Contemporary Explorations in the Banality of Evil

Posted: October 5, 2011 in Behaviour, Ethics, Evil, Psychology, Society
Tags: , , , , , ,

It was the political theorist Hanna Arendt who famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the Nazi apparatchik Adolf Eichmann. In exploring the question of whether evil is always perpetrated consciously or simply a function of thoughtlessness, Arendt studied the tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion and commit atrocious acts without critically thinking about the results of their action or inaction.

In a contemporary exploration of the ‘banality of evil’ motif, VPROInternational has uploaded to youtube a fascinating interview with Prof. Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment in the seventies. The goal of the experiment was to research the influence of circumstances on the behaviour of people in an empirical investigation of what Zimbardo later termed ‘the Lucifer effect’.

Zimbardo talks about the banality of evil and the capacity of institutions and individuals to corrupt and to be corrupted by committing evil acts.  In doing so he refers to his role as a specialist witness for the security guards of the Abu Graib prison in Iraq, in addition to drawing wider conclusions from his experimental work and behavioural observations.  Zimbardo’s interview is a salutary reminder to us all to constantly be on our guard and to reflect on our behaviour, especially as it applies to how we act in institutional and work settings.

You can watch the interview here (courtesy of youtube):

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