The Banality of Good and Evil

cover art
336 pp., 6 x 9
ISBN: 9780878407149 ()

336 pp., 6 x 9
ISBN: 9780878407156 (0878407154)

April 1999
LC: 98-43090
Sales Rights: World

Moral Traditions series



The Banality of Good and Evil
Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition
David R. Blumenthal

Winner of the 2000 Outstanding Book Award of the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights
People who helped exterminate Jews during the shoah (Hebrew for "holocaust") often claimed that they only did what was expected of them. Intrigued by hearing the same response from individuals who rescued Jews, David R. Blumenthal proposes that the notion of ordinariness used to characterize Nazi evil is equally applicable to goodness. In this provocative book, Blumenthal develops a new theory of human behavior that identifies the social and psychological factors that foster both good and evil behavior.

Drawing on lessons primarily from the shoah but also from well-known obedience and altruism experiments, My Lai, and the civil rights movement, Blumenthal deftly interweaves insights from psychology, history, and social theory to create a new way of looking at human behavior. Blumenthal identifies the factors — social hierarchy, education, and childhood discipline — that shape both good and evil attitudes and actions.

Considering how our religious and educational institutions might do a better job of encouraging goodness and discouraging evil, he then makes specific recommendations for cultivating goodness in people, stressing the importance of the social context of education. He reinforces his ideas through stories, teachings, and case histories from the Jewish tradition that convey important lessons in resistance and goodness.

Appendices include the ethical code of the Israel Defense Forces, material on non-violence from the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, a suggested syllabus for a Jewish elementary school, and a list of prosocial sources on the Web, as well as a complete bibliography.

If people can commit acts of evil without thinking, why can't even more commit acts of kindness? Writing with power and insight, Blumenthal shows readers of all faiths how we might replace patterns of evil with empathy, justice, and caring, and through a renewed attention to moral education, perhaps prevent future shoahs.
David R. Blumenthal is Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies in the Department of Religion at Emory University. Among his numerous other books are God at the Center (Harper & Row, 1988/Jason Aronson, 1994) and Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Westminster/John Knox, 1993).
David Cloutier, Darlene Weaver, and Andrea Vicini, SJ
"Learned, eloquent, and engaging."—Ethics

"Blumenthal has written an unusually well reasoned, well researched, and well presented book involving his post-Holocaust moral and religious reflections on preventing future genocides . . . Blumenthal's effort to integrate his science-based findings about values with selected prosocial teachings in Judaism and to commend this approach for those of other faiths adds a traditional richness to his work."—Choice

"It is a pleasure and a privilege to offer this review of this excellent book… Blumenthal is to be commended for the brilliance and the erudition with which he has handled a very difficult and provocative subject in this masterful work."—Conservative Judaism

"One of the perplexing questions to emerge from the Holocaust is what led some people to reach out and help the victims while others turned their backs or became perpetrators. If these questions could be answered it might help future generations to create a more caring society in which goodness is more common than evil. With this compelling book David Blumenthal has moved us significantly closer to that goal. But he has done more than just that. He challenges readers to confront their own behavior and ask whether they live their lives in a way that facilitates the doing of good."—Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies, Emory University

"Original in its approach as well as its interpretation."—Elie Wiesel, University Professor and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, Boston University