The banality of heroism: what’s good for the goose . . .

December 21, 2007 | By | Reply More

I’ve been long-intrigued by Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil.  Philip Zimbardo turns that concept on its head in an article from Edge, “The banality of evil is matched by the banality of heroism.”   (you’ll need to scroll down to the z’s).  Zimbardo’s article appears as one of a series of articles responding to the question: “What is your dangerous idea?”  [Here’s a more elaborate version of Zimbardo’s article; a careful reading will be richly rewarded.]

Those people who become perpetrators of evil deeds and those who become perpetrators of heroic deeds are basically alike in being just ordinary, average people.

The banality of evil is matched by the banality of heroism. Both are not the consequence of dispositional tendencies, not special inner attributes of pathology or goodness residing within the human psyche or the human genome. Both emerge in particular situations at particular times when situational forces play a compelling role in moving individuals across the decisional line from inaction to action.

This view implies that any of us could as easily become heroes as perpetrators of evil depending on how we are impacted by situational forces.

Zimbardo makes a good point, but why stop there? Why assume that only great moments of good or evil are banal?  Isn’t banality of conduct another instance of “universal acid” (Daniel Dennett’s term for a concept that seems to have widespread application in untold domains of experience–natural selection was Dennett’s favorite example)?  Couldn’t we actually expand Zimbardo’s idea and talk about the “banality of everything,” and wouldn’t that actually be a backdoor way of challenging that most hallowed of human constructs: free will?

After all, there are an infinite number of constellations of environmental triggers out there and it might thus be impossible to run a controlled study to isolate “our” influence in any action we take, to the exclusion of the complex panaply of environmental triggers surrounding us.  We love to think that we are in control of our actions, but what if the our surroundings play us with environmental triggers like a jazz player brings out lush chords by striking complex patterns of keys on a piano?  When the music sounds good, we inevitably get greedy and claim the “good” result as our own.

When we notice our own good behavior, we do convince ourselves that our decision and or behaviour was totally our own.  Most of us can’t deal with any other possibility when we are proud of ourselves.  Same thing with the greatness of our heroes.  We can’t bear to think that our heroes are puppets with millions of strings stretching out in all directions out into the environment and down into their biology, and that our heroes’ admirable conduct was not meaningfully their own.

Zimbardo’s point is a good one because it points out how inconsistent we are when it comes to attributing responsibilty for human conduct.  It’s funny how readily we explain those moments when we act foolishly by blaming numerous factors external to ourselves (bad luck, bad education, bad peers, bad circumstances).  When we do well, though (or when our heroes do well), it’s all about internal character.  We love to take (and give) the credit but not the blame. 

Zimbardo doesn’t merely identify the phenomenon of the banality of heroism.  He advocates the need to study the psychology of heroism.  He argues that we ought to be studying ways to design social environments in such a way as to encourage heroic actions–encouraging ordinary peole to act in heroic ways.  Here’s his basic plan to study the banality of heroism:

My research reveals how easy it is to create environments that will bring out the worst in people. Now the time has come examine the other side of the coin and discover how we create environments that bring out the best in human nature, that truly enable ordinary people to go beyond resisting temptation to challenging its domain.


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Category: Environment, Good and Evil, Language, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition

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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