Why do people exhibit genocide apathy?

Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychology professor, recently recommended that the international community enact a formal process that would require nations to publicly address why they’re choosing not to act. His proposal is based on his NSF-funded study on psychic numbing, which showed that people may respond well to one person in need but become numb to larger numbers.

The problem, according to Slovic, is that moral intuition, guided by feelings and emotions, is not sufficient to motivate action when genocide is happening. Both moral intuition and moral reasoning, that is, logical argument and calculation, are needed to stimulate action.

“Our basic way of responding through moral intuition is a problem because it breaks down in the face of large scale atrocities,” says Slovic. “Our compassion, our empathy, our feeling about what we should do gives us a rush of immediate concern, but it doesn’t sustain us when large numbers of people are involved.”

The solution is to engage moral reasoning, a slower and more logical way of thinking about problems that challenge principles of right conduct, along with moral intuition.

For example, he argues that the U.S. government doesn’t leave it to the moral intuition of citizens to determine how much money they should pay in taxes for Social Security. Instead, moral reasoning leads to laws that require individuals to pay specific amounts for this program.

“Moral reasoning says all human lives are equally valuable,” says Slovic. “Given that, if a large number of lives are at risk, they should be proportionally more valuable than a single life. But if left to moral intuition, we would feel a certain amount of concern for the large number of lives at risk, but that feeling would not necessarily be enough to lead us to action.”

This is one of the most perplexing, and difficult to explain, components of genocide studies. Even though students have difficulty understanding how so many people would do nothing, the evidence consistently shows that the vast majority of people disengage themselves from any involvement in these acts; this is true for people on the ground, facing the genocide firsthand, as well as the international community.

In America, it’s often hard to rationalize how these acts are so passively viewed. Particularly when you consider that:

  1. they do receive a modicum of media coverage,
  2. are often addressed by public officials,
  3. questions frequently surface during press gaggles, and
  4. they’re continually highlighted by a host of non-profit groups

Slovic’s research would seem to help answer the question of how we, as a nation, develop apathy towards ongoing genocides, when we are in fact aware of them. Whether this sort of approach would help governments form a more cohesive (and decisive) policy in dealing with these crimes is difficult to say, but based on the premise, it would certainly be an interesting first step.

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