Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner David Livingstone Smith will explore the roots of the inhumane treatment of others during a special talk at Case Western Reserve University’s Inamori International Center for Ethics and Excellence.
Smith, author of Less than Human:Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, appears at the invitation of Case Western Reserve ethics professor Shannon French and cognitive science professor Anthony “Tony” Jack. All three will discuss research related to the topic of Smith’s book—as well as ways to eliminate or reduce such behaviors.
The presentation takes place at 12:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, in the Inamori Center, located on the ground floor of Crawford Hall. The event is free and open to the public.
Smith, director of the New England Institute for Cognitive Science and Evolutionary Studies, is a leader in the emerging field of neuroethics, which involves the intersection of evolutionary biology and human nature.
“We are excited to host this talk,” said French, a military ethicist interested in understanding why humans often dehumanize their enemies in order to prevent harm to soldiers in combat.
Jack is tackling a similar research question, but is finding his answers using MRI technologies to determine what happens in the brain when we view people as objects or animals—i.e. when we view a person as something less than human that it is permissible to kill or harm.
The brain-imaging project was conducted in collaboration with French and Stuart Youngner, chair of bioethics at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. The project also has relevance beyond military contexts to everyday life.
“We see similar neural signatures when people are depicted as animals and when we showed images of individuals who are often subject to discrimination, such as transgendered individuals and individuals with deformed bodies,” Jack said. “An indifferent attitude to other’s suffering is sometimes necessary, such as on the battlefield, but it can also prove a very pernicious social force. We are working to understand the cognitive and neural processes that make people connect to others and care about their well-being, and the ones that get in the way.”
As French stated: “To do practical, applied work in ethics, you have to start with understanding how our brains work. It goes back to the well-known adage in philosophy that ought implies can.”
French and Jack gave a joint presentation on the topic this summer at the prestigious EURO International Society for Military Ethics conference in the United Kingdom.
Those who participate in war must maintain an ethics code to have a moral shield that will help them survive the horrors of the battlefield, French explained. This approach provides soldiers the possibility of transitioning back into normal, civilian life with a sense that they did the best they could within the context of combat.
Perhaps as a defense mechanism, experiencing the brutality of war can cause some people to begin to view the enemy like an animal and to respond as you would to an attack by a rampaging lion. French said, “It’s is primal response to kill.”