Moral choices made during the Holocaust provide lessons for today

07/28/04

Reclassifying the 'enemy' may be key to better choices

Irvine, Calif., July 28, 2004 -Pictures of brutality pervade the news - Los Angeles police officers allegedly beating a suspect, American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners, Islamic militants beheading hostages. How can people commit such horrible acts of violence toward others?

"Identity and the way people view themselves in relation to others are critical factors in moral choice," said Kristen Monroe, a professor of political science at UC Irvine and director of the UCI Interdisciplinary Center for the Scientific Study of Ethics and Morality. "It is the ability to categorize other people, to put them in separate classifications from ourselves, that can begin a process of dehumanization. Once the 'enemy' is reclassified as subhuman, it is much easier to rationalize ill treatment, murder or even genocide."

In her new book, "The Hand of Compassion: Portraits of Moral Choice During the Holocaust," Kristen Monroe tries to understand why some people supported and participated in genocide and ethnic violence in World War II, why others stood by and did nothing, and why a few risked their lives to help strangers.

Monroe's work challenges the common assumption of most social and political theory that self-interest is the key to human behavior. Her research shows that for altruists, seeing themselves and others as connected, as part of all humankind, is the motivating factor in how they treat others.

Monroe believes that by understanding the importance of self-perception and the cognitive process of categorization and dehumanization, people can learn how to work this same psychology in reverse - helping people reconceptualize their identity in terms that restore humanity to others.

Her recent book features interviews with five seemingly ordinary people who rescued Jews in Nazi Europe. "These people felt a moral imperative to help those in need, acting spontaneously and with the feeling that they had no choice but to act," Monroe said.

"The rescuers saw the humanity in everyone, even the perpetrators, and the human weakness in everyone, even themselves," Monroe said. "This ability to cherish the humanity in others was closely related to the ability to fully claim the humanity in themselves."

Through her research, Monroe has spoken with hundreds of people who rescued Jews during the Holocaust. She interviewed numerous bystanders, as well as a few Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. "Regardless of where they fell on the moral continuum, how people viewed themselves was critical. The genocidalists I talked with saw themselves as embattled, under siege, wronged and needing to assert their rights rigorously in order to protect themselves. The rescuers didn't view themselves as wronged. They saw themselves as bonded with all other humans."

Monroe's previous book, "The Heart of Altruism," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the 1997 Best Book Award from the Political Psychology Section of the American Political Science Association. Monroe's final book in this trilogy, currently being written, will address the moral psychology of genocidalists.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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