Bryan Caplan  

Group-Serving Bias: Bloodlands Edition

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Bloodlands documents the most horrifying single example of group-serving bias I've ever read.  Fair warning: This is not for the faint of heart.
In October 1941, Mahileu became the first substantial city in occupied Soviet Belarus where almost all Jews were killed.  A German (Austrian) policeman wrote to his wife of his feelings and experiences shooting the city's Jews in the first days of the month.  "During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it.  By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants.  I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse.  The death that we gave them was a beautiful quick death, compared to the hellish torments of thousands and thousands in the jails of the GPU.  Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them in pieces in flight, before their bodies fell into the pit and into the water."
At first glance, the policeman's mentality defies belief.  His army invades a country, and almost immediately begins mass murdering babies.  The policemen/murderer writes home to tell his wife, "They'd do the same to our babies" - as if mass baby murder were familiar behavior for conquering armies in modern Europe.  He never asks himself, "Is it possible that our enemies would have left our babies alone if we'd left their babies alone?"  While the policeman grasps at his paranoid straws, he adds in a gratuitous reference to the Soviet secret police - as if Jewish babies were somehow complicit in the GPU's crimes against Soviet citizens.

On reflection, though, I have to wonder how many people around the world would express equally demented arguments if their group engaged in equally barbarous behavior.  What would it take to bring the typical human being even to silently condemn his own group as "the bad guys"?  How many would secede in disgust - even in the privacy of their own minds?



COMMENTS (23 to date)
Neal W. writes:
Hyena writes:

Is there actually anything particular to baby killing? I mean, do we have a good reason that someone would balk at baby killing anymore than, say, working in a tannery?

I think he's rationalizing and he can't explain precisely how it was that baby killing became his job. Maybe later this becomes deeply disturbing to him, but in the midst of the war he probably thinks little of it.

twv writes:

Not enough. Not enough secessions, even fantasy ones.

On the other hand, I pretty much regard current American society = with its obsessive persecution of people who use drugs, executing people (in horrific, tortuous manners) who may or may not be guilty, and letting civil liberties slip away because of a few foreign terrorists - as pretty much beyond the pale. Even the nicest American regularly sides with malefactors against peaceful folk, and enjoys it. Us vs. them. It's an old story, and Americans are not only not immune to it, they have been enthusiastic participants in some of its nastier practices from the beginning of our history.

And we don't kill babies. Fetuses? Yes. Babies, not that I'm aware of.

Of course, many (most?) Americans are utterly uninterested in how many women and children American military forces kill in Islamic countries....

David Pearce writes:

Is there a fundamental ethical distinction between killing members of a different ethnic group and killing functionally equivalent members of a different species? Pigs, for example, have the intelligence - and capacity to suffer - of a two-year human toddler. So should we be surprised that a factory-farm owner or slaughterhouse worker, say, can go home to his wife and children and remain "decent"?

Admittedly, there are differences between the Einsatzgruppen and slaughterhouse workers. In WW2, most Nazi soldiers believed they were fighting a life-or-death racial struggle against "Judeo-Bolshevism". We merely like the taste of meat. But there are close analogies too.

Maybe the "groupthink" perpetrators are "us".

Grant Gould writes:

To bring this back to the realm of economics, I think this is one of the great indictments of the Hayekian arguments favoring "local knowledge".

It is by the same means that the local shopkeeper knows that folks here like their sugar in five pound bags, or that the assembly line supervisor knows which machine is likely to break down next week that people "know" that the Jews will slaughter their infants or that Jewish infants, if allowed to survive, will bring down the GRU on them. These are people who became better people and better off when, through war and state, some more global knowledge forcibly superseded their local knowledge.

Sometimes the market test of local knowledge is mass slaughter. Of course it pales in comparison to the errors of centralized knowledge (it takes more than a village to raise a holocaust), but it is still barbaric in its own right.

Bob Knaus writes:

In answer to Bryan's question as to what it might take for individuals to consider their own group the "bad guys", that has historically been a function of religion.

Islam still takes pride in eliminating the practice amongst Arab tribes of burying female infants in the sand. Early Christianity viewed the suppression of extra-marital sex by its members as a huge accomplishment. Both these required the rejection of prevailing social norms.

Later examples are easy to find. The Puritanism of Cromwell's time and the apocalytic views popular in some Protestant sects today both require a viewpoint of self-separation from majority culture.

Floccina writes:

People are like that and that is one of the reasons that I think people like Julian Simon and Adam Smith are so important. They help us understand that having more people, even people that we do not like, benefits us (through the division of labor). I am sort of a Christian Pacifist (though not a complete Pacifist) but it is easy to see how people can fall into this. I have a friend who works in construction and he has been out of work for a long time. Some of the things he says about Mexican working in the USA can be very nasty almost advocating violence against them, because in his mind they are taking American jobs or rather his job. Crank that up a little with some violence in both directions and you might end up with real bad killing. I always remind my friend of 2 things 1. Mexicans need housing too and they both build an consume homes. 2. Mexicans have families too and have fewer options than he has. He needs to do a mission trip to Mexico.

John Smith writes:

To David Pearce:
You are being extreme and disrespectful to effectively equal meat-eaters and Nazis. This sort of behaviour just turns people off away from your ideas because nobody wants to support people who use violence and/or deliberate provocation of others. To be quite honest, I would actually want the animals to suffer if only to deter such negative behaviour.

AJ writes:

Tune into any islamic stuff today. Academics seem to have a blind eye for the similarity of Islamicism and Nazism.

solzhenitsyne writes:

There is no excuse for the barbarity of the Germans. Yet, there is a factual bases for the view that the GPU was worse, and for the --to our eyes -- seemingly wild and "irrational" German fear of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks had starved to death (starvation is a much slower & more hideous death than shooting) some 10 million Ukrainians . Google "Holodomor." The Holodomor of a decade earlier (1932-33) was carried out by Kaganovich, Schlichter et. al., a disproportionate number of whom, alas, were ethnic (although Communist, not religious) Jews. The horrible history of Eastern Europe is much more complicated than the version generally reported today.

Doc Merlin writes:

@Hyena and David Pearce

Are you actually arguing that morally, killing animals is on par with killing human babies?

@twv and @Caplan
The Jews were dehumanized by the Nazi's. They were called inferior. They were called sub-human. When someone is dehumanized, it is easier to not feel guilt in killing them.

The same is true for unborn babies. Explain to me the difference between a baby one minute away from being born and one who was born one minute ago. Work your way back. At what point is an unborn baby not a human being? By what standard are people human beings?

Caplan wonders who would do this. He would. He is on the side of mass murder when it comes to our most innocent and defenseless members of society. It is ironic.

Blackadder writes:

Is there a fundamental ethical distinction between killing members of a different ethnic group and killing functionally equivalent members of a different species?

Um, yes.

David Pearce writes:

Blackadder, Doc Merlin and John Smith

What are the signs of "groupthink"?
One prominent symptom of groupthink is the lack of any self-perceived need to offer reasoned argument or supportive evidence for one's opinions. Mere re-affirmation of one's beliefs - and ridicule of one's opponents - seems an adequate response.

Yes, intuitively, it is "obvious" that factory-farming and butchering pigs, for example, is ethically preferable to factory-farming and butchering orphaned human toddlers. But what is the evolutionary source of one's intuitions? What steps should we take to guard against the risk of self-serving anthropocentric bias?

Daublin writes:

District 9 explores the question in movie form. Tell the truth: How many of us could see ourselves acting like that bureaucrat? He kills babies in the morning, files paperwork in the afternoon, and then goes home to his adoring wife and children in the evening.

John Smith writes:

To David Pearce:

Let's make it simple, shall we?

Are you or are you not claiming that killing human babies for food is exactly the same as killing animials for food?

Yes?

or

No?

David Pearce writes:

John, I'm sorry if my prose is unclear. I am asking a question.
What is the morally relevant distinction between factory-farming and slaughtering human and nonhuman animals - sentient beings like pigs of comparable development to human toddlers?

John Smith writes:

To David Pearce:

I understand what you are writing. And you are writing that with the implication that there are in fact no such distinction and that therefore we not should kill anaimals for food. Do you admit or deny this?

And if you admit it, then answer my previously posted question.

Disagreeable tactics, such as avoiding harsh questions while pretending to answer them, is yet another thing that turns people off extremists. It is not very charming.

I can accept a refusal to answer. You are not duty-bound to answer. If so, just say so. "I refuse to answer"

David Pearce writes:

John, my inability to see a morally relevant distinction doesn't show that no such morally relevant distinction exists. That is why I am asking the question.

Caleb writes:

"um, yes."

Then, um, please explain.

John Smith writes:

To David Pearce:

I think that further discussion at this point will serve no purpose.

As you admitted, your position is that there is no difference.

That you claimed to be seeking guidence on the issue instead of actually sneakily trying to influence people under false pretences is not a credible claim. I do not believe you.

And I am not interested in engaging someone whom I believe to be intellectally dishonest.

John Smith writes:

To David Pearce:

I am adding on this comment because I missed a statement earlier.

You claimed that people are so against the idea that pigs and human babies are the same because of groupthink. I can't speak for other people, but this is not the case for me.

I can entirely believe that such a position is intellectally respectable and that your position may well be so. The line of logic is evident and reasonable.

The issue that people have with this position, or at least me, is that such a position requires, as its starting position, personal values that very greatly emphasis the rights of animals (over humans on a relative basis). While accepting that such rights are not objectively wrong, I feel them to be from a subjective viewpoint to be unacceptable, which is why I, and I presume others, are against your intellectual position.

And of course there is the way that you misrepresent yourself as per my earlier comment.

cool face writes:

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