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The banality of the banality of evil as discussed in the Irish media… Crime Part 2 July 25, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Crime, Culture.

So… Been away a couple of days, far enough away to discover that the term Internet enabled apartment can cover a multitude of situations in a town where there has been a power blackout that has knocked out routers. Anyhow. Due to this, posting is, and may remain, a tad erratic for the next week or so. If only because all my information on the Senate Elections etc, has been from the Irish print media, laudably same day, not quite so laudably thin on analysis, oh and information…

On foot of my thoughts about crime there are two interesting pieces last week, one from Scientific American and the other from the Irish Times, both attempt to consider the nature of ‘evil’. And the interesting thing is that the supposed ‘right-wing’ Michael Shermer appears closer to a ‘left’ interpretation than UCD Clinical psychologist Marie Murray. But then Shermer is, like many of us on the left, ultimately a man grounded in materialism (although he might not quite describe it that way) and rationality.

Murray writes about the:

…gangland killings. There are premeditated murders. Men are massacred. Bodies are found in freezers. And we are, allegedly, and not without irony, one of the safest societies in which to live?

Actually, yes, yes we are. She continues…

This begs a most unpopular question. This introduces an antiquated word: one so politically incorrect, so incongruous in a secular world, and dissonant with societal discourses that it is difficult to articulate. But it is time, perhaps, that it was said. The word is “evil”. And the question is: “Are the acts described above evil?” If they are not evil, what are they? What clinical categories or what psychological rationalisations can we provide to explain and contain these behaviours at this time?

There are a raft of unsubstantiated points. For example:

Clinically we know the negative impact of violent pornography….Whereas acts of extreme cruelty were once considered to be the aberrations of the depraved, the deviant and the deranged few, they are now presenting so routinely that “the banality of evil”, as described by philosopher Hannah Ahrendt, that image of evil in pure pedantic form, seems to be making itself visible and it is not a pretty sight.

and then onto:

That good people can act in cruel and callous ways, depending upon context, was confirmed by the research of Philip Zimbardo in his famous Stanford prison experiments…If Nazism had not already convinced us of that, more recent images from Abu Ghraib prison must surely do.

Now we’re hitting top speed:

Most cultures have a concept of evil and words to describe it, although our postmodern world is increasingly scornful of ideas of good and evil. Radical relativism has replaced the notion of evil with the paradigm of perspective, whereby ethics are relative and “truth” is what you believe. Entitlement to live one’s life, primarily based on one’s own concept of right, irrespective of the rights of others, is increasingly valorised. And we have to ask if the rights of the paedophile should outweigh the rights of the child? Should the rights of the rapist outweigh those of the women he rapes? …..Because many who have experienced attack feel further violated by a society that too often frees perpetrators to offend against them again.

and into the home stretch:

Ask any ordinary person who has been a victim of violence in all its multifarious forms if evil exists and they will tell you that it does. They know. They have encountered it…..But unless we are prepared to acknowledge its existence, in the individual, in the collective, in the perpetrator, in the community and in those who stay silent before it, then people will become more anxious, more depressed, hopeless and suicidal than they already are. Society has been stabbed. It is wounded…Psychotherapists may have a duty to be non-judgmental but they have an equal duty to consider if political correctness is serving society well. They must ask if they have categorised, codified, labelled and pathologised every act to the extent that there is a rationalisation for every atrocity and reluctance to name any behaviour as wrong.

with just a parting thought to upset us…

For whatever bedevils our society today, it is bringing misery to far too many.

Now, away from boring stuff like statistics, which demonstrate crime hasn’t increased, has if anything somewhat dipped, one has to ask is this a case of Murray being too close to the wood to see the trees (and perhaps it is telling that the superheated rhetoric comes from one who works in the area of student counselling)? Because she deals, as a clinical psychologist, on a daily basis with extremely harrowing instances of misery, does this in any real sense represent the society? If I want to be anecdotal I can point to Irish society being much ‘happier’ in some respects now than twenty years ago when I was just 20 or so. There were good reasons for that unhappiness. An economy that was shot, elites that had completely resigned themselves to a dismal future, a cowed and embittered working class and so on and so forth. Now I look at a society of admitted flaws, but also enormous strengths. Why is she overstating the situation? Why indeed?

Furthermore she plays into the narrative on crime with the rather mealy mouthed: And we are, allegedly, and not without irony, one of the safest societies in which to live?

But let’s look at the article again, because, for all it’s modish references to Ahrendt and Abu Ghraib, it is just one more run through the ‘post-modernism and political correctness is the root of (literally) all evil’ spiel. And it is to be honest extremely reactionary in what it implies – if not in what it says. What evidence is there that the rights of victims are lesser than the rights of perpetrators – I’m not arguing that there are not imbalances in certain areas, one can point to sexual crimes as being an exemplar of that, but beyond that what is Murray calling for? What is the evidence that moral relativism has any place in our legal system, or indeed in the overall structure of our society on any meaningful level – if anything surely the contrary is true in a context of hyperbole about the incidence and spread of crime? What is the evidence that the release of offenders (often after processes which those of her own profession are engaged in to make determinations as to the suitability of such releases) is ‘too often’ followed by attacks – it wouldn’t take much to find out, a simple look at levels of recidivism would suffice. Which element of political correctness does she mean – are not racist or sexist comments also ‘evil’, is utter (often ignorant) frankness an unalloyed virtue? What is relationship between the volume or incidence of the crimes Murray points to and ‘evil’ – surely a society with one crime alone could see that as the most egregious ‘evil’, as distinct from a society such as our own where crimes are committed on a regular basis? This sort of gives the game away really, because would Murray write of ‘evil’ in this context say in a situation where crime rates were descending? Most unlikely.

Which leads to the question as to whether the term ‘evil’ has any utility in these discussions. I’m not afraid to use it, but I’m not sure it takes us any further than we’ve gone before.

I simply don’t believe her when she says that ‘radical relativism has replaced the notion of evil with the paradigm of perspective, whereby ethics are relative and ‘truth’ is what you believe’. I think the examples she gives are rather thin. One does not need recourse to the concept of ‘evil’, a concept which is so nebulous as to be largely unusable. While it might give a certain satisfaction to brand someone ‘evil’ what does that tell us in any meaningful sense about what that means and what we should do about it? Post-modernist thinking and relativism haven’t whittled away my ability to be able to distinguish right and wrong, or to determine a moral and ethical position on various issues which strike me as a better methodology than ‘knowing and encountering’ evil.

Already in the Irish Times today there was a letter from a psychotherapist:

While I believe that being non-judgmental towards my clients is a prerequisite for my work as a counsellor/psychotherapist, this in no way clouds my judgment or belief as to whether a particular action is right or wrong. I try not to judge or condemn the person, whatever their actions. How else could I work with them ?

How else indeed? But this, although a fine line, points up the difficulties implicit in the Murray thesis. Should a psychotherapist spend sessions with a criminal berating them for their ‘evil’ or attempting to bring them to some self-awareness of what they have done? How does this concentration on the concept of ‘evil’ assist in this context?

Turning to Scientific American we see many of the same references and points discussed, but frankly in a more engaged fashion.

Shermer notes that:

The photographs of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib shocked most Americans. But social psychologist Philip Zimbardo had seen it all 30 years before in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford University, where he randomly assigned college students to be “guards” or “prisoners” in a mock prison environment. The experiment was to last two weeks but was terminated after just six days, when these intelligent and moral young men were transformed into cruel and sadistic guards or emotionally shattered prisoners.

He continues:

As he watched the parade of politicians proclaim that Abu Ghraib was the result of a few bad apples, Zimbardo penned a response he calls the Lucifer Effect (also the title of his new book from Random House), namely, the transformation of character that leads ordinarily good people to do extraordinarily evil things. “Social psychologists like myself have been trying to correct the belief that evil is located only in the disposition of the individual and that the problem is in the few bad apples,” he says. But, I rejoin, there are bad apples, no? Yes, of course, Zimbardo concedes, but most of the evil in the world is not committed by them: “Before we blame individuals, the charitable thing to do is to first find out what situations they were in that might have provoked this evil behavior. Why not assume that these are good apples in a bad barrel, rather than bad apples in a good barrel?”

Zimbardo looked at Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick who was the military police officer in charge of the ‘most abusive’ blocks in Abu Ghraib. A model soldier, a self-defined patriot, church attendee, when Zimbardo had him assessed by a clinical psychologist it was clear that Frederick was neither sadistic nor had pathological tendencies.

As Shermer notes:

To Zimbardo, this result “strongly suggests that the ‘bad apple’ dispositional attribution of blame made against him by military and administration apologists has no basis in fact.” Even after he was shipped off to Fort Leavenworth to serve his eight-year sentence, Frederick wrote Zimbardo: “I am proud to say that I served most of my adult life for my country. I was very prepared to die for my country, my family and friends. I wanted to be the one to make a difference.”

Shermer comes to some interesting conclusions: First, it is the exceedingly patriotic model soldier—not a rebellious dissenter—who is most likely to obey authorities who encourage such evil acts and to get caught up in believing that the ends justify the means.

I think this is important. It is the ability to ‘normalise’ ‘evil’ and place them within a given context that is enormously dangerous and points to the ability of any to become involved in such acts.

Second, in The Science of Good and Evil (Owl Books, 2004), I argued for a dual dispositional theory of morality—by disposition we have the capacity for good and evil, with the behavioral expression of them dependent on the situation and whether we choose to act.

Here is a thesis quite divorced from the Murray “evil is out there… an evil evil that is underpinned by relativism” thesis and instead recognises that the capacity for good and bad is in all of us and is located clearly within societal and social contexts and constructs. That doesn’t diminish personal responsibility, doesn’t preclude the choice of some of the most negative path possible in a life. But it does at least pull us back from the unknowable.

I’ve never been terribly interested in books about murderers because to be honest it has always seemed to me to be eminently explicable. Strip away social convention, fear of retribution, empathy and so on and sooner or later, in one circumstance or another it will be possible for someone to kill another. And here is the problem. I don’t feel any need to bundle up the various components of that process in the term ‘evil’ to know that that murder is wrong.

I certainly don’t need to see the term used inchoately as a gratuitous whipping boy against the contemporary period.

And I’m absolutely certain it has nothing at all to do with post-modernism or relativism.


1. ejh - July 26, 2007

Radical relativism has replaced the notion of evil with the paradigm of perspective, whereby ethics are relative and “truth” is what you believe.

This is crap, of course: the use of an imaginary past in order to make inaccurate comment on the present. Note also the showboating about “politically incorrect”.


2. ejh - July 26, 2007

Oh yeah, sorry to post consecutively but I wonder how this worlks?

Ask any ordinary person who has been a victim of violence in all its multifarious forms if evil exists and they will tell you that it does

Do you think that this means if anybody has been “a victim of violence in their own home” (as I have) but do not tell you that “evil exists” then they will by definition not be an “ordinary person”?


3. Libero - July 26, 2007

I agree with the criticism of Murray’s article. But she is getting at something real and something important.

That is, I think it’s true to say that in decades gone by, the news of somebody being shot in the head in the streets of Dublin would have been greeted with a great deal more surprise, instinctive fearful reaction and disgust than it is greeted with today.

Part of that is down to increased frequency of gangland murder. Another part, I feel, is that it is now accepted as a sort of urban grundnorm that where you cross a ‘senior’ drug dealer, you get shot.

What once brought about a real degree of horror now evinces a shrugging of the shoulders, almost a “what did he expect” attitude towards the victim. And not just from those who move in those circles.

In this way, cold brutal murder – the surest category of behaviour to qualify as evil – well, it becomes something more than commonplace. It becomes almost normalised. Evil gets banal. And more than that, to strike the same tone as Murray, perhaps it can even be said that if we accept the existence of a separate frame of moral reference among the criminal classes, then that frame of reference does not even view murder as all that wrong, just something regrettable to be accepted as an unsurprising event in the circumstances. It’s the way things work.

Then again, unless one ignored the recent history of all the parts of this island, that wouldn’t be an entirely new outlook on acts that most of the human race would recoil from and instinctively describe as evil. The more degraded the moral environment, the less we paint something without dispute as evil, even as its incidence increases.


4. WorldbyStorm - July 26, 2007

Libero, there is much in what you say, but note that it is largely in relation to gangland violence. Murder remains entirely unnormative in other contexts, and franklittle has noted how this is also interpreted say in relation to the O’Reilly case.

My problem with the whole ‘evil’ approach is that it seems to offer two possible choices of response (there are of course more, but this is what I take from Murray). Firstly there is the ‘evil’ is ‘evil’ and a sort of consequent reification of it into something which is unamenable to any action, except secondly a sort of rhetorical and to my mind profoundly unuseful ‘condemnation’. Where do we go from there? You and I are not part of gangland crime and therefore whatever our frame of reference which both ethically and politically considers suchlike a blight on society as well as being wrong, and sure, ‘evil’, is going to have absolutely zero impact on the frame of reference held by those for who this is their life.

And I don’t consider that gangland violence is unamenable to any action. I think there are many sorts of approaches which could potentially reduce its incidence.

Further to what ejh has pointed out, I think I said it before last year how I was burgled in the 1990s and it was a profoundly upsetting – even traumatic – incident particularly in the long term. Was it ‘evil’? It was, but it was more than that in that it signified an intrusion into my space (I was there at the time), it saw the removal of possessions which had no real cash value but enormous value to me, etc, etc. I just find the discourse of ‘evil’ in itself banal and pointless in that context. Someone entered the house I lived in at the time and took my stuff and I was there. There was a more than implicit threat of violence in the process. My response is not to worry too much about it being ‘evil’ but to look for action that reduces the likelihood of a repetition and that attempts to deal with those who carried out the acts. That action ranges from the individual in terms of those who did it to the societal in terms of policing, social policy and so on. Anything else to me seems to be diversionary…

And that’s where I think Murray is heading off along the wrong track. Most people – I suspect – would agree that something is ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’, but most people – I hope – would also look towards a discourse rooted not in pondering the nature of that ‘evil’ but instead that leads to doing something about it…which I guess returns us to the difference of the Murray/Schermer approach. One is keen to lock in to a notion of ‘evil’ almost as a be all and end all, the other is interested in considering what it is that makes people act in evil ways, almost to see it as a part of human personality and then see the contextual aspects of it and learn from them. Option two seems more useful to me…


5. smiffy - July 26, 2007

That’s a fair point, Libero. It probably is true that murders in Dublin are treated with more equanimity than in the past (well, provided that the victim is ‘known to the Gardaí’ and the perpetrator isn’t their spouse). That said, though, it’s important that any discussion on this subject be accompanied by empirical facts and statistics, as WBS suggests, and that we do get some perspective on just how much ‘evil’ exists in society compared to previously.

What I find irritating about Murray’s article, though, is not the discussion of evil per se, but the cod-philosophising and the vague, unsupported and fatuous assertions that wouldn’t be out of place in a particularly inane discussion over on p.ie.

The point she tries to make about rights is a triumph of stupidity, as WBS points out. Does anyone suggest that the right of a paedophile to abuse a child outweighs the right of a child not to be abused? Of course not. The real question is how we ensure fair trials and the protection of basic civil liberties in the criminal justice system, while at the same time ensuring that justice be served. Anyone who, like Murray, sets it up as a ‘What about rights of the victims’ argument deserves to be ignored (unless, of course, they can explain which precise rights they are referring to).

The stuff about post-modernism and relativism can be passed over with little comment. She’s clearly completely out of her depth and, like so many others, is creating a straw-man argument based on hearsay and lazy, second-hand opinions. It would be interesting to know who she thinks holds the view that “ethics are relative and “truth” is what you believe” (more than likely the ‘PC brigade’ or ‘bleeding-heart liberals’ – choose your own cliché here), but I suppose that in ‘our postmodern world’ (*cringe*) we don’t need to know what we’re talking about to be given space in the Irish Times Opinion section.

The title of WBS’ piece is spot-on. There’s few expressions more banal than ‘the banality of evil’ and, like so many others, Murray seems happy to employ it with little or knowledge acknowledgement of the relevance of its provenance. If she had thought for a moment, she might have realised that the Eichmann example completely undermines her thesis. What Arendt showed was that, under certain circumstances, a non-descript, fairly unremarkable person like Eichmann will commit the most appalling and unspeakable crimes. As WBS notes, the background to most crimes, however horrific or shocking, can be explained and understood (which is different from justifying them). What Murray seems to want to do is set some kind of concept of evil which goes beyond just ‘very bad’ and into an entirely different category. What she demonstrates is that basing your position on trite little clichés, and not bothering to do your homework or use examples, means that all you’re left with is yet another hand-wringing, ‘what have we become?’, Breda O’Brien-esque carnival of banality.


6. ejh - July 26, 2007

It would be interesting to know who she thinks holds the view that “ethics are relative and “truth” is what you believe”

Well, Hamlet purported to, but he was pretending to be mad…


7. smiffy - July 26, 2007

That must be why everyone died at the end. It was all down to the jaded, politically-correct atmosphere of post-modernism that enveloped Elsinore.


8. Worldbystorm - July 26, 2007

“That must be why everyone died at the end. It was all down to the jaded, politically-correct atmosphere of post-modernism that enveloped Elsinore.”



9. John Green - July 27, 2007

I find it difficult to believe that a scientist is still using the concept of evil. Okay, not a scientist, a psychologist. But still.

There’s a moral and political subtext to a discourse that employs the term “evil” in that it tends to imply that 1: Evilness is a substance or quality inherent in the individual and 2: Nothing can be done to extract that quality from the individual, so it is better to isolate them or remove them from society altogether. In addition, although maybe it’s just the way my ear is attuned, a discourse that prefers to counterpose “evil” instead of “bad” against “good” is deliberately using religious terminology. That in itself must be suspect when coming from a psychologist.

Far better, I would have thought, to focus on “right” and “wrong” actions than on supposed personality traits that render individuals irredeemable. Such an approach would recognize that we are all capable of wrong actions as well as right and would permit us to evaluate some actions e.g. murder, as more wrong than others, e.g. failing to return library books. It would also open up the possibility of reintroducing the concept of “responsibility” into the equation, which any analysis imputing unchangeable personality traits to an individual always struggles with. People responsible for their behaviour can change it.


10. WorldbyStorm - July 27, 2007

Completely agree. And I think your 1 and 2 is almost exactly what Murray is getting at, although no doubt she’d hedge it…


11. Kertthoubre - December 15, 2007

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