annals of heartlessness

Annals of Heartlessness (31): A Real Life Variation of Singer’s Pond

Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy

(source)

If Peter Singer were dead, he would be turning in his grave. Here’s a really sad and damning anecdote related to Hurricane Sandy:

[M]om and children trapped in a car filling with water. Mon tries to get them to safety, but a wave sweeps the little boys away. Residents nearby refuse any help, even just phoning 911. … She is black; the neighbors white. …

Police on Thursday said two brothers, ages 2 and 4, who were swept away Monday night when waves of water crashed into an SUV driven by their mother in Staten Island were found dead.

Glenda Moore left her Staten Island home with two children and was driving to a family member’s house in Brooklyn when her car became submerged underwater. She freed her two kids from their car seats but rushing waves of water swept the kids away from her arms.

“It went over their heads… She had them in her arms, and a wave came and swept them out of her arms,” the mother’s aunt told the NY Daily News.

Local Staten Island newspapers have reported the mother unsuccessfully tried to get help from neighbors but the New York Daily News is reporting another side of the story:

According to the sister, a dripping-wet Moore banged on doors looking for help in the middle of the hurricane, but couldn’t find anyone willing to help her.

“They answered the door and said, ‘I don’t know you. I’m not going to help you,’” said the sister. “My sister’s like 5-foot-3, 130 pounds. She looks like a little girl. She’s going to come to you and you’re going to slam the door in her face and say, ‘I don’t know you, I can’t help you’?’”

Moore spent the night huddled on a doorstep as the hurricane’s assault continued. At daybreak, her sister said, the desperate mother walked until she found a police car and related her heart-breaking story. (source, source)

A horrible illustration of the bystander effect, I guess, or perhaps of something even more sinister. By the way, more on the “Singer’s Pond” reference is here, if you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. More in the annals of heartlessness is here.

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causes of human rights violations, human rights violations, law, philosophy

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (39): The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Widespread Human Rights Violations

Escher Sketch by Ippolito

Escher Sketch by Ippolito

(source, Escher’s original drawing of hands drawing themselves is here)

Sorry for the strange title, but there is a logic behind it: it’s more difficult to end human rights violations the more widespread they are, and not just in a logistical sense. If rights violations are widespread, then they can become the moral norm. How does this happen? First, if everyone or a large group of people is victimized, victims start to believe that there’s nothing special about their predicament. Why would they make a fuss about something that happens to so many people, all of whom also don’t make a fuss. People don’t want to be crybabies and tend to align their behavior to that of others. They may suffer in silence or even fail to conceptualize their suffering as suffering. (This is similar to the bystander effect: if bystanders witness a crime, they first look at the reactions of other bystanders in order to see if the others judge the situation as one which requires intervention. When all bystanders do this simultaneously, then no one interferes).

A next step turns all of this into a vicious circle. When a certain practice is widespread, those who engage in it tend not be held blameworthy. Blame is always and only linked to practices that are more or less exceptional. It can’t be a perpetual and universal condition, because then it loses its meaning. This lack of blame then reinforces the sense that certain practices are normal, which again makes blame impossible. And so on. Hence, widespread human rights violations are their own cause.

Take this interesting story about sexual harassment at the Oxford University around the middle of the 20th century:

[A] group of remarkable [female] philosophers … were taught classics by a brilliant and charismatic professor, Eduard Fraenkel. In addition to imparting lessons to his female students about Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, he would engage in what nowadays we would describe as egregious cases of sexual harassment. What’s strange is how little psychological impact his behavior seems to have had on the young women he pawed over. Warnock writes that she had never “after the beginning, seriously minded his advances…the impropriety of his sexual behavior seemed utterly trivial compared with the riches he offered us”. Iris Murdoch concurred. Just imagine a female student today writing, “Professor Grope was a first-rate teacher, though it’s true that each week he tried to put his hand up my skirt…” (source)

Chimpanzee Plays Chess

Regent’s Park, London, England, UK. Six-year-old Susan Duncombe engages in a game of chess with a chimps. London Zoo, 1955. Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

At the time when sexual harassment was widespread behavior, it became the normal thing to do, nothing special and therefore also not  blameworthy.

The obvious question is then: how do we escape from this self-perpetuating cycle of human rights violations? The easy answer would be that we can’t. This answer fits nicely with the fashionable idea that our morality isn’t a rational thing but rather a rationalization of universal, innate and ingrained moral emotions such as disgust – in other words, a fancy story built on gut reactions. This idea in turn corresponds to the recent finding that even very young children – as well as primates – have a sense of morality even though they don’t have the full ability of reason.

However, this answer won’t do because it’s obvious that we can escape from the cycle and that we can change our moral sense. History is rife with practices that were once considered normal and yet somehow became abnormal and blameworthy: slavery, gender inequality, sexual violence etc. Many of these changes have come about through a mix of reasoning, deliberation, storytelling and appeals to honor. To some extent, it’s true that morality is a reflection of common practice and determined by it. But fortunately it’s more than that.

More about catch 22 in the field of human rights is here. More posts in this series are here.

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causes of human rights violations, human rights violations

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (29): The Bystander Effect

Kitty Genovese

artistic rendering of the Kitty Genovese case

(source, the murder of Kitty Genovese is the archetypical although contested example of the bystander effect)

The bystander effect can explain the persistence of certain types or instances of rights violations. If many people witness a person in distress, then it’s the less likely that any one person will help. “I could help, but I’m sure someone will”. Numerous experiments have proven the effect. Virtually all of them find that the presence of others inhibits helping, often by a large margin. The probability of help is indeed inversely related to the number of bystanders, although not necessarily one-on-one. More precisely, the effect occurs when bystanders are strangers; when bystanders are friends help is usually forthcoming.

What are the reasons for this effect? Hard to tell, but social influence may be one: bystanders monitor the reactions of other people in an emergency situation to see if others think that it is necessary to intervene. If everyone first looks at the others, then you have a vicious circle of influence. Since everyone is doing exactly the same thing – i.e. nothing – they all conclude from the inaction of others that help is not needed. Diffusion of responsibility may be another reason: when a lot of people are present, they all assume that others carry more responsibility to intervene, because others may be seen as closer or stronger or first on the spot (this is also the thinking behind the firing squad or the Japanese procedure for capital punishment). The fear of being harmed or of offering unwanted assistance may also explain the effect.

Increasing urbanization and improved knowledge of everyday events (by way of better information systems such as the internet) can make the bystander effect more common, and can therefore make it more difficult to stop rights violations.

bystander effect

(source)

There’s a peculiar reaction to the bystander effect described here. And here are some notorious cases of the effect. More on the possible causes of rights violations here.

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