A reflection on 25 days with students in Germany and Poland

Flowers at Birkenau

One of the strongest intuitions of thought uncovered by psychological researchers has to do with the pairing of goodness and beauty. It is most readily detected when we encounter beautiful faces or scenery with the result being that we naturally feel that goodness must be there as well. The effect is so reliable that it has its own name, the “physical-attractiveness stereotype,” or more generally (albeit more awkwardly), the “what-is-beautiful-is-good” effect. And the flip side is also true. That is, when we find something to be good, our judgments of beauty are typically elevated. It seems like our implicit powers of reason simply want to find these two qualities to be naturally paired. When we find one, we infer the other.

This past spring, as I walked with students through various concentration camps and other places of human cruelty and misery, this intuition seemed to get in our way. On numerous occasions and in virtually all student reflection papers the observation was made that the places of horror we visited did not look like how they imagined they would…or should. Here, in these monstrous places of human suffering, the flowers still bloomed, the trees still swayed in the gentle breeze, and the sky would often envelope us with a tranquil and lullaby blue. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, for instance, students saw deer prancing just a few yards away in the tall grass, and then later a cute little rabbit was spotted nibbling naively on vegetation that had sprouted up in and around the rubble of a dynamited gas chamber. It just didn’t seem right. These places should forever be clouded in gray and deprived of nature’s song of life.

A related intuition prompts us to believe that good actions are performed by “good” people and evil actions are performed by “evil” people. Especially for those for whom we know little else about, the instinctive link between observed behavior and the fundamental nature of the person is simple and complete. So, when we look at the holocaust story from a distance and are repulsed by ugliness, it is quite natural for us to trigger these automatic associations and then use them to make moral distinctions that distance and protect us (e.g., the perpetrators had to be wicked and awful people, and probably ugly too; totally unlike me and my friends). However, these protective heuristics tend to get pushed aside when we decide to remove our distance and step in to take a closer look. At this point, we begin to realize that the physical and psychological landscape in which these events happened are not that different from the ones we inhabit. For instance, if we’re honest we will recognize the motive to work towards cultural purification, the instinct of self-preservation, as well as the temptations of careerism and opportunism. And when one learns particulars about the lives of the bystanders and perpetrators, the similarities between them and us start to accumulate uncomfortably. The limits of our simple intuitions become exposed, our defenses are bypassed, and we are presented with an opportunity to ask ourselves deeper and more honest questions about the human condition, questions about our own condition.

Memorial near Crematoria 5, Birkenau

As Sociologist Christian Smith (2003) reminds us, humans are moral, believing beings. So much of what we do and think is firmly rooted in our understanding of what is right and proper. And yet, as fundamental as the moral nature is, our actions so often get it terribly, terribly wrong. As an example, recall that all the actors in the Holocaust drama, not only the victims and rescuers, but also the perpetrators and bystanders, felt they were acting properly. Their sense of moral duty, far from being a tool to distinguish them one from another, is rather the very feature that binds them all together as human actors. Much to the surprise of many students, we learn that coercion and threats of violence, though present in some measure to be sure, were not primary drivers in explaining why so many were so eager to sign up for Nazi employment and then went about their work so proudly. Furthermore, we have every reason to believe that most of the euthanasia doctors and nurses, as well as SS camp guards had no problem sleeping well at night, each believing they were involved in something that was ultimately a good. How could this be? Well, certainly there are many reasons, but one of them is surely the reliance upon the same simple moral heuristics which tripped us up. For instance, recall that the victims arriving at these camps, these “historic evil enemies of the state,” had experienced many months of malnourishment in filthy and overcrowded ghettos, not to mention having just survived an oftentimes days-long and nightmarish journey jammed should-to-shoulder in cattle cars. They looked and smelled terrible; they were both evil and ugly.

And yet, with just a little distance we see with absolute clarity that camp personnel were acting in ways that unequivocally epitomized evil. But life doesn’t happen to us from a distance. We live it in the here and now. And because of this, we must admit to ourselves that we are in need of help in developing a proper moral posture. But this takes work, and antecedently, it takes humility. It is so much easier to believe that we arrive on the scene ready made to think and act justly. After all, we know the moral life is important and we sense that we want to do the right thing, what else is needed? Furthermore, our culture reminds us that we must never doubt ourselves, and if per chance there be any doubt, we should simply follow our tribe. These seem to be the first two principles of contemporary reflexive moral reasoning. They feel right, but are they?

On this tour the students and I removed our protective distance and approached this terrible story. And as student papers bore out, this experience forced us to admit the limitations of simple intuitions, to question the merit of our own moral postures, and to recognize the weightiness of getting it right. And, well…here we sit, amidst the beauty and the barracks.

Thanks to the students for submitting these pictures (most notably Sommer Toadvine and Libby Shane).

Smith, Christian. (2003), Moral, believing animals: Human personhood and culture. Oxford University Press.