On Inhumanity, with David Livingstone Smith

Humans are the most sociable of creatures and yet, throughout history, we have carried out unspeakable acts of cruelty against each other. David Livingstone Smith joins Turi to ask where our Inhumanity comes from.

S2 E21: On Inhumanity

“Dehumanisation both justifies and motivates acts of extraordinary violence - but it is not in any sense an innate disposition”

Here lies the terrifying quandary: if humans are the most social of all primates and mammals, if our sociality and capacity for collaboration is at the very heart of our success as a species, how are we able to engage in such acts of hideous violence towards each other?

“Dehumanisation is a psychological response to political forces”

David Livingstone Smith explains how two key ideas underpin the psychology of Dehumanisation: Psychological Essentialism and Hierarchical Thinking, false heuristics that are nevertheless deeply embedded in all of us.

But he goes further. To understand the depths of cruelty and humiliation, the ritualistic violence, the near-religious ecstasy of moral purpose that often comes with genocide and torture, we need to understand the mind of the Perpetrator.

To the perpetrator, their victim is both human and non-human, vermin and all-powerful. More than any physical danger, the victim represents a metaphysical cognitive threat - and becomes a monster to be exterminated.

“When we say ‘we must put them in their place’, it’s a deep idea: we want to put ‘them’ in their metaphysical place”

Listen to David explain:

  • The metaphysical threat of the ‘other’
  • The Uncanny - and its threat to our sense of purity and order
  • Dehumanisation as psychosis
  • Why cruelty and humiliation are such intrinsic elements of dehumanisation
  • What we can do to fix it.

“We are disposed to have difficulty harming one another, and yet…”

Works cited include:

Read the Full Transcript

David Livingstone Smith

David Livingstone Smith is professor of philosophy at the University of New England. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of London, Kings College. He is the author of many books, including On Inhumanity: Dehumanization and How To Resist It

On Opinion is a member of The Democracy Group, a network of podcasts that examines what’s broken in our democracy and how we can work together to fix it.

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This page was last edited on Wednesday, 26 May 2021 at 10:01 UTC