I feel currently a personal dilemma: I find events like the Abu Grahib torture scandal highly interesting, especially under what circumstances people do such terrible things. At least, when i only read analytical texts about it. When i see the pictures and the actual ways of torture used there, i feel disgusted.

At the same time i feel ashamed of my interest - I feel doing some harm by finding the topic interesting, i.e. kind of showing not enough respect for the victims.

What would be a kantian viewpoint on this question?

EDIT My interest is just plain scientific curiosity - the same as i find physics interesting.

  • It could arguably be a moral necessity to take an interest in historical horrors, at least if you believe the dictum "those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." – Chris Sunami supports Monica Jun 30 '16 at 14:20
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    Can you give us a framework to answer from (i.e. are you a utilitarian, kantian, something you don't know the name for)? Without a framework, the only two choices are all frameworks or opinion-based? Or alternately, as you're suggesting Kant and the utilitarians, you could split your question into one for each. – virmaior Jun 30 '16 at 14:37
  • @ChrisSunami My interest is just plain scientific curiosity, not (at least not primarily) that those horros won't be forgotton. – toogley Jun 30 '16 at 14:48
  • @virmaior what do you mean by "Without a framework, the only two choices are all frameworks or opinion-based"? I currently have no real moral opinion (at least not sth i'm very sure in). – toogley Jun 30 '16 at 14:49
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    well, then I'll split up my questions (at least in two of your questions i'm very unsure in.). – toogley Jun 30 '16 at 14:57

There's several Kantian texts to consider on this front and a key question about the nature of "interest."

First, I want to look at "interest." Interest could mean something like research interest or it could mean something like fascination or just a mere hobby. I'm going to assume you don't mean delight but I want to mention it at various points during my answer, so I'll throw it in there too.

Turning to Kant's texts, as many of the other answers note there's the Groundwork and the many formulations of the categorical imperative that can serve as a test. Two types of formulas seem important here: the universalization tests and the humanity/rationality tests. On most definitions of interest, it doesn't seem immediately contradictory for everyone to take an interest in these things. It seems troubling if we take interest as in delight but it's not even clear (at least at 10am) that this is by itself contradictory. On a certain level, there may be a practical contradiction (everyone does this plus the laws of nature) which I will mention below.

Looking at the humanity/rationality tests, here we ask whether an action treats another as a means rather than an end, because rational nature ("humanity") always and everywhere deserves to be treated as an end and never merely as a mere means. On this formulation, it's clear some thing likes delight would be treating other's suffering as a means; other meanings are going to be a little fuzzier, like fascination. Hobby and research interest seem okay though in that while the suffering of others would be a means to this interest, the interest itself would be oriented towards people as ends.

A second thing to consider in the Groundwork is the difference between perfect and imperfect duties. For Kant, we have a perfect duty to behave in accordance with the categorical imperative, but we also have two imperfect duties -- things where we don't universalize particular acts but do all need to pursue two ends: the perfection of ourselves and aiding others. An interest in tragedies of this sort could reflect an interest in perfecting ourselves and/or aiding others depending on how it works out. If it reflects neither, then it may be immoral for Kant.

Moving away from the Groundwork, there are two other texts that are worth looking at. First, there's the Metaphysics of Morals especially its second half -- "Doctrine of Virtue" (= Tugendlehre) Here, Kant treats on a large number of practical questions and problem cases there.

One case that springs to mind is Kant's response to animal suffering. Kant's view is that we should not enjoy animal suffering because it will numb us and make us indifferent to human suffering. It seems that by extension this would be an important issue to consider in response to interest in terrible events -- namely, that it's wrong if it numbs us to the wrong and horror of these events.

A second text to consider is Kant's Anthropology. Here, the relevant point is that Kant splits anthropology from ethics proper and engages in a study of human behavior as it actually occurs. If your interest falls in a similar vein, it's hard to grasp how Kant could condemn it.

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There is a minor tributary in Kantian thought that might have some bearing on why you feel it might be a problem.

There is a Kantian argument against eating as much meat as we want. At some scale, mass consumption of meat requires factory farming which involves cruelty to the animals being witnessed by human beings. This can degrade the empathic ability of those who must witness this. We are treating them as mere means in degrading the faculty necessary for them to be full moral agents. So there is a cap on the volume of meat we can consume as long as our culture has limited technology and resources to care for the animals, and slaughter cannot be fully automated. The volume must be limited to the level where we can handle the animals appropriately and dispatch them respectfully, so as not degrade the moral sensitivity of the workers involved.

There is a degree to which exposure and empathy with the motives of criminals, especially war criminals who have committed atrocities can degrade your sensitivity to the mistreatment involved. So there is a cap on how much one should invest in such understanding. We seem to have a natural attraction to violence. If everyone gave into this and the media displayed all the details of every gruesome murder for public consumption, or even if we as a culture spend too much time taking in entertainments in which murder is commonplace, we might collectively become blase about the suffering of the victims and their families. We are using their tragedy for our own edification or entertainment, and since only very few of us can legitimately help them (as ends) in doing so, that is treating them as mere means. In the process, we are degrading our moral sensitivity to them as people. The volume must be limited to the level where the attention can be directly properly so that we maintain our perspective.

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Based on my (admittedly limited) understanding of Kant, I don't see why this would be an issue. You could even plausibly create a categorical imperative, as @ChrisSunami suggested. I think you'd have a hard time preventing it from being consequentialist but that's beside the point here.

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I don't have a particular take on this ethical dilemma through an established ethical framework; however I think it is interesting that you are comparing two kinds of reporting, one scientific and objective and the other, the human record by way of newspaper reports and photographs.

Scientific reporting, by its form, is designed to remove the human element and make it bearable; in the same way that surgeons find cutting into human flesh bearable by their training; whereas newspaper reports are designed to bring to presence the moral, instinctive horror were face to face with it for the first time.

Your reactions are consonant with that.

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