Hannah Arendt in her psychosociological study of Adolf Eichmann famously claimed that ‘in certain circumstances the most ordinary decent person can become a criminal’. This echoed Eichmann’s defence at his trial where he declared ‘I am not the monster I am made out to be, I am the victim of a fallacy’. The idea here is that it is social, especially role-factors, that are the most important determinant of individual behaviour. Roles not only carry a certain weight of authority, but they are often overseen/controlled by relations of authority. This contests the common-sense view that assumes that if people know what is morally right about a situation they will act accordingly.
As many of you probably know, Stanley Milgram famously performed a series of experiments that tried to test the truth of these claims. And he ‘showed’ that by and large they were true – that in an experiment where the subject is asked to deliver lethal electric shocks to a stooge with a ‘heart condition’, 63% of all subjects complied. This was true for subjects from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds- and this was a shock for Milgram because he had expected that Germans would emerge as the most obedient subjects….
The question of evil in philosophy is of course an important question. Can we view evil as 'banal' - as the simple mechanism of a social routine? Is evil, in modern contexts, simple faceless bureaucracy left to expand without limit? Is evil simply a blind and impersonal mechanism?