by Mike O’Brien

I’ve been reading some articles about dehumanization lately, mostly by the popular philosopher (I doubt he would object to that characterization), David Livingstone Smith. I had already spent some time in that domain, given the preponderance of politics in my early post-secondary studies and the looming questions of how humanity’s greatest intramural atrocities came to pass. The vast post-WW2 literature on racial ideology is, of course, very much called for; the Holocaust was a singular event that begs to be understood and prevented from reoccurring. But moral imperatives, useful as they are in spurring action, tend to muck things up when the work turns to matters of descriptive accuracy and conceptual clarity. I’ve witnessed some very silly and non-helpful things said in my own preferred sandbox of animal ethics, which would never have been expressed save for the driving impetus of moral compulsion. The more desperate the moral situation, the more tolerant I tend to be of moralizing intrusions into descriptive questions. I draw the line at philosophers muddling philosophical discussions with other philosophers, the one situation in which one ought to dispense with ordinary moral manners and state the case as one sees it, as terrible as it may be.

I won’t delve too much into the particulars of Livingstone-Smith’s take on dehumanization, as I’m not really reacting to his work so much as reacting to a general approach of which it is typical. Briefly, he has argued that dehumanization is one (but not the only) important way in which human beings are “othered” and thus made suitable, even deserving, objects of cruelty and destruction. The main philosophical point beyond this commonplace notion is that dehumanization is not a metaphor (Xs are like rats in such and such a respect) or rhetorical excess (Xs are a disease that infects our society!), but rather an earnest categorical shift whereby the dehumanizing imagination really does believe that X-type people are not human, despite evident similarities to the observer’s own type of people.

Dehumanization is a bad thing, insofar as it motivates and facilitates the mistreatment of people, particularly in an organized fashion. But I wonder if it has been accorded an out-sized role in humanity’s unkindness towards its own members. To Livingstone Smith’s credit, he makes clear that it is not a singular explanation, and he takes the time to delineate it from cases where some individual or group is disparaged without having their human status called into question. The wealth of documentation that survives from Nazi Germany, in the form of newspapers, posters, films and government declarations, provides ample evidence that this categorical dehumanization was indeed a main thread in that regime’s campaign against visible (and, failing that, identifiable) minorities. But establishing the extent of causal power is another matter.

One thing that nags me about dehumanization narratives is that they offer a story of diminished moral responsibility to the perpetrators and supporters of acts supposedly permitted by the subhuman status of their victims. It sacrifices epistemic reliability for moral reliability, in arguing that it is easier to convince someone that a human is not a human than it is to convince them to knowingly treat a human badly. There is something comforting about this, I suppose. We aren’t really evil, just easily deceived, and maybe it’s easier to fix the epistemic weakness than the moral weakness (or even wickedness), especially on a mass scale. I have no doubt that there is much room for improvement in the average epistemic responsibility of human beings, but as the last few years (by which I mean the entirety of human history) have proven, we can be both stupid and vile. Both can be ameliorated, to some degree, and both are candidates for normative judgment. There are countless stories of people who ignored the dangers of Covid and subsequently caused the deaths of others (preserved on Facebook to provide fodder for the booming schadenfreude industry). Given the vast opportunities to avail themselves of correct information (often appended to their gleefully shared lies, as Facebook’s meagre fig-leaf of responsibility), ought delusions so lustily indulged be counted as any kind of mitigating factor? Surely there is a responsibility to practice hygiene both of the head and of the heart.

Perhaps, for many people, the question of whether they really believe some dehumanizing account about some out-group is not really apt. It may not be the case that they do anything like the kind of idealized mental operations we posit when imaging how they form beliefs. They are simply repeater nodes for certain strings of words, which are taken as totems of fact and value but not processed as propositions with scrutable content. In which case, the conceptual tug of war for the conscience of the common mind is a fantasy, an epiphenomenal gloss invented by academics to give their theories some purchase on reality. It is an admirable charity of spirit that accords more rationality and educability (and, just as important, a desire to know) to the average person than she or he really does or can possess. But if much of dire importance hangs on accurately judging the limits of what can be accomplished by providing information for voluntary consumption and implementation, this charitable spirit is a dangerous source of error.

I am reminded of a talk I attended years ago, about the “Gamer-gate” phenomenon and the larger issue of online misogyny and harassment. Much of the discussion revolved around questions of why gaming culture was so toxic as to lead some gamers to believe that hate speech and personal attacks were perfectly acceptable sorts of behaviour. One of the attendees, obviously well-intentioned and intelligent, professed a belief that nobody would knowingly do something hurtful and wrong. The implication being that hurtful and wrong actions were the result of misunderstandings, perpetuated by media culture. I might have asked whether the people responsible for creating this abuse-enabling culture (assuming there was some responsibility to be assigned) were themselves aware that they were doing something hurtful and wrong, and if so why they were capable of knowingly doing wrong while hate-spewing gamers were not. I didn’t always share such critiques when they popped into my head, as these sorts of discussions were oriented towards broad community discussions, and presumably none of the participants had signed up to be shanked by a roaming philosopher. Community discussions are, for people with training in critical argument, primarily useful for bettering one’s judgement about what does and does not need to be said out loud. Still, some pronouncements, by the boldness of their wrongness and the unfamiliarity with reality that they betray, instantly win a place in my mental museum of “dumbest Goddamned things I’ve ever heard”, and they beg for some response, however ill-fated. (Restricting my reading to the work of professional philosophers has not slowed the expansion of this museum as much as it should.)

Luckily, there was someone in attendance who had a much more concrete experience with, shall we say, moral diversity than my philosophical puttering could provide. This woman had worked with violent offenders in Canadian prisons, many of the sexual violence persuasion, many of them effectively lifers. It is very difficult to get thrown into prison for life in Canada, even for multiple murders. In order to spend most of your years incarcerated, you either have to commit a particularly heinous crime, or commit them very regularly, or exhibit such a compellingly grave threat to public safety that the Crown designates you as a “dangerous offender” and locks you up indefinitely, subject to review. I think the Crown’s faith in reformation is at odds with modern neuroscience, and presumes a plasticity of behaviour that is supernatural (indeed, it is a residual notion from Christian theories of redemption that has no place in a secular justice system). But Corrections Canada doesn’t call me for advice, which is probably for the best.

Anyhow, this woman was able to attest that some people very much do commit acts which they know to be wrong and hurtful, and in some cases enjoy doing them all the more because they are aware of the rules they are transgressing. These people are outliers, of course, but their out-sized contribution to the wrong and hurt in their communities means that they cannot be discounted from any explanation of how and why people do wrong and hurtful things. They are a neurodivergent minority, specifically psychopaths and sociopaths with predatory tendencies. (There are psychopaths and sociopaths without such tendencies, who, for obvious reasons, get less press.) The sociopaths, given that they are aware of the norms they are breaking, and of the humanity that they are denying in abusing others, tend to be cast as wicked, sometimes evil geniuses, more often just awful people. The psychopaths, seem to stand yet further apart. They lack a certain moral awareness, either having no concept of the moral standing of others or no appreciation that it applies to them. They are often described as animals when denounced for violent offences, or as some kind of brutish, per-social throwback to the worst of humanity’s origins.

This is clearly a case of dehumanization. But is it incorrect, morally or conceptually? Many people would agree that a moral sense is an indispensable part of being human. And the profoundly social form of existence that characterizes human life would not be possible if everyone had the deficits that affect psychopaths. (It may, however, be possible to sustain a society in which everyone was a sociopath. There is a whole field of political philosophy dedicated to such a possibility, called “Libertarianism”.) There is a moral opprobrium attached to the psychopath, that may be unjust if they have no control over their condition, although such normative judgments might be a necessity of social regulation. But there is also a certain logical reciprocity at work, if the psychopath is dehumanized precisely because of their inability to conceived of others as properly human, i.e. as having the subjecthood and moral value that is denied to the targets of “dehumanization”. There are at least prudential reasons, if not descriptive-category-following reasons, for excluding those who cannot “play the game” from an identity that is partly constituted by shared performance. Perhaps psychopaths are unlike “normal” humans only in that they do not include others in their in-group, while their disposition to out-groups is not so unusual. (Given the prevalence of self-destructive behaviour among psychopaths, however, their scope of care may not even include themselves).

My biggest contention with the reliance on “dehumanization” to explain humanity’s internecine atrocities is that it is all psychology and no politics. (Again, to be fair to Livingstone Smith, he does not claim that dehumanization applies to all or even most such cases. He does, however, appear to have a mainly pejorative definition of ideology, which is not promising for a political theory). It is comforting to think that most people would not denigrate or kill those whom they recognized as human, nor countenance such acts on their behalf, and such comfort is as dangerous as it is historically naive. The political, to paraphrase one particularly evil German (not the one with the moustache), is the realm of things important enough to kill for, not because of the enemy’s moral status, but in spite of it. While the ethnic eliminationism is the most morally shocking aspect of the Nazi program, the core of their politics was a political enmity with socialism, although these elements were intertwined in popular propaganda. It is not surprising that the anti-Semitic (to name but one ethnic target) aspect was foregrounded, while the anti-Socialist aspect was largely neglected, considering that the Allies spent the post-war period attacking Socialism as vociferously as had their erstwhile existential enemies. Maybe dehumanization is fodder for the common folk, who can’t be riled up for murder by such dry abstractions as political economy and national sovereignty.

A final dissatisfaction about “dehumanization” is that sits among the “but-for” accounts of how normal human relations are turned bad by the intervention of false information. But for the false belief that some group is sub-human, their persecutors would have treated them with the same lukewarm respect and benevolence that all humans accord each other. That’s a world I would like to live in. It doesn’t explain, however, why elimination and abuse are proper to sub-human beings. That’s the missing part of the “dehumanization” story, and of the species-discrimination story. All the accounts I’ve heard about the hierarchical differences in the moral status of animals, and how such perceived differences (mistakenly so, species egalitarians will argue) explain the mistreatment of animals by otherwise good people, fail to explain whither comes this enormous reserve of will to do harm. If such a tendency is presumed to be a common human trait, such that we must guard against the slightest pretence to unleash it, then maybe “humanizing” ought not to carry any valourizing or beatific sense, but rather a warning.