Mass atrocities require idealism

I’m currently reading Jonathan Haidt’s book  The Happiness Hypothesis. It sounds like a “self-help” book, but really its an outline of modern scientific understanding of factors influencing happiness, relationships, motivations and so on. On the other hand the book does make it easy to apply some of the scientific findings to one’s own situation.

I liked his comment on the relationship between ideology and evil. I think it is far more applicable than the often quoted comment of Steven Weinberg (“With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”) I have commented on this before (see Sources of evil?).

Haidt lays the blame of idealism, rather than just religion:

“but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism— the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end. The major atrocities of the twentieth century were carried out largely either by men who thought they were creating a Utopia or else by men who believed they were defending their homeland or tribe from attack. Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it, almost inevitably, the belief that the ends justify the means. If you are fighting for good or for God, what matters is the outcome, not the path. People have little respect for rules; we respect the moral principles that underlie most rules. But when a moral mission and legal rules are incompatible, we usually care more about the mission.”

I think this makes sense of the state sponsored atrocities the world has seen. It also makes sense of the atrocities and harm caused by idealism at the personal level.

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4 responses to “Mass atrocities require idealism

  1. Personally, I’d toss the concept of revenge in the mix, too.

    I once read a book by a former member of the Hitler Youth. His view was that soldiers didn’t fight for idealism, but for revenge. They were just kids just doing what they’d be taught to do without much spirit, but once one of their buddies was killed, they fought to avenge it. Only one man’s view, but he’d been there so it wasn’t an academic position, but one from reality.

    On a similar note, I recall Pakistan not long ago asking the USA military not to bomb the villages in the Afghan border region of Pakistan (they also mentioned the Swat region, which surprised me, as it’s a long way further inland; I’ve been there not that it counts for much). Anyway, the point was that the Pakistanis were, they claimed, trying to bring the villages around to their point of view and if the USA bombed them, it’d induce a sense of revenge. The villagers would then turn to the nearest means of achieving that revenge, the Taliban, and the USA would have only made things worse. Pakistan has it’s issues (and moments), but I have to agree with the Pakistanis on this one.

    To my current thinking, where idealism plays a role is that it self-justifies the revenge. Y’know “When G-d’s on your side”, as the song goes (I prefer the Joan Collins cover to the original).


  2. Sigh. Should be With G-d on our side. And that’s Judy Collins, the singer, not the writer. Not thinking straight late at night…


  3. I think you are right. It does seem as if our species has evolved with a propensity to fall into the “them and us” situation and all that implies. It just seems so easy to create groups and then divert them into hostile attitudes towards each other. “God, King and country” are just the most effective techniques for large groups/nations.


  4. Apropos of nothing much, this isn’t a bad take on With G-d on Our Side:

    The video isn’t that good, but that may be my so-so bandwidth. It’s funny watching the cat cleaning itself in the background, too!


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