|Click picture to go to a site which discusses the idea of 'The Banality of Evil'|
“The task of history is the discovering of the constant and universal principles of human nature.” To what extent are history and one other area of knowledge successful in this task?
The idea of ‘constant and universal principles human nature’ implies, somewhat strangely, that knowledge about humans can be encapsulated in general laws which could in effect allow us to predict future behaviour. Given the conditions of a specific situation and how most people behave within it, most of the time and in most places, we can, with a high degree of probability, assert that an individual or group will behave in the same way should those conditions ever come about in the future. Here is an exploration of examples within History, Ethics and H Sciences that span between the 1940s to the present day...
During the post Second World War Nuremburg trials, the prominent writer Hannah Arendt observed how some of the most notorious Nazi war criminals appeared to be just normal citizens of whom we wouldn’t take much notice in the street; often, some of them just seemed plainly nice on the surface. She coined an expression to embody this observation about the paradox of human nature: ‘the banality of evil’. The implied thesis is twofold: first, that in spite of being educated, intelligent and civilised, we all have a dark, monstrous side to us and can turn to it at any moment of our lives, especially when our consciences are influenced and undermined by those in authority. And second, the common sense belief that some of us are simply born evil and these ‘bad apples’, so to speak, are the cause of all the nastiness in the world. But is this a ‘constant and universal principle of human nature’? And how do we know the difference between good and bad apples?
TOK students often present in their essays the psychology experiments undertaken by Stanley Milgram who set out to test the theses in the early 1960s. Milgram’s ‘Obedience Experiments’ or “shock” experiments, as they came to be known, explore the tension between conscience and authority and offer a staggering conclusion: most people find it emotionally easy to ignore their sense of moral responsibility, especially when they see themselves as part of a chain of evil action and far away from the final consequences of it. The idea is that good or evil isn’t entirely in our genes or brains or spirit (as some religions might have us believe), but our environment can deeply influence us to act in evil ways. Again, is this ‘a constant and universal principle of human nature’?
In 1971, Philip Zimbardo attempted to test the conclusions reached by Milgram through another experiment: the notorious ‘Stanford County Jail’ experiments which were reminiscent of situations described so vividly in Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The results of the experiment are arguably more shocking than Milgram’s. The scheduled two week experiment was shut down by Zimbardo after a matter of days because of what Zimbardo came to call ‘the Lucifer effect’: how an individual’s character can become so transformed that an otherwise ordinary person can commit extraordinarily monstrous acts. To extend a former analogy: a good apple can become bad when placed in a bad barrel. In short, context is all. Where Zimbardo’s conclusions go further than Milgram’s is in the insight that very often we don’t need an authority figure to manipulate us to do evil acts; good people can turn evil simply by adopting, or being assigned, a particular stereotype or role and put in a situation where the rule of law is not enforced fully.
Two relatively recent examples from vastly different cultures serve to illustrate how both Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s experiments seem to have discovered a ‘constant and universal feature of human nature’ as far as morality is concerned.
In 2004, we learned about the atrocities committed by US soldiers at the Abu Graib detention camp – acts of evil which were strongly reminiscent of the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment.
In 2008, we learned about Shin Dong-hyuk, a North Korean man born in a detention camp, who, being allegedly the first person ever to have escaped from such a place, tells stories of some of the most terrible atrocities that are committed in the name of ‘democracy’, including his own act of condemning his mother to death by telling guards of her plans to escape.
So we evolved into moral beings who also have a capacity for immoral behaviour. Most people, most of the time and in most places choose to be moral, but in certain situations, even the most ordinary person can be driven to unspeakable acts of evil.
If this sounds like a dark and miserable story, read up on the experiments conducted by Steve Sherman, the results of which suggest that education can help strengthen our consciences against the vagaries of authority; especially education that directs and guides us in creative enquiry into moral dilemmas and how we might resolve them…