Saturday, January 5, 2008

The evil of 'the banality of evil'

There's an article in this month's issue of the Psychologist called Questioning the Banality of Evil. The authors rightly question the dominant narrative of the past half century, spurred by Arendt's quote and supported by the work of Zimbardo and Milgram, that evil is committed by ordinary people who are unable to resist the pressures of a malevolent dictator, experimenter, or general society. As they note, there are clear differences in personality - they point out that subjects responding to ads like Zimbardo's are markedly different from the general psych subject population, and I have always wondered why no one ever talks about the significant portion of Milgram's subjects who refused to obey. Obviously different people respond differently to each situation. On the other hand, the situation itself is also important.

I think there's something fundamentally worrisome in trying to isolate one aspect of human behavior or social situations as the "root" or "cause" of evil. Evil (and my dislike of the word 'evil' is a rant for another day) is not some special class of behavior - it is present in both extreme and mundane situations - at the barrel of a gun and in the triviality of a thousand moments of collective inaction. A person who is meekly obedient to authority might be prone to evil in one situation whereas an impulsive, rebelliously aggressive personality might do great harm in another. Trying to prevent one type of evil should never, ever impede prevention of another. And sometimes I worry that that's what these attempts to shape a narrative do.


Katie said...

Not to mention, "evil" can be a matter of perspective. Someone can be doing something completely wrong, but believe it is for good. Is the person truly evil then?

The Zebra said...

Yeah, I think the subjectivity of the word evil is a big problem here. Considering this is a discussion about psychology, it seems like a more professional or objective term should be used. Instead of saying a murderer commits evil, shouldn't scientists say something more objective like "murderers engage in anti-social behavior", or something along those lines. "Evil" is a very emotionally charged word.

Using words that are more well defined might make the findings of this study a little easier to digest. Rather than saying that anybody can be evil if they are coerced by authority, I think the moral general point to be made is that the majority of people will choose to comply with an oppressive system of authority rather than fight against it. I think this study says more about the power of the status quot than about "the banality of evil".

Orson Cortés said...

En el estudio de la hipnosis se afirma,en general,que nadie hace bajo ella lo que no está dispuesto a hacer en estado consciente.Los estudios que subyacen en "la banalidad del mal" parecen sugerir,mas bien,todo lo contrario:que,incluso en estado de plena consciencia un individuo "estandard" es incapaz de oponer resistencia suficiente al mandato del lider,incluso si contradice sus codigos morales.Lo que lleva a la posible conclusion de que los codigos morales esten jerarquicamente sometidos a los sociales.O,lo que es lo mismo,que la moral sea una rama de la sociología.¿que le parece?

Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as evil. I liked reading your blog up until this entry, can't believe how unobjective you are.