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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.

Chris Dorner: Not a Folk Hero February 14, 2013

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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It seems the saga of former LAPD cop and spree killer Chris Dorner has now come to an end, in a way that he himself predicted: He would not survive to experience the fallout. And I suspect that many of you, like myself, have been eerily mesmerized by the unfolding story over the past week. More fortunate than most, I have been able to discuss the case with a bunch of intelligent students, and we have exchanged viewpoints. I have also listened to talk shows, read online commentaries, followed news briefs, and read most of the Manifesto which Dorner had posted to Facebook. And I’m sitting here with a very bad feeling—not just for the four people who fell victims to Dorner’s vengeful rage, and for their families, but a bad feeling about the voices in the media who somehow seem to have elevated Dorner to some sort of folk hero, a Rambo, a Jason Bourne kind of character (as a guest on a talk show pointed out). When such views have been expressed, they have generally been prefaced with, “Yes, of course what he has done is wrong, BUT he has a point,” or “Of course he shouldn’t kill people, BUT even so, he is fighting the good fight.” In other words, his actions may be wrong/over the top, but somehow it is in a noble cause.

Now that upsets me. It upsets me, because that kind of evaluation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the connection between having a cause and taking action, and perhaps even a politically motivated willingness to overlook certain very disturbing facts in favor of some subtext that some people feel ought to be promoted, such as “the LAPD is in need of reforms.”

So let us look at what Dorner actually did (allegedly, of course): He shot and killed a young woman and her fiance. The young woman was the daughter of an ex-cop from the LAPD who had been Dorner’s lawyer. He also shot and killed a Riverside police officer, as well as a San Bernardino deputy. In addition, he deprived three people of their right not to have their liberty interfered with (he tied up an elderly boat owner in San Diego, and two maids in Big Bear), he wounded several police officers, and he stole two cars. And for what purpose? In the Facebook Manifesto he states it clearly: Because he felt that he had been wronged when fired from the LAPD in 2009, he felt that the only way to “clear his name” was to kill members of the LAPD and their families.

Martha Nussbaum, the American philosopher, says that emotions should be considered morally relevant, provided that they are reasonable, meaning that they arise as a logical response to a situation, and thus inspire moral decisions/actions that are somehow reasonable/proportionate to the event that caused the anger (Nussbaum is also a philosopher of law). So let us allow for the possibility that Dorner experienced an emotion that was a relevant response to his (perhaps) unfair dismissal from the LAPD: He was angry. But exactly what is reasonable anger? That would be (according to Aristotle, whom Nussbaum admired) righteous anger that is directed toward the right people, for the right reason, at the right time, in the right amount. But even if he was unfairly dismissed (which is a common experience for many people), and even if he had experienced racism at his workplace,  would it ever be morally reasonable for him to exact revenge on the daughter of his lawyer? Or her fiance? Neither of them had anything to do with his being fired. The murders were simply a means to cause pain to her father. (For you Kant-aficionados: Dorner used his lawyer’s daughter merely as a means to an end to get back at him.)  The moment Dorner made good on his threat to start killing the relatives of LAPD officers was the moment where he lost any claim to a moral high ground, any claim to a righteous anger or any claim to taking justifiable action. That was the moment when he went from somebody with possibly a justified grievance to merely being a thug, and a petty, selfish one at that, taking his anger out on innocent victims.

And the killing of Riverside and San Bernardino law enforcement officers? That seems to have been dictated by his poor judgment, and his attempt to escape the dragnet cast over all of Southern California, not by his manifesto. He claimed to go after LAPD officers because the LAPD had “done him wrong,” but in the end, it was Riverside and San Bernardino that lost members of their police departments.  We can discuss, in the weeks to come, whether he was actually mentally stable in his final week. We can discuss whether the manifesto reveals an intelligent, reflective mind, or a person on the brink of insanity. We can discuss whether another outcome had been possible. We can even discuss whether his manifesto made some valid points. But the fact that he broke the basic covenant that he had been taught, as a police officer, to protect and serve those who need protection, and showed abysmal disregard for the lives of innocents, resulting in a chain of events that cost additional lives, removes him from the realm of folk heroes and reduces him to merely another criminal who will be remembered for the lives he took, not for his rationale. Even if it should turn out that original rationale may have been justified—he may have been right that he was treated unjustly—that does not justify in any way what he has done.  And for some media voices to overlook that fact is very disturbing…