Being Human. Chapter 10: Aggression: The Common Thread Of Humanity

Not a day passes without reminders of the violent world in which we live. Pick up a newspaper on any given day and you will see multiple reports of aggression at the interpersonal as well as at group or international levels. Wars continue despite efforts to make the First World War the “war to end all wars”. Genocide is committed as we write these lines in Darfur and other regions of the world despite all protestations of “never again”. It is not possible to live insulated lives as violence affects individuals, families, communities, the nation, and the international system.

Many people are keenly aware of the misery caused by aggression and are trying to change political systems to ameliorate the consequences. Thousands of Americans and Europeans have moved their protests to the streets angered by the apparent indifference of politicians in bringing the current wars, like in Iraq and the Middle-East, to an end. Today’s paper also reports on the racism (see also chapter 9) that still lurks in our societies, on school children being killed in Thailand, on plans to introduce new missile systems in Poland with radar support in the Czech republic. The Palestinians have not yet come together in a unity government and see their efforts dismissed by Israel, another chapter in that ongoing conflict. Elsewhere the police has unraveled a drug smuggling gang and found, along with money and drugs, many guns. As you read this chapter today it is probably but an average day of continued violence in the world.

Aggression stimuli can be found not only in the media, but now also consumes significant space in the ever-growing Internet. The content of violent pornography is related to violence, as we shall see later in this chapter. Video games are often vivid depictions of massive and terrible violence. Some researchers have related these stimuli to real life aggression, facilitated by the ease of obtaining guns, particularly in the United States. Daily television programming yields numerous violent episodes with nonchalant killing at the center of the action. Violent movies sell, and based on the results of social learning theory, they must have an effect on impressionable audiences.

Unlike in European countries that are less violent tens of thousands of people are murdered each year in United States. However, not only in the U.S. do we observe the phenomena of school killings, or men attacking others at their workplace. In recent years it has also happened in Germany and in The Netherlands, but with less frequency and scale compared to the US. At Columbine High School in 1999 two students turned guns and explosives on fellow students in an attack that costs several innocent lives. Their actions were an example of anger-based aggression as they went to their school with the intent and determination to hurt fellow students and staff. Similar episodes have occurred in other states (Newman, Fox, Harding, Metha, & Roth, 2004). Recently (April 16th, 2007) a 23-year old student in Virginia killed 32 people and wounded 25 others before he took his own life. A similar act of violence happened on November 7th, 2007, in Tuusula (Finland). An 18-year-old shot seven students and the headmistress inside his high school in southern Finland, before turning the gun on himself. He, calling himself Sturmgeist89’, published a manifesto online on youtube demanding war on the “weak-minded masses” and pledged to die for his cause.

The difference in violence between Europe and the United States suggests the importance of cultural values. Some societies are more acceptant of violence whereas other countries have built into social inhibitions and control of aggression cues. The stimuli of guns in many homes in America, and their indifferent use in the media, are not independent of the actual violence in society.

Daily news also provides many sad examples of more intimate violence. Child abuse is common, as are other forms of domestic violence often associated with drug and alcohol use. The fact that societies have created centers where women can escape violence speaks volumes about the prevalence of family aggression and intimate violence. Rape centers present everywhere in the Western world, also point to the prevalence of aggression in society.

Since violence is everywhere in human society and in the animal world, is there an evolutionary basis for aggression? Do we still have these biological components present in our genetic coding? Yet, the behaviors that had a survival function in our common early history are today dysfunctional. Predisposition to aggress may kill us one-by-one, or we may all die in the feared nuclear cataclysm of the future. We should remind ourselves that the carnivorous dinosaurs of the past are all gone. Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 11: Altruism And Prosocial Behavior

In 1964 a shocking incident occurred in New York City that caused distress and concern among social psychologists. A young woman, Kitty Genovese, was walking to her home when a stalker attacked her. What was especially distressing was that she was stabbed repeatedly over a 35-minute time span while crying out for help. It was not as if no one heard her cries. According to several news reports in the days that followed she died while 38 of her neighbors saw the attack and did nothing. They watched the attack unfold from windows above the street and the only intervention occurred when someone yelled, “leave that girl alone”, at which point the attacker left temporarily. However, after a short interval the attacker returned and stabbed her 8 more times, sexually assaulted her, and left her for dead. When finally police were called, there was nothing that could be done as Kitty had died.

When the neighbors were later interviewed and asked why they did not intervene, some indicated that they felt no personal responsibility to help, whereas others misconstrued the situation as one that did not require intervention. Although recent research indicates that the news reports had not been quite correct about every detail of this incidence (Manning, Levine & Collins, 2007), more importantly social psychologists were motivated by the news stories about this crime to try to understand what caused such indifference to suffering. In a more positive sense it also led to the desire to know why on the other hand some bystanders in other situations do display concern and intervene in order to help (Darley & Latane, 1968). We will come back to this research later in this chapter.

When September 11, 2001 came to New York, we saw this different side of the human nature, a desire to help and intervene. That day close to 3,000 people died in a massive attack on the World Trade Center. However, there were also hundreds of people who died trying to help these victims and in the process sacrificed their own lives (Lee, 2001). Most of the people who displayed extraordinary courage and selfless behavior on that day were ordinary people just like those who decided not to help Kitty Genovese. The helpers were average human beings who found themselves faced with an extraordinary situation that demanded their attention. Most of the workers in the building did the natural thing and fled to safety. However, there were some who stayed behind and helped the physically handicapped, there were those workers who saw to it that others were led to safety first, and there were hundreds of firefighters who lost their lives trying to save others (Stewart, 2002).

In both of these incidents the possibility of behaving in altruistic and helping ways presented itself. Why did those who watched Kitty Genovese die not help? Why did altruistic heroes arise out of the catastrophe at the World Trade Center? These and other issues dealing with altruistic and prosocial behavior will be addressed in this chapter. Human history shows the selfish and dark side of humanity, but also records people who are willing to sacrifice even their lives to help those in need. For social psychologists these anecdotal examples create questions as to whether willingness to help has a basic genetic component, or whether it is a consequence of learning. Is there such a thing as a pure altruistic motive in helping people or are all such behaviors at least partly motivated by self-interests? Read more

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Being Human. Chapter 12: Morality: Competition, Justice And Cooperation

As we watch the news each day, and interact with others in society, our sense of right and wrong may often be aroused. There is a great deal of evidence in social psychology pointing to the negative effects of selfish and unbridled competition. People at times express extreme egoism in their behavior to the detriment of others, and the remedy may require legal sanctions. Fortunately, as we saw in the last chapter there are also people who seek to act in cooperative ways, and try to reconcile people in conflict. Conflict situations often call for moral judgment. What is right and wrong in the dispute and where is the common ground? Do you approve of murder as long as it is your enemy? How about killing in a just war as you have defined it? What about infanticide where illness or lack of resources makes the future seem impossible for the child? How about assisted suicide for the hopelessly ill? These issues and many other challenges all require moral judgment.

Perhaps you have taken note of how people live in other countries and cultures. Some behaviors like polygamy or polyandry may strike you as odd, but do they also require moral judgment? In that case we can see that moral judgment is not universally similar as social conventions vary on marriage and other social practices in different cultures. How about a situation where parents deliberatively starve their children to death? Is that universally rejected, do you think people find that acceptable in any culture? Deliberate killing of children is probably not acceptable in modern societies, so there is also evidence for some universality of moral judgment.

1. Moral judgment and culture
How we define morality is of primary concern in moral judgment. What do we use to guide our thinking as we make judgment about right or wrong, good or bad? People rely on guides to live a life that is ethically acceptable. Some people use religious or humanistic scripture to make moral choices. Others believe they hear a little internal voice that warns them of moral compromise. Ethical principles determine a great deal of social behavior, from the paying of money owed to the election of government leaders and political parties. Moral judgment is central in the so-called war on terrorism. It has influenced both sides in the war on their attitudes toward killing and who might be considered innocent parties to the conflict. One side thinks that there are no innocent “infidels”; the other side defines all military opposition as terrorism. Nevertheless both positions are moral judgments based on ethics, which are derived from custom, religion, and social categorization.

1.1 Defining moral behavior
Morality is defined as the principles that guides our lives and which we use in making judgments about the behavior of others (Haidt, 2001). In a broader sense morality is what we consider ideal the utopian society that we hope for in the future. Moral principles incur obligations on us, and to a large extent determine our behavior toward self and others. Moral principles in society generally apply to all people. We would consider it hypocritical to tell our children to behave in a certain moral way, if we ourselves do not practice the same ethical principle. Likewise for a country if the morality of a society calls for peaceful relations with others it is hypocritical to carry unprovoked war to the shore of other nations. Moral principles are inclusive applying to everyone within the group, be it religious, nation, or other society. Human behavior is far from perfect, and we all violate moral obligations at times. Society, for instance, imposes a requirement not to steal from others in the community. If a member of the community violates this obligation society imposes sanctions. Sanctions vary widely in various cultures from a figuratively slap on the wrist to actually cutting off the offending hand in some Middle Eastern societies. Like in China, many states in the U.S. still have capital punishment for some crimes. Read more

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Being Human. References

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Hannah Arendt – Zur Person – Full Interview (with English Subtitles)

Hannah Arendt in the Rozenberg Quarterly

Anthony Court – Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Totalitarianism. Part One: http://rozenbergquarterly.com/?p=3099
Anthony Court – Hannah Arendt’s Theory of Totalitarianism. Part Two:  http://rozenbergquarterly.com/?p=3115
Nima Emami – Hannah Arendt and The Green Movement: http://rozenbergquarterly.com/?p=563

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The Open Library of Humanities

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