The Sting of Science

Some interesting things going on in the world of guilty, not guilty, and innocent, what with its consequences: the accused goes free, or the accused is imprisoned. As far as I understand it, prison, between Johnny Cash concerts, is a rather unpleasant existence, a place which not only punishes evildoers for the purposes of hindering evil being done in the midst of well-doers, but it also dehumanizes.

Convictions based on DNA evidence are being overturned. Another one bites the dust. Throw DNA evidence onto the pile of other courtroom incontrovertibles, along with fingerprints and lie detector tests. Perhaps the ancients were on to something when they said, “Do not establish a charge except by two or three witnesses.” Besides which, all the truly great courtroom dramas are based on the accounts of the witnesses and whose testimony might be trustworthy or how one might piece together the circumstances surrounding the crime: in other words, narrative. These forensic science TV shows, as cool as they might be in their first run, are intolerable in repeats. Columbo endures.

Ah, but science has determined that the science was insecure, susceptible to abuse! We are hereby one step closer to establishing the scientifically failsafe forensic method in criminal justice! A house divided, yada yada yada…

Jurisprudence took a turn, from this layman’s perspective, in those heady days when we were convinced that we could serve justice coldly, removing the fallible human element from murder trials. As public morality splintered (and now that it has disintegrated), triangulating became truly difficult for juries. How can a jury of peers even be established when we are all islands unto ourselves? Thus the task of weighing testimony was sublimated to the task of weighing the evidence.

Evidence is not unimportant, of course, but artifacts have been elevated in the public mind above hot-blooded accounting of hot blood. It’s all so icky, the tears, the blood-curdling descriptions, the hatred, rage, all there on display in a nice, sterile society. For a jury to pass moral judgment in the case of law is asking an awful lot. Juries, then, are witnesses themselves, offering testimony to the jury of editorials and the twitterverse concerning the wherewithal of a society to commit moral judgment. Who is the presiding judge?

More than that, perspective has been polarized, meaning, a witness is either telling the truth or is telling a lie, and only a chasm exists around those two pillars. The TV tells me that good lawyers know how to destroy witness accounts on this basis: if a reliable witness flutters in one detail, then the whole account is invalidated. Alas for measuring and sifting, for dividing and discerning, a lost art in the age of certainty!

Now that science has once again been disbarred from the courtroom, apprehended murderers might get away with murder! Indeed, they probably will for a short time, but we will establish a new evidentiary process to which to sublimate testimony. In the meantime, it will remain true that our prisoners, nearly all of whom are surely guilty, are stacked in cells reaching from beneath the earth up to the sky, and stretching in lines which converge around the compass on every horizon. Look, we say, our prisons are full, and crime is consequently minimized. See how we have hindered evildoing! We are approaching that day when we shall become a completely just society.



Theory and Practice, Episode Four


If you spend any time at all thinking about moral philosophy, eventually you face a set of difficult questions. Some of these are:

  • If making ethical decisions comes down to learning and applying the correct moral framework, why do people disagree about morality at all?
  • Couldn’t we just sit down together, discuss The Virtues, or whatever, determine what the most virtuous action is, and proceed accordingly?
  • Why, even after acting in accordance with our moral philosophy, do we still face doubts and even regrets about what we’ve done?
  • And so on.

There are a few possible explanations for all of this. One might be that, while the Virtues (or our preferred moral philosophy) are perfect, human reasoning is not. Another might be that truth is untruth in the moral realm as much as elsewhere. Still another might be that morality is subjective. Or, more radically, perhaps morality is a psychological illusion or a sense of self-justification we instigate ex post facto.

But I gravitate to another explanation: Moral reasoning is a skill that must be practiced and perfected.  Continue reading “Theory and Practice, Episode Four”

Theory and Practice, Episode Three

Maybe it was a bad idea to cite an acerbic guy like Lubos Motl. When a guy says that a lot of questions are just stupid, that’s not exactly “sweet talk.” Motl has an important point, but I won’t defend his tone.

He did take the time to outline exactly what he means when he says “stupid questions,” and not only does that definition not apply to Adam, it is also fully consistent with the Gadamer quote Adam gave us. In fact, I am as surprised that Adam would quote an argument in favor of authentic dialogue as a response to a criticism of inauthentic questions as I was when Samuel quoted a Situationist to critique my endorsement of Situationism.

Clearly there is a gap between what I think I’m saying and the message I actually manage to convey. And clearly this gap is caused by me because it keeps happening, and I am the common denominator. Motl might be wrong for his aggressive tone, but at least he gets his point across. No such luck for me. Even when my fellow Sweet Talkers agree with me, they think they disagree. Continue reading “Theory and Practice, Episode Three”

Theory and Practice, Episode One


I need to make a point about something, but as it turns out, it’s impossible to make this point in a single blog post. So I’ll have to do this on an installment plan.

Adventures In Comparative Legal Systems

When I lived in Canada, I used to hang out with a lot of law students. During that time, the conversation would inevitably turn to Canadian law. By this, I mean that they were often doing their homework right in front of me, and I was helping them with it. So it was a bit more than just casual conversation.

And in case you’re wondering, the answer is: Yes, my experience tells me that most law school homework is done in a pub over multiple pitchers of beer.

Anyway, one of the things that struck me about the Canadian legal system is the way human rights are organized, legally speaking. Canada has what’s called the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is analogous to the American Bill of Rights. It spells out what rights are guaranteed to the people by the government. The Canadian government, according to Canadian law, is permitted to violate the Charter in certain cases, as long as the details of those cases conform to certain legal guidelines, which are spelled out in writing and in jurisprudence.

As a fiery young, philosophical man, this used to incense me. After all, the Bill of Rights is a document that outlines things that the U.S. federal government is not permitted to do. In other words, the presumption here in the United States is that human beings hold certain inalienable rights that supersede any additional legal power. In Canada, subject to legal conventions, it is the government that grants all rights to the people, so government powers supersede the rights of the people.

I say it used to make me incensed. It doesn’t anymore. Why not? Because while studying the law alongside my friends, I eventually learned that in practice the Canadian legal system reaches the same important conclusions regarding human rights as the American legal system.

The only material difference in these matters is the language used to justify the conclusion. In America, our courts tend to use language that refers to what the government cannot do, and what the intended meaning of legislation is. In Canada, their courts tend to use language that refers to what the government is permitted to do and whether the intended meaning of the legislation provides sufficient justification for doing it.

But, as I said, when it comes to everything that matters on human rights issues, the two countries’ legal systems tend to reach the same conclusions, even though their justifications are phrased differently.

What’s the Point, Ryan?

I bring this up because one of the least attractive things about philosophy is that it tends to raise objections that need not be raised.

We see a homeless man shivering outside a coffee shop with an outstretched arm holding a cup. Most people I know who have spare change will drop a few coins in the man’s cup. Of those who do, some of them do so for reasons of faith, some of them do so for reasons of utility maximization, some of them do it for reasons of virtue. And, yes, some of them do it for reasons of guilt, shame, embarrassment, or to help clear their conscience.

I know a few people who would choose not to help the man. They all refuse to do it for various reasons, but no matter what their moral philosophy happens to be, they all justify their decision on moral terms. Maybe they want to give the man incentive to get a job. Maybe they think someone else is more deserving. Maybe they think the man will spend the money contrary to his own best interests, i.e. on drugs or alcohol.

Philosophy tends to raise objections that need not be raised. If you and I both give the man our spare change, there is no point arguing over which one of us had the better moral reasoning: the outcome was the same, ergo our reasoning was equal. You can say this however you like: what matter are results; actions speak louder than words; practice is more relevant than theory.

What matters outside of that coffee shop is not the spotless philosophical reasoning used to justify a particular course of action, but rather what we choose to do. If I give the old man my spare change for totally incomprehensible and inconsistent reasons “which, if taken to their natural conclusion…” would destroy the world I don’t care. Neither does the old man. Because the outcome of my moral reasoning was the same as if I had used a superior moral framework (or an even more inferior one): the man got his money and the world is still intact.

Now, if a particular philosophy fails to produce the right results, or fails to produce them consistently, then we have a good reason to evaluate the coherence of that philosophy and address its shortcomings. (More on that in a forthcoming post.) But if I’m giving my change to deserving old men, my friends and family are happy with me, and I am generally impacting the world in a positive way, whatever crazy and internally inconsistent moral framework I’m working with is working for me/paying rent.

If we raise objections to “wrong” thinking that consistently yields “right” results, then maybe it’s time we checked our premises.

Situationism: Let’s Clarify Some Things

Samuel’s most recent post is phrased with the language of disagreement, leading me to believe that he does not fully understand the extent to which his post fully agrees with both my views on the Situationism of war and with Situationism in general.

He quotes Joseph Heath on page 336 of Morality, Competition, and the Firm. One page earlier, however, Heath cites the most famous and profound Situationist social psychology experiment of all time, the Milgram experiments. Heath writes (all emphases mine, throughout):

Arendt’s observations about “the banality of evil” generated considerable outrage when first published. The Milgram experiments, it is worth recalling, were undertaken with the goal of disproving Arendt’s hypothesis, although in the end they wound up providing its most powerful confirmation. All of this suggests that there is actually an element of wishful thinking in the idea that “bad people do bad things.” Since the people who say this typically do not conceive of themselves as bad people, adherence to this theory is a way of putting some distance between themselves and those who perpetrate such acts, and thereby of avoiding the disquieting suggestion that they too are perfectly capable of inflicting great suffering on others.

“Wishful thinking” is sort of like a self-delusion, isn’t it? couldn’t possibly do the wrong thing, because I’m not a bad person. The problem here is that, again and again, after controlling for many individualized psychological factors, researchers find that perfectly good people are willing to deliver lethal levels of electric shock to innocent strangers if someone in a lab coat (or, in later versions of the experiment, even without a lab coat) simply prompts them to do so.

Heath continues:

Yet while a single, general theory of criminal motivation remains elusive, we have managed, over the course of the twentieth century, to do an enormous amount of debunking. In particular, the idea that criminals “don’t know right from wrong,” or that they were “not raised right,” or that they don’t “share our values” have all been decisively rejected. Furthermore, these claims have themselves become the object of suspicion, because they all have the effect of “othering” the criminal, suggesting that there is some kind of an instrinsic or essential difference between criminals and law-abiding citizens. This seems more likely to be a motivated belief imposed by the social psychology of punishment than an accurate characterization of the underlying structure of criminal motivation.

In fact, Philip Zimbardo defines evil to be “knowing better but acting worse.” Zimbardo, Heath, Arendt, Milgram, and many others have reached the same conclusion again and again, that what causes evil is not part of a person’s disposition, but rather exposure to a particular kind of situation.

What Situationism Is Not

Situationism is not a way to deflect individual moral responsibility. Situationism is not a way to blame forces outside of our control. Situationism is not a method of saying “the system made me do it.”

Situationism is also not a means to ascribe all behavior to the surrounding environment, rather than the acts of individuals. Samuel leads me to believe that this is what he had in mind when he wrote,

Reading Ryan’s post, I was left with the sense that he sees a situation’s influence over moral decision as inevitable, possibly even deterministic…

The problem with this argument comes back to the eternal question asked by criminologists: Why isn’t there more crime than there actually is? Given the state’s limited enforcement capacity, society depends on most people, most of the time behaving morally, i.e. of following the rules. If self-delusion were truly the rule, rather than the exception, civilization would collapse under a crisis of endemic shirking.

It goes without saying that peer pressure can only affect a person during moments when that person is exposed to it. Absent that exposure, we couldn’t ever blame peer pressure for anything.

And so it is with Situationism. Society generally follows the rules because we seldom find ourselves in situations that severely undermine our ability to tell right from wrong. Those situations arise when we are cast into new environments, as when adolescents enter junior high school (a notoriously difficult time in the lives of most teens). The new-ness of the situation draws people out of their own identities and forces them to deal with new stimuli in new ways. Is it any wonder so many young people cave to peer pressure?

It is not sitting in an Introduction to Philosophy course in college that turns formerly well-behaved kids into reckless frat-party rascals, it’s the exposure to the fraternity’s calculated initiation procedures and package-deal social dynamics. Caught up in a new and stressful situation, far away from home, and hungry to find a “true” identity, young people “experiment” in ways that aren’t always positive (as the many allegations of “rape culture” etc. aptly attest).

So Situationism is not a description of how any set of circumstances at all are to blame for individuals’ bad behavior, and if this is what Samuel had in mind when he wrote his post, he can rest assured that I agree with him.

What Situationism Is

Instead, Situationism is a set of theories that offer explanations for exactly how and why good people do bad things. They still bear responsibility for their actions, but psychologists aren’t as interested in assigning blame and enforcing justice as they are in explaining human behavior. Thus, if psychologists conclude that identifiable situational factors consistently produce certain human behavior, that is good information to know.

Furthermore, it’s not just “good to know” for the sake of our intellectual curiosity, it’s good to know because it provides us a means for avoiding evil in the future. If you know in advance that you are going to experience a certain kind of situation, you are better prepared to resist Situational influence. Furthermore, it is your moral responsibility to do so.

Ignorance of Situationism’s theories isn’t an excuse, of course, but once you have the knowledge that war means rape (to cite just one example), you  no longer have a moral justification for not applying influence-resisting techniques to situations you face.

This is part of what Dr. Zimbardo means when he says that Situationism does not excuse evil, it democratizes it. You, the reader, are now aware of Situational influence. You, the reader, are now morally on the hook for recognizing bad Situational influence when you see it, and resisting it.

It Can Happen To You

Samuel closes his most recent post with the following:

The upshot is that we shouldn’t stop holding people accountable for their actions just because the situation they somehow found themselves in made shirking their moral duties the path of least resistance. Indeed, just the opposite. Employing techniques of neutralization, as a self-serving behavior, should itself be an object of social sanction.

Moreover, it means there’s a chance we can preempt our techniques of neutralization by being aware of them, and by training ourselves in strategies that undercut self-delusion. That’s essentially what Joseph Heath argues business ethics courses should look like, rather than tired lessons in the history of moral philosophy. But in general it’s probably the sort of moral education we should all be subject to, starting as children.

Notice how similar his prescription is to mine (and Zimbardo’s).

There is, however, one key difference: Samuel’s perspective is still highly colored by dispositional reasoning. That is, for him, “neutralization” and self-serving behavior is a personal problem that we must be trained to overcome. It’s a flaw in ourselves which can be stamped-out with proper moral training.

My nitpick here is that this sort of reasoning leaves open the door for any moral analyst to say, “Well, Bob did a bad thing because he never trained himself to do good things.” This way of looking at things still provides an avenue for blaming bad apples rather than recognizing bad barrels. But a pivotal revelation of Situational analysis is that the same apple may be good or bad, depending on the barrel.

In Chapter 14 of The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo provides a full background history on Ivan “Chip” Frederick, one of the soldiers found guilty of abuse during the Abu Ghraib scandal. For decades, Frederick was the model of moral behavior. He was an exemplary civilian prison guard, beloved by family and friends alike. There was never a hint throughout his entire life of being the sort of person who would harm another human being, even despite his position as a national guardsman and a prison guard. He was a decorated and beloved soldier who was assigned to work at the Abu Ghraib prison precisely because of his record.

Once exposed to the conditions at Abu Ghraib, however, Frederick (like virtually everyone in that hell-hole) quickly fell apart. Absent of clear rules and chains of authority, Frederick no longer had a cohesive structure on which to fall back during times of intense stress. He raised this issue with his superiors, along with many others, to no avail. Absent any outside support, he who was once precisely the kind of person who excelled as a prison guard quickly deteriorated into the worst kind of guard imaginable.

It was not his weakness that caused his decline, nor was it his propensity to explain away his behavior internally. It’s doubtful that most people fully understand the conditions inside Abu Ghraib prison circa-2003. There was no indoor plumbing, and the outhouses were literally overflowing with raw sewage. The prison was not just over-crowded, it was over-flowing and impossible to manage. The prisoners – many of whom were innocent civilians imprisoned for no reason at all, including adolescents – staged frequent, violent riots and escape attempts. The prison suffered mortar attacks on a daily basis. Guards raped prisoners. Prisoners raped prisoners. Non-government contractors “interrogated” (read: tortured) prisoners to extract confessions from them. Clothing shortages and instances of self-harm resulted in a large number of prisoners being naked constantly.

The point here is that, if we take time to really try to understand that place and that situation, we will quickly understand that if we were there, we likely wouldn’t act anything like ourselves any more than Chip Frederick did. This is the horrible power of negative Situational influence.

Resisting Negative Influence

In reading Zimbardo’s book, I have been struck by some of the small, seemingly insignificant ways we can resist negative influence.

One of the interesting things to come out of the Stanford Prison Experiment was the observation that the prisoners, when not in the presence of any prison guards, only ever spoke to each other about the prison. They never talked to each other about who they were in real life, their families, their interests, their hobbies, and what they planned to do after the experiment ended. They only ever spoke to each other about prison conditions, the guards, and so on.

So, think about it. How often do you talk about your non-work-related interests and activities while you are at work? Most of us have been in employment situations that started to dominate our lives. We check in from our personal computers at home, even when not required to do so. We get involved in the office politics. We start to see Bob From Accounting as Bob From Accounting, rather than Bob Smith Who Coaches Soccer On The Weekends. You can be certain that, in those situations, people see you as Bob From Accounting, or Jane From Legal, or whatever the case may be.

This is Situational influence that is rather easy to resist by simply placing your identity outside of work in the forefront of your mind. Remind yourself, and others, who you really are. Talk about your family or what you did on the weekend. This one, small act can make a big difference if the Situation is volatile, and negative.

At, Zimbardo offers twenty “hints” for resisting influence. These simple pearls of wisdom can go a long way toward helping a person keep sight of their moral compass in stressful situations. They’re good tips, but in order to really prepare oneself for resisting this influence, it’s even better to understand the basic principles of social influence and how they are used. The website offers a good introduction to that process here.

I Sympathize With Adam

Adam’s story resonated with me, because I have a similar one of my own.

Many years ago, I befriended a number of my work colleagues. On one occasion, a small group of us headed over to my apartment for some drinks, intending to head out to a club a little later. We got to talking, casual conversation turned deep, and eventually one of my colleagues recounted a story of being physically abused – she said “beat down” – on a crowded public beach. The crowd did nothing to stop the abuse. Even when the beating was finished, no one came to help her even clean herself up.

No one did anything.

I learned later that my colleague was describing a very tragic and personal experience with what social psychologists call the bystander effect. When others are present, we are unlikely to help the victims of an attack. The more people present, the less likely we are to help. Sometimes we struggle to understand how innocent people can be hacked to death in the streets in front of literally hundreds of onlookers without anyone stepping in to help. The bystander effect explains this phenomenon.

At the time, I said to my colleague, “I can’t believe no one did anything.”

She chortled and said, “Nobody does anything.”

“I would have done something,” I said.

“Yeah, you say that,” she replied, “but when stuff like this happens, nobody ever does anything. You might think you’ll do something, but you won’t.”

I thought about that for a moment. Then I made a promise to her: “Because you said that, I’m going to make sure that I do something if I ever see something like that.” She didn’t believe me, but said she hoped I would.

I have not yet had the chance to fulfill my promise to my friend. However, our conversation made a permanent impact on my life. I am not certain that, when the time comes, I will indeed do what I promised to do. If I don’t, that failure will haunt me to my grave.

It wasn’t until I started reading The Lucifer Effect that I learned that the promise I made is one of Zimbardo’s recommended strategies for actually doing what I intend to do. He writes:

We also want to believe that there is something IN some people that drives them toward evil, while there is something different IN others that drives them toward good. It is an obvious notion but there is no hard evidence to support that dispositional view of evil and good, certainly not the inner determinants of heroism. There may be, but I need to see reliable data before I am convinced. Till then, I am proposing we focus on situational determinants of evil and good, trying to understand what about certain behavioral settings pushes some of us to become perpetrators of evil, others to look the other way in the presence of evil doers, tacitly condoning their actions and thus being guilty of the evil of inaction, while others act heroically on behalf of those in need or righting injustice. Some situations can inflame the “hostile imagination,” propelling good people to do bad deeds, while something in that same setting can inspire the “heroic imagination” propelling ordinary people toward actions that their culture at a given time determines is “heroic.” I argue in Lucifer and recent essays, that follow here, it is vital for every society to have its institutions teach heroism, building into such teachings the importance of mentally rehearsing taking heroic action—thus to be ready to act when called to service for a moral cause or just to help a victim in distress.

The best I can do is try. Until then, I argue that become better-equipped to recognize and deal with Situational influence is the best and most reliable means to prevent evil from happening, to overcome situations, and – with some hard work – overturn the systems that keep these situations intact.


Techniques of Neutralization

Ryan and Adam have been discussing the role of situation in morality. Do read both in full.

Ryan’s is a convincing defense of the banality of evil. Rape is an inevitability of war, for example, not because the participants of war are particularly bad human beings, but because the situation of being at war drives otherwise normal human beings to do heinous things. As he writes,

Situational psychology does not excuse evil, it democratizes it. It’s easy to believe that a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, or a torture chamber in Cuba, or an insane-asylum-cum-torture-chamber in Iraq, or the total eradication of life as we know it in Syria, has nothing to do with us.

Both he and Adam point to self-delusion as the culprit. Writing from the experience of having once rationalized the immoral actions of a close friend, Adam says he

received that wake-up call about my own capacity for self-deception over a decade ago. The bigger shock was not that I was able to be so willfully blind, but that so many of my friends continued to be in light of what the investigation uncovered. In fact, they doubled down, entrenching themselves in a persecution narrative which provided a useful framework for rationalizing away any hint of their own guilt.

I don’t have much to add so far that my senpai hasn’t (as usual) said earlier and much better. From his discussion of the shortcomings of virtue ethics in Morality Competition, and the Firm, Joseph Heath brings up the criminology literature on violent subcultures:

In the 1950s David Matza and Gresham Sykes suggested that the reason deviant subcultures (such as youth gangs) are criminogenic is not that they encourage primary deviance with respect to the moral norms and values of society, but that they facilitate secondary deviance with respect to cognitive and epistemic norms governing the way situations are construed. … Instead of maintaining that violence itself is good, members of the group may instead convince themselves that they had no choice to act as they did, or that the victim had done something to deserve it … What distinguishes the criminal, according to this view, is not a motivational defect or an improper set of values, but rather a willingness to make self-serving use of excuses, in a way that neutralizes the force of conventional values.

One implication of these “techniques of neutralization,” as they’re known, is that proper behavior, for the most part, is not hidden knowledge that the deviant is ignorant of. In fact, social deviants usually “know” the right thing to do, but explain it away with reference to exceptional circumstances, or by construing the situation differently. Paraphrasing an example Heath often gives, when someone says they have “borrowed” an item they in fact stole, they are in essence substituting one normative violation (“do not steal”) with a different, less bad cognitive violation (the generally accepted meaning of the word “borrowed”). He discusses other techniques of neutralization here. They include:

  • Denial of responsibility
  • Denial of injury
  • Denial of the victim
  • Condemnation of the condemner
  • Appeal to higher loyalties
  • “Everyone else is doing it”
  • Entitlement

Reading Ryan’s post, I was left with the sense that he sees a situation’s influence over moral decision as inevitable, possibly even deterministic. He thus suggests abandoning the even greater delusion that we can avoid self-delusion, and instead focus on reforming the broader system that generates the situations that leave us most compromised.

The problem with this argument comes back to the eternal question asked by criminologists: Why isn’t there more crime than there actually is? Given the state’s limited enforcement capacity, society depends on most people, most of the time behaving morally, i.e. of following the rules. If self-delusion were truly the rule, rather than the exception, civilization would collapse under a crisis of endemic shirking.

Ironically, blaming the system is one of the most pernicious techniques of neutralization criminologists have identified. Indeed, saying “it’s systemic” is one of the easiest ways to deny responsibility for one’s action, and in turn make the problematic behavioral pattern all the more common and entrenched.

This is true not just with respect to crime stemming from war or systemic poverty, but applies equally well to white collar crime, too. When bankers engage in shady lending or regulatory arbitrage, for example, they often neutralize their bad behavior by blaming the systemic forces of market competition (“Everyone else is doing it”), or the duty to maximize shareholder value within the letter of the law (Appeal to higher loyalty). Over time this leads to juridification, the thickening of law books, as behaviors that were once enforced by unwritten social norms and voluntary self-restraint must be replaced by codified laws with explicit sanctions.


The upshot is that we shouldn’t stop holding people accountable for their actions just because the situation they somehow found themselves in made shirking their moral duties the path of least resistance. Indeed, just the opposite. Employing techniques of neutralization, as a self-serving behavior, should itself be an object of social sanction.

Moreover, it means there’s a chance we can preempt our techniques of neutralization by being aware of them, and by training ourselves in strategies that undercut self-delusion. That’s essentially what Joseph Heath argues business ethics courses should look like, rather than tired lessons in the history of moral philosophy. But in general it’s probably the sort of moral education we should all be subject to, starting as children.

The System and the Situation

Maintaining cognitive biases and willful illusions isn’t just problematic for our ability to reason – it’s morally wrong. A simple example can illustrate what I mean:

At the age of 9, Ethan Couch was still sleeping with his mother even though he had his own bedroom.

“Tonya has [Ethan’s] bed in her room and considers Ethan to be her protector.Very unusual,” Flynn said of that arrangement. “Very unusual, and highly questionable.”

The term “adultified” was used to explain that Ethan was treated as an equal, rather than as a child.

“This was a very dysfunctional family,” Flynn said. “Did not prepare Ethan for adulthood. It doesn’t surprise me at all that it has run its course this way.”

No matter what you happen to personally believe about Ethan Couch and his infamous “affluenza” defense, the fact of the matter is that his having been raised by a woman who wanted to maintain severe (possibly drug-induced) delusions rather than raise him properly clearly ruined his life. Ultimately, this ended the lives of four innocent motorists.

I’m not suggesting that their deaths were inevitable in light of Couch’s upbringing, I’m simply highlighting the fact that when we sustain self-delusions at the expense of other people, we’re acting immorally.

Of course, the matter of Ethan Couch’s dysfunctional family is cut-and-dry, and we don’t learn anything from stating the obvious. The real question, to what extent do we ourselves play the role of Tonya or Ethan Couch in our own lives, and who ultimately pays the price for this?

*        *        *

By now, readers must surely be aware of the recent allegations of sexual abuse by United Nations “peacekeepers” in the Central African Republic. At least seven women and little girls claim to have been raped, an allegation serious enough, and numerous enough, to lead us to believe that it is highly unlikely that these allegations are not true.

On some level, no one is really surprised by this. On some level, we all understand that “war is hell” and that the conditions of war almost always (or simply always) enable a rash of sexual abuse. This tragic phenomenon is thousands of years old, maybe as old as human civilization itself. It’s fair to say that the Situation of war is a direct cause of sexual abuse; meaning, if we want to guarantee that sexual abuse occurs, all we have to do is start a war. Period.

It’s important to note that sexual abuse has nothing to do with the reasons people or nations or groups wage war. That is, there’s nothing inherent in the politics of war that causes rape. In modern warfare, rape is not a strategic decision made by generals. It is not a planned and coordinated action by the military.

On the contrary, it is an emergent phenomenon of wartime social psychology. It happens in every war. The sexual abuse is committed, not by rogue scoundrels seeking to exploit a volatile background scenario, but normal, healthy boys and girls you personally know and grew up with. But for your decision not to enlist – or someone else’s decision not to deploy you to that particular war zone – the person committing these atrocities not only could have been you, but probably would have been you.

This is the profoundly important lesson of social psychology. The abusers went into the Situation as psychologically normal, moral human beings. In the Situation, they became monsters. Once removed from the Situation, they reverted back to their previous state, plus or minus the impacts of having experienced war firsthand.

*        *        *

Many well-meaning people will react to this information in a natural, but in my opinion, ineffectual way: They’ll call for rules and procedures to be put in place. These rules and procedures will help prevent the people in a bad Situation from falling victim to situational influence, and thus preempt them from committing sexual abuse.

What these people fail to understand is that rules and procedures are already in place (emphasis added):

“I will not rest until these heinous acts are uncovered, perpetrators are punished, and incidents cease,” the U.N envoy for Central African Republic and head of the U.N. mission Parfait Onanga-Anyanga said during a visit to Bambari, as Reuters reports.

He reminded the troops that “sexual abuse and exploitation is a serious breach of the U.N. regulations and a human rights violation; a double crime that affects the vulnerable women and children you were sent here to protect.”


Anthony Banbury, assistant secretary general to the U.N., said that there are around 69 confirmed allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation among the U.N.’s 16 international peacekeeping missions, for the whole of 2015, as reported by The Globe and Mail.

Peacekeeping missions are not anarchy. Rules and procedures designed to prevent chaos exist and have been implemented. These crimes are not a lapse in the execution of a perfectly designed process.

The process itself serves as a self-delusion. Its mere existence convinces us that

  • If we commit a crime against humanity, we were just following orders;
  • If we observe a crime against humanity, procedures were violated and transgressors must be brought to justice;
  • Their thus having been punished, justice is served and world is normal again.

In reality, nothing about this serves to actually prevent sexual abuse. This is just system we’ve cooked-up ex post facto to prevent an existential vacuum from opening up every time rapes occur on UN peacekeeping missions (or US wars, or sectarian uprisings, or etc., etc.); which is to say, every single time war is waged and/or peace is “kept.”

Every. Single. Time.

I’m beating a dead horse here because it’s important to understand that (once again, shout it from the rooftops) rape is an inevitable and predictable byproduct of war.

Once we understand that – I mean really understand it – that means we are no longer entitled to be surprised by allegations of sexual abuse. We are no longer entitled to believe that it was the bad behavior of a few bad apples. We are no longer entitled to believe that we had nothing to do with it or that our procedures are well-conceived and capable of addressing the problem.

As Philip Zimbardo has said, Situational psychology does not excuse evil, it democratizes it. It’s easy to believe that a U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, or a torture chamber in Cuba, or an insane-asylum-cum-torture-chamber in Iraq, or the total eradication of life as we know it in Syria, has nothing to do with us.

It’s easy to believe that these situations are just too complex to easily solve, and that the best we can do is vote for the right people, who will implement the right procedures, which will solve the problem.

But, no. That’s just our delusion talking. That’s just the part of our brain that doesn’t want to acknowledge that the crime is a direct result of the Situation, and the Situation is a direct result of the System that enables it. To prevent these and other atrocities, we don’t need better rules written by better philosopher-kings.

Instead, we need to dispense with the delusion and confront the existential vacuum. We need to admit to ourselves that things like this don’t magically stop happening after election season is over. We need to acknowledge that Good Guy Candidate A was still powerless to prevent the Situation, which means our belief that he could is also delusional. We need to admit to ourselves that the System enabling this terror is the delusion we carry with us, the one that tells us that the rules can work, if only they’re properly implemented.

Then, and only then, will we be ready to make a real and productive change.