Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

April 6, 2008

Human, All Too Human

by @ 3:37 PM. Filed under Autonomy, General, Personhood, Theory, Women's Issues

There has been a kind of mini-carnival developing across the blogs lately, on the subject of sexual violence in prisons. It began with a recent LA Times Op-Ed on the subject by high-profile blogger Ezra Klein. It’s good to see attention being paid to this issue; the number of bloggers getting involved is encouraging.

But, as important as the issue is, and as vital as it is to re-assess and reform our justice and prison systems overall, I think viewing this as merely an aspect of the mis-management of prisons is a mistake. Systemic sexual abuse occurs not merely in prisons but in the military, among the “contractors” of KBR in Iraq, between priests and congregants, in the workplace, and throughout society. As feminist critics of violence against women have long been saying, the problem is not one of sex in itself, but of the use and abuse of power in general. It is just one manifestation of an issue that pervades the authoritative control of human beings by other human beings.


In saying that, I don’t mean to minimize the irresponsibility of organizations that create situations that allow for abuse, or the impact of poor training, poor leadership, racism, sexism, and similar contributing factors. These are all egregious faults, they are characteristic of the abusive institutions and attitudes that govern prisons, the military, youth homes, workplaces, and the like, and they are the conditions that give rise to the abuses that result. But there is a deeper issue at play.

It has been shown time and again that humans with absolute power over other humans will abuse them in the most shocking ways, no matter what other circumstantial factors are in place. Practical experience demonstrates this in our sad history of ethnic violence, pogroms and genocide, and slavery; it has been demonstrated in the laboratory as well, in Milgram’s classic works on willingness to inflict pain to helpless victims on command, and Zimabardo’s prison simulation using ordinary college students, which degenerated into psychotic physical abuse within a matter of days; it manifests itself in almost exactly parallel ways in such cases as police beatings and killings, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and the longstanding use of torture against political prisoners. It takes place not only among organizations with a belligerent and abusive mindset, like the police and prisons, but among those with a nominally professional mindset and an explicit code of law and ethics governing the use of force, as with the military; it arises even between ordinary individuals almost literally as soon as any hierarchical distinction is made between them, as, again, in the case of the Zimbardo experiment.

This inherent tendency needs to be recognized for what it is. For whatever reason, it appears to be a feature of the behavior of humans in groups. We need not posit any dubious “evolutionary psychology” Just-So story about why, or speculate as to what purpose it serves. It may be an innate human impulse, selected-for for some sort of competitive advantage it brings, it may be a secondary effect of other, more benign, psychological processes, or it may merely be an exercise in opportunistic self-interest, like filching money from an open purse or telling lies to evade punishment – the sort of thing many people would do even if they like to think of themselves as better than that. Whatever its source, its manifestation is real, and too ubiquitous to go unnoticed.

What we know is this: when you give some human beings almost unlimited physical power over other human beings, and don’t monitor or control them carefully, they will physically abuse those under their control. They will do other bad things as well – mocking and humiliating their charges (recall Abu Ghraib again), taking advantage of their helplessness to extract benefits from them (coercing them for money or services, and enslaving them to extract labor), and engaging in constant petty abuses to maintain the power distinction. And the forms of abuse employed will take various guises, depending upon circumstances and the people involved: it may be cultural or religious humiliation, where the powerful and powerless groups are of different backgrounds; it may be political indoctrination, where they are ideologically opposed; it may take any of the many forms of racist violence where race is a factor, and it will invariably involve sexual abuse where women are the powerless group. But what is constant in such scenarios is simply that one person has the power to treat another as they choose, with impunity; given that one, simple, empowering condition, the result is almost always that how they choose to treat those under them is by way of abuse, often violent.

We recognize and plan for other forms of ubiquitous human perfidy: we do not leave our money lying around, not because everyone around us is a career criminal, but because we know many people around us will become criminals if they have the chance and think they can get away with it; we do not simply take people’s word for the information we need from them, not because very many people are congenital liars but because most people will be opportunistic liars if given a reason to be. We do not expect terrible moral abuses from most of our fellows most of the time, but we live almost every aspect of our lives taking basic precautions against such abuses, and trying to minimize the temptation to engage in them. Almost everything we own (house, car, computer, purse, desk, etc. . . .) has a lock on it. Almost every important statement we make (tax returns, legal testimony, our age when buying beer, . . .) requires corroborating evidence. We know that people will take advantage of circumstances to steal or lie if they think they can, even if those people are generally reliable within a reasonable framework of control. We take precautions to limit their temptation and to provide the oversight that will keep them from feeling that they can violate the rules. (It is often said that the flimsy locks on desk drawers are only there to keep out honest people.) We must recognize that the temptation to abuse and violence is another human characteristic that we need to anticipate and plan for.

The use of power to abuse others is one of the features of human behavior – like opportunistic lying or stealing – that simply must be guarded against as a standard precaution. We must build abuse monitoring and prevention mechanisms into our lives and institutions in just the way we put locks on all our doors and demand evidence to back up factual statements. We must assume that abuse will be likely when we do not take precautions against it, just as we assume people will get robbed if they leave their valuables unattended, and be lied to if they take everything they are told at face value. Again, why this is so is a deeper question, but it appears, on extensive empirical evidence, to be a commonplace emergent feature of certain types of human interactions.

Understanding and planning for the social problems we have to manage to maintain a decent society requires understanding that some of those problems are characteristic, not of specific circumstances, attitudes, ethnic or religious groups, or what have you, but of humans, in general, in group interactions. More broadly, this means we must think about morality from a more empirical perspective, acknowledging that there are certain stereotypical immoral practices that humans slip into if not otherwise motivated (violence against the weak being just one of them), and that these must be guarded against as standard practice. It means we must not expect moral behavior in group situations as a baseline assumption; we must assume certain types of abuses will occur unless specifically guarded against, and build institutions and practices that incorporate those precautions. At the very least we must stop imagining that the repeated incidents of violence or abusive behavior we keep discovering are the result of “a few bad apples”, or of some mere failure of discipline in an isolated case. They are the result of humans being human, in all that that, unfortunately, implies.
These thoughts are the result of some vague thinking I’ve been doing lately about the empirical nature of human moral behavior. Where exactly they’re leading I’m not sure. These considerations are far too preliminary to attempt to read any simplistic policy recommendations out of them. And I am aware that they can be used to support reactionary programs like a police state or universal monitoring, or the conservative notion of “moral depravity” that justifies any possible intrusions on individual liberty. I hope and believe that the empirical foundation of human moral behavior is compatible with the traditional notions of moral liberty and the public/private distinction. It is at the least closely linked to the empirical observations forming the basis of classical social contract theory, which is certainly compatible with a fairly robust liberalism (if not radical libertarianism). But all that remains to be worked out. For now, I merely wish to make the point that we need to stop being surprised by tales of systematic torture, abuse, or rape in out social institutions; we’ve seen that enough now to recognize it is the norm, not the exception.

2 Responses to “Human, All Too Human”

  1. Alison Hymes Says:

    I’m never surprised by tales of systematic abuse and rape in institutions, but that’s because I am a survivor of psychiatric hospitals and friend of many other survivors of psychiatric hospitals and an advocate. I think we need to stop giving any human absolute power over another human, even in our prisons it would be possible to give most inmates a lot more choice and options than is done. It is most definitely not necessary to make psychiatric hospitals and units places where staff have absolute power and where absolute obedience is demanded of all patients in every large and small matter. Of course our American psychiatric hospitals are becoming more and more like prisons as patients are given cold food to eat that is soft because one person might choke, as they are denied the right to have caffeine, to smoke and to choose what amount of calories they will consume in our Central State Hospital in Virginia. But they have always been like jails and prisons in demanding absolute immediate obedience and deference to staff, usually without anyone ever telling a new patient this is the expectation, at a time when someone is at their worst and least able to control their behavior. They are then punished although it is called “treatment” or “intervention” even when it involves knocking someone to the floor or putting them in isolation or tying them down to a gurney. I don’t believe better monitoring will ever end abuse unless perhaps the monitoring is done by patients themselves and complaints are taken seriously and investigated immediately.

  2. Jason Says:

    I know this post is old, but I just found your blog and wanted to comment…

    I think you’re right that abuses of power will occur where the situation is such that, and to the extent that, they will be tolerated and/or undiscovered. In institutional environments, it seems simple enough to combat most of this with proper surveillance (audio and video in every room), oversight (by someone other than the (potential) abusers, and clearly defined boundaries, so those in power know exactly how much power they are expected/entitled to exercise, and in what manner.

    What I’m writing to ask your opinion on is the issue of child abuse, since it occurs in private, where there could be no outside surveillance, where there are no clear (legal) guidelines, where there is the opportunity, where no training is given to teach other methods of discipline (though, of course, not all child abuse is disciplinary), etc.

    If we take the assumption (which seems fairly strong) that people will take what opportunities are given to them (to steal, lie, torture), and the easiest way to reduce most of these problems is to reduce their conditions of possibility, how would we apply that reasoning, and its attendant solutions, to situations where official or public oversight is much less realistically possible?

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