The Presumption of Decency

Edward Glaeser is a professor of economics at Harvard who does research on urban growth and he’s written a short essay on a topic completely outside his area of knowledge. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting read. It’s titled The Presumption of Decency and I urge you to check it out.

I think he touches on a deep-rooted flaw in human thinking habits, one that frequently puts us on a path to a mindset that enables us to justify committing some the most atrocious acts against other human beings. And despite the remorse we may feel afterward, we do it again and again.

The fact is, our perspective-taking abilities are generally not very good. We also have incomplete access to the situational information of others. So when we try to understand the behaviors of others, we tend to assume it’s due to negative motivations or personality flaws. Social psychologists refer to this as a fundamental attribution error.

For example:

Ellen is ignoring me. She’s being a bitch.

Ummm, maybe Ellen is busy?

On the other hand, when reflecting on our own actions, we tend to be more forgiving. For example:

I have so much to do right now. I don’t have time to answer that email.

Are you really so busy, when you’ve already answered messages from several other people?

I suspect we are doubly likely to fall back on this heuristic when trying to understand those who are in conflict with us:

The police won’t let me take my bike through this gate. They are morons.

Maybe at one time, this was a useful heuristic, helping us to quickly identify potential threats so we could eliminate them before they became immediate dangers. But if something is not an immediate danger, shouldn’t we not be relying on a heuristic when we try to understand it? Shouldn’t we be making the investment of time to investigate more deeply to form a better conclusion?

Now that humans have armed themselves with weapons capable of death and destruction on a massive scale, perhaps it’s time to call this out as detrimental to us as a species. That is, if continuation of the species is important to us.

Let’s start by not always assuming the worst of others.

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11 thoughts on “The Presumption of Decency

  1. No, I have not read it, but judging by the reviews I’m reading (just looked it up), it sounds very much like my beliefs are close to what the author describes. What he calls the “mythic lens”, I think of more generally (not just in wartime) as “turning off your humanity”. It’s what happens when you no longer recognize a person or group of people as fellow humans. And if they are not humans, you don’t treat them like humans.

    It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily cruel to them. Animal lovers care for their animals (sometimes more than the humans in their lives). And many slave owners care for their slaves beyond just the basic maintenance needs. But they still know the difference between humans and lower beings. And the life of a lower being is not worth the life of a human.

    When we start using words like “evil” to describe people, it becomes easier to turn off our humanity and justify committing terrible acts, because “it’s the right thing to do”, “to protect our children”, “to protect our country”. This is certainly convenient in situations like war. You don’t want to be bothered thinking about the fact the people you killed had families, had aspirations to do something other than kill people.

    Words like Good and Evil have their roots in ignorance. When I hear people using them, a red flag goes up and I know there’s a very real danger that someone has been manipulated and/or is attempting to manipulate me.

    I have more thoughts on some groups who continue to be de-humanized in this way, but this comment is already getting too long. Thanks for the recommendation, @Mados!

    • What he calls the “mythic lens”, I think of more generally (not just in wartime) as “turning off your humanity”. It’s what happens when you no longer recognize a person or group of people as fellow humans. And if they are not humans, you don’t treat them like humans.

      Precisely, that is what the book is about. It analyses the load-up to atrocities and how decent, normal people turn evil in war. How the ‘mythic lens’ isn’t just a ‘flaw’ as such but a powerful source of team energy, something people secretly desire and long for… adventure, team spirit, epic battle between good and evil, source of amazing strengths and courage…and inconceivable atrocities.

      I also like how he uses Star Trek VS Star Wars as a metaphor for rational thinking VS mythic lens (You won’t like it if you are a Star Wars fan).

      I consider the ‘mythic lens’ to be closely associated with bullying – same thing, different scale. Below movies/books are good too, and evolve around the same theme:

      Schindler’s List – Movie (1993) about WW2 and a man trying to save his Jewish workforce (+extras) from Nazi prosecution

      Nuremberg – Movie (2000) about the military tribunals against prominent nazis, held by the Allied forces of WW2

      The Exception – Book (Christian Jungersen). A murder mystery about workplace bullying, linked on some deeper level with genocide and ‘the Psychology of Evil’.

      • How the ‘mythic lens’ isn’t just a ‘flaw’ as such but a powerful source of team energy, something people secretly desire and long for… adventure, team spirit, epic battle between good and evil, source of amazing strengths and courage…and inconceivable atrocities.

        Yes, that’s a good point I often overlook, as I’m a lousy team player. Man’s greatest accomplishments, as well as its worst atrocities, are the product of the efforts of many, notwithstanding our cultural fascination with the rugged individual (John Wayne types) who accomplishes great feats single-handedly *and* inspires others to follow through sheer force of character. (Like that episode of Red Dwarf where Rimmer becomes the big hero Ace Rimmer everyone loves; “smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast”) Even the greatest solo athletes needed support to get to their level. Ours is a highly individualistic society, so though we talk a good game about teamwork, I think we still value the rock stars more.

        As for the need for adventure and camaraderie, I can see that, in many cases. Sometimes I think there’s more to it. Some of the forces that drive us are not always so obvious. (I think drive theory touches on this, but I don’t know much about it myself.) Perhaps this is even more so in “advanced” societies where our basic needs are for the most part addressed. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I suppose most of us “Westerners” are feeling the greatest challenge to meet needs between the love/belonging and esteem levels, where adventure and camaraderie seem to fit. Yeah, guess it took me a bit work around to it, but, yeah, ditto 🙂

        As for bullying and the mythic lens, hmm, I’m on the fence with that one. I think it fits in “turning off humanity”, but “mythic lens” to me, implies these people are under the impression that their actions have great import and are necessary in support of some lofty goal or cause. I’m not sure any bully feels that way when they’re picking on someone. Of course, I haven’t read the book, so you’d know better what he meant.

        As for Star Trek v Star Wars, I like them, but for different reasons. I don’t like how later Star Trek franchises degenerated into vehicles for projecting our values on extra-terrestrials (who all seem to look like us except for some weird haircuts, skin colors, or bony ridges on their foreheads). At least the original occasionally had non-humanoids and carbon-based lifeforms with non-human needs and motivations that forced us to think outside of our human-centric perspective. As for Star Wars, the prequels were just so boring. They definitely lacked that sense of urgency, probably because it felt like we were no longer (or rather, not yet) looking through the mythic lens, as we were at a point in time where — jeez nothing was happening. Does anyone remember wtf those movies are even about?!? I remember Anakin racing his pod vehicle thingie through the desert and I remember him in another movie almost dying in the lava and becoming Vader. But what else happened in those movies!?!?! Yawnfest!

  2. Thank you for your great replies/thoughts in this comment!

    notwithstanding our cultural fascination with the rugged individual (John Wayne types) who accomplishes great feats single-handedly *and* inspires others to follow through sheer force of character. […] Ours is a highly individualistic society, so though we talk a good game about teamwork, I think we still value the rock stars more.

    I think that primarily applies to American culture. Personally I find the single-handed heroes totally lame. They do achieve amazing things in fiction, but in the real world they are usually total jerks that don’t pass on information to other people and as a result, things go wrong. People make mistakes because they didn’t have the necessary information to take the right decisions/people who had competencies in whatever areas didn’t get to use them because they were not aware of whatever the problem is or didn’t have enough information to work out solutions/people don’t contribute with information and ideas because they don’t know what is relevant and what is going on/I could go on and on here. When I see a ‘solo hero’ in a movie I am more sceptical than impressed.

    As for the need for adventure and camaraderie, I can see that, in many cases. Sometimes I think there’s more to it. Some of the forces that drive us are not always so obvious

    Yes I think so too. The ‘mythic lens’ sheds light on / theorises about a strong mechanism for getting people into war-mode, but it would be strange of reality wasn’t much more complex and varied than that.

    As for bullying and the mythic lens, hmm, I’m on the fence with that one. I think it fits in “turning off humanity”, but “mythic lens” to me, implies these people are under the impression that their actions have great import and are necessary in support of some lofty goal or cause. I’m not sure any bully feels that way when they’re picking on someone. Of course, I haven’t read the book, so you’d know better what he meant.

    No, this was my own pocket-theory I added on when I read it, it isn’t in the book.

    You are right, to the extend ‘mythic lens’ implies a sense of importance and lofty goals, it doesn’t have anything to do with bullying. But I think there are some parallels anyway:

    I see genocide is an extreme form of bullying, where one population group totally victimise another based on the grounds that all members of the victimised group are worthless, sub-human and pretty much scum of the Earth.

    School yard bullying (for example) have many similar elements. From the bullies side: ‘we are better than the victim, the victim doesn’t deserve any better, we do this because the victim is a bad/worthless/weak/whatever person, the victim is the reason we do this, we have the right to do this because we are the superior guys’… and an intoxicating team spirit.

    I don’t like how later Star Trek franchises degenerated into vehicles for projecting our values on extra-terrestrials (who all seem to look like us except for some weird haircuts, skin colors, or bony ridges on their foreheads).

    I do remember being annoyed about the fact that all aliens speaks some sort of English with American accent… and as for projecting values, yes very much so. I do agree that is totally lame.

    However, for the purpose of the metaphoric comparison between Star Trek and Star Wars, the point was that the purpose of Star Trek is exploration, and that the stories aren’t usually black and white. Even the worst of the bad guys (like the Borgs) usually have a background story that makes sense, and few if any are only bad.

    Star Wars, on the other hand, is an epic battle between good and evil, a black-and-white Universe without nuances in regards to righteousness.

    Does anyone remember wtf those movies are even about?!? I remember Anakin racing his pod vehicle thingie through the desert and I remember him in another movie almost dying in the lava and becoming Vader. But what else happened in those movies!?!?! Yawnfest!

    I must admit that I have seen only one Star Wars movie (don’t remember which one), but every single episode of Star Trek The Next Generation (with Captain Picard) on DVD. (My husband forced me to it! OK that’s a lame excuse…) I don’t remember much from the sole Star Wars movie I saw, but I liked Darth Vader.

    • I think that primarily applies to American culture.

      You know, I was originally going to say “American” but I realized that was untrue. The cult of personality is not in any way unique to the American experience. I think it’s just because the USA is the current world empire (on the decline as it is), so they bear the brunt of the blame and vitriol for everything wrong in the world, even when it’s not the case. Every group, every culture in history has their share of folk heroes surrounded with all sorts of mythologies, some parts of which may be based in reality, but much of it, questionable. I think part of the appeal of the lone hero (not going into Campbell territory) is our desire for control, and seeing that one individual can affect change gives us some hope that we can too.

      Personally I find the single-handed heroes totally lame. They do achieve amazing things in fiction, but in the real world they are usually total jerks that don’t pass on information to other people and as a result, things go wrong. People make mistakes because they didn’t have the necessary information to take the right decisions/people who had competencies in whatever areas didn’t get to use them because they were not aware of whatever the problem is or didn’t have enough information to work out solutions/people don’t contribute with information and ideas because they don’t know what is relevant and what is going on/I could go on and on here. When I see a ‘solo hero’ in a movie I am more sceptical than impressed.

      Yes, well said and all agreed. The tragic fools with the God complex. Occasionally, some of them realize they’ve actually made a mistake, but they’re still too arrogant to believe anyone else is capable of fixing it, so they won’t ask for help. It’s Menomena’s “The Strongest Man in the World”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBGeNOO3ug8

      I am fused out of iron
      I promise
      I’ll keep this
      Under my control
      Control…

      Not sure if that’s what they meant, but that’s how I always interpreted it.

      However, for the purpose of the metaphoric comparison between Star Trek and Star Wars, the point was that the purpose of Star Trek is exploration, and that the stories aren’t usually black and white.

      Yes, I did get that point, though I didn’t acknowledge it. I skipped over it, but I agree.

      Star Wars, on the other hand, is an epic battle between good and evil, a black-and-white Universe without nuances in regards to righteousness.

      Yes, and it’s a completely inaccurate reflection of reality. And as much as I’m all for truth, I really enjoy reading high fantasy and horror because (for the most part), unlike reality, it is simple. It’s cut and dried and you always know (eventually) who are the good guys and the bad guys. It’s comfort food. It’s unchallenging but pleasant in it’s predictability.

      I don’t remember much from the sole Star Wars movie I saw, but I liked Darth Vader.

      Yes, he was a compelling character (at least, in the 80s Star Wars movies). The only real one in the whole series because he actually had some depth. We eventually learn his back story in the prequels, and see his descent into “darkness” and “evil”. It wasn’t surprising considering his personality (not “evil”, but a bit of that God complex) and his treatment at the hands of Obi and the Jedi council (overinflated sense of self-importance, pompous asses). Palpatine had him pegged. He was ripe for the picking. (Can’t believe I’m analyzing Star Wars.)

    • Ps. Apologise for the typos… Please feel free to correct them if you want to.

      Psshaw!! I barely have time to correct my own, and you expect me to correct yours?!? 🙂

  3. A related topic:

    Bullying and intoxicating (destructive) team spirit isn’t unique to humans… other social animals have the same tendencies under certain circumstances. However, large scale atrocities such as genocide are, as far as I know, unique to humans. But I think that has more to do with our abilities for organisation and logistics et.c than with the ‘drivers’ of it.

    • I was reading something recently stating something to the effect that every time we point to some trait or behavior as being uniquely human, it invariably ends up being disproven. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable comparing human to non-human animals. The truth is, we don’t understand either as well as we like to think we do, and these comparisons seem to only confound things further. The other problem I have with that is the fundamentalists who tend to fall back on arguments about what is “right” is what’s “natural” and they try to use non-human animals as examples (which amusingly seems to backfire more often than it succeeds).

      All that said, I don’t believe any sort of “genocide” has been perpetrated by non-human animals against other animals, because they have never had the motivation to do so. If, for argument’s sake, we assume they had the intellectual capacity to understand the magnitude of the threat posed by the continued expansion of the human race into the habitats of their progeny, then sure, I’m certain that many would consider it reasonable to commit genocide against humans, in the interest of protecting future generations. But as you say, I think they’re limited by their inability to organize effectively. On the other hand, if as I said, we truly do not know them as well as we think, it’s possible that the “domestics” we’ve been keeping for last 12,000 years (dogs, maybe more, cats, around 9000) are not truly subjugated. Perhaps they’re only infiltrating our households for intelligence gathering. If indeed that’s the case… Imagine if they knew what was happening in kennels… Imagine what fate awaits us if the tables are turned…

  4. Pingback: Full refunds for the presumption of decency « Many fandoms, one love

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