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2013 was the 50th Anniversary of “The Banality of Evil” December 17, 2013

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Culture, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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While it is still 2013 I want to mark the anniversary of an important concept in moral philosophy, the re-legitimizing of the concept of evil through the writings of German philosopher Hanna Arendt. 50 years ago Arendt launched a concept that was to have an enormous influence on discussions in the field of ethics for the rest of the 20th century, discussions that continue to this day––an influence that has had wider consequences than she probably imagined. She launched the idea of the banality of evil.
Interestingly, philosophers in the early 20th century, especially within the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition, had all but given up on the word evil. Too much religious baggage (just think of the problem of evil, the theodicy: how can a good god allow horrible things to happen?), too judgmental, too moralizing––at a time when most English-speaking philosophers were grappling with the meaning of words rather than with the meaning of life. Back in the 19th century and further back, thinkers such as Immanuel Kant had no problem throwing themselves and their readers into discussions about the ultimate meaning and values in life, and the notion of an evil person was not alien or uncomfortable as a  topic of analysis.But what is a moral philosopher to do when, in the mid-twentieth century, the ultimate worst conceivable behavior runs rampant across the continent of Europe? Call it “bad behavior”? Call it “behavior frowned upon by most people according to the standards of Western societies?” Call it “a moral choice made by a cultural subset?” Or “just another form of acculturation?” What words could a mid-twentieth century philosopher use to describe Nazi atrocities that wold seem sufficient? In 1963  Arendt, a German Jew who had narrowly  escaped the Holocaust, witnessed the trial in Jerusalem of captured Nazi official and instigator of the Holocaust Adolph Eichmann, and observed that to her surprise he did not look like a monster.  He looked, and sounded, frighteningly normal. And that, she said in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil, was the terrifying key to the Nazi engagement in terror, torture and murders: The Nazi torturers were normal people who, either under pressure from superiors, or from twisted values and twisted thinking, had reached the conclusion that torturing and killing innocent human beings was the right and normal thing to do. It had become a banality––the banality of evil.
And thus was launched a renewal of the concept of evil in philosophy; removed from a religious context, it focused on the inner “Schweinehund,” our baser, cowardly instincts that make us follow the crowd, or go with the lowest common denominator when it comes to standing up for simple decency and humanity, to the point where we are willing to disregard the humanity of another person if someone in authority tells us we’re not responsible, that it is for the good of all, or that bad things will happen to us if we don’t comply. Stanley Milgram corroborated the phenomenon with his “electric shock experiments”––to see how far a person would go when told to shock people who had given the wrong answer to a question. It is a relief to know that nobody was really being shocked, but utterly disconcerting that most of Millgram’s subjects were quite willing to shock people to death when told that they had to. Banality of evil. And a few years later Philip Zimbardo ran his now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment unintentionally resulting in real  harm caused to “prisoners” by “prison guards.” The participants were merely students doing role-playing, because the “prison guards” had been told to be ruthless to the “prisoners,” but some of them took to their roles with zest, and very quickly. Zimbardo himself pointed out, in his book The Lucifer Effect from 2007, that the willingness of the “prison guards” to commit atrocities was the banality of evil rising in completely normal people put into a situation where their moral compass had somehow been disengaged—a situation that her saw paralleled in Abu Ghraib. (I’ve visited the subject several times before in this blog, such as in “The Concept of Evil, and Joseph Duncan,” and “On a Scale of 1 to 22…”, so essentially I’m merely summing up what I’ve said several years ago, but with the specific anniversary of the concept in mind.)
So since the 1960s we have, in philosophy, been able to use the term “evil” as a term for the moral weakness lurking in almost every individual which can make us follow or even give unspeakably vicious orders and forget about the humanity of other people. But is that enough? It took courage for Arendt to reintroduce the concept of evil into the philosophical vocabulary; it took integrity to give voice to a condemnation that most thinkers felt, but perhaps were too polite and well-schooled in non-judgmental meta-ethics to engage in.
And now it is the question whether we’re ready to, once again, redefine the concept of evil. Because surely not all acts that cause irreparable and deliberate harm is caused by people following orders or bad role models. Sometimes some individuals make choices they know will cause harm, and they know it is considered wrong by society, but they want to do these things, anyway, for gratification or profit. The march goes on, from school shootings to imprisonment in locked rooms or basements of women (sometimes strangers, sometimes daughters!) for sexual gratification, to serial killings. Is that the banality of evil, too? I don’t believe so. Immanuel Kant would say that such choices deserve the term evil because they are (1) deliberately done, (2) with awareness that they violate society’s standards, (3) causing intense physical or psychological pain or damage to innocent people, and (4) done for selfish reasons. Is it possible that those individuals are possibly more mentally ill than “evil?” Perhaps, but as long as our legal system allows us to recognize a criminal as “sane” if he or she has a sense of the moral rules of society, then breaking the rules is a deliberate act more so than the act of a helplessly sick person. So perhaps it is time to allow an old concept to return to our modern vocabulary of ethics? In my textbook, The Moral of the Story, I have adopted the term “egregious evil” for such behavior, to differentiate it from “banality of evil,” but it is still a good question whether we are referring to evil acts, or evil persons, because therein lies a world of difference.
Maybe in the future we can come up with a term that is better suited to describe such acts of deliberate, egregious harm, a term that will allow a society to express its moral outrage while at the same time recognizing whatever neuroscientific insight into criminal pathology that we may acquire? Until then I will feel comfortable with a cautious application of the old word evil in its two applications—banal and egregious.

On a Scale of 1 to 22… September 15, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Science.
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Since Dwight brought up Michael Stone, and I’ve encountered his work before, here’s another angle on the work of Stone, tying it  in with our ongoing discussion of the concept of evil. A trend in moral philosophy which was pretty well established in the 20th Century has been broken lately, and it is partly thanks to Stone’s work—because philosophers do, on occasion, read the works of psychologists/psychiatrists. That trend was, for ethicists, to avoid the term ”evil” professionally,  partly because of its supposed religious connotations, and partly because of its unmanageability—because how exactly do we define evil, and how does it play into our subjective notions? In other words, using the term “evil” opens the door wide to subjectively emotional statements of condemnation, the kind of sweeping irrationality that moral philosophers have tried to avoid and counteract ever since Plato. Instead, to designate truly horrendous acts toward others, ethicists have preferred to call them “morally wrong,”  “heinous,” “going against the accepted norms of society,” or simply “malevolent.”

But even so, in everyday life, in the media, in politics, and in the world of entertainment we have blithely proceeded to use the E-word, with all its baggage, because expressions such as “morally wrong” and “really really bad behavior” simply aren’t strong enough. And now philosophers seem to be softening their stance against using the word evil—not just because we have been inundated with graphic novels and their world view of good vs. evil, but because we’re beginning to get some kind of structured understanding of what we can and can’t say when using the word. The first step in that direction was taken by Hannah Arendt, German philosopher who, after reflecting on the atrocities of the Holocaust, coined the term the banality of evil, to designate a new category:   the deplorable tendency in (supposedly) each of us to be persuaded to cause harm to other human beings under the assumption that it’s okay, that it’s not our responsibility, that everyone is doing it, and that somehow those people we’re hurting must have deserved it. In the wake of her analysis, we’ve had Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo substantiating her theory through psychological experiments. Zimbardo has even drawn a line from Arendt’s analysis directly to Abu Ghraib. So though the backdoor, so to speak, ethicists were reintroduced to the concept of evil, but this time in an everyday guise, of normal people capable of doing horrendous things to others.

And now we’re, interestingly, reopening the possibility of using the label of what some of us call “extreme” or “egregious evil,” by reexamining not the banality of it, but the rare and shocking total disregard for the suffering of others, and even the joy in inflicting it. That is what laypeople have called evil all along, and a few years ago Michael Stone reached out to laypeople and ethicists alike, by suggesting a scale of evil related to homicide and other infliction of pain. This list has been making the rounds on the Internet, and was even featured in a television series in 2006, Most Evil, but NPR ran a story about it in August:

Inspired by the structure of Dante’s circles of hell, Stone has created his own 22-point “Gradations of Evil” scale, made up of murderers in the 20th century. “I thought it would be an interesting thing to do,” he says.

His scale is loosely divided into three tiers. First are impulsive evil-doers: driven to a single act of murder in a moment of rage or jealousy. Next are people who lack extreme psychopathic features, but may be psychotic — that is, clinically delusional or out of touch with reality. Last are the profoundly psychopathic, or “those who possess superficial charm, glib speech, grandiosity, but most importantly cunning and manipulativeness,” Stone says. “They have no remorse for what they’ve done to other people.”

Stone hopes the scale could someday be used in prosecutions. “The people at the very end of the scale have certain things about their childhood backgrounds that are different,” he says, from those who appear earlier in the scale. And because the scale follows a continuum of likelihood a killer will kill again, courts may be able to better categorize the risks posed by releasing a psychopath.

 Justifiable homicide such as self-defense is not evil, according to Stone, and gets a 1. The worst of the worst rates a 22, psychopathic  torture-murderers. Spree killers “only” rate a 15, and there is a difference between murdering torturers (20) and “merely” torturing murderers (18). And, interestingly, I can’t find a category or a number that would fit Arendt’s duty-driven, even reluctant Nazi torturers, but with some tweaking, the list might accomocate the banality of evil.

Will this scale make the concept of evil easier to handle for ethicists? The list is not intended to be absolute, and of course philosophers are welcome to question the moral connotation of a clinical psychiatric list of symptoms ( and we should), but overall Stone has simply systematized a vocabulary that we have been using all along, with its dangers of misunderstandings and exaggerations. Egregiously evil acts do exist, and Stone offers a moral classification of the degree of evil involved, without getting into any metaphysical discussion about what made these people do these evil things, whether they acted out of “free will,” or whether “evil” exists as an entity. That’s not for him to do—that’s for philosophers to discuss. (However, as you can read in the post below by Dwight, Stone also has a theory about underlying brain anomalies which should be taken into account—but all the brain theories in the world can’t provide the complete answer to the perennial philosophical question of when, why and to what extent we choose to assign guilt and responsibility to an act.) So his list is useful—not the final word for ethicists, but another tool in our ongoing understanding of not only what people do and what might make them do it, but why we believe they shouldn’t do it. In the end, it does boil down to how we view our responsibility to the Other.