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The banality of good and evil: antisocial behavior, prosocial behavior, and Jewish religious teaching
David R. Blumenthal
The question where was humanity, and in particular, where were the passive masses of humanity, is our legacy from the holocaust which will haunt us into the next century. Indeed, it may well become the premier question that the twentieth century commits to human history. In an effort to address the questions - Where did moral and religious education founder? Why did moral and religious education fail to create more resistance to evil and encourage more doing of good? Why did the teaching of good and evil in organized societal and religious institutions fail to prevent the Holocaust? - Dr. Blumenthal identified two tasks: a descriptive-analytic task rooted in history and social psychology which can allow us to achieve some intellectual clarity, and a normative-prescriptive task intended to better humankind’s ability to teach resistance to evil and cultivate doing of good, thus allowing us to achieve some moral control over human history.
The data on antisocial behavior show that the following factors enable an overwhelming percentage of ordinary good people to commit acts that they know are wrong:
First, insertion into a social hierarchy in which legitimate authority does, or tolerates evil, salience to the authority, the ability of legitimate authority to rationalize wrong action for the subject all facilitate the doing of evil. The ability of legitimate authority to appeal to rules, to define roles in the hierarchy, and to evoke the values of discipline, duty, and unquestioning loyalty facilitates the doing of evil. (1) These social processes by which authority acts enable individuals to commit wrongful acts while believing that they are actually doing something good. In urging these rules, roles, and values upon persons, legitimate authorities within social hierarchies persuade individuals that compliance - even with demands for wrongful acts - is a good; that is, that to be obedient is, indeed, to be good.
Second, a teaching of exclusivism facilitates the doing of evil. A society that teaches the alienness of the other, the fear of the stranger, and the dichotomy between “us” and “them” prepares the individual for the committing of wrongful acts. This is done by undermining the humanity of the other, by limiting the possibility of empathy for the victim, and by reducing salience to the victim.
Third, the normal social processes of modeling, identification, peer support, and incremental learning work to facilitate evil. Seeing one’s superiors committing or encouraging wrongful acts allows modeling and identification to influence individual persons to do, or tolerate, wrongful acts. Seeing one’s peers committing or tolerating evil makes it easier to do the same.
Fourth, discipline in childhood, when it is erratic and/or excessive, inculcates obedience to authority. If a child is disciplined erratically, it will adapt by being as obedient as possible in order to avoid erratic punishment. Similarly, a child who is disciplined excessively will adapt by being as obedient as possible in order to avoid being excessively punished. If a child is prohibited from making age-appropriate decisions, it will not develop the requisite empowerment and self-esteem.
The converse of these factors have been found to be equally true. The ability of legitimate authority to appeal to rules, to define roles in the hierarchy, and to evoke the values of caring, justice and inclusiveness facilitates the doing of good. A teaching of inclusiveness and caring facilitates the doing of good. A society that teaches the common humanness of the other, that stresses the value of caring, and that emphasizes compassion and responsibility prepares the individual for the doing of acts of goodness. This is true because stressing the humanity of the other increases salience to the victim. A society that uses the language of empathy and responsibility and that cultivates norms of caring in the family and social environments facilitates the doing of good. The normal social processes of modeling, identification, peer support, and incremental learning work to facilitate the doing of good. Discipline in childhood, when it is reasoned and proportionate, inculcates caring attitudes. If a child is disciplined in a way that makes the ‘punishment fit the crime’ and if punishment is explained and comprehended, the child will acknowledge the elementary justice of the discipline. If the ‘punishment’ does not fit the ‘crime’ and the child can appeal and discuss the punishment, the child will learn that authority is reasonable. Such a child will acquire a sense of self-competency and will be willing to challenge other authority when the occasion arises. If a child is encouraged to make age-appropriate decisions, it will develop the requisite empowerment and self-esteem.
In view of this, what ought religious authorities and institutions do to cultivate prosocial attitudes and behaviors and to discourage antisocial attitudes and behaviors? Dr. Blumenthal developed in some detail four steps that Jewish religious authorities must take to assume their responsibilities in the area of moral education. The four steps named here are also valid for other religious and secular traditions.
Jewish religious authorities must admit the failure of many of their previous efforts to discourage antisocial attitudes and behaviors and to encourage prosocial attitudes and behaviors. They must identify and actively teach prosocial texts and traditions. They must identify and actively inculcate prosocial value-concepts. (2) They must recognize that it is not only what one teaches but how it is taught that makes the difference.
To clarify and demonstrate the final point I make the following seven strong recommendations for teaching prosocial values in a Jewish context: 1. Establish a means by which authority can be challenged; 2. Teach the following five prosocial skills: perspective taking and empathy; identifying and coding one’s own feelings; identifying authorities, hierarchies, norms, roles and social processes; externalizing repressed prosocial impulses; conflict management skills; 3. Model prosocial attitudes and behaviors; 4. Implement prosocial action; 5. Teach the specific value-concepts of prosocial action: use the language of justice and caring; teach critical thinking and the nature of social processes; develop syllabi and a curriculum of instruction in prosocial action; 6. Develop networks; 7. Be intentional about what you are doing.
Dr. David R. Blumenthal is the Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His symposium presentation was a precis of his forthcoming book, tentatively entitled “The Banality of Good and Evil: A Social-Psychological and Theological Reflection.”
1 - he typology is that of H.C. Kelman and V.L. Hamilton, Crimes of Obedience (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).
2 - The term comes from M. Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1952