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If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act: Psychic Numbing and Genocide

Part of the The International Library of Ethics, Law and Technology book series (ELTE,volume 5)

Abstract

Most people are caring and will exert great effort to rescue individual victims whose needy plight comes to their attention. These same good people, however, often become numbly indifferent to the plight of individuals who are “one of many” in a much greater problem. Why does this occur? Answering this question will help us address the topic of this paper: Why, over the past century, have good people repeatedly ignored mass murder and genocide? I shall draw from psychological research to show how the statistics of mass murder or genocide, no matter how large the numbers do not convey the true meaning of such atrocities. The reported numbers of deaths fail to spark emotion or feeling and thus fail to motivate action. Recognizing that we cannot rely only upon our moral feelings to motivate proper action against genocide, we must look to moral argument and international law. The 1948 Genocide Convention was supposed to meet this need, but it has not been effective. It is time to examine this failure in light of the psychological deficiencies described here and design legal and institutional mechanisms that will enforce proper response to mass murder. Implications pertaining to technological risk will also be discussed.

Keywords

  • Moral Intuition
  • Compassion Fatigue
  • News Coverage
  • Mass Murder
  • Statistical Victim

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

To avoid further disasters, we need political restraint on a world scale. But politics is not the whole story. We have experienced the result of technology in the service of the destructive side of human psychology. Something needs to be done about this fatal combination. The means for expressing cruelty and carrying out mass killing have been fully developed. It is too late to stop the technology. It is to the psychology that we should now turn. Jonathan Glover , Humanity 2001, p. 144

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Notes

  1. 1.

    And, similarly, the aid to Haiti in 2010.

  2. 2.

    A thoughtful reviewer of this paper questions my focus on preventing genocide . The reviewer asserts that numbers of preventable deaths from poverty, starvation, and disease are far larger than the numbers of people killed in Darfur . The psychological account presented here clearly has implications for motivating greater response to humanitarian crises other than genocide and certainly such implications should be pursued. I focus on genocide because it is a heinous practice, carried out by known human antagonists, that could in principle be stopped if only people cared to stop it. Apathy toward genocide and other forms of mass murder moves us closer to the loss of humanity.

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Acknowledgments

Portions of this chapter appeared earlier in the paper “If I Look at the Mass I Shall Never Act: Psychic Numbing and Genocide ,” that was published in Judgment and Decision Making, 2007, 2, 79–95. I wish to thank the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and its President, Paul Brest, for support and encouragement in the research that has gone into this chapter. Additional support has been provided by the National Science Foundation through Grant SES-0649509.

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Slovic, P. (2010). If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act: Psychic Numbing and Genocide . In: Roeser, S. (eds) Emotions and Risky Technologies. The International Library of Ethics, Law and Technology, vol 5. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-8647-1_3

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