoicism fails to do so, and indeed, even recommends it “in cases where  pain is intolerable”, is for Schopenhauer, proof of its “intellectual bankruptcy.”

Young rightly makes the obvious point: this seems like a strange view to be professed by someone who considers birth a terrible tragedy, existence a state of unmitigated misery. Wouldn’t such a conception our state of being entail a moral duty to bring this state of affairs to an end, to bring our consciousness to a merciful conclusion? (Yes, I know, this does sound a bit like Rust Cohle of True Detective.)

The problem is that the suicide is “ignorant of the truth of philosophical pessimism”; he has come to believe that his suffering is solitary; he has been picked out for a special dispensation of misery and pain; were he to be disabused of this notion and come to realize all around him are equally condemned, he would not count himself so unfortunate. As Schopenhauer pointed out:

We are not usually distressed at evils that are inescapably necessary and quite universal such as old age and death.

(On a related note, Montesquieu noted: “If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.”)

Knowing the “universality of pain” makes a crucial difference: the potential suicide who is able to identify with the suffering of his fellow companions comes to realize  suicide is “futile”, an ineffectual attempt to cure an incurable affliction. More damagingly, as Young notes, it is “an act of extreme egoism, the most extreme failure of emotional identification with others, extreme lack of empathy. If I care equally about me and you…then my suicide is a complete irrelevance to solving the problem.”

Young then concludes:

There seems to me something insightful about this picture of the suicide as exceptionally self-obsessed; as someone who has become so isolated from the rest of the world that it seems to them that only their own pain matters, indeed that only their own pain exists. This is, I think, particularly true of men who commit suicide on account of business failures. The relative triviality of the motive requires that the suicide has become absolutely insensible to the vastly greater suffering of millions of others.

This condemnation of the act of suicide is interesting, of course, because the suicide’s death causes pain to others. Not just loved ones like fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, lovers, children, friends, but also those that might depend on him or her for aid and succor of all sorts: a doctor’s patients, a teacher’s students, a lawyer’s clients. The suicide might have realized all of this but perhaps have pressed on anyway, knowing his act will bring an end to the pain caused by this knowledge.

A broader point to be derived from this view of Schopenhauer (and Young) is also of interest: we are not isolated and alone, but inescapably linked to many others through a complex set of inter-relationships. We cannot coherently imagine our actions affect only ourselves; a diminution of us is a diminution of others.