I’m reading Arne Johan Vetlesen’s Evil and Human Agency.

If I wait to finish it before writing a review, I’ll pen one of those unreadable monster blockquote-dumps that goes on forever. So I’ll try something different: I’ll break up my reading and write up my thoughts along the way.

Vetlesen is trying to reconcile sociological, psychological, and philosophical accounts of human evildoing, particularly those prompted by attempts to wrestle with the Holocaust and other examples of large-scale massacre: things like Hannah Arendt’s examinations of totalitarianism and “the banality of evil,” and the Milgram experiment.

He compares the conclusions of various thinkers in these disciplines, and examines their predictions in light of subsequent examples of collective evil, for instance the massacres in the former Yugoslavia.

He starts by offering a “commonsensical and minimalist” definition of evil: to “intentionally inflict pain and suffering on another human being, against her will, and causing serious and foreseeable harm to her.” This makes me defensive, partially because it seems too simple, and partially, I think, because it reminds me of the definitions of torture that the fine legal minds in the White House had so much fun drilling loopholes through. But at least so far, Vetlesen’s definition plays very little role in his book, so I’ll leave it at that.

There is a school of thought in reaction to the Holocaust that sees its perpetrators — the people who actually did the day-to-day mechanics of murdering millions of people, not the ideologues in the newsreels — as having been swept along against their own inclinations by an overwhelming force that only extraordinary personalities were able to resist. Arendt showed Eichmann to be not a conventionally wicked sadist delighting in evil, but a thoughtless careerist oblivious to the results of his actions. Milgram showed that ordinary people would do awful things to innocent strangers if someone in a position of authority gave the word.

While reading Evil and Human Agency on public transit I have — twice now! — been interrupted by the person in the seat next to me who, reading over my shoulder, could not help but discuss it with me. This is pretty remarkable, since for one thing it violates social taboos about talking to strangers on public transit and about interrupting people who are reading, and for another, I didn’t have any idea this was a topic that many people care about.

Anyway, one of these people had absorbed the school of thought I described above, and repeated it back to me in a way that really demonstrated how defeatist and excusing it can be if it is absorbed uncritically and superficially: looking at the perpetrators of the Holocaust and shrugging, saying “it could happen to anyone, human nature being what it is; they didn’t know any better, with the morality of their society gone all topsy-turvy like that.”

Arendt tried to head off this sort of sloppy thinking, insisting (and showing) that those who participated in administrative massacre had real choices, made them, and bear real guilt for the choices they made. She also insists (and shows) that other choices were possible, and that other people could have (and did) evaluate their situations and make conscientious choices, even in the topsy-turvy morality of Nazi Germany.

But Vetlesen, though respectful of Arendt’s contributions to the study of collective and individual evil, thinks that her portrait of Eichmann is partially “naïve: in suggesting that he was ‘merely thoughtless’, she in fact adopts the very self-presentation he cultivated.… [T]his is a blindness in Arendt caused by her privileging the role of intellectual capacities over — morally crucial — emotional ones.”

Vetlesen is referring not only to Eichmann in Jerusalem but also to other writings of Arendt in which she puts thinking at the center of morality (see The Picket Line, ). Indeed, in her view, conscience is a by-product of thinking, where “thinking” is an honest and curious inner dialog of the sort that would make Socrates proud.

Vetlesen doesn’t buy it. Conscience and moral perception, he believes, has much more to do with empathy, and Eichmann’s problem was not that he was “thoughtless” but that he “was insensitive.”

Vetlesen also critically examines Milgram’s interpretation of his famous experiment. Milgram believed that his subjects, in the presence of an authority figure, stepped into a corresponding role and something called the “agentic state, the state in which the agent finds himself once responsibility has been shifted away by his consent to the superior’s right to command” which leads one “to restrict one’s sense of responsibility to the purely technical aspects of one’s action” as opposed to their effects or ends.

The first objection to this “agentic state” is that it is illusory, and the way it is described often seems to grant it an undeserved reality. When you enter the agentic state, you don’t really shift away your responsibility, you only agree to conspire with the authority figure to act as if you have done so. This doesn’t excuse anything, and Vetlesen suggests that this conspiracy of dishonesty not only helps people to commit evil but is itself a sort of evil:

Morally speaking, permitting oneself to be dehumanized, to be robbed of one’s autonomy (Kant), is in itself no lesser sin than participating in the dehumanization of others; it entails permitting oneself to become an instrument in the realization of ends posited by others.

He summarizes Arendt’s own view: “superfluousness represents a temptation: it holds the promise of an existence devoid of (enacted) human agency, hence free of the burdens of responsibility and guilt, as well as hurt and loss.”

If people are selfishly tempted to enter the “agentic state”, then their evil actions when in such a state are the sort of garden variety “sins” that come from being willing to harm other people in pursuit of selfish aims. This in contrast to the usual interpretation of Milgram’s experiment: that people are willing to act against their own inclinations and interests to do things they would ordinarily not want to do, in certain contexts of authoritarian role-play.

Vetlesen extends this objection by considering what Milgram never allows himself to consider: that his subjects may have had genuine sadistic impulses — that in subjecting their victims to pain, they were not being somehow coerced by their situation to do things they would ordinarily not want to do, but that they were being allowed by their situation to do things they were ordinarily inhibited from doing.

He quotes Ernest Becker, who took a second look at Freud’s take on mob violence:

…[M]an brings his motives in with him when he identifies with power figures. He is suggestible and submissive because he is waiting for the magical helper. He gives in to the magic transformation of the group because he wants relief of conflict and guilt. He follows the leader’s initiatory act because he needs priority magic so that he can delight in holy aggression. He moves in to kill the sacrificial scapegoat with the wave of the crowd, not because he is carried along by the wave, but because he likes the psychological barter of another life for his own: ‘You die, not me.’ The motives and the needs are in men and not in situations or surroundings.

And this is where I’ve stopped for , not quite at the half-way mark.

Several years after composing this entry, I read H.L. Mencken’s Damn: A book of Calumny and found that he had anticipated this attack on Milgram before Milgram was around to attack:

The numskull runs amuck in a crowd, not because he has been inoculated with new rascality by the mysterious crowd influence, but because his habitual rascality now has its only chance to function safely. In other words, the numskull is vicious, but a poltroon. He refrains from all attempts at lynching a cappella, not because it takes suggestion to make him desire to lynch, but because it takes the protection of a crowd to make him brave enough to try it.

In other words, the particular swinishness of a crowd is permanently resident in the majority of its members — in all those members, that is, who are naturally ignorant and vicious — perhaps 95 per cent. All studies of mob psychology are defective in that they underestimate this viciousness. They are poisoned by the prevailing delusion that the lower orders of men are angels. This is nonsense. The lower orders of men are incurable rascals, either individually or collectively. Decency, self-restraint, the sense of justice, courage — these virtues belong only to a small minority of men. This minority never runs amuck. Its most distinguishing character, in truth, is its resistance to all running amuck. The third-rate man, though he may wear the false whiskers of a first-rate man, may always be detected by his inability to keep his head in the face of an appeal to his emotions. A whoop strips off his disguise.


I reviewed (“summarized” might be more accurate) Karl Jaspers’s The Question of German Guilt.

Last week, in USA Today, author James Reston, Jr. used Jaspers’s categories of guilt to examine Americans’ guilt for the state of Iraq: “We’re all responsible for Iraq.”

Between people interrupting me on the bus to discuss evil and human agency, and USA Today publishing an op-ed using Karl Jasper’s framework on varieties of guilt, I’m having to seriously reconsider my opinions about the tolerance Americans have for serious subjects of discussion.


I was comparing notes the other day with a friend who is trying to eat healthily and conscientiously while also being frugal and doing the careful budget accounting inspired by Your Money or Your Life.

I’m doing pretty well in the frugal dimension, but I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to things like eating locally, promoting humane farming practices, and so forth. My friend, on the other hand, is attending to those concerns but has a hard time keeping her food budget in line at the same time.

Today I found an encouraging blog: Eating Organic on a Food Stamp Budget. The author, Rebecca Blood, lives in San Francisco (as do my friend and I) and she shares her budget, her recipes, and her choices as she tries to eat conscientiously, well, and cheaply.


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