On Ethical Complexity

I was thinking about Hitler and the Holocaust the other day — you know, just sort of casually — and it occurred to me that I don’t know why everyone’s always so obsessed with understanding Hitler, because Hitler’s actually the only part of the situation that makes sense to me.  Let me explain what I mean.

You want to know what Hitler’s problem was?  Hitler was nuts.  Okay?  He was crazy.  He mistook all the Jews for germs and used to liken them to sick organs in a body to disguise the fact to himself that he was killing shitloads of people.  Hitler’s problem was that he was fucking crazy.

See?  Wasn’t that simple?

But what about everyone else who let him get away with killing all those people?

Because those were just completely ordinary people.  Those were me and you.  One man could not have killed all those people by himself.  I’m not sure if it’s physically possible.  So while Hitler must have a lot of the blame for what happened, what about all the people around him?

And I’m not just talking about the Nazis.  A lot of ordinary people supported Hitler.  A lot of people in other places turned a blind eye to what he was doing for a long time.  I can guarantee you it’s not the only time throughout history that we’ve done something like that either.  So what’s up?

Let’s address the simple motivations first.  Locally, some people were too scared to say anything, and others were too distant to think they could do much.  Internationally, it was out of sight out of mind for some, and they were more concerned for a long time with their own problems.  Still others tried and couldn’t take him down from his power base by themselves.  And sure, we could satisfy ourselves with that if Hitler had lived in this vacuum where he’d somehow always been powerful.  But what about the people before he really was?

I reject the simplistic answer that everyone just got behind the power — some, sure, but that sounds like such a gross generalization to apply to so many people — but I also reject the equally simplistic answer that everyone just didn’t see what was coming until it was too late.  Hitler was pretty… you know… he was Hitler.  There were plenty of hints.  So it wasn’t that people were all good intentioned, and it wasn’t that they were all evil.  There were probably some extremists who fit both categories.  But what about that grey area in the middle?

One could say that people were angry.  Sure.  They needed a scapegoat for their problems, so they blamed and demonized the Jews.  But not all people who are angry or resentful brutally and slowly murder shitloads of other people.  I mean, it almost reminds you of the mob mentality.

It almost reminds you of the mob mentality.

There’s this experiment I read about in a psychology class I took once.  In the experiment, several well educated people were sat in a room with a scientist who was taking part in the experiment.  Each of them was alone.  There was a person in another room whom they could communicate with through a speaker.  They were to ask that person a series of test questions, and every time the second person got it wrong, the first person was to press a button sending a brief electric jolt through the second person.  Every time another question was answered wrong, they were to up the electrical voltage slightly.  

Now, the person in the other room was actually an actor.  They were to continue answering questions wrong, and to start screaming in pain by the time they hit question nine or ten, pleading with the person to stop and saying they had a heart condition.  The scientist was also acting in the other room, telling the first person that everything was fine, and they should continue.  The experiment was simple: see if the first person defies the scientist and refuses after a certain period of time.

Statistically, if you put ten people in a line up, apparently only one would have refused before getting to a deadly electrical voltage that would have killed the person in the other room.  So why did all those people keep pressing a button?

Because someone higher up than them told them to.

They weren’t being threatened.  It was just what they were told to do.

Interestingly, more people refused when there was someone else in the room refusing with them.

Now, this took place in the United States, for all you superior nationalism fanatics.  So our well documented group mentality seems to go pretty damn far, across all kinds of walks of life.  We are group beings; the average amount of time the average person could live without someone else with them is seven days.  After that we all go a bit funny, talking to ourselves and trying to make up human interaction.

But that doesn’t explain all of it either.  Sure, it explains a hell of a lot: not everyone was all evil or blind because not everyone needed to be, just a few noticeable people needed to sway the rest.  After that, it was a combination of entrenched hierarchy, the “it’s not happening to me” clause, and a lot of people already having invested a hell of a lot of themselves into not destroying Hitler already.  (This last part, investment, is a critical step in the brainwashing process.)

But if we’re all such group people, look at the odds.  We’re all capable of evil — I believe that, I think we’re all capable of killing someone under the right circumstances — and most of us are capable of being swayed into doing things like that.

So what about compassion?

My question is, if all this is true, why does compassion comfortably and truly exist?

Let me explain a little bit about ethics, just to go off on a whole different tangent for a paragraph or two.  Most of ethics are made up and culturally relative, though a few things, such as murder of innocents for no conceivable reason, seem to reviled almost everywhere.  And yet there is one basic fundamental concept of ethics that exists everywhere, and that is compassion.  Compassion is related to empathy, which is seeing what someone is going through, being able to understand it, and being able to think “I might go through that and I wouldn’t want someone being mean to me, so I should be nice to that person.”

Since we are all interconnected beings living in an incredibly socialized world, it makes sense of for compassion to exist, and for each culture to come up with their own unique ethical code.  Cooperation such as this allows for better organization, a more peaceful and happy society, and cooperation is in fact just as important to Darwin in his book as competition is.

In short, ethics and compassion make sense.

But now we have a conundrum.  We have an incredibly group oriented society that is capable of both great good and great evil.  So why don’t we all go one way or all go the other?

This is where it gets complicated.  We are all individuals who are allowed to choose which direction we emphasize in our lives.  And we are apparently capable of great individualism, even amidst a group that has not gone the same way as us, although this is more difficult.  So we are both mob oriented and incredibly individualistic.  Along with good and evil, we are also dual beings in that both inclinations for independence and group think exist, apparently comfortably, inside us.

How does that work?  This seems impossible.  But it gets more complicated than that.

Let me ask this, and then answer it because I already know the answer: if ethics and compassion make sense on such a broad scale, are an evolutionarily powerful inclination for better society within us, why is eugenics wrong?  If we could somehow find the traits in our society that hold people back from achieving their best potential, why not eliminate those traits?  On a broad level, it seems to make sense.  You have to understand, in the 1920’s even in America a lot of very powerful and very normal people believed in eugenics.  It was only when they felt empathy for the people going through the Holocaust that things began to change.  So is it just a case of overpersonalization?

No, and let me explain why.  Because we are such an interconnected society full of incredibly complex individuals who are capable of both great compassion and great groupthink even toward evil ends, each of us has a specific purpose.  I don’t mean that in the religious sense.  I mean that we all do shit.  Therefore we’re all here for a reason, we just make up what that reason is.  When we kill people, we are depriving the interconnected web in which we all live of a potentially useful and productive link, therefore killing people does not make sense.  

Now, one could argue that some are more useful than others, and I would point out that that person is saying that from their own viewpoint with their own relative, personalized specifications for what “useful” is that may not mesh with anyone else’s.  (To a certain extent, I think we all have opposing viewpoints and therefore no one can fully know anyone else, but that’s for another post.)  My point is, useful is actually a value judgment.  We all have different definitions of “useful.”  Abstract terms like “useful” are made up by us to make sense of our world; they’re not actually things we can touch.  They are abstract, and therefore at least somewhat relative.

So one person may only be useless to another person, who may not have all the facts about the many variety of “uses” and “do shits” the first person and their society/culture provide.

What I’m saying is, it’s not that the reaction against eugenics is overpersonalization.  It’s that eugenics itself is looking at things so broadly that the individual uses of people and even cultures can in fact be obscured.

So we complicate things even further.  We have group oriented, individualistic beings who are capable of both great compassion and enormous acts of evil against others, who are also capable of being blind to their own complexity and biasing themselves one way or the other.  Despite this, both inclinations for individual and group think still comfortably exist within them.

So, a really short summary of this post would be, “we’re amazing.”

What I can’t figure out is, how?

And I personally think that’s a lot more interesting and potentially useful information than why Hitler was crazy.


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