Thursday, June 02, 2005

Abu Ghraib

Based on Noumenon's response to my post "History Shmistory," I thought I would write about the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib. To be perfectly honest, I was neither surprised nor shocked--I expected it to happen, I just did not know when or where. When I was studying social psychology, one of our textbooks discussed the Milgram experiments under the chapter title, "Why Good People do Bad Things." I would rephrase the title: "Why Bad People do Good Things." On September 11, one of my professors said to me, "How could someone do something like this?" I replied, "We did worse to Dresden." To me, Abu Ghraib is a mild example of how humans would like to behave. In such a view, the Holocaust is not a horrible abberation from the norm, rather it is how we would behave were there no constraining influences. Those constraining influences are in no way noble, since they exist solely to create a society, which in turn serves to aggregate force against others.

Some may point to supremely altruistic individuals and that they, at the very least, are capable of acting in ways that are not evil. To this I reply that, from a religious viewpoint, one could say that God, who is by definition good, has allowed them to act less evilly than normal. A philosophical viewpoint, derived from Plato's Republic, is that altruism is the highest form of selfishness. Who trusts a man who is a known liar? The most perfectly deceptive person is the one with the most sterling reputation for honesty.

Of course, as Isaiah Berlin pointed out in Four Essays on Liberty, very few people with philosophical beliefs actually act as though they were so. I don't tend to talk to people as though they were unmitigatedly evil. Of course, I might just relate to them so well because I'm one and the same.


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