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Sunday, July 18, 2021

‘They’re Not True Humans’: Beliefs About Moral Character Drive Categorical Denials of Humanity

Phillips, B. (2021, May 29). 


In examining the cognitive processes that drive dehumanization, laboratory-based research has focused on non-categorical denials of humanity. Here, we examine the conditions under which people are willing to categorically deny that someone else is human. In doing so, we argue that people harbor a dual character concept of humanity. Research has found that dual character concepts have two independent sets of criteria for their application, one of which is normative. Across four experiments, we found evidence that people deploy one criterion according to which being human is a matter of being a Homo sapiens; as well as a normative criterion according to which being human is a matter of possessing a deep-seated commitment to do the morally right thing. Importantly, we found that people are willing to affirm that someone is human in the species sense, but deny that they are human in the normative sense, and vice versa. These findings suggest that categorical denials of humanity are not confined to extreme cases outside the laboratory. They also suggest a solution to “the paradox of dehumanization.”


6.2.The paradox of dehumanization 

The findings reported here also suggest a solution to the paradox of dehumanization. Recall that in paradigmatic cases of dehumanization, such as the Holocaust, the perpetrators tend to attribute certain uniquely human traits to their victims. For example, the Nazis frequently characterized Jewish people as criminals and traitors. They also treated them as moral agents, and subjected them to severe forms of punishment and humiliation (see Gutman and Berenbaum, 1998). Criminality, treachery, and moral agency are not capacities that we tend to attribute to nonhuman animals.  Thus, can we really say that the Nazis thought of their victims as nonhuman? In responding to this paradox, some theorists have suggested that the perpetrators in these paradigmatic cases do not, in fact, think of their victims as nonhuman(see Appiah, 2008; Bloom, 2017; Manne, 2016, 2018, chapter 5; Over, 2020; Rai et al., 2017).Other theorists have suggested that the perpetrators harbor inconsistent representations of their victims, simultaneously thinking of them as both human and subhuman (Smith, 2016, 2020).Our findings suggest a third possibility: namely, that the perpetrators harbor a dual character concept of humanity, categorizing their victims as human in one sense, but denying that they are human in another sense. For example, it is true that theNazis attributed certain uniquely human traits to their victims, such as criminality. However, when categorizing their victims as evil criminals, the Nazis may have been thinking of them as nonhuman in the normative sense, while recognizing them as human in the species sense (for a relevant discussion, see Steizinger, 2018). This squares away with the fact that when the Nazis likened Jewish people to certain animals, such as rats, this often took on a moralizing tone. For example, in an antisemitic book entitled The Eternal Jew (Nachfolger, 1937), Jewish neighborhoods in Berlin were described as “breeding grounds of criminal and political vermin.” Similarly, when the Nazis referred toJews as “subhumans,” they often characterized them as bad moral agents. For example, as was mentioned above, Goebbels described Bolshevism as “the declaration of war by Jewish-led international subhumans against culture itself.”Similarly, in one 1943 Nazi pamphlet, Marxist values are described as appealing to subhumans, while liberalist values are described as “allowing the triumph of subhumans” (Anonymous, 1943, chapter 1).