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March 4, 2010 Volume 31, No. 22

Thinking twice about evil

‘Moral inversion’

Abu Ghraib torture highlights administrative evil

The concept of evil has been a part of the human condition throughout history. While many people have been lauded for great achievements that benefit mankind, there are those who have committed great atrocities against fellow humans. One such instance is the Holocaust, brought about by Nazi Germany in the mid-20th century.

One aspect of this genocide that has puzzled historians is how so many average people could commit and condone such horrific acts. Guy Adams, a professor in MU’s Truman School of Public Affairs, calls this phenomenon “administrative evil.”

Adams says administrative evil occurs when people within an organizational structure such as a military or large corporation engage in what appear to be everyday activities which, when viewed by reasonable people in retrospect, are extremely harmful to others. These people, who are typically mid-level workers with no executive power, often do not realize what they are doing is wrong. Paradoxically, they often believe they are doing a great service to the community, which Adams calls a “moral inversion.”

Adams, who has been researching the causes and effects of administrative evil for years, has recently concluded a study on the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in Iraq, which is included in the third edition of his book, Unmasking Administrative Evil. Adams believes this is an example of administrative evil because many of those engaged in this process were merely doing their jobs as ordered without recognizing the moral implications of their actions. Adams says the photographs from Abu Ghraib depicting the torture woke everyone up to the reality of abuse.

“The United States, which is a very advanced, sophisticated, democratic country, developed a policy of torture,” Adams says. “Some of the techniques used came from the Spanish Inquisition. On both moral grounds and practical grounds, it was a benighted policy.”

This was a unique study for Adams because examples of administrative evil are typically studied decades after the events.

“Part of what makes administrative evil difficult to recognize and understand is that when something occurs in the present time and culture, people don’t tend to see it,” Adams says. “It’s easier to see it in retrospect because the event is safely in the past. At some point it becomes safe to look with a critical eye and say, ‘Not only was that not good; everyone can agree that it was in fact evil.’ ”

Adams says studying the Abu Ghraib incident so soon after it happened was unavoidable. He believes the graphic pictures of torture released to the public made it clearly visible to all.

Once the images were released to the American public, administrative evil was easily recognized.

“It’s one thing to hear about atrocities, and read about them, but to see pictures of torture? This society accepts visuals as convincing evidence.”

While Adams maintains that administrative evil is a constant threat in our society, he says many people avoid discussing the issue. He hopes his research will lead to a more open discussion about the dangers involved.

“We want to think of history and civilization as progressive, that we are getting better and more civilized,” Adams says. “It’s due, in part, to the optimistic nature of American culture. We want to think we are getting better; but, then you have an Abu Ghraib situation and we have to think twice.”