Judging Atrocity

Our practices of holding one another responsible for wrongdoing depend on the attribution of moral agency, and the view that, as human beings, we are not simply causes in the world, but authors of our actions. Contemporary psychological research increasingly reveals, however, that human action is largely influenced by situational factors beyond our control. How, if at all, can we reconcile this tension? This course examines this complex problem through the context of atrocity crimes—crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes. What makes these crimes a fascinatingly complex terrain upon which to conduct this inquiry is that atrocity crimes are held to be extraordinary crimes for which perpetrators assume the greatest responsibility, even though they are typically carried out in the most extreme of circumstances that burden the exercise of human capacities. Together, we will take an interdisciplinary look from within the fields of psychology and philosophy into the situational and dispositional causes of atrocity in an effort to develop sound bases for judging perpetrators. You will be challenged to develop your own views as to whether our practices are simply built on a myth of moral agency, or whether we can account for situational influences on human action, without undermining the intelligibility of our attributions of responsibility for atrocity crimes. This course is unique in that it will implicate students’ own moral views. Our discussions will animate deeply held assumptions about human nature and human agency. Students will be encouraged to critically reflect on their own intuitions, identify nodes of disagreement among our authors and their peers, and to articulate reasons in defense of their own considered judgments.