Overview:

Human beings are always vulnerable to logical fallacies that allow us to rationalize away worldly suffering. Remaking peace goals requires global humanists to confront the tougher sides of human behavior.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

In my last three pieces, I explored some of the historical myths, economic complexities, and alternative approaches to peace that we as global humanists need to reckon with in pursuit of a better world. In a pat, self-congratulatory series, this would be where we sum up. This would be where bandaid solutions and vague hopefulness might appear. But no. There are plenty of other challenges in remaking our approach to peace, and one in particular that gives me significant pause when I think about humanist action. While the others are fairly wide-reaching and abstracted, this one’s personal. This one involves a logical fallacy to which we’re all dreadfully susceptible, and which will never easily be overcome.

Imagine you’re watching a video of one person being hurt over and over by another. If it was just once, just a quick slap in the right context, we might laugh in shock. But since the suffering continues, empathy quickly kicks in. Anger, too. How can this second person keep hurting the first person without consequence? Why isn’t anyone stepping in? Boy, if we only had a minute with that bully…

But the video keeps going. The first person keeps getting hurt. And then something very strange and unsettling starts to happen in us. Our distress at watching this pain play out becomes tantamount, maybe even more important than the pain on screen. Why do we have to watch this? Why is this first person not doing more to stop what’s happening to them? What’s wrong with them, that they’re letting themselves get beaten at all?

The mental stumble away from worldly empathy

Fundamental attribution error crops up in many ways in our lives. We’re far better at attributing our own negative actions to extenuating circumstances and external causation than we are at explaining the negative actions of others. With others, we leap far more often into assuming that X has done Y because it’s in X’s nature to do Y. But as for me? Oh, no, that poor behavior isn’t me. I just had a bad day. The neighbors kept me up all night. I forgot to take my medication.

And one of the worst extensions of this error emerges in relation to something called the “Just World fallacy”. This bit of misguided thinking assumes that we live in an essentially fair world, where “good things happen to good people,” and “bad things happen to bad people”. And so, if we see a video like the one in my above hypothetical, we might start to come up with justifications for why the first person is being beaten at all. There “must” be a reason for it. Maybe they did something heinous to someone in the second person’s family? Maybe they enjoy being beaten up?

Children are of course susceptible to this fallacy, when first attempting to create abstract relationships between actions and outcomes. But even as adults, emotion drives reasoning more often than most of us would like to accept. It’s painful to think of other people suffering without our being able to intervene. Also, why should this be our responsibility, when we’re barely getting by and supporting our own dependents as is? We didn’t hurt this random stranger, this suffering person elsewhere in our world. Why should we have to shoulder the consequences of someone else’s actions?

Where has fundamental attribution error allowed us to dismiss as extenuating circumstance in our regions the same instabilities that we use to explain away war in others?

Empathy even in its absence

It’s important to recognize what makes being a globally minded humanist so difficult.

For one, as emotional beings, it’s perfectly coherent to want the moral arc of history to bend on its own toward justice. After all, we’re sentient critters with just enough awareness to recognize the scale of horrific human problems, and… not anywhere near enough agency to fix them. Why wouldn’t we as a species have developed whole systems of thought, philosophy, and religion shaped around imagining that something greater than ourselves, either a god or a kind of natural cosmic equilibrium, will get around to resolving all the tougher problems for us?

Oh, sure, maybe not right away. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or even in our lifetimes. But, you know… eventually.

I don’t think we as individuals routinely intend to be so callous in the face of so much worldly suffering. So much of it has been normalized for so long, though, that it takes work to look with greater skepticism at the “natural” systems into which we were born. To estrange ourselves from our sense of comfort in them. And to break from status quo, to take a terrifying leap into the unknown, if we come to the conclusion that our status quos are morally unsound.

After all, we grew up in a world where certain regions have “always” been poor, “always” been war-torn, “always” been in dire need. This place is “just” safe. That place is “just” dangerous. Passive background processing about causation well outside our purview simply makes global suffering easier to rationalize, and then to put aside. It allows us to enjoy our children’s piano recitals, or laughter in a restaurant with friends, without falling into theatrical displays of guilt like Schindler’s (over how many more he could have saved) at the close of Schindler’s List.

Yes, yes, the world is deeply hurting. Oh! It’s awful, isn’t it? Just awful.

But if we poured all our attention and empathy only into its many traumas, we then reason to ourselves, however would we function? However would we focus enough to make, say, the money needed to give in part to some worthy cause?

Human behavior: a critical data point

Fundamental attribution error and Just World fallacy persist in human beings because they’re so darned useful. They help us to retain a central interest in our own dramas, our own narrative momentum in the world. Why hasn’t X called us back yet? When will I get that overdue promotion? Why did I have such a cruel parent/teacher/friend/lover? How am I supposed to feel about them now?

The world cries out in the background of all our private crises: about famine, and war, and genocide and other hate-crimes. About displacement pressures from environmental crisis, and pandemic and other deaths from treatable disease, and human trafficking, and gang rapes and sexual war crimes. About police shooting civilians without consequence, or throwing people into prisons under corrupt sentencing laws.

But it must simply be something “about” those regions, and “about” the people in them.

Yes. That explains it, surely.

“They” just haven’t earned peace yet, like we have.

There’s just something about “their” character as human beings, that makes these tragedies happen more often to “them” than to “us”.

And with that kind of background acceptance of suffering elsewhere, is it any wonder that we’ve seen so many biases come lately to the fore? Can any student of human behavioralism really be surprised at the world’s singular response to Ukraine? That there was so much horror at the novelty of blue-eyed, blond-haired, “civilized” people enduring what people in Palestine, Yemen, Myanmar, Somalia, Syria, Ethiopia, Mexico, El Salvador, and other conflict-laden regions have suffered for years?

The sinking feeling for me, though, comes in recognizing that Ukrainians may also soon “outstay” their welcome if their suffering goes on for too long. Because we’re human, and because we’re susceptible to so many logical fallacies that help us to focus on our own lives. Because we have finite reserves of empathy, while still moving as best we can through such a vast and complexly hurting world.

The call to humanist action

My atheism informs my belief that the universe is indifferent to our struggles. To me, there is no “karma”, and the very concept of “balance” for suffering is morally bankrupt. When a child dies after being kidnapped and tortured, there will never be justice for that death. As Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov observes, there is no heaven on offer that can justify even a single tear from a frightened, suffering creature on this earth.

(Alas, Ivan is later horrified to hear that all his atheist pontificating has driven someone to commit murder, and decides he still needs to act as if there is a god to lessen suffering here on earth. Not the only conclusion he could have drawn from his fictional experiences, but Dostoevsky, though a messy theist, was a theist all the same.)

But it’s not necessary to be atheist to answer the call to action embedded in humanist philosophy. You can believe there is a guiding force, and that it works through human actors. You can believe it calls upon you to enact a better justice here and now.

And so, the common cause that we humanists share, secular and religious alike, is the improvement of worldly agency through public policy and social action informed by the most comprehensive data about our world, and human behavior in it.

Even then, though, the work of being a truly global humanist does not come easily. Because we all have breaking points. We’re all at risk of burning out from all the “asks” made of us—and worse? Of coming to resent those in need, for having needs at all.

Which is why the work of remaking our peace goals has to be systemic. To cover for those individual weaknesses. To make it easier to do the work without losing empathy over time. It’s simply impossible to be a good global humanist all on one’s own.

Lucky for us, then, that we’re not.

Remaking Western goals for peace

Our first responsibility as global humanists is to recognize the emotional drivers and fallacies shaping individual and cultural reactions to world events. If we responded faster to Ukraine than to other conflicts, that’s not shocking so much as “human”. We’ve been resting on quite a few “Just World” laurels especially in the mainstream West, but we all have latent biases that need a good shaking off from time to time. And now, we have new data around those biases. So, what are we going to do about them?

We might begin by challenging our assumptions about what “peace” even looks like. What is the status quo that we hope Ukraine (and other war-torn regions) will return to? And is that kind of vague social “stability” a sufficient bar for peace? What background precarities, and artificial notions of what makes a society “civilized”, have we been overlooking all this time? What more could we ask for from our peace-time existences, than we’ve dared to hope for with low bars to the cessation of violence come before?

Likewise, we need to reflect more on what we take for granted closer to home. What are the drivers of instability in our own communities, our own state apparatuses? How do factors like war-mythologizing, economic warfare, and trauma’s call for retributive justice diminish our democracies? Where has fundamental attribution error allowed us to dismiss as extenuating circumstance in our regions the same instabilities we use to explain away war in others?

And lastly (for now, at least, because there’s something deceptively “manageable” about action items that come in threes):

Are we ready to live in a world where peace is process, not outcome?

If remaking our peace goals requires accepting that the work will never be finished, that peace is never fully won, and always a torch to be passed on… Are we ready for the changed approach to sociopolitical action that this realization would entail?

If not, that’s okay as a starting point. That’s human, after all.

The question we then ask as humanists is this: “What do we need to become ready?”

Which is where I leave the work, for now, to be shared with all of you.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.