Monday, October 11, 2010

The rationalization of evil

"Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side" - George Orwell, "Notes on Nationalism"

From The New York Times

From 1946 to 1948, American public health doctors deliberately infected nearly 700 Guatemalans — prison inmates, mental patients and soldiers — with venereal diseases in what was meant as an effort to test the effectiveness of penicillin.

American tax dollars, through theNational Institutes of Health, even paid for syphilis-infected prostitutes to sleep with prisoners, since Guatemalan prisons allowed such visits. When the prostitutes did not succeed in infecting the men, some prisoners had the bacteria poured onto scrapes made on their penises, faces or arms, and in some cases it was injected by spinal puncture.

If the subjects contracted the disease, they were given antibiotics.

“However, whether everyone was then cured is not clear,” said Susan M. Reverby, the professor at Wellesley College who brought the experiments to light in a research paperthat prompted American health officials to investigate.
A doctor quoted in the article notes the irony that this occurred at the same time that the United States was prosecuting Nazi medical experimenters for crimes against humanity at Nuremberg.

This is a point that Professor Reverby addressed in her Democracy Now discussion of these revelations

So, when bioethicists talk about why we have regulations in place now, part of it is, of course, there’s these revelations of these kinds of what we now think of as illegal, but horrific studies, that when you think about it, go back for a second and think about it, with all of the revelations of what the Japanese were doing during the war, and particularly what Mengele was doing, you get the Nuremberg Code right after the war, which says doing this kind of research on people who cannot give informed consent is immoral and a crime against humanity. The problem is that Americans treated those crimes by the Nazis and the lesser-known ones by the Japanese as something done, as the bioethicist Jay Katz so brilliantly put it, as a code for barbarians. So if you think that they were Nazi doctors, you don’t think that you, a good researcher here, could possibly do anything like that.
The last sentence touches upon an essential point (and the reason that the Orwell quote prefaces this post.) The sort of cognitive dissonance resolving rationalizations that Tavris and Aronson wrote about in Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) can lead one down a pyramid of choice (with each successive rationalization building upon the last) to such inhumane and evil actions.*

During the discussion, Amy Goodman played a clip of a documentary in which one of the experimenters from the infamous Tuskegee experiments was asked if the fact that his experiments violated the Nuremberg Code of informed consent, which had been formulated in response to the Nazis, gave him pause. His response was to be wounded at the comparison, as "They were Nazis."

Reverby responded

I think the most chilling, actually, in the clip that you just played, is Jim Jones, the historian's retelling of what Rod Heller said to him, which is it’s just—when Heller said to him, "But they were Nazis." So I think that’s the point I was making earlier, that it’s just too easy to assume that it’s only monsters.
This sort of rationalization, where actions are viewed as right or wrong depending on who does them, has been the central justification - as Orwell noted - for just about any type of wrong that can be imagined. It is the same underlying thought process that was employed to rationalize the Bush administration's torture regime and it is the same as the rationalizations that are being put forth by apologists for the Obama administration's claim to possess the tyrannical power to assassinate citizens by fiat in secret with no due process.

And this is why the sort of "patriotism" championed by Ronald Reagan - in which one's patriotism is defined as a function of one's inability to recognize any wrong on the part of one's nation - is so pernicious (and infuriating.) There is nothing patriotic about turning a blind eye to wrongs committed by one's nation. Real patriotism comes from facing uncomfortable facts. It is the patriotism of Sen. Carl Shurz: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

*The discussions that Tavris has had with D.J. Grothe on both For Good Reason and Point of Inquiry are highly informative regarding the subject of how cognitive dissonance can lead to self-deception.

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