Ethical choices during desperate times

By Kristen Monroe, January 23, 2012
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We all have memories of events so important that we can identify exactly where we were when they happened, who was with us, what we wore, or where we sat. I remember the day my father told me about the Holocaust. We were in the car - a blue Chevrolet with plastic seat covers that cracked in the cold - driving to my weekly piano lesson. I can't recount exactly what he said, but my memory remains fresh with a sense of horror so overwhelming I could hardly breathe. And then he told me: "You must always remember that there are no depths to which man cannot sink, but there also are no heights to which we cannot soar."

I have often thought about that over the past 20 years, as I have conducted research on the Holocaust, trying to discover what made people respond so differently to the suffering of others. I realised the themes that emerged during the Holocaust resonate with other periods of genocide and other instances of ethnic cleansing, other acts of prejudice and discrimination, of group hatred, and animosity, just as they resonate with other instances of compassion, heroic altruism, and moral courage.

The psychological forces at work during the Holocaust can also be found in the psychology that underpins other political acts driven by identity, from prejudice and discrimination to sectarian hatred and violence on the one hand, to forgiveness and reconciliation on the other.

For my recent book, I looked at the psychological differences between those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, and the bystanders and perpetrators. Identity constrained choice for all of them. But the image people held of themselves in relation to others differed dramatically. Rescuers saw themselves as connected to others by bonds of a common humanity. Bystanders saw themselves as people who were alone, powerless to control their destiny, let alone help others.

A Dutch bystander explained that she was unable to help Jews because she had servants and could not hide anyone

Where bystanders saw strangers, rescuers saw other human beings. Significantly, the dehumanisation that accompanies genocide works through the reclassification of "the other", a process strikingly evident among ardent Nazi supporters. Remarkably, it was the Nazis who saw themselves as people under siege, who felt they needed to engage in pre-emptive strikes before they were overwhelmed by the so-called lesser beings, who they viewed as akin to cockroaches or vermin. (During the Rwandan genocide, those who engaged in the mass murder of others were called to action in a similar way - warned that "the cockroaches" were coming to overwhelm and infest their homes.)

Bystanders showed a stark sense of helplessness and moral insensitivity, a fact captured by Primo Levi's comment that, by "shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears", the average German could build "the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door." I was surprised - amazed really - that only one bystander I interviewed expressed guilt or remorse for not having done anything to help. All the others claimed they did not know anyone who needed help. "I put my head in the sand, like an ostrich" I was told by a Dutchman who worked as a propagandist for the Nazis.

It is by now a sad truism that the phrase "never again" has not worked as intended. Too many other genocides and ethnic cleansings have occurred since the Holocaust. So what lessons do we need to focus on, in order to learn from the Holocaust, as we think about our responses to the suffering of others?

We all have an innate ethical framework that affects our moral choices, one that is closely related to our character and identity. To understand who will act to help others and who will stand by doing little or nothing - or even engage in the killing of innocent others - we need to understand the ethical frameworks people use to analyse and make choices. Perceptions of self in relation to others are especially important. Do I see myself as a good person who can help others or as someone who is weak? Am I someone put upon by others who needs to defend myself against external threats? What is my world-view? Do I care most about money or about the kind of person I am? What does it mean to me to be a human being?

"Beatrix", a Dutch bystander, explained that she was unable to help Jews because she had servants and could not hide anyone. Many rescuers, of course, worked with their servants to save Jews. But what struck me about Beatrix was her emphasis on how she had such a good life, with leisure time to play tennis and squash, because she had help at home. In her bystander mind, her good life was built on something that precluded her from helping Jews. This link gave Beatrix a particular ethical perspective, a way of seeing things that limited her moral imagination. She literally could not imagine how or what she could do to help others. Yet her cousin, "Tony" - a rescuer sentenced to death early in the war who lived in hiding for most of the Holocaust - managed to work to save hundreds of people. Despite his obviously vulnerable situation, Tony did not see himself as weak or helpless. "There is always something you can do," he told me.

How we see ourselves in relation to others both sets and delineates the choices we find available. Our identity is what moves us beyond general feelings of sympathy, sorrow, or even outrage, to a sense of moral imperative, a feeling that another's distress is directly relevant to us and thus requires intervention. Understanding the specifics of how a person's ethical framework develops as it does will help us understand why some people take positive action to help, when most of us ignore others' misery, thereby providing indirect or tacit support for the conditions that engendered such misfortune.

This can give us insight into the psychological forces driving responses to other genocides and to the forms of ethnic violence and prejudice that precede them. When set in the broader context of research on moral choice, it can shed light on one of the central themes in politics: how we treat others. Being aware of this in ourselves may help us as we, too, confront moral choices and attempt to learn from the Holocaust.

Kristen Monroe is a professor at the University of California, Irvine. Her latest book is 'Ethics in an Age of Terror and Genocide: Identity and Moral Choice' (Princeton University Press)

    Last updated: 11:19am, January 23 2012