Beyond the banality of evil: conscience, imagination and responsibility

Ann Kerwin (Centre for Business Interdisciplinary Studies, Faculty of Business & Law, Auckland University of Technology, Auckland, New Zealand)

Journal of Management Development

ISSN: 0262-1711

Publication date: 18 May 2012

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to revisit philosopher Hannah Arendt's classic study of the banality of evil in light of posthumously published works bearing on moral psychology and philosophy.

Design/methodology/approach

Largely expository and interpretive, this conceptual paper articulates Arendt's approach to morally responsible thinking, with an emphasis on managerial decision making. Arendt's practical ethics draws, in part, on Kantian aesthetic theory, providing an original but unfinished account of “the life of the mind” and personal responsibility in community.

Findings

Arendt contends that humans can, and are morally obliged to, use conscience, imagination and reason to avoid evil‐doing; that self‐critical introspection, active imagination and representative judgment are essential for moral decision making, especially in times of moral crisis; and that neither profit nor pressure can justify breaching fundamental responsibilities to humanity.

Research limitations/implications

This paper discusses, but does not critique, Arendt's oeuvre. It interprets, connects and applies ideas from disparate works relating to responsible moral psychology.

Practical implications

Confronting a “modern crisis” in values, Arendt acknowledged pressures on leaders to fulfill organizational objectives, even those effecting harm which violate deeply‐held personal ethics. Warning against temptations to divide selves into a “personal” moral self and a compartmentalized “organisational self,” she prescribed ways of thinking and judging to counteract thoughtless evil‐doing.

Originality/value

The paper connects Arendt's privative analysis of evil‐doing in Eichmann in Jerusalem with later works which delineate shared human mental capacities and processes which facilitate morally responsible leadership, independent of culture or context.

Keywords

Citation

Kerwin, A. (2012), "Beyond the banality of evil: conscience, imagination and responsibility", Journal of Management Development, Vol. 31 No. 5, pp. 502-514. https://doi.org/10.1108/02621711211226079

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Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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