About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, September 23, 2011
An optimistic look at human nature
Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. It is a manifesto in defense of critical thinking, the role of the humanities (alongside science) in liberal arts education, and the crucial contribution of the latter to an open democratic society. But this is not what this post is about, largely.
Rather, I want to focus on a somewhat peripheral discussion that Nussbaum engages in, in chapter 3 of her book (entitled “Educating citizens: the moral [and anti-moral] emotions”). Nussbaum briefly relates three famous experiments demonstrating how easy it is to lead people to engage in bad behavior. The first experiment was conducted by Stanley Milgram (and has been repeated several times since). It’s the one where people were convinced to administer what they thought were increasingly painful electrical shock to “subjects” (in reality, confederates of the experimenters) who were allegedly being used to study the connection between learning and punishment. The results clearly showed that a figure of authority (a “doctor” in white lab coat, for instance) can easily induce people to engage in what would normally be considered cruel behavior towards strangers. Milgram himself set out to do the experiments because he was interested in the question of what could have possibly led so many Germans to acquiesce and collaborate with the Nazi policies of extermination during World War II.
The second experiment mentioned by Nussbaum was conducted by Solomon Asch to explore the effects of conformity. In this case subjects were shown, for instance, images of lines of different lengths and were asked to make judgments about their relative lengths. Unbeknownst to them, a number of confederates were pretending to participate in the experiment, but in reality gave coordinated wrong answers to the questions. Astonishingly, a number of subjects began to agree with the confederates, even though it was very clear that they were agreeing to the wrong answer.
Finally, Nussbaum refers to Philip Zimbardo’s experiment on prison dynamics, during which subjects told to play the role of prisoners or prison guards in a correction facility quickly began to behave as victims and oppressors respectively, with the first group passively accepting violence and the second one escalating their practices to include torture.
The typical interpretation of experiments such as those above is that people are easy to manipulate and that beneath a veneer of civility we can all be lead to inflict pain (Milgram and Zimbardo), be willingly victimized (Zimbardo), or endorse obvious falsities (Asch). But Nussbaum turns our perspective around and argues that another way to look at exactly the same data is that it is relatively easy to avoid the above mentioned negative outcomes by paying attention to the structure of our society (and — which goes with the main topic of her book — to the way we educate our children to be full members of that society).
In particular, Nussbaum argues that three types of structure are pernicious because they are conducive to bad human behavior (though they are most certainly not its only determinants): lack of personal accountability; discouragement of dissent; and de-humanization.
Lack of accountability is what we see in action in the Milgram experiments, where people get to delegate moral responsibility to the authority (and notice that the authority there was a scientist, not a nazi with a machine gun); discouragement of dissent is what happened during the Asch experiment, where people gave what they probably knew was the wrong answer because everyone else around them was doing the same (indeed, crucially, when the experiment was conducted allowing just one of the confederates to openly dissent, subjects were much less likely to adopt the groupthink attitude); finally, de-humanization is what characterized the Zimbardo protocol.
It should be easy to see at this point why Nussbaum links these structural issues to liberal arts education. At its best, teaching humanities (and science) is precisely about encouraging students’ willingness to question authority (against Milgram type effect), to speak out even when in a minority position (contra Asch), and to appreciate differences between genders and across cultures as quintessentially human (against Zimbardo).
Instead, we spend increasing amounts of time and money making sure that “no child is left behind” by having kids learn how to pass a standardized test that has little if any relation to the structural issues affecting human behavior in modern society.