Thursday, April 02, 2009

Evil, Structure, and Personal Responsibility

Trials for crimes against humanity by former members of the leadership of the Khmer Rouge have begun and the first is one of the most notorious prison commanders who not only ordered but carried out torture. His defense, of course, is based around "I was just carrying out orders."

No doubt that knowingly carrying out immoral orders makes you a party to the immorality, but the question is whether the moral corruption of the system that generates the orders does provide some ethical subtleties that we don't generally consider.

Hannah Arendt, of course, brings out in the case of Eichmann how evil becomes normalized, banal, compartmentalized in such a way that one becomes shielded from the horror and can convince oneself that one is simply doing normal logistical bureaucratic tasks like any other. But this problem is different. This is having full view of the evil one has a hand in, but in a prisoner's dilemma type problem, one also has an understanding that if one does not engage in the evil activity and does so not only willingly, but enthusiastically, one's own self and family may or will likely becomes victims of that violence. In a culture based on fear of the authorities, the only safe place is on the inside; but being on the inside requires selling one's soul. The paranoia is legitimate. Authoritarian regimes make everyone so worried that they will rat on their neighbors to make themselves more patriotic by comparison and to make sure no one is turning on them. Joining with the evil makes pragmatic sense.

But is this pragmatism morally relevant? Are we morally obliged to subject ourselves and our innocent loved ones to torture and death in order to keep our hands clean? Is there some way that those who knowingly did wrong to protect themselves and their families are less culpable? Do the means of normal moral consideration apply to irregular circumstances like those of Cambodia under Pol Pot, Russia under Stalin, China under Mao, or Germany under Hitler?