Thursday, September 11, 2014

rule of law: evil not so banal

medicalxpress |  What prompts ordinary people to commit acts of evil? The question has been debated by philosophers, moralists, historians and scientists for centuries.

One idea that carries much weight today is this: you, me—almost anyone—is capable of carrying out atrocities if ordered to do so. 

Commanded by an authoritarian figure, and wishing to conform, we could bulldoze homes, burn books, separate parents from children or even slaughter them, and our much-prized conscience would not as much as flicker. 

Called the "banality of evil," the theory has been proffered as an explanation for why ordinary, educated Germans took part in the Jewish genocide of World War II.

Now psychologists, having reviewed an opinion-shaping experiment carried out more than 50 years ago, are calling for a rethink.

"The more we read and the more data we collect, the less evidence we find to support the banality of evil idea, the notion that participants are simply 'thoughtless' or 'mindless' zombies who don't know what they're doing and just go along for the sake of it," said Alex Haslam, a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia.

"Our sense is that some form of identification, and hence choice, generally underpins all tyrannical behaviour."

Their detective work focused on legendary experiments conducted in 1961 by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram.

Volunteers, told they were taking part in an experiment on learning, were led to believe they were administering an electric shock to a man, dubbed the "learner" who had to memorise pairs of words.

Evil of Eichmann
Every time the learner made a mistake, the "teacher" was told by a stern-faced, lab-coated official to crank up the shock, starting with a mild 15 volts and climaxing at a lethal 450 volts.

The experiment was fake—the learner was an actor and the shocks never happened. The teacher could hear, but not see, the learner.

Frighteningly, in one test, nearly two-thirds of volunteers continued all the way to "lethal" voltage, even when the learner pleaded for mercy, wept or screamed in agony.

These experiments became enshrined in textbooks as an illustration of how the conscience can be put on hold under orders. 

The findings meshed with a landmark book by the writer Hannah Arendt on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, an architect of the Holocaust. 

Far from the monster she had expected, Arendt found that Eichmann came across more like a petty bureaucrat, prompting her to coin the term "banality of evil" to suggest how ordinary people, by conforming, could commit atrocities.


Naive Tom said...

lol, always happy to help a torture supporter who's feeling hurt about being compared to Pilate, bro. Just if you could point out where CNu lied about something you said, because I must have missed it.

Vic78 said...

There's so much that goes into people being the way they are. You have schools, you have churches, you get parents spanking their kids, and it's all done to put a person in one's place. People aren't teaching their kids to be stand up types; they're raising a bunch of yes men. So it doesn't surprise me that Milgram went the way it did. What else are you going to do when an authority figure tells you to do something?

Of course the people thought they were doing the right thing for science. Americans aren't the most self reflecting bunch. I can't say I blame people that lose patience with the citizens of the USA.

ken said...

poor typos here: "and was [me] questioning the actions of the authority in that case."

cleonlim said...

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Naive Tom said...

1. Are you kidding me? Let's adopt your interpretation for the sake of argument. So you say marginally less evil = good guy.

If we point to Stalin, the rest of us are in like Flynn I guess.

2. Fair enough, you're standing up to CNu. But my original comment is simply the familiar one about trees and fruit, pal. When you find someone who supports the right of the police to torture suspects, why ask him about yellow tape and iPhones?

CNu said...

lol@standing up to CNu - shades of flatland....,

Naive Tom said...

lol we can always project onto Flatland, it may or may not be misleading.

Uglyblackjohn said...

You know... We have meetings and decisions being (tentatively) made at the club all the time. On any given weeknight I nay have the courts in one area, the school board in another and business people and politicians in a third area. (With members from one group going to the others for advice or 'unknown' information.) People ask to use my office to hammer out the finer details before going back to the public and/or press. Politics is just a messy business.

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