, Research Paper
A HEART OF GOOD AND EVIL Evil, Humanity, & The 21st CenturyMonsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common man, the functionariesready to believe and to act without asking questions… -Primo LeviSurvival in AuschwitzEvil: Any deliberate act depriving the innocent and undeserving of their humanity (Kekes 4). —Immunity from EvilThe tendency to romanticize extraordinary evil, while appealing to our conscience, merely propagates ignorance of why evil happens and hinders prevention. Immunity from inner evil signifies a psychological maturation resulting from two ideologies (Katz 10): 1) a fear that major horrors emanate from ordinary people, not from psychologically abnormal or unhealthy individuals, and 2) the corresponding drive to confront evil and its paradoxes. The realization that extraordinary evil is within all of us permits a hope of safeguarding the future. Simply perceiving past evils as singular and unique horrors ultimately proves frightfully inneffective and detrimental. Demystifying the Nazi Whirlwind from something demonic and inhuman to something real, practiced by ordinary human beings, requires an understanding of the essential dimension of human nature. What emerges is a dichotomy of good and evil. We are essentially of a binary dimension ultimately determined from within. In essence, the victor, the surviving belief system, either accepts or rejects that the common individual can commit the most monstrous and horrendous of evils. While rejection permits the power of unwarranted, perhaps profitable, aggression, acceptance brings the responsibility to place morality before choice and demands isolating evil. Therein lies the challenge: understanding how the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn illustrates the inherent difficulty in isolating evil: the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (qtd. in Katz: iix). Yet if humanity is to survive its own in the 21st century it must prevent the evil half from undermining the meaning of good altogether and reversing the meaning of good and evil. A Heart of Good and Evil explores the aspects of ones individual nature that are directly controlled by that individual. It is not assumed that environmental factors do not play a role in shaping morality or one’s sense of good and evil. Environment and upbringing are crucial and necessary elements of the individual’s approach to good and evil. Collective groups and educational institutions permit choices by demonstrating the various persectives and inculcating the principles of good over evil. In essence, learned ethics and morality are the tools with which one makes one’s choices. Yet they can only go so far; at a certain point the individual must make and will make choices. The role and responsibility of collective organizations is to insure that the individual makes the right choice. Hannah Arendt: The Banality of EvilThe political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that the beguilement of evil lies within its very romantic packaging, its very definition as something extraordinary (47). In essence, she believed that Adolf Eichmann was an ordinary man with a normal conscience, yet one who committed the most horrendous crimes man has ever witnessed. She maintained that the banality of ordinary men such as Eichmann, not insatiable sadism, accounts for such unparalleled evil as was practiced by the Nazis. According to Arendt, Eichmann was the typical bureaucrat, an average, normal person, neither feeble-minded nor indoctrinated nor cynical (23). This very normality disturbed Arendt:”It would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmann was a monster, even though if he had been Israels case against him would have collapsed or, at the very least, lost all interest. Surely, one can hardly call upon the whole world and gather correspondents from the four corners of the earth in order to display Bluebeard in the dock. The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied…that for this new type of criminal…it [is] impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong… (253). Would any one of them [the Nazis] have suffered from a guilty conscience if they had won? (254).”One must understand that Adolf Eichmann, as much as any other Nazi official, was responsible for the implementation of the Final Solution. In organizing the transportation of Jews, he consciously delivered victims to the concentration and extermination camps and facilitated the bureaucratic administration of extermination. In fact, Eichmann fulfilled his role throughout the war with exemplary vigor. While the trial had judged a central participant and illustrated his horrific acts, Arendt viewed it as a partial failure because the prosecution had desperately sought to cast him in pure Evil (Katz 19). Ultimately, Arendt argued that Eichmann emerged as just the opposite: his deeds were monstrous and extraordinary, yet he was ordinary (Katz 20-21). Eichmann was an individual seriously committed to personal fulfillment through a bureaucratic career, and an official who had embraced the anti-Semitic Nazi cause while lacking a distinct hatred for Jews. While his ideological and moral issues were quite distorted, his dignity, orderliness, and commitment to authority was distinct. Further, while warped, Eichmann did in fact have a conscience. Arguing the banality of evil, Arendt realized that Eichmanns case was not one of moral or legal insanity:”Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as normal – More normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him, one of them was said to have exclaimed… Another had found that his whole psychological outlook, his attitude…was not only normal but most desirable, – and finally the minister…reassured everybody by declaring Eichmann to be a man with very positive ideas (22).”Undoubtedly, the Nazi horrors of genocide illustrate a distinct event in the history of humankind. The ferocity and extent of extermination was unparalleled. Even Eichmann, as a major collaborator, surely was not behaving as an ordinary person. Yet, if we are not willing to understand that Eichmann was quite ordinary, and concentrate only on the monstrosity of his deeds, humanity will remain abysmally ignorant of evil and its working mechanisms. The Behavioral Mechanisms of EvilWhile Arendt explained our potential for evil within, she left unanswered an essential issue: understanding how the ordinary becomes the extraordinary (Katz 21). The beguilement of evil is understandable through certain generalized behavioral mechanisms. Indeed, ordinary caring people often take part in extraordinary evil against an enemy, with enthusiasm, interest, and ferocity. This is made possible through three methods of duplicity:1) Incremental processes are small, localized, and insightful decisions basic to daily life. However, altogether they readily contribute to a process capable of producing profound evil (Katz 36-37). Often times, such small events are seen locally without any link to the total arrangement. Germans who enlisted in the Nazi party and the SS did not usually envision killing men, women, and children. Nor was the applicant told this by officials. Killing and aggression became a regularity of life incrementally, step by step. 2) Packages are the values one holds which stem from ones upbringing, education, and maturation (Katz 38-39). They are arranged in a distinct fashion and an order delegating priority. Because our values are unequal and organized, or packaged, in definite ways, one may forgo any value for one which is more important. At any time, these values can change due to the introduction of a new rider. Riders are linking/organizing mechanisms which influence an entire package by placing an imprint on each item. In Nazi Germany, Hitler cultivated the potent rider of Germanys grandeur, unfairly interfered with by Germanys enemies in Versailles. All of German national life, its total package of values, was colored by this rider which emphasized gaining self-respect through Germanys grandeur. This in turn, required the full implementation of Hitlers policies of military and political expansion, as well as anti-Semitism. While hatred, for example, might still contradict a specific packaged value, the rider had delegated it a less important status. Hence, it was overlooked in order to achieve Germanys grandeur. 3) The Cunning of Governments is perhaps most evident in the the Nazi government of Germany. It achieved its evil objectives largely due to complicity and help on the part of the little people. During and after the war, many compliant Germans defended themselves in not questioning, but rather aiding, the governments policy of uprooting and exterminating Jews by arguing they had a duty to obey the government. Yet, by so doing, they contributed eagerly to Germanys extraordinary evil, whether by silence or active support of government and its policies. Under the guise of duty, the Nazi government demanded and harvested sacrifices and contributions from its citizens, and perpetuated a culture in which sanctity was bestowed upon government policies, regardless of evil content (Katz 42-43). The threat of governments requires one to question not whether one has choices, but how one uses individual autonomy and the choices available. At times, people intentionally engage in and even flaunt evil activities. The pursuit of evil for its own sake, when moral standards exist, can be explained by three phenomena:1) In certain situations, a distinctive culture of cruelty can develop in which individuals are rewarded for their acts of cruelty and punished for acts of kindness (Katz 31). In essence, creating new cruelties and establishing a personal reputation for certain cruelties propagates this systematic organization. 2) Evil can become a routine and integral part of an operating bureaucracy (Katz 31). In bureaucracies such as the Nazi extermination camps, the production of evil was a primary objective, and anyone involved in the bureaucracy was engaged in routine evil. Whereas bureaucrats are, by nature, officials seeking inventiveness, they often add to evil independently and create new, more horrifying deeds. Indeed, they often use their autonomy to create a mind-set justifying their actions. In essence, bureaucracies are a magnet for evil because feelings of responsibility are based on intentions. The bureaucrat can act contrary to his inclinations, yet claim freedom from responsibility. 3) Lastly, evil can be produced in separate social contexts (Katz 32). In essence, evil produced within a package organized by an overlying theme, or rider, can facilitate the outlook that everything unimportant or outside the package be ignored. Hitlers unifying theme of reviving the grandeur of Germany provided a prime context for evil. His package consisted of revitalizing the German economy, recapturing political glory, and racially purifying Germany. Hence, anyone who opposed one element of the package opposed the unifying theme, the grandeur of Germany. Other German values and concerns were irrelevant. As a result, the German people embraced an evil previously unthinkable. However, because of the package and the rider, much of the evil went unrecognized. Hence, the inherent danger is that horrendous deeds may be performed under the guise of rather immediate, harmless problems. Further, with a new rider, everything changes and everything is different. Obedience and Individual ResponsibilityAt the time of the Eichmann trial, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an innovative study. It addressed the perpetual conflict between obedience and conscience. Indirectly, the study addressed the bizarre justifications of genocide by Nuremberg War Criminals on the basis of obedience and following orders (Miale and Selzer 7). In the experiment, the teacher was to administer an electric shock of increasing intensity to the learner upon each mistake. However, the teacher was oblivious to the fact that the learner was an actor, merely indicating discomfort as punishment increased. When the teacher asked for advice regarding increasing the punishments, he/she was verbally encouraged to continue. Ultimately, 65% of the teachers obeyed orders to punish the learner all the way to the end of the 450-volt scale. Not a single teacher disobeyed orders before reaching 300 volts (Miale and Selzer 8). Obedience significantly dropped when the experimenter was absent, or when the experimenter provided contradictory instructions. In fact, at times, the teacher questioned the experimenter, asking who was responsible for shocking the learner. Upon the reply that the experimenter assumed full responsibility, the teachers seemed to accept the response and continue shocking. The results of the study merely raised more questions. Foremost, how could these teachers bring themselves to continue shocking?Milgram maintained that every human possesses the dual capacity to function as an individual exercising his/her own moral judgment and the capacity to relinquish his/her autonomy. Yet, he failed to understand the deeper meaning inherent in the transformation of ordinary behavior through obedience to orders. Milgram argued that since authority demands obedience, the subjects administered increasingly high shocks in obeying the authority of the experimenter. While the teachers feeling of responsibility did affect how they acted, it cannot explain the behavior. The deeper meaning lies within the responsibility paradox between beauracracies and the individual. Indeed, moral responsibility is not a transferable property as is personal property. In the experiment, the teachers confused moral responsibility of the individual with technical responsibility, in which certain officials are deemed accountable in an institution for an action, decided by the institution (Dimsdale 336). When the institutions are no longer legitimate and turn immoral, the individual cannot remain unconcerned with the moral considerations of their actions. Evil as AggressionMany have argued that it is obedience, as opposed to aggression, that explains the Nazi horrors (Miale and Selzer 10). This myth merely provides an excuse for those who willingly participated and obeyed the government. Accordingly, one can exemplify the virtue of adherence to orders when following superior orders which permit personal goals of wealth, status, power and providing for ones family. However, this does not excuse genocide and evil. Logically, one must ask if the authoritative command permits a relaxation of internal restraints, thereby releasing the aggressive impulse (Dimsdale 335-336). Then aggression, as opposed to obedience, becomes the rational and justification for such tragedy. The interpretation is supported by the fact that without external sanction, all subjects administered a far lower level of shock. Without such an external stimulus, mainly, an invitation to do greater violence to another human being, the potential obedients aggressive drives were controlled.
According to Milgram, in a wicked world decent people act wickedly. However, according to the latter argument for agression, in a wicked world people act in a wicked way yet justify themselves on the grounds of obedience. Does the latter challenge the notion that the Nazi leaders, while perpetrators of extraordinary evil, were normal people? Are they identified as psychotic and psychopathic? No. That the Nazis perhaps gave in to their wicked ways merely substantiates the dual nature of humankind. Their wicked actions illustrate that they chose evil. Ultimately, evil cannot be justified on the basis of obedience or responsibility. People are conscious of and responsible for not only what they intend to do, but all that they do. And it is the deeds that define the person and their nature. Revolution and Redefining EvilThe danger is perhaps greatest when the orders of authority are themselves immoral, because the subversion of our perception of right and wrong ensues. Indeed, ones conscience then opposes the inclination to stop and encourages ones duty to participate further. Hence, how can one know what is actually right when values experience a role reversal? Therein lies the difficulty. In such a situation, a commitment to basic truths necessitates a rebellion against society and steadfast opposition to immorality. Albert Camus in The Rebel illustrates the complexity of confronting that which oppresses beyond a tolerable limit:”What is a rebel? A man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. He is also a man who says yes, from the moment he makes his first gesture of rebellion. A slave who has taken orders all his life suddenly decides that he cannot obey some new command. What does he mean by saying no? (13).”As Camus relates, the act of rebellion is more than simply refusing. It demands the placement of morality before all else, even to life itself. It is becomes a struggle for the supreme good, an All or Nothing scenario from which awareness is born (Camus 21). Either the rebel identifies completely with good or faces complete destruction and suffering by a domineering force. Hence, the act of rebelling demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice life itself for a common good more important than ones own destiny. Yet, one must ask if it is natural for one to place collective good before the individual, or simply necessary? Further, how can one be convinced that the rights one defends reflect absolute good and embody waterproof ideological constructs?The perpetrators of the Holocaust demonstrated an ability to redefine evil. This is perhaps the most frightening concept of all (Haas 179). In fact, those who carried out heinous crimes under Nazi rule were not morally deficient, essentially evil and grotesque people, but ethically sensitive and conscious. Their actions displayed acquiescence and an awareness, but because the Nazi ethic presented an entirely new moral standard, they perceived their deeds as anything but evil. Indeed, the Nazi ethic found extensive acceptance due to its gradual, incremental development, and its similarity to the conventional Western system of ethical convictions. The motto of the SS, the Nazi police, further illustrates the power of ethics: Right is that which serves the German People (qtd. in Haas: 142). With this realization, the problem of the Holocaust becomes not only how common people can commit extraordinary evil, but how evil is understood. By what mechanisms is evil redefined so people in good conscience can commit Holocausts (Haas 179)?The Holocaust is embodied not by utter, absolute evil, but by an ethic and the ability to alter society by providing new definitions to and conceptions of good and evil. Indeed, isolating the Holocaust strips it of its lessons. Therefore, it we care about humanity, we must deromanticize and confront evil, realizing our potential within. Similarly, there are those who regard the murder of the Jews of Europe as a shoah, or natural catastrophe. Yet, Amos Oz illustrates that the Holocaust was never an outbreak of forces beyond human control. An earthquake, a flood, a typhoon, an epidemic is a shoah. The murder of the European Jews was by no means a shoah (81). Hence, confronting evil necessitates an understanding of the power of words. Words can both reduce the individual to a mere fragment of a symbol, or permit the ignorant a glimpse of blazing light. The Holocaust also marked the failure of the law to stand above individual choices and institutional ethics. While humanity ideally casts law as guardian to moral standards of right and wrong, the Nazi experience and the resulting Holocaust illustrate how law is at best merely a slave to society (Haas 203). The laws of a country do not guarantee against crimes against humanity. Logically, one must question the role of international law and its guarantee against evil. In fact, international law can also deviate from its noble origins. It is dissapointing to realize the force behind the Holocaust and all evil, the capacity to redefine morality, ultimately proves far beyond the reach of legality. It lies within. Confronting the Evil WithinThe implications of evil as ordinary are numerous and frightening. As long as the potential for evil exists within, the threat of depriving innocent others of their humanity remains a vivid possibility. A simple glimpse at reality illustrates how widespread evil is in life. The actions of Hitler and Stalin are just a few examples of genocide, torture, and crimes against humanity throughout the 20th century alone. There are the massacres of Armenians, Cambodians, Gypsies, and Indonesians, as well as a different, but nonetheless present, method of evil: the millions oppressed by poverty, disease, starvation, and war. Yet there is hope in combating the evil within. By understanding our extreme potentials we can confront an ever-present evil and work towards its restraint, both individually and collectively. Within the Holocaust, we find consolation and hope in the altruism of the few righteous Jews and gentiles who risked all to save others despite overwhelming ethics of evil, or those victims who heroically acted both individually and collectively to survive or even escape from demise among the ashes of their fellow people. We must focus our attention on these pillars of moral rectitude and redeeming integrity. They stand out against a backdrop of extraordinary evil for their selfless actions, for risking all to save another out of love and a reluctance to accept the warped morality advocating destruction of another human being and depriving the undeserving of their humanity. The inherent danger in declaring how the ordinary person can commit the most horrendous evil stems from the common tendency to slide from understanding to excusing. Understanding such behavior as basic to human nature cannot permit the alteration of our moral judgment of these actions or actors. Ultimately, the sole measure of human nature is our capacity to do good and resist what is wrong. Avoiding further evil requires facing evil. This in turn necessitates tracing evil from unchosen, subtle actions to the actions and vices which exert dominance. The answer lies in improving our control over our conduct and our freedom to choose good by developing a reflective temper (Kekes 225, 236). The latter imbues within us a motivation to increase self-control and restrain our reactions, while permitting greater understanding of the essential evil conditions of life. However, facing evil and approximating good requires sound moral tradition. Is this possible? Does hospitable morality, or objectivity in good and evil, exist?In Facing Evil, John Kekes addresses the concept of summum bonum, or the existence of a best life for human beings, from the pluralist and relative perspective:Pluralists believe that morality makes different types of claims on moral agents… The reason pluralists give against there being a summum bonum is that there are many ways of ordering and balancing various incommensurable goods in a single human life. As a result, human lives can be good in many different ways (233).”Kekes argues against those advocating a summum bonum because it regards a specific package of goods as superior. However, he maintains that the pluralists do support the objectivity of certain, inalienable rights and oppose simple evil. He then introduces relativism as an obstacle to facing evil:”Relativists suppose that one consequence of incommensurability of goods is that the lives that aim to embody some particular arrangement of goods are also incommensurable… Thus, according to relativists, there are different ways of life, different moral traditions, and different conceptions of good lives, and while moral criticism internal to them is possible and may even be important, external moral criticism is a sign of dogmatism, intolerance, and a noxious imperialism that attempts to impose alien standards on unwilling subjects (234).”Indeed, the relativists offer no neutral medium or privileged goods. Therein lies the illegitimacy of the movement from pluralism to relativism. The relativist disregards the objectivity of simple evil (Kekes 234-235) Hence, the innocent can potentially be deprived of humanity, by defining evil based on what a particular culture regards as important. In other words, the relativist standpoint is faulty because by refusing the legitimacy of external moral criticism, it ignores the existance of simple evil. This in turn permits the violation of simple evil- the minimum requirements of human welfare. In confronting evil, humanity must be opposed to simple evil and advocate the legality of moral criticism. Indeed, the objectivity of simple evil provides a crucial standard by which morality can be both judged and defined. Ultimately, in order to achieve intellectual responsibility, one must acknowledge the existance, and legitimacy, of different conceptions and varying perspectives which accept certain absolutes. The Power of Literature: Maximizing our Good while Minimizing our EvilThe power of literature to revolutionize thought and influence morality choices is often overlooked. Yet it is strikingly evident in exploring authors such as Arendt and Primo Levi. Their works illustrate the power of immediacy and attempt to extricate all who take part in evil. The works of Arendt and Levi are specifically valuable in disproving the existence of a rational and moral order from which evil is a departure. Elie Wiesel, noble-laureate and Holocaust survivor, has argued that the most significant and powerful tool available for the release of human acts of goodness are words with their power to produce memory, and so, intention (qtd. In Haas: 227). In essence, stories or myths construct a world of meaning and reveal our true condition, instructing us how to live. They yield essential insights towards promoting human welfare in light of our moral inequality. Indeed, the ultimate challenge lies within our actions: either they promote or negate a moral system of living. In the end, are we willing to place morality before choice, even at the risk of death? Are we willing to rebel against injustice?In order to survive, we must. At first glance, socialism best mirrors the crusade for justice and equal rights. Yet, by its very nature, any retreat from this principle is a rejection of the principle in its entirety. In Under This Blazing Light, Amos Oz addresses the faulty nature of not merely socialism, but the concept of a larger order delegated the role of combating oppression and poverty:”The origin and precondition of all socialism is sensitivity to injustice and hatred of villians. But sensitivity and hatred cannot flourish side by side… To be a socialist means to fight for the right of individuals and societies to control their own destinies up to that point beyond which men are incorrigibly ruled by fate. It is helpful, however, not to lose sight of the fact that social injustice, political wrong and economic inequity are only one battlefield in the wider arena of human existence, and that we are hemmed in on at least three sides by our pitiful frailty, the pain of our mortality, sexual injustice, and the misery of our fate. These cannot be overcome by any social system… (135-136).”Can one conclude that dependence on any social system for insuring good and combating evil is structurally wrong and overtly idealistic? Perhaps so. It is not that socialism is any better or worse, but that there are limits to an idealism whose rejection causes great harm to all involved: To be as different from one another as we wish, without oppressing or exploiting or humiliating one another, is an ideal formula which can be aimed for but never fully realised, I know. Whoever tries to apply formulas completely ends up manipulating people (137). Indeed, the solution ultimately lies within. Therefore, humanity must reject the myth of an external answer to an evil which flows from within. The notion of a society free of all evil will remain a utopian fantasy until humanity accepts the individual potential for both unparalleled good and extraordinary evil. Indeed, precisely because this essential duality gives birth to all evil, the ability to combat oppression and inequality must emerge from within. The individual must destroy a piece of his/her very own heart.
/ Bibliography1. Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: The Viking Press, 1963. 2. Camus, Albert. The Rebel. New York: Vintage Inernational: 1984. 3. Cohen, Elie A. Human Behavior in the Concentration Camp. London: Free Association Books, 1988. 4. Davidson, Shamai. Holding on to Humanity- The Message of Holocaust Survivors: The Shamai Davidson Papers. New York: New York University Press, 1992. 5. Dimsdale, Dr. Joel E. Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators: Essays on the Nazi Holocaust. New York: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1980. 6. Haas, Peter J. Morality After Auschwitz: The Radical Challenge of the Nazi Ethic. Pennsylvania: Fortress Press, 1988. 7. Katz, Fred E.. Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil: A Report on the Beguilings of Evil. New York: The State University of New York Press, 1993. 8. Kekes, John. Facing Evil. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990. 9. Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Collier Books, 1986. 10. Miale, Florence R. And Michael Selzer. The Nuremberg Mind: The Psychology of the Nazi Leaders. New York: The New York Times Book Co., 1975. 11. Oz, Amos. Under This Blazing Light. England: The Cambridge University Press,1995.