Emory Report

December 13, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 15

Blumenthal's book looks at battle between good and evil

David Blumenthal doesn't just talk about the problem of evil; his research and teaching about the topic have yielded a wealth of information and a new book, The Banality of Good and Evil, that draws some surprising parallels between humanity's two most compelling impulses. His central thesis: you can teach people to do good.

Blumenthal, the Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies, says his research is both inspired and informed by his course, "The Problem of Evil," which he has been teaching for about six years. Dubbed "Advanced Evil" or "the evil course" by students, the class looks at the question: How do people actually reach moral judgments?

Both in the class and his book, Blumenthal examines evidence from the social sciences and contemporary history to show how the nature of social conformity (obedience) and the phenomenon of moral resistance (disobedience) help answer the question of what makes people do evil and good.

Perhaps nowhere is the stark contrast between good and evil actions so readily exemplified as during the shoah (Hebrew for "holocaust") of World War II, one of the most traumatic events of the 20th century. Blumenthal's research begins by highlighting a troubling yet intriguing parallel: both perpetrators of atrocities and heroic rescuers of Jews have explained that they did only what was expected. To them, their actions were commonplace, banal.

How can antisocial, hurtful and evil acts be considered commonplace by some, while prosocial, heroic acts seem routine to others? Blumenthal admits that constructing a field theory to explain this parallel is fraught with problems. "Perhaps I have entered a realm where even angels fear to tread," he wrote in the book's opening chapter. Yet he points out that "our responsibility to prevent social violence obligates us to search for the motives and environments that will encourage good and discourage evil."

Blumenthal observes six dimensions shared by the phenomena that facilitate good and evil: human character; personal psychological history (particularly how discipline, empowerment and self-esteem are handled in childhood); socialization (including everything from modeling to formal instruction); the effects of authority and hierarchy; roles, norms and rules; and actions or practice.

Using these common elements as a springboard, Blumenthal draws together historical, social-psychological and personal data to note four similar factors that, depending on how they are used, can lead people to do evil, or to do good. These include:

  • Becoming part of hierarchy that does or tolerates evil, especially the rationalization of evil by high authority, versus becoming a part of a hierarchy that does or encourages good, giving permission to do good.

"People have a strong tendency to identify the rules and roles set for them and to follow those rules and to fill those roles," Blumenthal said. "In so doing, they become who they are-for better and for worse."

  • Learning about exclusiveness and xenophobia with special emphasis on roles, rules, duty and discipline, versus learning about inclusiveness, empathy and diversity. "Process counts, but so does content," according to Blumenthal.
  • Receiving excessive or erratic discipline as a child, which leads to an emphasis on obedience at all costs, versus receiving a proportionate and reasoned discipline, which leads to competency and a willingness to challenge authority.
  • Exposure to the actual practice of evil versus exposure to the actual practice of good.

"It seems good, common sense to want to create a society in which evil is discouraged and resisted and good is advocated and encouraged," Blumenthal said. Yet that goal is still elusive. Advocates for both religious and secular moral traditions have had only sporadic success; after all, some have used religion to justify decidedly antisocial actions. "Religious as well as secular moral teaching accounts for very little of humankind's ability to resist evil and do good," he added.

Perhaps, Blumenthal supposed, there's not enough emphasis on "how." How does society cultivate prosocial, "good" attitudes and actions? In the chapter titled "Do this," Blumenthal gives several strong recommendations to teachers:

  • Establish a means by which authority can be challenged. "This is not easy to do," said Blumenthal, especially since authority is such an integral part of every aspect of our society and culture. He suggests using an ombudsperson, establishing whistle-blowing mechanisms, identifying authorities and hierarchies, teaching conflict resolution, and the simplest of all-let everyone know it's OK to do something good.
  • Teach prosocial skills such as empathy. "Ask, what does the situation look like from the other person's point of view?" Blumenthal said.
  • Model prosocial attitudes and behaviors by doing them yourself, by hiring staff who have a record of prosocial action and using them as part of the evaluation and promotion process, and by acknowledging heroes and heroines. Heroes don't have to be celebrities, Blumenthal said, citing a story this fall in The Wheel about a freshman student who gave CPR to someone in a downtown Atlanta MARTA station.
  • Do something concrete, such as establishing contact with the disadvantaged or creating opportunities for prosocial action. "Writing a check isn't enough," he said.
  • Teach the value-concepts of prosocial action and include these in syllibi and curriculum. "If bonding is an important concept and we want people to learn about it, why isn't it part of the curriculum?" Blumenthal asked.
  • Be intentional about what you are doing. "As educators, we must embrace the idea that a school or university is not just a place to convey information," he said. "It's a place where we form people."

-Elaine Justice

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