Why do ‘normal’ people do terrible things?
Last night I attended a great talk at Sheffield Hallam University by Dr Les Mitchell, entitled ‘Moral Disengagement and Support for Nonhuman Animal Farming’. It explored the various factors that promote violence towards animals, including humans. We need to understand these causes to build a truly just and flourishing society.
Les referred to the work of psychologists such as Milgram, Zimbardo and Bandura. Milgram was the guy who found that most ordinary people will obey an order by an authority figure to inflict an agonising and potentially lethal electric shock to another human. Zimbardo conducted the infamous Stanford prison experiment, where volunteers were split into a group of ‘guards’ and a group of ‘prisoners’. He found that the guards soon indulged in sadistic abuse of prisoners, not only because they had the power to do so, but because both guards and prisoners were ‘de-individuated’.
The guards’ anonymity eroded their sense of moral responsibility while the prisoners’ anonymity stripped them of their status as individual persons. Les also cited Hannah Arendt’s legendary phrase – ‘the banality of evil’ – that she used to describe the surreal ‘normality’ of those accused of genocide at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trial. The overarching point was that ‘societal channels’ encourage certain types of behaviour, such as moral indifference to the terrible abuse of non-humans in factory farming.
This means that those who participate in or acquiesce to appalling atrocities are not usually ‘monsters’. Humans are not the perfectly autonomous rational agents we often like to think we are. We are just another species of animal after all. While this should provoke reflection and undermine our delusion of moral superiority , it also demonstrates practical problems in achieving justice and respect for all sentient beings, given the obvious limits of appeals to human reason.
But, as Les pointed out, one strategy that can make a difference is challenging the euphemisms that are used to obscure violent abuse – for example when animal researchers say they ‘work with’ animals, rather than being honest about the pain and distress they cause to non-consenting individuals. Talking of individuals – asserting the individualism and personality of animals is also vital. They are not just numbers or units of production.
And we must evolve better societal channels – such as cultural norms and political institutions – that promote ethical ways of living rather than sustaining our brutal tyranny over other animals.