Questioning the Banality of Evil

“Until recently, psychologists and historians have agreed that ordinary people commit evil when, under the influence of leaders and groups, they become blind to the consequences of their actions. This consensus has become so strong that it is repeated, almost as a mantra, in psychology textbooks and in society at large. However critical scrutiny of both historical and psychological evidence – along with a number of new studies, e.g. Krueger (in press); Staub (in press) – has produced a radically different picture. People do great wrong, not because they are unaware of what they are doing but because they consider it to be right. This is possible because they actively identify with groups whose ideology justifies and condones the oppression and destruction of others.

[…]this raises a whole set of new questions: Who identifies with such groups? When does identification become more likely? How do genocidal ideologies develop? What is the role of leaders in shaping group ideology? We do not pretend to have a full set of answers to these questions. But we do insist that, unless one asks the right questions, any answers will be of little use.”

(via The Psychologist)

10 Comments

  1. Sir Karl R. Popper has some suggestions, which may be found in…

    The Open Society and Its Enemies (vol 1 & 2)
    Conjectures and Refutations

    … and which may be summarized thus: anyone who cannot admit error is trouble. Religious people did that for centuries, then socialists (with their ‘material concept of history’ and ‘breaking eggs to make omlets’) and fascists joined in.

  2. Thanks for the tip on the book, Trevor.
    Right now I’m in the middle of a good book called “The Sociopath Next Door”, by Martha Stout. She states that approximately 1 in 25 people secretly have no conscience and can do whatever they want without feeling guilty. IMO, I think it’s more than that. I’ve recognized a few people that I’ve had the misfortune of dealing with in this book. Her ideas are very similar to the psychologist who wrote this article.
    There was a disagreement with her statement that “Not all sociopaths are criminals, but all criminals are sociopaths” on this blog:
    http://incoldblogger.blogspot.com/2007/10/natural-or-nurtured-are-sociopaths-born.html

    None the less, this book is an interesting read.

  3. The Illusion of Credibility

    January 7, 2008 at 3:07 am

    What, MULTIPLE theories of evil? I thought there had to be one ultimate source and that the scientists had finally pinpointed it. Oh well, back to the drawing board. Maybe they’ll finally figure out that it really is the Devil, who is locked into the center of the Earth’s icy core. Or maybe the Flying Spaghetti Monster isn’t so benevolent after all, with his noodle appendages.

  4. IoC- The devil was invented by the Christians to control their flock. But there IS a theory that the FSM is a direct descendant of Cthulhu. And even though my pasta tastes nothing like calamari, I do wonder;)

  5. I would suggest reading Eric Hoffer’s True Believer, which is an exploration of the mindset and social conditions that lead to mass movements capable of such violence.

  6. The Illusion of Credibility

    January 7, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    Here’s some observations or theories on evil:

    1. Type A Evildoers intend good, but do evil;
    2. Type B Evildoers intend evil, and do evil;
    3. Type C Evildoers are intentionally ambivalent, and do evil;
    4. Type D Evildoers are ignorant of their own ambivalence, and do evil;

    That being said, evil is for the most part subjective, although one could argue that the absolute destruction of all life, all intelligent life, or the universe, or the multiverse would be evil, one would be making a value choice of living consciousness over oblivion.

  7. M. Scott Peck wrote a book on evil, which he thought was mostly caused by what he called “malignant narcississim” — essentially, the need to be right and the willingness to do ANYTHING to continue to believe themselves right. I think it’s an extrememly rare person who contemplates an act thinking “this is really evil, but I’m fine with that.” More often, I think people convince themselves there’s no other real alternative — as in, “It’s not really very nice to invade a country becuase they MIGHT do something we won’t like later, but IN THE REAL WORLD, we have to do this to maintain our national security and world dominance.” Of course, then there’s the genuinely sociaopathic, but I don’t think they are that common. I’ve known at least one person who I think would have shot me without hesitation if it ever seemed profitable (even marginally profitable), only thinking later “A shame I had to shoot Bill — he was fun to party with,” but I think such folk are (I hope) pretty rare.

  8. ?No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks?
    — Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)

  9. Fenris- Thanks for the tip on the book. Another to add to my list. Another good one for those interested is “Evil- Inside Human Violence and Cruelty”, by Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D.

    IoC- Thanks for the breakdown. And I agree about it being subjective.

    Bill- I’ve met thousands of people in my life (working with the public), and unfortunately have met more “sociopaths” than would be believed. The thing is, they’re not recognizable in the way a psychopath would be. Usually they don’t break any laws per se. They’re extremely charming and are great actors.
    I recently had an experience with what’s called a “covetous sociopath”. These people feel that life has been bad to them and cheated them in some way, and anyone who has something they want is a target. They’ll spread lies and manipulate the people around them, in attempt to denigrate this person that they think “has it made” or whose reputation is good (i.e.in order to make themselves “look good”). Using psychological distancing, these people dehumanize their victim, so there is no “conscience” about what was done. Their acts of deceit aren’t usually discovered until much later on.

    nihilatron- Thanks for the quote. Here’s one of my favs:
    “Calm self-recognition of one’s own nature is the ultimate evil”- Anton LaVey

  10. Nice find, TV.

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