The Cognitive Science of Moral Failure: "Nobody Knows Themselves"

I've been reading for my upcoming classes on Everyday Evil for ACU's Summit.  As a part of that reading I'm getting into the literature of the Holocaust looking for lessons that might apply to everyday life.  I'm looking for psychological dynamics that are latent in each of us that are, in fact, the seeds of something much darker.  All that is needed is the water, the right context and pressures...

Right now, as a part of my search, I'm reading Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees.  While reading I cam across this quote by Toivi Blatt, survivor of Sobibor:
People asked me, "What did you learn?" and I think I'm only sure of one thing--nobody knows themselves.  The nice person on the street, you ask him, "Where is North Street?" and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind.  That same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist.  Nobody knows themselves.  All of us could be good people or bad people in these different situations.  Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me I find myself thinking, "How will be be in Sobibor?"
I think this is a really, really important insight.  Perhaps the greatest insight from the death camps.  Nobody knows themselves.  Which means that we have to admit that we are extraordinarily vulnerable to evil.  Our "virtue" is so very fragile.

And this insight is related to the cognitive psychology noted in my last post, the two distinct processing systems in the brain.  System 2, our conscious deliberative selves, is very transparent to introspection.  But System 1 is dark and murky.  Introspection doesn't penetrate much at all.  Which means that large portions of the Self are unknown.  That is the cognitive science behind Blatt's observation.  Sitting here, right now, my self-assessment is that I'd never be a sadist in the death camps.  I'm better than that.  But I've not fully encountered myself.  System 1, the system that kicks in when my survival is at stake, is untouched by my self-examination.  Large portions of my mind are unseen and, thus, unpredictable.  

Nobody knows themselves.

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9 thoughts on “The Cognitive Science of Moral Failure: "Nobody Knows Themselves"”

  1. A friend of mine recently asserted that you only truly know someone's character when the chips are down; that anyone can be virtuous when resources are plentiful, but only the virtuous can be virtuous when resources are scarce.

    Problem is, I'm not sure if he's saying the same thing as Blatt, or something entirely different.

  2. Sounds like a similar take.

    The trouble with taking Blatt seriously, as I think we must, is that we really just end up in a very cynical place: People, at root, are just survival machines. Like animals. We can avoid this realization in times of peace and plenty, but what about when there are famines and scarcity? Where does virtue go then?

    Which bring me (and you I know) back to the problem of evil. Or, as McCord Adams frames it, the problem of being a biodegradable creature in a world of scarcity. My whole Malthus & Original Sin series was trying to wrestle with that topic: Evil as the product of our situation rather than an innate taint inherited from Adam.

  3. Might I reframe the question to be "Nobody Wants to Admit They Know the Darker Sides of Themselves"?

    I'm not cynical. I realize my own potential for evil. I no longer say "I would never do that". I am not necessarily surprised by other people's depravity. I am extremely optimistic and believe that everyone can be redeemed (including myself).

    Would I ever take part in activities like those in the Holocaust? I hope not. I hope that I am never placed in such a situation.

  4. It’s pretty hard to know whether there is any ‘self’ to know in fully developed, non-linear turbulence. Like death camps. The hip-chic revival of narrative theology has us as constructing bits and units of ‘self’ via our narratives. This seems a bit of a conceit. Not because I discount narrative for the purpose of holding propositional theology (including propositions about ‘self’). I don’t want to list into moralizing here; but, there’s a fair question whether self is there to know in some pressurized ecologies.

  5. The reality is we live in a world with limited resources, that we must come to understand enough to "construct" them, renew them, or learn to live without them. Otherwise, we will be fighting to survive the limitations. Science offers hope in this regard.

    But, "evil" is inevitable, as there is always some hierarchal "form" that must determine how 'things will play out'. Leadership considers themselves and sometimes considers others. This is not cynicism, but we all "see" from our own perspective and interests, which is not selfish, necessarily, but is "selfness".

    The question for those "at the bottom" is how to resolve or limit the "evil"?

    Do we bring sanctions and deterrents? Or do we undermine those doing evil? Do we use the atom bomb? What do we do when survival or life cannot be valued because "freedom" is abused?

    The law holds people accountable to what is regarded as "best". And those that undermine the law to further their own interests are doing injustice. Others would say that since evil is inevitable, that the ends justifies the means. The outcome is all that matters. I imagine we all argue according to our "place" in the argument and this is our blindness.

  6. Richard
    I agree with your posts in this series thus far, however I want to add the following caveat: I think its possible to be so bound by the law (system 2 processing) that one essentially alienates themselves from their impulses (system 1), which can in some situations be a source of good. In other words, an area where I feel Christianity has got it somewhat wrong (at least as I have seen it practiced in the US, evangelical tradition), is to be so focused on system 2 morality that they do not trust system 1 impulses. It leads to this disjoint from oneself that you outlined in the last section, and one that is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

    Psychologically, I think we need to understand the role and 'trustability' of S1 in moral judgments, especially in so much as S1 and S2 are so intertwined in this process (Haidt's 'emotional dog rational tail' article being the prototypical example).

    Moving beyond haidt's descriptive approach to moral judgments, what I think is an interesting direction in the morality discussion is the question of whether and when we ought to trust these system 1 impulses, when they are a valid source of behavior, and by what mechanisms they can be 'transformed.' I think Charles Taylor starts out this transformation discussion in 'a secular age', but I don't think he clearly outlines what this would look like. To use your wording, it felt like he was saying we ought not to try to squelch out S1 processing, but rather look at ways of transforming it. In his argument, he suggested our sexual and violence impulses, in some sense, speak to who we are as humans. Thus, rather than attempting to squelch these impulses out (a process which can lead to psychological alienation), we need to find ways to bring about their transformation. Here is where morality moves out of description and into the normative, an area where I think it gets especially interesting.


  7. Thanks all for the comments on this and the last post.

    I have been a bit sloppy in these posts, kind of demonizing on System over the other. Peter (here) and Pecs (in the prior post) I think raise the relevant concerns.

    For example, I would appear that I'm saying System 1 is bad and System 2 is good. But that isn't always the case. For example, relevant to this post the Nazis were very much using deliberative, conscious analysis to kill people more effectively and efficiently. In fact, one of the reasons for the gas chambers was to reduce the psychological toll on the SS solider. It was too difficult to look people in the eye and shoot them in cold blood. Many SS soldiers couldn't do that day in and day out. In this case System 1 (a instinctive distaste for killing) was more moral than System 2 (the Nazi Final Solution).

    I think the bigger point I'm making (although not very carefully) is that the existence of the fissure between the Systems is often implicated in moral failure. Not always, but much of the time. Sometimes one system is good and the other bad. Sometimes both are good and sometimes both are bad. But the phenomenon I'm most curious about is the situation where we want to do good but can't. My question is: Why can't we? (Or, at least, why is it so hard to be good?)

  8. Richard, I think this is where the ideas of the "self" in community, as developed philosophically by Levinas and others, and in a different vein, theologically by the likes of Bonhoeffer, can be very helpful.

    If no one truly knows themselves, then it is incumbent on the community - through whom we come to know ourselves as we see ourselves in relation to the 'other' - to rightly encourage each person to more fully become who they are. Obviously this is difficult, and I've over-simplified greatly. But I think the point remains valid: If we need each other in order to know ourselves, that involves a huge ethical responsibility on each of our parts.

  9. "The nice person on the street, you ask him, "Where is North Street?" and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. That same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves."

    Hopefully and gratefully, most of us will never
    have to experience the unimaginable horror of a death camp, as experienced by Blatt. So we may never have a clue of what we're really made of.

    But perhaps, many of us might experience a very tiny example of this as played out in our work and especially in marriage. That asshole boss or co-worker might have actually turned out to be a good personal friend if I met him/her in a different setting. Perhaps the Malthusian stresses at my job have exposed the asshole in me, whether I want to realize/admit it or not.
    And apply that "same person in a different situation" principle to marriage vs. the couple's behavior in courtship/dating prior to marriage.

    Gary Y.

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