When people talk about “modern society”, they speak as if society has advanced light-years beyond previous societies. That’s true in many ways: slavery is abolished, women can vote, and we no longer go plundering and pillaging our neighbors. But thanks to human nature, there are still many ways in which our society is as primitive and animalistic as it has always been.
Yes, a justice system is in place to prosecute and punish law-breakers, and there is a great deal of societal pressure to conserve and improve the world. Yet all these things haven’t stopped murder, theft, abuse, genocide, and other cruelties. Why is that?
In large part, it’s due to the fact that we can easily “shut off” our consciences. Humans have the terrifying ability to separate their actions from their morals and beliefs. It’s why so many of the most devout people can justify some pretty horrible actions–the recent bombing of Syria is just the latest in the string of things we humans have done to each other.
Albert Bandura, a psychologist from the 1960s, broke it down to a simple conclusion: “moral conduct requires constant, active self-regulation.” When “moral self-sanctions are selectively disengaged from inhumane conduct”, malice and mischief take over.
If you’ve ever tried to self-regulate your behavior, you have an idea how exhausting it is to always “try to be good”. The human psyche can only sustain that self-regulation so long before it inevitably fails. Our own internal regulators of good and bad can eventually become compromised, leading us to ignore or cover up our mistakes and immoral actions.
Moral justification is another thing that has led to this problem. “I’m doing this because…” is a common excuse intended to justify horrors inflicted upon another person, country, culture, race, or religion. Sanitized language, also known as “double speak” can desensitize and disassociate us from the truth of the actions. We’re “fighting for freedom” instead of “going to war”, or “liberating the oppressed” instead of “invading another country”.
A lack of personal responsibility also contributes to the problem. “Just following orders” doesn’t make your actions any less horrible, as was evident in the case of Nazi concentration camp soldiers and doctors. “Group decision making” and “collective action” (we decided to take action as a group, so it’s not my responsibility) is another trap we fall into to justify misdeeds.
In the end, all of these gives us psychological cover for the things cause us to be horrible to each other. We ignore, cover up, or simply neglect to think about our actions, or we justify them using some excuse that makes it seem better, but in the end doesn’t detract from those actions.