My Lai and its Aftermath

Ordinary Germans

Insertion into a Hierarchy that Does, or Tolerates, Good

Revisiting the Obedience Experiments

Patterns of Antisocial Childhood Discipline

Patterns of Prosocial Childhood Discipline



There are two questions that haunt the second and third generations after the shoah[1]: Where was God? And, where was humanity? Put differently: How could a good God have permitted the shoah to happen, especially to people chosen by God? And, how could so many people have been turned into passive and active participants in the shoah? I have given a forthright, if not popular, answer to the first question and have also proposed an answer to the second.[2] It is with one aspect of the question about humanity that I will deal here.

There are two sides to this coin: What enabled perpetrators and bystanders to do significant evil and not feel guilty about it? And, what enabled rescuers, of varying degrees, to do significant good in the face of enormous pressures? The question, generically put, is: What are the factors which facilitate the doing of good and the doing of evil? Interestingly, while there has been social-psychological research and historical study of the problems of obedience and altruism, and of perpetrators and rescuers, these topics have not been considered together in any systematic way.[3] The question must, however, be studied and the evidence from the disciplines of both psychology and of history must be considered. There are, it seems to me, two key factors which facilitate the doing of good and the doing of evil: (1) insertion into a hierarchy which does, or which tolerates, good or evil and (2) patterns of childhood discipline.

Insertion into a Hierarchy which Does, or which Tolerates, Evil

The overwhelming evidence for the proposition that insertion into a hierarchy which does, or which tolerates, evil facilitates the doing of evil comes from social psychology though the evidence from history is equally compelling.

The Milgram Experiments

Milgram's[4] famous experiments required subjects to administer what they believed were painful and / or lethal electric shocks to innocent people simply on the basis of the assertion of the authority of the experimenter. Quite contrary to expectations, 50-65% of the subjects followed instructions into the lethal range of shocks (35, 60-1). The percentage reached 85% in Germany (171) and among young people (173). No difference was registered for women (62-3). With unrelenting clarity, Milgram notes that these results are not a function of class, religious affiliation, gender, location, educational background, ideology, and general culture (62-3, 170). Nor are they a result of character or psychopathology (187). The results derive solely from the assertion of hierarchy-authority in the form of the experimenter.

Milgram concludes that hierarchy and authority are inherent in any society (152); that this hierarchy and authority are internalized and serve as the basis for obedience to legitimate authority (141); and that conscience, which regulates impulsive aggressive action, is diminished at the point of entering a hierarchical structure (132) such that the person enters an "agentic state" in contrast to the usual "autonomous state" (132-4). In the agentic state, morality becomes obedience to authority; that is, that which is good is obedience to the authority (145-6); the superego is shifted from independent evaluation of the morality of action to the judgment of how well one has functioned in the hierarchical-authoritative setting (146). The move to the agentic state, then, minimizes the damage to the ego and self-image, though a certain amount of strain is observable during the transition from, and in the ongoing tension between, the agentic and the autonomous states (154-7).

The Brown-Eyed / Blue-Eyed Children Experiments

The same results in a not-strictly experimental setting were obtained in Riceville, Iowa,[5] where a teacher, Mrs. Jane Elliot, in an attempt to teach her third-grade class about the nature of discrimination, set the blue-eyed children against the brown-eyed children. The bigotry shown by the class, which actually affected the learning curves of the students, was surfaced solely by the authority of the teacher, which is all the more remarkable since she reversed the hierarchy of blue-eyed and brown-eyed children on the second day simply by saying that she had been wrong on the previous day. The teacher's authority extended so far that the parents did not object to the bigotry shown in class. Later work by Mrs. Elliot showed that this "experiment" works in prisons and elsewhere, that is, among adults, because they too accept, and act upon, the authority of someone legitimately placed in the social hierarchy.[6]

My Lai and its Aftermath

In a long and deep study of the trial of Lt. Calley for his part in the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam war and of the aftermath of the trial, Kelman and Hamilton[7] explored the question of legitimate authority with great thoroughness. After devoting a chapter to the events of March 16, 1968, the authors spend a chapter discussing the problem of "legal crimes," putting it very succinctly: "When subordinates receive orders from duly constituted authorities operating in an apparent legal framework, they may well assume that the orders themselves are legal" (47, quoting Arendt ). Kelman and Hamilton, then, devote chapters 3-6 to the problem of legitimate authority. They point to the "habit of obedience" (57) and to the fact that legitimate authority demands, it does not persuade; its demands, thus, have an obligatory character which is linked to the roles of the hierarchy (89-91). They also point to the temporary surrender of the right to choose which allows the influence of authority to be felt, thereby creating obedience (91).

To maintain its legitimacy, an authority must focus individuals on rule-, role-, and value-oriented decisions; not on decisions based on personal, subjective preference. It must also be able to claim legitimate access to power, remain within the cultural norms, abide by the implicit rules for the use of power, and be generally accountable. If this is done, then, even if there is doubt, most persons will insert themselves into the hierarchy and obey legitimate authority (122-5).

Surveying reactions to the events at My Lai and later to the trial of Lt. Calley, Kelman and Hamilton develop other typologies which generate the corroborative result that, if the authority is legitimate and if the subordinates and superiors stay within their assigned roles then, if a legal crime is committed, most people feel that there should be no punishment because role-within-legitimate-authority takes precedence over independent moral judgement of the act itself (206), though there is some variation depending upon one's place in the hierarchy (207-8).

The SS

Historians studying the shoah have reached much the same conclusion as the social psychologists. Hannah Arendt,[8] observing the trial of Eichmann, pointed out that he was not a fanatic or a monster. On the contrary, he was terrifyingly normal; he felt he did no wrong; and he would not have felt the slightest remorse had the nazis won and had he been able to carry out the final solution (146, 276, 288).[9] For Eichmann, the "führer's wish" and word were law and, when that law contradicted orders from superiors -- as when Himmler ordered him to stop the deportation of the Jews to extermination camps -- it was the law that he needed to, and did, follow; not the orders (137-146). It was, therefore, precisely his conscience that motivated Eichmann (146-7); his conscience was the law (293). Eichmann was so obedient that the Israeli judges got more information from him than either set of lawyers, precisely because they were higher in the authority hierarchy (223). From this, Arendt reasoned that anyone could have filled Eichmann's place in the hierarchy (278) and that evil was banal[10] precisely because insertion into a social hierarchy made it normal.

Over thirty years after the war, Klee and his colleagues interviewed former SS officers.[11] Again, the thesis of insertion into hierarchy appears very strong: "`I am however convinced that very many men of lower rank under the then authoritarian regime and under such strict and tough commanders as Stahldecker never even entertained the thought of giving expression to their inner conflict, fearing privately that a refusal to take part in a shooting would have had very serious consequences. In my experience, amongst the lower ranks there was not so much an objectve necessity to obey orders, more of a subjective one...'" (85, quoting). And again: "`We had been drilled in such a way that we viewed all orders issued by the head of state as lawful and correct. We police went by the phrase, `Whatever serves the state is right, whatever harms the state is wrong.' I would also like to say that it never even entered my head that these orders could be wrong. Although I am aware that it is the duty of the police to protect the innocent I was however at that time convinced that the Jewish people were not innocent but guilty.... I followed these orders because they came from the highest leaders of the state and not because I was in any way afraid'" (220-1, quoting).[12]

Ordinary Germans

With the invasion of Russia, the crack troops of the German army and the SS divisions moved out of Poland to form the fighting units and the Einsatzgruppen. However, there were still almost 3,000,000 Jews left in Poland who, according to the final solution, needed to be exterminated. Who was minding the store? Who would carry out this "project"? In a stunning book, Christopher Browning[13] follows the history of Police Battalion 101, a group of men who weren't fit for the fighting units, whose job it became to carry out the final solution in Poland. Sometimes, this meant shooting everyone, person by person; at other times, it included shooting the sick, the weak, the elderly, and the infants while forcibly deporting the rest. The transformation of this remarkably undistinguished group of men, only 25-30% of whom were members of the nazi party (48), into mass murderers is one of the most horrifying stories of the shoah.

Browning carefully reconstructs the actions of Police Battalion 101, taking into account all the appropriate problems of dealing with such historical sources, and concludes that 80-90% of the men continued to kill Jews while only 10-20% of the men refused, asked to be excused, or simply evaded the killing tasks (74, 160). Of those who continued to kill, a small percentage became hardened killers who enjoyed their work and volunteered for killing missions; the greatest number "did everything that was asked of them and never risked confronting authority."[14] Browning also points out that the work of this group of men who, by November 1942 had executed 6500 Jews and deported 42,000 more (121), was not an episode but an ongoing, relentless task that required sustained attention (132). It was, thus, not a battle frenzy as in My Lai but "atrocity by policy" (160-1). Furthermore, this was not depersonalized action but hands-on killing with high salience to the victims (162). Nor were these men specially selected, nor was the majority self-selected (165-9). There was no special coercion[15] and no "putative duress" (170-1). Revulsion, when it occurred, was physical; not ethical (74).

In an attempt to wonder why and how, Browning admits the effect of brutalization and numbing, of the context of racial war, of psychological splitting, and of ideology. However, he maintains that these factors were contributory, subsidiary (161, 163, 182, 184). The main mechanism that enabled these ordinary men to become "grass roots" killers was insertion into the hierarchy of army command. Their officers only needed to invoke the authority of their hierarchy to obtain obedience, even though it was sometimes accompanied by anger and upset (69, 74, 151, 171-75). Peer pressure -- not to be "weak" but to be "tough" (150, 183) -- reinforced authority; it did not create it (175).

In another study of ordinary Germans done in the 1950's, Milton Mayer[16] went to a small village in Germany and, hiding his Jewish identity, interviewed the local people about life under nazism. The motif of insertion into a hierarchy which does, or tolerates, evil was very strong: "When `big men,' Hindenbergs, Neuraths, Schachts, and even Hohenzollerns, accepted Nazism, little men had good and sufficient reason to accept it. `Wenn die `Ja' sagen,' said Herr Simon, the bill-collector, `dann sagen wir auch `Ja.' What was good enough for them was certainly good enough for us.' ... My friends were little men -- like the Führer himself" (44-5). And again: "This immense hierarchicalism, based upon blind servility in which the man on the third rung would never dare to imagine that the man on the second would order him to do something wrong, since, after all, the man on the second had to answer to the man on the first, nourished the buck-passing instinct to fantastic proportions.... The only objection is that men who always do what they are told do not know what to do when they're not. Without the thoughtful habit of decision, they decide ... thoughtlessly. If they are forbidden to beat Jews, they learn how not to want to, something a free man who wants to beat Jews never learns...." (162-3). And again: "`The new National Socialist faith believed in God but not in the divinity of Christ. That's the simplest way to put it.... We little people didn't know whether or not to believe it. `Is it right, or isn't it?' we asked ourselves.... One believed one way, one another. It wasn't ever decided. Perhaps, if the war had been won, it would have been decided finally.' `By whom?' `By the men on top. But they didn't seem to have decided yet themselves. A man didn't know what to think'" (232-3).

The story of the German judiciary is another example of the agentic shift which allowed normal German jurists to excel at the doing of evil.[17]

Insertion into a Hierarchy that Does, or Tolerates, Good

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As insertion into a hierarchy works to facilitate evil, so it works to facilitate the doing of good. Here, too, the evidence from social psychology and from history is probative.

The Princeton Experiment

In a well-known experiment, Darley and Batson[18] took a group of 67 Princeton Theological Seminary students and administered to them a series of personality and religiosity psychometric tests. They, then, gave the students the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37) to read, and assigned half of them to deliver a homily on the parable and half of them to prepare a brief talk on alternate ministry. The testing and reading were done in one building and the homily or talk was done in another. Each group was, then, divided into three sub-groups: one was "high-hurry," that is, they were told to hurry to the second location to complete the assignment; one was "intermediate-hurry," that is, they were told to go directly to the second location; and one was "low-hurry," that is, they were told they had ample time to get to the second location. A suffering victim, who was actually a confederate in the experiment, was placed on the way to the second location.

The purpose of the experiment was to see how many theology students, who had just read the parable of the Good Samaritan and were preparing either to give a short homily on the subject or to talk about ministry, would stop to aid this experimental victim -- as the Good Samaritan had stopped to aid a victim by the wayside -- and to determine what kind of help they would offer. Sixty percent (60%), that is, more than half, did not stop to offer help to the victim on the wayside. Of the 40% who did stop, 10% were in the "high-hurry" group, 45% in the "intermediate-hurry" group, and 63% in the "low-hurry" group. The conclusions were quite clear:

A person not in a hurry may stop and offer help to a person in distress. A person in a hurry is likely to keep going. Ironically, he is likely to keep going even if he is hurrying to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan, thus inadvertently confirming the point of the parable. (Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!) ... It is hard to think of a context in which norms concerning helping those in distress are more salient than for a person thinking about the Good Samaritan, and yet it did not significantly increase helping behavior (107, parentheses original).

Darley and Batson, then, speculated on the cause of this phenomenon:

Why were the seminarians in a hurry? Because the experimenter, whom the subject was helping, was depending on him to get to a particular place quickly. In other words, he was in conflict between stopping to help the victim and continuing on his way to help the experimenter.... Conflict, rather than callousness, can explain their failure to stop (108, emphasis original).

The Helping Distressed Persons Experiments

In an equally dramatic series of experiments, Staub[19] took groups of various ages, assigned them an irrelevant task, and then gave them one of three sets of instructions: one group was given permission to leave the task room if necessary; one group was given no instructions on leaving the task room; and one group was prohibited from leaving the room. Then, from an adjacent room, cries of distress were simulated. The purpose of the experiment was to test resistance to authority in a situation evoking helping behavior as a response to the distress stimulus. The experiment showed that, when permission was given, a "high frequency of helping behavior" resulted and, conversely, when prohibition was the instruction, it "substantially reduced active attempts to help." In the case of no information, adults tended to help while children tended to refrain from helping (323-4). Staub summarizes the results dramatically: "Almost all subjects in the permission condition actively helped" (313, emphasis original).

These experiments confirm the insights of the previous section on obedience; to wit, that insertion into a hierarchy of authority is very important in determining a person's willingness to act -- except that the inescapable result of this experiment is that authority can permit ethically correct behavior; that is, that authority can function, as authority, to justify and permit prosocial behavior.

In a study of the influence of television on prosocial and antisocial behavior, Eron and Huesmann[20] showed that "[E]xposure to prosocial content [programs such as "Mr. Rogers," "Lassie," and "Father Knows Best"] led to increased prosocial behavior, whereas exposure to aggressive content led to increased aggressive behavior.... Those boys who watch violent television and identify with aggressive television characters are predictably more aggressive two years later regardless of their initial level of aggressiveness" (293, 304). Here, again, an authority -- in this case, the cultural authority of television[21] -- acts as an authority to sanction both prosocial and aggressive behavior.

Revisiting the Obedience Experiments

A closer look at Milgram's obedience experiments also reveals the power of authority and obedience to sanction prosocial behavior. One of the subjects was a professor of Old Testament. The subject discontinued the experiment after reaching 150 volts saying, "If he [the learner / victim] doesn't want to continue, I'm taking orders from him." In the post-experiment discussion, the professor said, "If one had as one's ultimate authority God, then it trivializes human authority" (47-9). Authority and obedience to that authority -- in this case, the victim and then God -- sanctioned prosocial action. In yet another set of experiments, two experimenters were brought into the room, one who advocated continuing the experiment and one who advocated discontinuing it (105-7). In this case of split authority, "[N]ot a single subject `took advantage' of the instructions to go on; in no instance did individual aggressive motives latch on to the authoritative sanction provided by the malevolent authority. Rather, action was stopped dead in its tracks" (107). Milgram maintained that this was because of a "contamination" of the hierarchical system, noting that some subjects tried to ascertain which experimenter was the higher authority (107). The possibility also exists that, at least in some cases, the presence of two authorities, one sanctioning antisocial action and the other sanctioning prosocial action, allowed or permitted the subjects to follow the impulse to do good precisely because they had a choice of which authority to follow.

Rescuers Invoke Authority

The evidence from the historians confirms this view. Baron[22] notes that Dutch Calvinists rescued Jews: because they believed the Jewish people was the people of God and hence Christians were obligated to rescue them, because they had a ministry to the persecuted, or because they were predestined to rescue (318-19). Sauvage[23] cites the same testimony from Hugenot France, and Fogelman[24] quotes one Christian as asking, "What would Jesus do?" (177) and another as saying, "I have to save these people, as many as I can. If am disobeying orders, I'd rather die with God and against men than with men and against God" (201). She also observes: "Indeed, this conviction among religious rescuers -- that they were accountable to a higher and more fearsome authority -- was the most salient aspect of their rescuer self. It overcame antisemitism, transcended fear, and impelled them to action" (176-77). Kurek-Lesik[25] cites the following:

"I come from nationalist circles, often charged with anti-Semitism. Why did I save Jewish children? Because they were children, because they were people. I would save any man [sic] in danger of death, and a child -- every child -- is particularly dear to me. This is what my Catholic religion orders me to do." ... A persecuted Jew somehow stopped being a Jew and became simply a man, woman, or child in need of help. The Polish nuns were motivated by a Christian duty towards others and by their fidelity to the ideal that they were pledged to do so in a special way by their vows.... This is why saving Jews and Jewish children should first of all be seen in the broader context of monastic service to humanity (330-32, emphasis added).

Sometimes, the authority invoked was not religion but national resistance. Thus, Baron notes that 42% of the Dutch rescuers were also in the resistance and, hence, saving Jews was sanctioned by the political authority of the resistance even if one had no particular religious or social feeling for Jews (312-13).

The evidence, then, is quite consistent: people who do prosocial acts often invoke a higher authority to sanction their actions. The implications of this for building a better society are substantial.

Peer Support as an Appeal to Authority

Peer support is another form of authority and it, too, sanctions prosocial action. In one part of the Milgram experiments, subjects had peers, who were actually confederates in the experiment, who objected to continuing the experiment (116-21). The results were noteworthy: "In this group setting, 36 of the 40 subjects defy the experimenter (while the corresponding number in the absence of group pressure is 14). The effects of peer rebellion are very impressive in undercutting the experimenter's authority" (118). The peer "provides social confirmation for the subject's suspicion that it is wrong to punish a man against his will, even in the context of a psychological experiment.... dispersion of responsibility ... every failure of authority to exact compliance with its commands weakens the perceived power of the authority" (120-21).[26]

Staub[27] observed the same phenomenon. First, he cited well-known experiments by Latané and Darley showing that increase in the number of passive bystanders leads to decreased bystander action (296). Then, on a variant of the adjacent-room distress experiments, Staub had confederates generate "positive verbal definition" of the situation ("That sounds bad. Maybe we should do something."); "negative verbal definition" ("That sounds like a tape recording. Maybe they are trying to test us."); "indirect help defintion" ("I'll go try to find the experimenter."); "prohibition definition" ("I'll go try to find the experimenter. Don't go in there. I don't think we're supposed to."); and "maximum positive influence definition" ("I'll go try to find the experimenter. You go in and see what happened."). The results were very clear: "The behavior of the confederate greatly affected the frequency of active help ... Maximum positive influence produced the greatest helping behavior -- all subjects helped" (318, emphasis original).[28]

Data from the historians supports this thesis too. The Oliners[29] write about the importance of networks which, however, under conditions of terror must perforce be kept small and discrete (102-8). And Fogelman notes the "channel factors," a term drawn from Kurt Lewin, which were necessary prerequisites of rescue. They include the availability of a hiding place and a network to supply identity cards, ration cards, escape route, warning in case of impending raid, etc. (60-61). Furthermore, the Oliners point out that only one-third of the rescuers began helping Jews on their own initiative; the rest -- fully two-thirds -- of the rescuers undertook rescue activity only after being asked by a potential victim, a parent or other relative, a religious functionary or representative of the resistance, a teacher, or an acquaintance or a friend (312-17).

The conclusion to be drawn is clear: Legitimate social authority -- hierarchical or peer authority -- facilitates both antisocial and prosocial behavior. Legitimate social authority creates the agentic shift, thus allowing the individual to invoke authority to do either good or evil.[30]

The implications of this realization for moral education are enormous, the clearest being: Authority figures must be taught to stigmatize the doing of evil but, more important, they must be taught to actively give permission for the doing of good and to diligently structure their hierarchies and institutions to demand prosocial attitudes and behaviors.[31]

Patterns of Antisocial Childhood Discipline

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Listening to Hitler's speeches and watching him speak in films such as Triumph of the Will, one is impressed with his screaming. Everything he seemed to have said was screamed, especially in his public appearances. The same phenomenon of continuous screaming was also noticed in the camps. Survivors report the yelling, the screamed commands, no matter what the task at hand. To Americans the screaming was a puzzle, even comical as in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator; to Germans it was not.

Alice Miller,[32] in her profound study of German culture looks into the personal-developmental history of Germans using the tools of both cultural history and therapeutic case-history. The case of Hitler's screaming serves as a paradigm for Miller's general theory of the origin of social evil: authoritarian culture permits a father to abuse his children -- verbally, emotionally, and physically. Furthermore, she notes, this culture and these phenomena allow the adult abused child to do evil with one aspect of the self, to be "normal" with the other, and to sustain both "selves" in a tense but workable coexistence.

In a similarly famous study of prejudice, Adorno[33] also concluded that the authoritarian personality can be characterized as one which grew up in, and perpetuates, an atmosphere of harsh discipline: "Prejudiced subjects tend to report a relatively harsh and more threatening type of home discipline which was experienced as arbitrary by the child. Related to this is a tendency apparent in families of prejudiced subjects to base interrelationships on rather clearly defined roles of dominance and submission in contradistinction to equalitarian policies. In consequence, the images of parents seem to acquire for the child a forbidding or at least a distant quality. Family relationships are characterized by fearful subservience to the demands of the parents and by an early suppression of impulses not acceptable to them" (256-7).

The Oliners have put it well:

... punishment implies the need to curb some intrinsic wildness or evil intent. Routine gratuitous punishment implies that powerful persons have the right to exert their will arbitrarily..... Having had little influence over their parents' behavior, [such children] are more inclined to feel a sense of helplessness in influencing others generally.... Human relationships are construed in power terms, superordination and subordination viewed as the inherent social condition of humankind. The best one can do in the face of power is to succumb (Altruistic Personality, 182-3).

The more abusive the environment, then, the more the child is subject to the whim of the abusive parent. Punishment becomes more and more erratic, unpredictable, and capricious as well as more and more invasive and violent. This is both physically harmful as well as psychologically destabilizing.[34]

In its exteme form, harsh discipline can turn very ugly. Miller notes that authoritarian, child-abusive culture generates great inner rage which is turned inward by repression and, then, outward by projection. Indeed, Germans felt a sense of relief upon reading Mein Kampf and learning that it was permissible to hate the Jews because this meant that all their anger at their own abused and despised selves -- the product of abusive childhood discipline -- could be projected onto the Jews. This, in turn, led to the cruelty toward, and extermination of, the Jews (166, 187-8):

[They] led a million children, whom they regarded as the bearers of the feared portions of their own psyche, into the gas chambers. One can even imagine that by shouting at them, beating them, or photographing them, they were finally able to release the hatred going back to early childhood. From the start, it had been the aim of their upbringing to stifle their childish, playful, and life-affirming side. The cruelty inflicted on them, the psychic murder of the child they once were, had to be passed on in the same way: each time they sent another Jewish child to the gas ovens, they were in essence murdering the child within themselves (86-7).[35]

Or, as F. Katz has commented:[36]

Evil can be, and sometimes has been, developed into a culture of cruelty, a distinctive culture in its own right. As such it is systematically organized to reward individuals for their acts of cruelty: for being creative at inventing cruelties and for establishing a personal reputation for their particular version of cruelty. Here cruelty can be a macabre art-form ... here, too, cruelty can be a distinctive "economy," where one's credit rating depends on one's level of cruelty -- the more cruel, the higher one's standing. By contrast, acts of kindness can lead to publicly declared bankruptcy, and in some situations the punishment for this bankruptcy is a death sentence (31, emphasis original).... we must admit that, under some circumstances, individuals will deliberately choose to do evil. For example, a culture of cruelty can be highly attractive. It can offer an individual the opportunity to live creatively, and creative living touches on a profound human yearning. At times individuals may discover that acting cruelly is a way, perhaps the only way, they can be creative. They are then likely to embrace a culture of cruelty when some facilitating conditions exist in their immediate context (127, emphasis original).

One can conclude, then, that early childhood discipline which is excessive and erratic -- that is, abusive in its broad sense -- helps to create the authoritarian personality, thereby facilitating the doing of evil. Excessive and erratic discipline does this by instilling an attitude of obedience, by bullying and frightening the child into submission. Excessive and erratic discipline also creates a deep anger in the abused self. This anger, indeed rage, must be suppressed because the child cannot retaliate against the parent; however, it is very likely to surface in later hostile acts which will be directed against a helpless, socially stigmatized other. Antisocial childrearing cultivates the xenophobic, rigid, submissive, and totalitarian personality, creating thereby the possibility for the doing of evil.

Patterns of Prosocial Childhood Discipline

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The key factor uniting rescuers of Jews during the shoah was not economic status, religious or political conviction, hatred of the nazis, or even a special relationship to Jews. Rather, it was, as the Oliners have shown, a commitment to caring for other human beings which was deeply rooted in childhood attitudes toward authority and punishment. A disciplinary milieu characterized by reason and proportion is central:

... significantly fewer rescuers recalled any controls imposed on them by the most intimate persons in their early lives.... parents of rescuers depended significantly less on physical punishment and significantly more on reasoning.... Thus, it is in their reliance on reasoning, explanations, suggestions of ways to remedy the harm done, persuasion, and advice that parents of rescuers differed most from nonrescuers (Altruistic Personality, 179-81).
It [parental punishment] includes a heavy dose of reasoning -- explanations of why behaviors are inappropriate, often with reference to their consequences for others. Physical punishment is rare: when used, it tends to be a singular event rather than routine. Gratuitous punishment -- punishment that serves as a cathartic release of aggression for the parent or is unrelated to the child's behavior -- almost never occurs (Altruistic Personality, 249).

Fogelman, too, notes that studies of anti-nazi German men show their homes to have been "more accepting and less rigid" while studies of rescuers show that they experienced "a loving and trusting relationship with an affectionate mother [and] had a communicative and nonauthoritarian father." These studies supported her own findings of parents of rescuers "who explained rules and used inductive reasoning" (255-7).

The Oliners account for the connection between prosocial behavior and prosocial childhood discipline as follows:

Reasoning communicates a message of respect for and trust in children that allows them to feel a sense of personal efficacy and warmth toward others. It is based on a presumption of error rather than a presumption of evil intent. It implies that had children but known better or understood more, they would not have acted in an inappropriate way. It is a mark of esteem for the listener; an indication of faith in his or her ability to comprehend, develop and improve (Altruistic Personality, 182).
Parents have power over children; they are not only physically stronger but also have access to material resources they can bestow or withhold. Societal norms generally support their superior position.... When adults voluntarily abdicate the use of power in favor of explanation, they are modeling appropriate behavior toward the weak on the part of the powerful. Faced with powerless others, children so raised in turn have at their disposal an internal "script" -- a store of recollections, dialogues, and activities ready to be activated. They need not depend on innovation or improvisation but rather simply retrieve what is already imprinted on their memories (Altruistic Personality, 183).

The social scientific evidence independent of the shoah also supports the conclusion that caring authority in childhood is crucial in the formation of prosocial attitudes.

Parents whose disciplinary techniques are benevolent, particularly those who rely on reasoning, are more likely to have kind and generous children ... Induction focuses children's attention on the consequences of their behaviors for others, drawing attention to others' feelings, thoughts, and welfare ... more inclined to develop empathy toward others."[37]
A great deal of laboratory and socialization research shows that prosocial behavior is influenced by a combination of (1) parental warmth and nurturance, (2) induction, pointing out to children the consequences of their behavior on other people, and (3) firm control by parents, so that children actually behave in accordance with important values and rules.... The more parents and socializers in other settings, such as schools, particularly in the early school years, use such a pattern, the more we can expect prosocial orientation, empathic responsiveness, and behavioral tendencies for increased altruism and less aggression in children.... While reasonable parental control is important, it is also important that parents respond to the child's own reasoning and be willing to consider the child's point of view.[38]

The conclusion to be drawn is clear: Patterns of antisocial childhood discipline, ranging from unnecessarily strict to outright abusive, create an authoritarian personality which will conform to the demands of authority and may even be drawn into a culture of cruelty. Patterns of prosocial childhood discipline, in which authority acts with measured and reasoned behavior and allows itself to be challenged, create an altruistic personality which will question the demands of authority and is likely to be drawn into a culture of care.


To summarize: The two key factors which facilitate the doing of good and the doing of evil are : (1) insertion into a hierarchy which does, or tolerates, the doing of good or evil and (2) patterns of childhood discipline. The lessons to be drawn from this are: (1) social authorities must be taught to stigmatize the doing of evil but must be also be taught to actively give permission for the doing of good and to diligently structure their hierarchies and institutions to demand prosocial attitudes and behaviors. And (2), social authorities in the family, school, and society must be taught to administer childhood discipline in a manner which is measured and reasoned, and which allows, even encourages, the challenging of authority. By observing these two precepts, we may be able to approach the time when ours will be more fully a culture of care and true justice.

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[*] This appeared in Remembering for the Future: The Holocaust in an Age of Genocide, ed. J. Roth and E. Maxwell, (Palgrave, Basingstoke, 2001), II: 217-29. It was also delivered at the 1998 meeting of the Association for Moral Education.

[1] For many years I used the word "holocaust" to designate the destruction of European Jewry during the second world war. I have since been persuaded that "holocaust" should not be used for two reasons: First, it bears the additional meaning of `a whole burnt offering,' which is certainly not the theological overtone to be sounded in this context. And second, the destruction of European Jewry happened to Jews and, hence, it is they who should have the sad honor of naming this event with a Hebrew term. The word "shoah" has been used for a long time in Hebrew to denote the catastrophe to Jewry during World War II and has even been adopted by many non-Jews as the proper designation. I now adopt this usage and acknowledge my debt to Professor Jean Halpérin of Geneva and Fribourg for the insight. It is my practice to capitalize only nouns referring to God, together with nouns usually capitalized in English. This is a theological-grammatical commitment to the sovereignty of God. Thus, I spell "messiah," "temple," etc. Furthermore, to infuse literature with ethics, I especially do not capitalize "nazi," "führer," "fatherland," "third reich," "national socialist," "final solution," etc. except in quotations. I am indebted to Hana Goldman, a plucky ten year old, who defied her teachers by refusing to capitalize "nazi," thereby setting an example for all of us. The word "shoah" falls in this category and, therefore, I consistently do not capitalize it.

[2] For the question about God, see my Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville, KY, Westminster / John Knox: 1993). For the question about humanity, see my The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition (Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press:1999).

[3] The exception is E. Staub, The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and Other Group Violence (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1989).

[4] S. Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York, Harper and Row: 1974); also available as a film.

[5] Film, "In the Eye of the Storm" and later in a film, "A Class Divided"; the latter appeared as a book by W. Peters, A Class Divided Then and Now (New Haven, Yale University Press: 1987).

[6] This is clear from "A Class Divided." My students tell me that Mrs. Elliot appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show with great success.

[7] H. C. Kelman and V. L. Hamilton, Crimes of Obedience (New Haven, CT, Yale University Press: 1989).

[8] H. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, Viking Press: 1963).

[9] This is confirmed by the analysis of the Rorschach data for the Nuremberg accused. No psychopathology was found (G. Borofsky and D. Brand, "Personality Organization and Psychological Functioning of the Nuremberg War Criminals: The Rorschach Data," in J. Dimsdale, Survivors, Victims, and Perpetrators: Essays on the Nazi Holocaust [New York, Hemisphere Publishing Co.: 1980], 359-403).

[10] The concept of "the banality of evil" is a very powerful analytic tool. Used originally by Hannah Arendt, the term has been construed to mean three things: (1) evil which is normal, prosaic, or matter-of-fact; (2) evil which is rationalized as good because it is obedient or because it serves a larger purpose; and (3) evil which is trite, hackneyed, or stale. The last implies that evil is not immoral or grossly wrong. Arendt never meant to imply that nazi evil was trite and hence not immoral. Rather, Arendt meant to say that nazi evil was "banal" both in being matter-of-fact and in being so because it was rationalized as good. I follow Arendt in this usage. In this sense, even abusiveness can be "banal," that is, normal, prosaic, matter-of-fact, and rationalized as a greater good. Indeed, as Alice Miller has pointed out, Hitler was a role model for abusiveness precisely because his actions were very close to the everyday reality of middle-European family life.

[11] E. Klee et al., "The Good Old Days," transl. D. Burnstone (New York, Free Press: 1988, 1991).

[12] The issue of "putative duress" seems to be very complicated. Browning (171) implies that there was none at all, at least not for his subjects since they were specifically given the opportunity not to participate by their commanding officer in Jóséfow. The first quotation from Klee indicates that there was a distinct subjective, though not objective, putative duress; the second sets the issue in the context of willing obedience.

[13] C. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York, Harper Collins: 1992). See also, idem., "Ordinary Germans or Ordinary Men," Address and Response at the Inauguration of the Dorot Chair of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, ed. D. Blumenthal (Atlanta, GA, Emory University: 1994) 7-14.

[14] "Ordinary Germans or Ordinary Men," 11; see also page 9 where he calls these men "grass roots" killers.

[15] It is now well-known that there is not one single case of a person put to death for refusing to kill Jews. See Browning, 170; Klee, 75-86, with 80 and 82 for Himmler's verbal and written orders on the subject; and D. Kitterman, "Those Who Said, `No!': Germans Who Refused to Execute Civilians during World War II," German Studies Review, 9:2 (May 1988) 241-54. See Browning, 103, that those who resisted were yelled at but not disciplined.

[16] M. Mayer, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945 (Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 1955, 1966).

[17] I. Müller, Hitler's Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich, transl. D. L. Schneider (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press: 1991) -- reviewed by me in Modern Judaism (1993) 13:95-106.

[18] J. M. Darley and C. D. Batson, "From Jerusalem to Jericho: A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27:1 (1973) 100-8.

[19] E. Staub, "Helping a Distressed Person," L. Berkowitz, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (New York, Academic Press: 1974) 7: 293-341.

[20] L. Eron and L. Huesmann, "The Role of Television in the Development of Prosocial and Antisocial Behavior," D. Olweus, et al., Development of Antisocial and Prosocial Behavior (New York, Academic Press: 1986) 285-314.

[21] Called by authors "observational learning" (309).

[22] L. Baron, "The Dutchness of Dutch Rescuers: The National Dimension of Altruism," P. Oliner, et al., Embracing the Other: Philosophical, Psychological, and Historical Perspectives (New York, New York University Press: 1992), 306-27 -- reviewed by me in Pastoral Psychology 46:2 (1997) 131-34.

[23] In the film, "Weapons of the Spirit." One of the most moving moments in the film occurs when the visiting nazi finishes his speech and shouts "Heil Hitler." He is greeted by silence and, in that silence, one person shouts, "Long live Jesus Christ."

[24] E. Fogelman, Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust (New York, Anchor Books: 1994) -- reviewed by me in Journal of Psychology and Theology, 23, 1995, 62-63.

[25] E. Kurek-Lesik, "The Role of Polist Nuns in the Rescue of Jews, 1939-1945," Oliner, Embracing, 328-34.

[26] The Milgram experiments probably could not be conducted today because of stricter rules on experimentation with human subjects but, if one were to redo these experiments, one would need to redesign this part to test more fully the role of peer support in defying authority. More importantly, the Stanford Prison experiment (P. G. Zimbardo, et al. "The Psychology of Imprisonment: Privation, Power, and Pathology," Doing Unto Others, ed. Z. Rubin [Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall: 1974]; available in slide presentation and, later, in a film, "Quiet Rage"; see New York Times Magazine, April 8, 1973.) would have to be completely redesigned to test for resistance to add, for example: a resisting confederate among the guards, the prisoners, and the parents; or, a series of humanizing moments such as joint meals between prisoners and guards, a built-in reminder of the experimental framework; etc.

[27] Staub, "Helping," 316-21.

[28] Interestingly, prohibition did not seem to inhibit helping. Further, subjects alone also helped at very high levels because, consistent with Latané and Darley's work, subjects alone feel more responsibility.

[29] S. and P. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (New York, Free Press: 1988).

[30] See also C. D. Batson, The Altruism Question: Toward a Social-Psychological Answer (Hillsdale, NJ, Laurence Erlbaum Associates: 1991), 160, that low-empathy persons need feedback on their helping activities.

[31] For three attempts to provide direct, clear guidance see my "The Banality of Good and Evil: A Descriptive-Analytic and Prescriptive:Normative Reflection" (forthcoming), "What to Do" (forthcoming), and chapter 8 of The Banality of Good and Evil, entitled "Do This."

[32] A. Miller, For Your Own Good, transl. H. and H. Hannum (New York, Farrar, Straus, Giroux: 1983).

[33] T. W. Adorno, et al., The Authoritarian Personality, abridged edition (New York, W. W. Norton and Co.: 1950, 1982).

[34] All first-year psychology students are familiar with the experiments in which rats who are subjected to erratic and excessive electric shocks are driven "insane."

[35] In the psychobiographical section on Hitler (142-97), Miller gives evidence that Hitler's father was abusive and also that Hitler had a personality that was split and seriously repressed, that he idealized and identified with his father, and that he projected his idealized father into the image of the führer while he projected the part of his childhood that needed to be repressed and extinguished onto the Jews (156ff., 176-80).

[36]Ordinary People and Extraordinary Evil, (Albany, NY, SUNY Press: 1993).

[37] Hoffman and others, cited in Altruistic Personality, 178-79.

[38] E. Staub, "A Conception of the Determinants and Development of Altruism and Aggression: Motives, the Self, and the Environment," in C. Zahn-Waxler, et al., Altruism and Aggression: Biological and Social Origins (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1986), 150-52 (emphasis original), citing many sources. Cf. also J. A. Piliavin and H. W. Charng, "Altruism: A Review of Recent Theory and Research," American Review of Sociology, 16 (1990) 41.

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