Moral blinders and the Banality of Evil. What you don’t ponder won’t disturb your conscience.

November 3, 2006 | By | 7 Replies More

Who does more damage, A) mean-spirited people or B) “normal” people acting thoughtlessly?  According to Hannah Arendt, the answer is clearly B.  I would agree.  Why?  Because we serve as our own gate-keeper as to what what aspects of the world are relevant, usually oblivious to the fact that the “gate-keeper” of the flow of “relevant” facts is our sycophantic enabler, and that the gatekeeper is often willing to help us express our deepest darkest instincts.

How is it that “normal” people so often behave (and vote) as moral monsters?   In Eichmann in Jerusalem (discussed below), Arendt has written that the “banality of evil,” the failure to think, leads to monstrous deeds–the road to hell is mostly paved with a lack of intentions.  I largely concur with Arendt, but I would explain the source of most evil in terms of the psychological concept of attention: human animals have limited attentional capacities, and ghastly things can happen when this scarce human resource (the ability to attend) is diverted (often self-diverted).  Moral monsters self-train themselves to pre-filter their sensory perceptions so that they don’t need to attend to anything in the world that challenges their preferred viewpoints.

The trick to becoming a banally evil person is to allow yourself to dwell on limited viewpoints and experience.  To grow your evilness, stop being self-critical, stop being skeptical and stop exposing yourself to viewpoints that challenge the way you currently live your life. When you become a professional at selectively attending to the “things” of the world, you can feel the rush of becoming a self-certain–you’ll become so certain of your beliefs that you won’t hesitate to impose your narrow intellect onto everything and everyone you encounter.  And even when you are incredibly wrong-headed, you won’t realize it, thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect. That is the great power of the ability to selectively attend to one’s favorite parts of the world.

It takes courage to expose one’s self to information that challenges one’s pre-existing beliefs. Humans are intrinsically able to be self-manipulative–being skeptical requires much more work than running with the types of believes and conclusions that have pleased us in the past. That is also the nature of the confirmation bias. Most of us, most of the time, sub-consciously (or semi-consciously) selectively expose ourselves mainly to the types of information that will substantiate our preconceived notions and motives.  We’ve all seen this with the many dysfunctional people who use the Internet selectively. They seek out only web sites that are compatible with their pre-existing bigoted, consumerist or shallow life-styles.

If you put on blinders that allow you to see only a limited slice of the world around you, you can spare yourself the need of emotionally reacting to desperate needs of humans around you. Most of us constantly blind ourselves to the plight of starving children in Africa.  Out of sight, out of mind.  It’s merely a matter of diverting our attention to something else, something not so disturbing.

Many of the horrible things people do are not done with their full range of attention on the ramifications of their actions.  Soldiers couldn’t effectively kill if they took the time to consider that the guy whose image is in the rifle scope is often a father of small children with much the same dreams and hopes as the soldier.  Soldiers are trained to see those they are fighting in dehumanized ways as “the enemy” and “insurgents” or in racially or ethnically derogatory ways.  This is another example of diverted attention.  When we stop thinking about bothersome things, they cease to bother us!

What makes us who we are is not “the world,” as much as the habits we employ to filter the world.  We filter the world by pointing the spotlight of attention.  We often choose to look away from things that annoy or outrage us.  Then, we often choose to not think about the fact that we trained ourselves to look away.  We cease to think about our option to think about certain things.

We are able to do many of the horrible things we do because we choose to not look, not listen, not consider, not to empathize.  Humans are marvelously able to not attend to inconvenient aspects of their world.  This skilled use of blinders enables many of us to blithely announce how “life is so incredibly good” when thousands of people all around us are desperately ill, hungry, trapped in horrible schools and financially-desperate.

The prototypical example of effect of attention on a moral dispute is abortion. Those on the two extremes focus their attention only on the facts favorable to their viewpoint. I’ve heard pro-choice advocates claim that an 8-month pregnancy is not a human person, even though that baby could be delivered at that point and it would likely thrive. I’ve heard anti-abortion advocates claim that a one-day old zygote is sentient, even though at that stage of life, there is not yet any cell specialization–there are no nerve cells (or any other specialized type of cell) at that point of development. A motivated filtering of the facts (often not a conscious motivation) fully determines the outcome. The argument is resolved at the fact “gathering” stage, which is, in reality, the fact filtering and processing stage of the argument.

We are amazingly able to manipulate our own selves through selective attention. Moral reasoning is compounded because we are also a superbly symbolic species.  By tweaking our ability to attend to one thing and exclude another, we can turn anything into anything.

If misused, the capacity to manipulate the “spotlight” of human attention thus constitutes a dangerous weapon.  It is so dangerous, that studying the limitations of human attention should be a required topic in any discussion of morality.  This brings to mind the challenge of Eleanor Rosch that “with the exception of a few largely academic discussions cognitive science has had virtually nothing to say about what it means to be human in everyday, lived situations.” Her challenge continues (p. xx): “The issues at hand, though scientific and technical, are inseparable from deeply ethical concerns, ones that require an equally deep re-understanding of the dignity of human life.”  [See The Embodied Mind, F. Varela, E. Thompson and E. Rosch, p. xv (1992).]

Back to the capacity of human attention, though. That attention is severely limited is supported by massive scientific literature.  Here’s one place to start. Huge bottlenecks exist at the point where we perceive the world.  We miss a LOT.  The world is laughingly beyond our capacity to absorb without drastic simplification, and we are certainly good at simplifying it. David van Essen, (Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, Washington University) presented the dramatic loss of information from perception to long-term memory as an inverted pyramid:

  • We start with the World of information, which is unlimited.
  • 1010 bits/second of information = capacity of retina
  • 107 bits/second of information = capacity of optic nerve
  • 104 bits/second of information = capacity of attention
  • 10 bits/second of information = capacity of long term memory

[“Translating the neural code: neurons as detectives, not detectors,” Intentionality and the Natural Mind Workshop, March 19, 1999.]

We thus perceive only a small slice of the available world and we remember only a tiny portion of the world that we successfully perceive.  Yet perception seems so very full and complete.  For a demonstration of our perceptual limitations, try watching a short (about 30 seconds) video – your job is to very carefully count the number of times that any student passes a ball to any other student. You saw it all, right?  Then watch the short video again without counting the passes.  Here’s the video. This demo “works” on about 50% of the people who watch it, in my experience.   If it “works,” you’ll be amazed.

Working memory is another attentional bottleneck.  As George Miller pointed out long ago, “[T]he span of absolute judgment and the span of immediate memory impose severe limitations on the amount of information that we are able to receive, process and remember.” [George A. Miller, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two:  Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information,” The Psychological Review, Vol. 63, No. 2 (March, 1956)].

To summarize:  We are not capable of perceiving much of what goes on around us.  We are incapable of considering many things we do perceive, because working memory is so incredibly limited.  Yet we don’t feel limited.  Our cognitive capacity smooths over most of our perceptual and cognitive gaps.  We are impatient and we often get fatigued.  Thus we are quite willing to confidently forge ahead based on less than a complete record.  Those of us who do rein in our impatience with skeptical inquiry and the scientific method tend to oversimplify our world in a way that justifies anything at all.

The resulting illusion of omniscience combines with ubiquitous fatigue, enticing humans to make wild cognitive leaps in order to just get on to the next thing.  We are thus fearless in our ignorance.  Humans are experts at feeling confident even when they make decisions based on woefully insufficient information.

Add one more thing to the mix: “toxic thoughts.”  Humans are highly skilled at suppressing inconvenient or dangerous thoughts.   That humans are animals, for example, is a toxic thought to many people who oppose evolution.  For most people, it is a toxic thought that humans are not entirely “free.”

Really, truly, the failure to be aware of the limited character of human attention can be dangerous.  Here’s how dangerous it can be.

During WWII, Adolf Eichmann was in charge of rounding up millions of Jews throughout Europe.  They were often jammed into sealed railroad freight cars destined for Auschwitz.   For his efficient work, Eichmann had risen in rank from the head of the Center for Emigration of Austrian Jews” to Lieutenant colonel of the SS, where his job was the overall supervisor of the “final solution of the Jewish problem.”  He became an expert at attending to making the trains run on time.  He numbed himself to the despicable result of his actions.

In 1961, the District Court in Jerusalem convicted Eichmann of “causing the killing of millions of Jews” and placing “millions of Jews under conditions which were likely to lead to their physical destruction.”  Eichmann was executed in 1962.

Hannah Arendt attended Eichmann’s trial, subsequently reporting on the trial in Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil.

Arendt’s account serves as a fascinating study in which captured attention is capable of disabling independent thought, skepticism and selection of moral principles.  I will quote extensively form Arendt’s text to substantiate my point.

As Arendt writes, Eichmann claimed at his trial that “what he had done was a crime only in retrospect, and he had always been a law-abiding citizen, because Hitler’s orders, which he had certainly executed to the best of his ability, had possessed ‘the force of law’ in the Third Reich.” (24).   He stressed the he himself never personally “killed a Jew,” (22) and that “he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to—to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and the most meticulous care.” (25).   Prior to the trial, six psychiatrists certified Eichmann to be “normal.” (25).

“That there were no voices from the outside to arouse his conscience was one of Eichmann’s points, and it was the task of the prosecution to prove that this was not so, that there were voices he could have listened to, and that, anyhow, he had done his work with a zeal far beyond the call of duty.”  (126).  Eichmann claimed that he was helpless but to follow the herd: “the most potent factor in the soothing of his own conscience was the simple fact that he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solution.” (116)

Eichmann’s apparent sanity, combined with his conduct, disturbed Arendt:

“[I]t would have been very comforting indeed to believe that Eichmann was a monster . . . 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—as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels—that this new type of criminal, who is in actual fact hostis generis humani, commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.” (276)

Arendt wrote that thoughtless evil was far more dangerous than intentional evil:

“When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial.   Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.”  Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing . . .  He was not stupid.  It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.  And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace . . . That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man—that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem.  But it was a lesson, neither an explanation of the phenomenon nor a theory about it.” (287)

Some have harshly criticized Arendt for ostensibly letting Eichmann off the hook by giving credence to his claim that he was swept along by the bureaucracy, or by characterizing his “motivation” as the lack of thought.   As I interpret her work, though, Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil relates to the human capacity to manipulate attention.   The banality of evil amounts to a diversion of attention toward the repetitive and oftentimes thoughtless tasks encouraged within institutions and bureaucracies.  In the context of group that are defined by rituals and procedures, attention to small tasks can numb us to the big picture.  Therefore, banal evil-doers are not truly “thoughtless,” (as Arendt writes), but severely distracted from moral principles because the limited human ability to attend is tied up with minutiae, often bureaucratic minutiae.  Can’t help you because I’m busy filling out forms.  I can’t volunteer to help this child learn to read because I’m too busy preparing for this gourmet dinner party to impress my friends.  I can’t afford a donation to this charity because I’ve already spent too much money on sports tickets.

The banality of evil appears in either of two forms.  The first was described by Arendt:  a system which inflicts evil by diverting the attention of its participants to bureaucratic detail.  The second occurs in a system in which the participants’ obsession with bureaucratic detail accomplishes only wheel-spinning, while the system itself, promising an avowed purpose of accomplishing a particular public good, fails to accomplish its goals.   Second form of the banality of evil applies to the many systems which perpetrate fraud (schools that don’t really educate, news media that fails to provide meaningful information, ethics committees that bend over backward to do nothing at all).   The repetitive inner-workings of many social institutions thus results in drastic (though often unnoticed) disconnects between the conduct of those people who participate in prestigious-looking systems and the principles those institutions espouse.

I believe that Arendt was onto something big.  Form over substance characterizes many of our predominant social and government institutions.   For example, well-entrenched politicians promise reform, but show no real interest in revamping our arrogantly corrupt system of campaign financing.   Other examples abound:  Voters proudly pull levers for or against candidates (especially judges) about whom they know nothing.    The newspapers completely ignore its own platform, preferring, instead, to peddle sporadic crime devoid of context, sports and other forms of lite entertainment.

Of Adolf Eichmann, Arendt wrote that he

never realized what he was doing . . .  He was not stupid.  It was sheer thoughtlessness—something by no means identical with stupidity—that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.   Arendt claimed that “such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together . . .

These have been powerful words for me ever since I first read them as an undergrad in the 1970’s.  Can it really be that thoughtlessness can “wreak more havoc” than all of the intended evil taken together.   I have become a convert since the 1970’s.  When I look at all of the pain, all of the failures of our society, I rarely see a perpetrator laughing hideously. Instead, I see people burying their heads in the sand.  I see people who could make a difference have instead attended to personal amusements. It is not OK even if many of us do it much of the time.  Failing to force one’s self to attend to evidence and inquiry with which one is uncomfortable is dangerous.  Failing to be skeptical is dangerous. These things are dangerous because if we fail in these ways, it can cause us to think that we are saving someone when we are actually killing someone.

Again, rather than construing the problem as complete thoughtlessness, I re-construe it as diverted attention.  Taken either way, Arendt’s writings are a condemnation and a challenge.  One must always stay skeptical of one’s own motives.  Motives will steer weaker souls only toward confirmatory evidence.  The highest form of courage begins in one’s own head, then.  It is the courage to think differently than one usually thinks.  It is the courage to keep open the possibility that one might be wrong and that those who oppose me might be correct.  It is the courage to doubt one’s self in order to fully attend to the full gamut of information and experience that life offers.

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Current Events, Evolution, Good and Evil, Health, Medicine, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Reproductive Rights, Science, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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