Humanizing Monsters

Civil American, Volume 2, Article 5 (October 31, 2017),

| By Casey Dorman |

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I was listening to NPR recently and an interviewer was talking to Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian professor of political science, who had just published an edited collection of essays/research studies called Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists. One of the interviewer’s questions was “Aren’t you afraid that your book will humanize jihadists?” This struck me as strange. Could seeing anyone as human, even someone who engaged in systematic killing, be harmful? We often describe the most horrific crimes, such as genocide in terms of one group viewing the other as less than human. We are all aware of Hitler’s genocidal actions against Jews, whom he believed were biologically inferior to what he called the Aryan race. When Hutus in Rwanda killed nearly a million of their Tutsi neighbors, they described them as “cockroaches.” Even the American founding fathers were only willing to count each African American slave as worth 3/5 of a White person. These are instances, not uncommon in history, when embracing an ideology that involved viewing others as less than full human beings led to systematic mistreatment, killing or enslavement of people. But should we then turn around and view those who subscribe to such ideologies as also less then human?

Image of a man walking towards a monster silhouetted in the mist.

Image by Kellepics, CC0 License.

What does it mean to regard another person as a human being? Although many racist ideologies have based their prejudices on notions of “inferiority,” most of us reject such views. Some individuals are stronger, taller, smarter, slower, fatter, etc. than others, but it does not lessen their humanity in most people’s eyes. We tend to see others as less human when we see the trait they express as “evil”—when they show themselves as capable of cruelty that we do not regard ourselves, or any “normal” person, as capable of producing. To many Westerners and also to many from other parts of the world, including mainstream Muslims, jihadists such as al Qaeda or ISIS are seen as “evil.” They rape women, chop off heads, and they conduct deadly terror attacks on civilians. After recent White Supremacy demonstrations in places such as Charlottesville, VA, many Americans view those who espouse neo-Nazi or KKK-like racist views as evil enough that they have become unrecognizable as fellow human beings. They have crossed a line beyond which normal human beings never tread. We view all or most members of such groups as, in the words of Chloe Valdary, “hateful monsters.”

Dr. Philip Zimbardo.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo. CC0 license.

There are two broad theories of how people can embrace actions we typically regard as “evil” as a way of behaving toward their fellow men: One theory, embodied by the work of British psychologist, Simon Baron-Cohen (2011), is that some people lack or suffer from a reduction in empathy, and those people are not sensitive to how others feel. At this extreme of the distribution of empathy, along with some people with relatively rare developmental disabilities, are psychopaths. The other theory, embodied by the work of American psychologist, Philip Zimbardo (2007), famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment, is that anyone can be coaxed into behaving evilly toward his fellow man, using the proper social techniques. Baron-Cohen’s theory is a dispositional one; Zimbardo’s is a situational one.

Baron-Cohen defines empathy as “our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.” He claims that, “we all lie somewhere on the empathy spectrum (from high to low). People said to be evil or cruel are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum.” Despite describing empathy as “more like a dimmer switch than an all-or-none switch,” he also describes people with “zero degrees of empathy,” who may be “Zero-Negative.” Those who are Zero-Negative include psychopaths, those with borderline personality disorder and narcissists. Their lives, and the lives of those around them, are affected negatively by their lack of empathy combined with impairment in their experience of emotions. Although Baron-Cohen does not dismiss the role of social pressures, such as conformity, in producing cruel acts, he insists that “when cruel acts occur, it is because of malfunctioning of the empathy circuit.” This may be only temporary, but in those who are truly evil and capable of long-term, systematic cruelty, he says the empathy system is “permanently down,” due to a variety of biological and environmental factors and their interaction. In other words, the truly evil are not like the rest of us.

Dr. Stanley Milgram.

Stanley Milgram. Photo by Jewish Currents.

Philip Zimbardo describes what he calls, “The Lucifer Effect,” or “How Good People Turn Evil.” His point is that evil behavior, as demonstrated in examples such as the behavior of Nazis killing Jews or the inhumane treatment of prisoners by the American guards at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, is something of which we are all capable, and he tries to show the social forces that contribute to it. He uses many examples, but three are particularly telling: his own 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, Stanley Milgram’s 1960’s experiments on obedience, and psychologist Christopher Browning’s 1992 account of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.


John Stuart Mill and Charlottesville

Civil American, Volume 2, Article 4 (October 20, 2017),

| By Dale E. Miller |

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I consider myself a Millian—that is, a follower of the Victorian philosopher of morals, social life, and politics (and much else besides) John Stuart Mill (1806–73). Usually I’m a fairly confident Millian; some might even say smug. Mill’s work has, like the work of all important philosophers, been subjected to numerous serious objections. But I believe that many of these objections have already been adequately answered and that the prospects of our finding satisfactory answers to the rest are at least as good as the prospects of our finding satisfactory answers to the equally serious objections that have been pressed against the work of Aristotle, Kant, etc. Still, today my confidence is beginning to show some cracks. Recent events in the U.S. are casting serious doubts on one of the most celebrated and influential elements of Mill’s thought, his defense of the freedom of expression.

John Stuart Mill, black and white print.

Mill’s defense of the liberties of speech and the press appears in the second chapter of his 1859 essay On Liberty.[1] His case is grounded not on something like a “natural” right but rather on the social benefits of freedom of expression. This doesn’t mean that Mill believes that every use that people make of this freedom—every published article, every sign, every utterance—makes the world better off. But what he does believe is that there is great value in a vigorous marketplace of ideas, for which thoroughgoing freedom of expression is a prerequisite. According to Mill, the marketplace of ideas is a powerful engine not only for correcting intellectual errors and discovering truths of all sorts but also for motivating individuals who hold true ethical beliefs to base their lives on these beliefs. And the greater the extent to which people do this, Mill maintains (albeit without much argument), the happier that human life will be. This, for Mill, is the ultimate standard for moral rightness.[2]

The title page of J. S. Mill's 'On Liberty.'Mill’s case for freedom of expression unfolds in three stages; he asks first what society loses when it suppresses the expression of true ideas, next what it loses when it suppresses false ideas, and finally what it loses when it suppresses ideas that are both true and false in parts. I’m primarily interested in his answer to the second of these questions. It might seem surprising that Mill would believe that society loses anything of value when it censors ideas that genuinely are entirely false, as opposed to ideas that are thought to be entirely false but are in fact at least partly true. Yet he takes there to be several sources of loss in such cases.

One way in which society loses when it suppresses false ideas is that when these ideas cannot receive “any fair and thorough discussion … such of them as could not stand such a discussion, though they may be prevented from spreading, do not disappear.”[3] In other words, when false ideas cannot be brought into the light and openly confronted in fair and free debate, because defending them or perhaps even discussing them is proscribed, they fester. One of the benefits that Mill therefore claims for the liberties of speech and the press is that they enable us to (eventually) extinguish false doctrines, in the sense of bringing it about that they aren’t believed.

A second way in which society loses from restricting the expression of false ideas concerns how ethical beliefs are held. Suppose that society has made it impossible to challenge some widely accepted moral doctrine, so that contrary doctrines cannot be “fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed.” In this case, Mill says, even if the widely accepted doctrine is completely correct it will be “held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.”[4] When we know that we’re likely at some point to be called upon to defend our creed against an opponent, he writes, we’re more likely both to ensure that we understand the considerations that favor that creed and to give the creed an important place in our thoughts and actions. On the other hand, “as soon as there is no enemy in the field,” we tend to lapse into giving our beliefs little more than lip service.[5] As evidence Mill points to the many “Sunday-morning” Christians in countries in which Christianity is the dominant faith. If such Christians are animated by anything in their religion through the rest of the week, he maintains, it is only by those parts of it that are distinctive to their particular sect and that they might need to defend against other sectarians. Thus another respect in which the liberties of speech and the press are beneficial is that they make it more likely that people who hold true moral doctrines will be “penetrated” by them, in the sense of holding them as more than dead dogmas.

Airforce commandos extinguishing an aircraft fire.

U.S. Department of Defense photos.

There is some tension between these two claims of Mill’s. After all, if false moral doctrines are extinguished, then no one will need to worry about debating their adherents. It therefore appears that freedom of expression can at most yield only one of these benefits with respect to any particular false moral doctrine, not both. The tension between these claims doesn’t rise to the level of contradiction, however. It can be true both that the long-run tendency of protecting the marketplace of ideas is to extinguish false views and that until a particular false ethical view is extinguished the fact that some people hold it will give those who hold the true view, or at least a truer one, a livelier appreciation of their own commitments. This is Mill’s stance; he observes that while it’s desirable for false moral doctrines to be extinguished, when this happens something of value is lost that society ought to try to replace to the extent possible. For instance, teachers may need to learn to defend certain false doctrines forcefully, to approximate for students the experience of debating someone who holds them.[6]



Civil American, Volume 2, Article 3 (September 16, 2017),

| By John Lachs |

Adobe logo, to serve as a link to the Adobe PDF version of the essay.

When our ancestors lived in caves, every tool was a prized possession. Furs for comfort and drawings to decorate the cave were difficult to come by. They were passed down from generation to generation.

Storage units.

Photo courtesy of Paul Brennan, CC0.

Later, when human productivity made the goods of the world readily available, our grandparents became collectors. Growing control over nature enabled them to stockpile everything imaginable, converting their homes into storage units.

Some claim this was in response to the tough times of the Great Depression. Others attribute it to smart shopping:  buying on sale is a great saving, even if you never use the item.

Photo of clutter.

Photo courtesy of, CCO.
Photo of a water tower made to look like a "catsup" bottle.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Keith, CC0.

The important idea is that the twenty-eighth sweater and the 5-pound Ketchup bottle are there, ready to be used…if, that is, they can be found. “You never know when it’ll come in handy” is a great justification if what you look for is not lost in the clutter.

We feel it impossible to discard perfectly usable clothing even if we have no intention of ever using it. Surely, there is nothing wrong with keeping food that is only a few months past the expiration date. And though we have no interest in the second treadmill a friend wants to give away, we’ll manage to find a place for it.

Packed closet.

Courtesy of Flickr, CCO, some rights reserved.

There is always room for the next coffee table and, after a good sale, the clothes in the closets just have to be compressed a little more.  Eventually, the stuff we collect invades all rooms and peaks out from under the beds.

The moment of truth comes when we have to move. The death of a loved one or a divorce reveals the momentousness of the collection.  Every item has memories attached, everything cries to be preserved. Discarding anything feels like losing a friend.

Photo of a Goodwill location.

Photo courtesy of Dwight Burdette, CCO.

Is there a solution? Only one as radical as surgery is for cancer. Take ten items you cannot live without. Leave everything in place and get a couple of friends to bring their friends to carry away whatever they want. What is left can go to charity.

What we value says a lot about who we are. Look over the ten objects you kept. What do they say about you?


Dr. John LachsDr. John Lachs is Centennial Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA).


Journal Archive

State-Sponsored Hacktivism and “Soft War”

Civil American, Volume 2, Article 2 (May 25, 2017),

| By George R. Lucas |

A Moral and Legal Challenge in the Cyber Domain |

Adobe logo, to serve as a link to the Adobe PDF version of the essay.Skeptics (e.g., Thomas Rid, 2013) have cast doubt on the notion of authentic cyber warfare.  Cyber conflict consists, the skeptics argue, solely of activities which fall well short of full scale warfare:  e.g., crime, vandalism, “hacktivism” (political activism by individuals and organizations carried out in the cyber domain), industrial espionage, and military espionage. Talk of cyber “warfare,” they complain, is largely conceptual confusion, coupled with misplaced metaphorical exaggeration.

U.S. Air Force Cadets learning basic cyber operations.

(U.S. Air Force Photo/Raymond McCoy)

Against such criticisms, I have argued by contrast that there is a distinctive category of cyber conflict that qualifies as warfare – or, more correctly, which rises to the level of the “use, or threat of use, of force by states; or, the equivalent of an armed attack” in international law (Lucas 2017).  This new kind of warfare has thus far manifest itself in two distinctive forms:

  1. effects-based weapons (such as Stuxnet) which can be deployed to damage or destroy military targets; and
  2. weapons and attacks in the cyber domain intended to produce political effects similar to those usually sought as the goal or objective of a conventional use of force by states against one another.

Cover of Carl Von Clausewitz's book, On War.I have labeled this second class of cyber hostilities “state-sponsored hacktivism” (SSH).  SSH is one of the principle tactics of a wider phenomenon, recently dubbed “soft war,” or unarmed conflict (Gross & Meisels, 2017) [Note]. It qualifies as warfare because it is deployed to compel an adversary to yield to the political aims of the state utilizing it.  SSH is perfectly capable of achieving the equivalent of occupying an enemy’s cities, destroying his army, and breaking his will to fight.  It is fully capable of moving a political center of gravity from a given posture prior to the attack, to one more in keeping with the attacker’s own political aspirations vis á vis the victim’s in the aftermath.  In short, this form of cyber conflict satisfies the classical definition of Clausewitz (1830) regarding war as politics carried out by alternative means.

SSH is not identical to, nor can it be merely reduced to acts of vandalism, crime, or espionage, although it utilizes such components within the framework of an SSH attack.  One might say that SSH is either none of the above, or else it involves all of the above “on steroids.”  Considerations of scale and magnitude, as well as of ease of access, are important in understanding this category of warfare, much as such considerations have been, in the past, for differentiating between “private” and domestic uses of conventional lethal force (e.g., as criminal acts by individuals or organizations), and those of “public” warfare that are state-sponsored. (more…)