Sympathizing with the tyrant

A quote to think about from Moral Hazards and China:

I have studied many of the nastiest parts of modern history with my students. Slavery. Japanese war-mongering. The Holocaust. My approach to these atrocities is simple: it is not enough to empathize with the victims. That is easy. It is also mostly useless. The real challenge is to try and feel the emotions, understand the fears, and take seriously the ideas that lead perpetrators to commit the crimes they did. One must not just sympathize with the tyrannized - one must also try and sympathize with the tyrant.

Why is this necessary? Why focus just as much on the experience and fears of the slaver as the slave? Because you are far more likely to become a slaver than you are to suffer as a slave. In his book on the 14 million people murdered by the Soviet and Nazi regimes in Eastern Europe, historian Timothy Snyder makes this point well:

It is far more inviting, at least today in the West, to identify with the victims than to understand the historical setting that they shared with perpetrators and bystanders in the bloodlands…Yet it is unclear whether this identification with victims brings much knowledge, or whether this kind of alienation from the murderer is an ethical stance. It is not at all obvious that reducing history to morality plays makes anyone moral....It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of the victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.

So one must try and sympathize with the tyrant. But one must not forget what tyranny is.

It perhaps pairs well with the article Genocide and evil. To quote just a small bit there:

.... what if genocide perpetrators aren’t all mustache-twirling villains plotting to do evil? What if they believe they’re in the right? And if their moral inclinations are so misdirected, might some of ours be as well? Are we prone to some of the same errors? Are our enemies really as bad as we think they are? Is our treatment of them as just as we think it is?

Self-deception is easy, and moral feelings are compatible with evil, as much contemporary and ancient wisdom tells us. According to sociologist Randall Collins, “The more intense the feeling of our goodness, the easier it is to commit evil.”