How Well Does Staub's Perspective Hold Up?

Not too well, says Bellinger

The following is from The Genealogy of Violence by Charles K. Bellinger

Staub's understanding of the roots of evil is broader than Miller's. Instead of narrowly focusing on one idea, such as childhood trauma, Staub paints a canvas involving many elements. He is presenting a general gestalt of violence, rather than a penetrating theory of violence.

Some readers may find this broad approach appealing because it is highly inclusive of many factors and perspectives. But other readers, myself included, may find it to be philosophically weak because of its generality and journalistic character.

At times, Staub simply states the obvious, but in such a way that he thinks that he is providing his reader with important "scientific" insights. For example, he informs us that "studies show that SS members were authoritarian and followed orders without concern about their moral implications or the victims' fate" (The Roots of Evil, 132).

Do we really need "studies" to show us that?

He also explains to his readers: "Recent research in psychology has shown that human beings have a tendency to divide the world into 'us' and 'them'". He sometimes makes tautological statements such as, "a feeling of responsibility for other people's welfare greatly increases the likelihood of helping during an accident or sudden illness".

And he continues: "A person's values determine his or her orientation to others' welfare. In extreme cases, harming others can become a value in itself. We can call this an antisocial value orientation, the devaluation of human beings and the desire to harm them, whether conscious or unconscious. It makes empathy with victims unlikely."

In a book such as the one you are reading now, which deals with violence and evil, this is the best I can do in the way of comic relief.

If "science" can only arrive at conclusions that are utterly obvious to any intelligent person, then it has no real power to improve our understanding. And if this is the case, then what is the point of presenting the findings of "modern science" concerning genocide?

Staub does not seem to realize that his "conclusions" should be the starting point of thought, not its end. He does not seem to be aware that he is begging the question. We should be asking why people divide the world into "us' and "them." We should be asking what scapegoating reveals about the structure of human societies, rather than being content to list "scapegoating" as one psychological response to "difficult life conditions." We should be asking how violence arises out of the depths of the individual human psyche, rather than simply gesturing toward "cultural characteristics," "social disorganization," "hardships of life," and other impersonal concepts as an explanation of the roots of violence.

In other words, Staub seems to lack a basic anthropological theory. He makes comments and observations that are accurate and to a certain extent helpful, but he does not challenge us with a philosophically penetrating vision of the human condition.


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