Institutions and Evil

What do we do when we believe that people we disagree with are not only misguided, but evil, and a threat to our society, values, or even the world? If we believe that the depth of the threat excuses actions we would otherwise condemn (e.g., violence, humiliation, theft, separation of families), we are confronted with two challenges: First, how do we know that our motives are truly what we say? What if we act out of the latent desire to commit violence, enrich or aggrandize ourselves, and not as agents of justice? Secondly, what if we are wrong about the respective weights of these bad acts? What if the “punishment” we mete out is excessive? At its best, religion can inspire recognition of our own fallibility and limited knowledge, leading to greater humility and reluctance to appoint ourselves judge, jury and enforcer. At its worst, however, religious and institutional loyalty can lead to arrogance and an attitude of “the ends justify the means,” if one is convinced that one is serving a greater good.

Richard de Ledrede (or Richard Ledred)’s Wikipedia page says very little about him. It follows in its entirety.

Richard de Ledrede (also Richard Ledred) was a 14th-c churchman in Ireland. A Franciscan of the Order of Friars Minor, he was Bishop of Ossory from May 1317 until his death in 1360/1361. He was known as a “scourge of heresy and witchcraft”.

Brigid Maeve Callan’s The Templars, the Witch and the Wild Irish paints a rather different picture, of Ledrede’s prosecution of Alice Kyteler as motivated primarily by an effort to annex her wealth. Ledrede alleged that Kyteler was a witch, and had her lands confiscated. Callan presents Ledrede as purely (or primarily) venal- that may be true, but there’s no direct evidence for it-  solely that he benefited from her condemnation. This presents the more interesting possibility that he might have genuinely believed he was defeating the forces of Satan on earth and happened to enrich his church along the way, only to be reviled hundreds of years later. The MBAs I work with in pursuing careers face a smaller-scale version of this dilemma: do they really want to join a consulting firm or large tech company because they feel that’s where they can do the most good in the world (or “have the most impact”), or are they simply enticed by prestige and wealth? When a consulting firm advises a client to act in ways that are profitable, but impose costs on society, is it acting on a principle of not imposing its own values on others, or just trying to curry favor and retain a lucrative business? The answers may be “a bit of both,” but I think it’s important to consider both possibilities and try to find ways to avoid even the appearance of impropriety and articulate why one is engaging with a problematic actor, or taking actions that one regrets. Avoiding self-enrichment is one way to mitigate this risk.

[As a side note, this book was also a much slower read than I expected; the subject matter was intriguing, but Callan’s tone is highly clinical and the story lacks flow, managing somehow to suck the liveliness out of a quite intense human drama].

Complicity in the Holocaust illustrates even more transparently the extent to which institutions convinced of their own rightness and superiority can fall into evil acts. This has, regrettably, been well-documented recently in cover-ups ranging from the MSU and USC sexual abuse scandals to police civil rights violations. Having learned about the Milgram experiments years ago, I was saddened but not shocked to read about the lack of moral courage on the part of church and academy in Nazi Germany. Self-interest and groupthink are both powerful motivators, and what began as an effort/opportunity for the church or universities to try and do more good (or “have more of an impact”) easily, seductively led academics to burn 20,000 books and appoint unqualified professors in light of a focus on “moral valence” rather than objectivity in research. We’re on slippery ground again here: teaching the values of a society does seem like an important part of creating the grounds for common dialogue and good citizenship. I think there’s an important but subtle distinction between promoting a given set of ethics/virtues in the context of discussing a wide range of philosophical opinions and censorship. Today, we can (and should) promote the value of diversity and democracy without seeking to punish those who disagree (so long as they fall short of advocating violence). Hitler’s cult of personality has truly terrifying contemporary parallels; it makes even more apparent to me that no individual, no institution can be greater than principle and the rule of law. When we become “fans” of a particular artist, politician, or organization, we become more likely to fail to critically examine it and seek its improvement. It is our obligation to interrogate our favorites and to (gently, forgivingly) speak up when they do not represent us as loudly as when they do. The part of this book that truly surprised me, however, was the craven denial of participation in the regime during the post-war “denazification” program. I can understand how social pressures in unusual situations cause us to make mistakes; I’ve been there and done that. I cannot understand how religious leaders who preach atonement or scholars who seek truth would, when confronted with the enormity of their actions, be unwilling to do the work of admitting their errors. Being willing to acknowledge mistakes and face the consequences may be my definition of a mature adult.

The depths of cruelty, atrocity, and shameful behavior can feel paralyzing. I’ve got a bunch of WW2 books coming up (reviews to follow in a few years) and I expect to have my heart broken a lot in the reading, but I also believe that the only way we can improve as humans is not to distance ourselves from our past but to grapple with it and try to make the hard choices even when they cost us personally.

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