Lynching, the Milgram Experiments, and the Question of Whether "Human Nature Is Good"

Texts and Courses

Primary Texts

  • Allen, James, Hilton Als, John Lewis, and Leon F. Litwack (2000).  Without sanctuary: Lynching photography in America.  Santa Fe: Twin Palms.  Pp. 8-16, 173-176, 178-180, 184-185, 187-190, 194-196, 198, 201 (text only), and plates #20, 25, 31, 37-38, 54, 57, 62-65, 74, and 97.
  • Wells-Barnett, Ida B. (1892/2002).  On lynchings.  Ed. P.H. Collins.  Amherst, NY: Humanity.  Pp. 42-46.
  • Mengzi (3rd c. BCE/1970).  Trans. B.W. Van Norden.  Indianapolis: Hackett.  1A7, 1B5, 1B11, 2A2 (p. 35-41 only), 2A6, 2B9, 3A5, 4B12, 6A1 through 6A15, 6B1, 7A7, 7A15, 7A21, 7B24, 7B31.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1755/1995).  Discourse on the origin of inequality.  Trans. F Philip.  Ed. P. Coleman.  Oxford: Oxford.  Pp. 45-48.
  • Xunzi (3rd c. BCE/2014).  Xunzi: The complete text.  Trans. E. Hutton.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton.  Pp. 1-8, 248-257.
  • Hobbes, Thomas (1651/1996).  Leviathan.  Ed. R. Tuck.  Cambridge: Cambridge.  Pp. 86-90.
  • Doris, John M. (2002).  Lack of character.  Cambridge: Cambridge.  Pp. 28-61.
  • The Milgram video on Obedience to Authority.

Secondary Texts for Instructor

  • Dray, Philip (2002). At the hands of persons unknown.  New York: Modern Library.
  • Ivanhoe, Philip J. (2000).  Confucian moral self cultivation, 2nd ed.  Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Schwitzgebel, Eric (2007).  Human nature and moral education in Mencius, Xunzi, Hobbes, and Rousseau.  History of Philosophy Quarterly, 24, 147-168.

Suggested Courses

Introduction to Ethics, Ethics, Introduction to Philosophy, Evil, Philosophy of Psychology, Political Philosophy.


This is a two-week unit.  Day one is on the history of lynching in the United States, featuring lynching photography and Ida B. Wells.  Day two is Mengzi on human nature (with Rousseau as secondary reading).  Day three is Xunzi on human nature (with Hobbes as secondary reading).  Days four and five are the Milgram video and John Doris on situationism.

The central question concerns the psychology of lynching perpetrators and Milgram participants.  On a “human nature is good” view, we all have some natural sympathies or an innate moral compass that would be revolted by our participation in such activities, if we were not somehow swept along by bad influences (Mengzi, Rousseau).  On a “human nature is bad” view, our natural inclinations are mostly self-serving and morality is an artificial human construction; so if one’s culture says “this is the thing to do” there is no inner source of resistance unless you have already been properly trained (Xunzi, Hobbes).  Situationism (which is not inconsistent with either of these alternatives) suggests that most people can commit great evil or good depending on what seem to be fairly moderate situational pressures (Doris, Milgram).

Students should be alerted in advance about the possibly upsetting photographs, and they must be encouraged to look closely at the faces of the perpetrators rather than being too focused on the bodies of the victims (which may be edited out if desired for classroom presentation).  You might even consider giving the students possible alternative readings if they find the lynching material too difficult (such as an uplifting chapter from Colby & Damon 1992).

On Day One, a point of emphasis should be that most of the victims were not even accused of capital crimes, and focus can be both on the history of lynching in general and on the emotional reactions of the perpetrators as revealed by their behavior described in the texts and by their faces in the photos.

On Day Two, the main emphasis should be on Mengzi’s view that human nature is good.  King Xuan and the ox (1A7), the child at the well (2A6), and the beggar refusing food insultingly given (6A10) are the most vivid examples.  The metaphor of cultivating sprouts is well worth extended attention (as discussed in the Ivanhoe and Schwitzgebel readings for the instructor).  If the lynchers had paused to reflect in the right way, would they have found in themselves a natural revulsion against what they were doing, asMengzi would predict?  Rousseau’s view is similar (especially as developed in Emile) but puts more emphasis on the capacity of philosophical thinking to produce rationalizations of bad behavior.

On Day Three, the main emphasis should be on Xunzi’s view that human nature is bad.  His metaphor of straightening a board is fruitfully contrasted with Mengzi’s of cultivating sprouts.  For example, in straightening a board, the shape (the moral structure) is imposed by force from outside.  In cultivating a sprout, the shape grows naturally from within given a supportive, nutritive, non-damaging environment.  Students can be invited to consider cartoon versions of “conservative” moral education (“here are the rules, like it or not, follow them or you’ll be punished!”) versus “liberal” moral education (“don’t you feel bad that you hurt Ana’s feelings?”).

Day Four you might just show the Milgram video.

Day Five the focus should be on articulating situationism vs dispositionism (or whatever you want to call the view that broad, stable, enduring character traits explain most of our moral behavior).  I recommend highlighting the elements of truth in both views, and then showing how there are both situationist and dispositionist elements in both Mengzi and Xunzi (e.g., Mengzi says that young men are mostly cruel in times of famine, but he also recommends cultivating stable dispositions).  Students can be encouraged to discuss how well or poorly the three different types of approach explain the lynchings and the Milgram results.

If desired, Day Six and beyond can cover material on the Holocaust.  Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners make a good contrast (with Mengzian elements in Arendt and Xunzian elements in Goldhagen).  (If you do use Goldhagen, be sure you are aware of the legitimate criticisms of some aspects of his view by Browning and others.)

Discussion Questions

  • What emotions are the lynchers feeling in the photographs?
  • If the lynchers had stopped to reflect on their actions, would they have been able to realize that what they were doing was morally wrong?
  • Mengzi lived in a time of great chaos and evil.  Although he thought human nature was good, he never denied that people actually commit great evil.  What resources are available in his view to explain actions like those of the lynch mobs, or other types of evil actions?
  • Is morality an artificial cultural invention?  Or do we all have natural moral tendencies that only need to be cultivated in a nurturing environment?
  • In elementary school moral education, is it better to focus on enforcing rules that might not initially make sense to the children, or is it better to try to appeal to their sympathies and concerns for other people?
  • How effectively do you think people can predict what they themselves would do in a situation like the Milgram experiment or a lynch mob?
  • Are there people who are morally steadfast enough to resist even strong situational pressures?  If so, how do they become like that?

Activities (optional)

On the first day, an in class assignment might be for them to spend 5-7 minutes writing down their opinion on whether human nature is good or evil (or in-between, or alternatively that the question doesn’t even make sense as formulated).  Then can then trade their written notes with a neighbor or two and compare answers.  On the last day, they can review what they wrote on the first day and discuss whether their opinions have changed.


  • virtue ethics
  • ancient Chinese philosophy
  • early modern European philosophy
  • philosophy of psychology
  • moral education
  • racism
  • social psychology

Author Information

Eric Schwitzgebel (University of California at Riverside)
eschwitz at domain: