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The Milgram Experiment, and Jonathan Haidt's Critique of the Banality of Evil

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Came across two videos recently discussing the notion of the Banality of Evil which I found to be quite intriguing.

The Banality of Evil was an argument that was developed by German born political theorist Hannah Arendt, in reaction to the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, for his crimes as Architect of the Holocaust. Her impression of the man was that he was not in fact the evil monster she had come to expect; rather he came across as a rather unimpressive and unimaginative bureaucrat who was lacking in empathy. The great evil he created had less to do with an Intentional desire to do harm, and more to do with unreflective selfishness for such mundane an petty reasons as career advancement. She expounds on this to argue that people who unthinkingly participate in systems can contribute to evil in the world.

While I don't dispute the overall argument (indeed it provides a compelling explanation for many current evils in the world), upon reflection my intuitive sense is that it's in fact a partial truth (and promotes Social Good by prompting self reflection on one's actions), on the other hand it doesn't adequately account for the willful and enthusiastic participation in human cruelty that arises from belief systems and ideologies. The arguments presented in the two Videos offer a seemingly compelling argument in this direction.

The first video is a discussion of the Milgram Experiment, which is a famous social psychology about obedience to authority figures, where participants are asked to administer electric shocks to another person when pressured to do so by a researcher that was present with them in the room. What the lecturer in the video argues is that the way the experiment has been generalized in Culture draws the wrong conclusions from the experiment. Rather than the popular notion that orders are obeyed mechanically and unthinkingly when responsibility for one's actions can be deferred to an authority figure, what the lecturer argues for that what is actually going on is the following :

"Obedience to authority is not a 'blind' or 'natural' process. Rather it's a product of engaged followership that is predicated upon identification with those in authority - whose cause is believed to be right, and who are followed on this basis."

In the context of the Milgram experiment, this materialized as the participants having an engaged identification with the authority figure (the researcher), rather than with the subject who was receiving shocks. And upon being debriefed, rather than feeling remorse over their actions (of being coerced into administering a lethal shock into another person), the participants saw their actions as promoting Social Good by advancing the cause of science.

The second video is a rather direct refutation of Hannah Arendt's Banality of Evil argument as proposed by the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, as it was applied to Adolf Eichmann and the Holocaust. In it he argues that far from being a pencil pusher whose perpetuated cruelty as a byproduct of unreflective self interest, a large part of Adolf Eichmann's job was to justify the necessity of the Holocaust to authority figures in occupied countries, who were very often reluctant to cooperate with the SS. And that far from being dethatched from what was going on, he was in the position he was in because he was enthusiastic in his anti-Semitism, believed in the mission of the Reich, and knew full well that after the war the Allied countries would see what he was participating in was a Great Crime against humanity.

Furthermore, no one who ended up in the SS got there unless they believed in the mission of the Reich, and were already predisposed towards the regime of Hate that that Nazis inculcated. He doesn't mention it in the video, but it's my understanding that that recruitment environment of the SS was heavily predisposed to favor people with sociopathic and psychopathy personality traits.

He goes on to argue that Authority figures inculcate echo chambers which blind people to the immoral effects of wrong decisions, because they are engaged followers whose interpretation of the social environment is heavy biased by those in charge.

I would be very interested to hear some other thoughts and opinions on this subject, as the arguments laid out by both seem to be fairly compelling. 


Edited by DocWatts

"The mind is inherently embodied.
Thought is mostly unconscious.
Abstract concepts are largely metaphorical." - George Lakoff

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