Two hurdles in understanding how those in collective hysteria can be culpable
Understanding everyday culpability and evil is relatively easy. Everyday evil is the stuff of thefts and muggings and so on. The police or FBI are potentially on the case.
And, in that world, the villains almost always both
have bad intent, and
independently chose to do their crime.
For societal level evil — the sort of evil that is done by sociopolitical movements — things are very different.
(Of course, even at the societal level you’ll find your baseline expected level of criminality: Folks cooking the books, covering up the fraud, paying off politicians, and so on. Everyday evil is distributed uniformly everywhere. But it doesn’t drive the large-scale evil that plagues society, much less does it drive the democides, genocides and lesser crimes against humanity.)
First, societal level evil is not usually done with bad intent. And you can basically take that as an axiom. That’s because movements culturally evolve sophisticated justifications for their beliefs and behavior. It’s thus vacuously true that they are well-intentioned, and so it follows that being well-intentioned is absolutely no indication of whether a movement is good or bad (ahem, evil). That’s not the topic of this piece, though, but you can get into that in these videos…
Here in this piece I want to focus on (2).
As I mentioned, everyday criminals usually “independently chose to do their crime.” The thief that stole your car’s tires not only realizes stealing your tires isn’t a well-intentioned act, but chose to do it in a straightforward deliberative sense. It’s a business decision, and he or she happens to do business on the wrong side of the good. The thief gets that.
But, for societal level evil, things can get hairy.
Sociopolitical movements don’t just evolve sophisticated justifications for their behavior — which explains (1) above, i.e., how it is that they’re always well-intentioned — but the members within the movement are being buffeted around by the social forces within it.
And when, in particular, it’s a collective hysteria, the dynamics of the group is in some sense “ill,” and each individual is receiving bad information from all his or her high reputation contacts, and passing them on, and these loops just confirm and reconfirm ridiculously terrible ideas. In such scenarios, each individual in the sociopolitical movement is acquiring his or her beliefs just as humans always do, but the network behavior has become sick, and so the whole community drifts in a group think toward new terrible righteous notions of the good, justifications for what to do those in the out group, and so on.
Point being, unlike for evil of the everyday life criminality kind, societal level evil often is a result of an emergent tornado of ever worse ideas among a community, and the individuals within it are blind to it.
In these cases, it is much less clear that they “independently chose to do their crime.” In fact, they clearly did not simply independently make their choice. By its very nature, it was a decision inextricably tied up with the tangles of connections in their movement. Not independent.
And this is another reason that I believe some folks push back on collective hysteria. If the Lockdowners are in a collective hysteria, then they aren’t making independent decisions of the kind we’re more familiar with in everyday life. And, given where they sat within their group think network, it’s almost as if they couldn’t have even done otherwise.
And so… they can’t be culpable!
This, however, is a fallacy, something I talk about in this early Science Moment below. Free will and moral responsibility are not dependent on determinism being false.
And, while it may be more difficult to make independent decisions when in a group think, it’s not impossible. At all! In fact, all parents teach us exactly this, as I discuss here…
And, more generally, there are varieties of ways one can insulate oneself from collective hysteria and the consequent harms, as I discuss in this final video.