The banality of organisational evil

Seb Schmoller (whom God Preserve) drew my attention to a fascinating essay in the New York Times in which the philosopher Peter Ludlow makes an insightful link between Establishment hysteria over Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing and the furore generated by Hannah Arendt’s reporting of the Eichmann trial in 1961 (currently being highlighted in the feature film about Arendt which is in cinemas as I write).

Hannah Arendt made an observation about what she called “the banality of evil.” One interpretation of this holds that it was not an observation about what a regular guy Adolf Eichmann seemed to be, but rather a statement about what happens when people play their “proper” roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing — or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.

In his essay, Ludlow draws on Robert Jackall’s analysis (in his book Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers, a study of how membership of an organisation makes people adopt different moral codes from those they might hold as individuals. Jackall is a sociologist and his book is a study of the ethics of decision-making in corporations. Mostly, he argues, corporate employees are not evil people, but in their organisational roles they tend to follow five rules:

(1) You never go around your boss. (2) You tell your boss what he wants to hear, even when your boss claims that he wants dissenting views. (3) If your boss wants something dropped, you drop it. (4) You are sensitive to your boss’s wishes so that you anticipate what he wants; you don’t force him, in other words, to act as a boss. (5) Your job is not to report something that your boss does not want reported, but rather to cover it up. You do your job and you keep your mouth shut.

This was the code by which operatives like Ed Snowden (or Bradley Manning) were expected to live. In the end, the tension between obeying the codes and the imperatives of their consciences caused them to break ranks. The moral courage implicit in this seems admirable to many of us, but it’s also what infuriates those who regard them as traitors or worse. (Which includes most of the mass media btw, to their eternal shame.)

“Who do these people think they are, to put themselves in the position of passing moral judgement on matters that are way above their pay grades?” is the general tenor of the spluttering rage directed at Snowden and Manning. But the people who hold such views are generally the folks who either run or have risen in the organisations on which the whistleblowers blew the whistle. They are people, in other words, who signed up to Jackall’s Five Rules and checked their consciences in at the door when they signed on. Whenever I hear them ranting on about “betrayal” or “treason” I am reminded of Bertrand’s G.K. Chesterton’s* observation that the slogan “My Country Right or Wrong” is as daft as “My Mother, Drunk or Sober”.

* Thanks to Roger Whittaker for correction.