“Ethical Fading” under Conditions of Totalitarianism

An oped piece by two business professors, Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, in yesterday’s New York Times triggered an association to Arendt’s arguments in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Even though the researchers make no use of her concept of “the banality of evil,” it seems they have indirectly affirmed part of Arendt’s argument.

They write: “When we are busy focused on common organizational goals, like quarterly earnings or sales quotas, the ethical implications of important decisions can fade from our minds. Through this ethical fading, we end up engaging in or condoning behavior that we would condemn if we were consciously aware of it.”  Arendt argued that Eichmann became capable of committing atrocities by being blinded not so much by ideology as by self-interest.

In what is most certainly an extreme and tragic case of “ethical fading” Eichmann’s conscience got turned upside down, inside out. In a system where the carrying out of murder was not a crime, but a state order, Eichmann, Arendt wrote, tried to clarify, mostly without success,” what he meant when he said he was “not guilty in the sense of the indictment.” (25) The indictment meant that Eichmann had acted on purpose (with intent) and in full knowledge of the “criminal nature of his deeds.” To this charge Eichmann replied, as Arendt puts it, that “he would have had a bad conscience only if he had not done what he had been ordered to do–to ship millions of men, women, and children to their death with great zeal and the most meticulous care.” And then she adds the following comment:  “This admittedly was hard to take.”

Is there such a thing as “moral clarity”? How do we discover its priniciples? Under conditions of the Third Reich–a perverted example of the “common organizational goal” alluded to in Bazerman and Tenbrusel’s essay cited above–it had become “normal” to commit such crimes. Whereas one’s “normal” (i.e., ordinary, common sense ethical) response to an order to commit murder would be to see it as morally repugnant, in the Third Reich “only ‘exceptions’ [those whom Arendt says figured out how to think for themselves, and not in terms of their self-interest, or career advancement, or group conformity] could be expected to act normally.” (p.27)

“Our legal system,” Bazerman and Tenbrusel continue, “often focuses on whether unethical behavior represents ‘willful misconduct’ or ‘gross negligence.’ Typically people are only held accountable if their unethical decisions appear to have been intentional — and of course, if they consciously make such decisions, they should be. But unintentional influences on unethical behavior can have equally damaging outcomes.”

Does Eichmann in Jerusalem, and the totalitarian system of Nazism, illuminate the vexing questions surrounding the issue Arendt identified as “personal responsibility under dictatorship”? What does the concept of “responsibility” entail? Are there distinctions to be drawn between moral and legal responsibility? How would you consider these issues in relation to the roles of participant, resister, and bystander?

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