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December 18, 2007

Thousands of Small, Routine Tasks

And tragically, since the onset of the scientific and technological revolution, it has seemingly become all too easy for ultrarational minds to create an elaborate edifice of clockwork efficiency capable of nightmarish cruelty on an industrial scale. The atrocities of Hitler and Stalin, and the mechanical sins of all who helped them, might have been inconceivable except for the separation of facts from values and knowledge from morality. In her study of Adolf Eichmann, who organized the death camp bureaucracy, Hannah Arendt coined the memorable phrase "the banality of evil" to describe the bizarre contrast between the humdrum and ordinary quality of the acts themselves—the thousands of small, routine tasks committed by workaday bureaucrats—and the horrific and satanic quality of their proximate consequences. It was precisely the machinelike efficiency of the system that carried out the genocide which seemed to make it possible for its functionaries to separate the thinking required in their daily work from the moral sensibility for which, because they were human beings, they must have had some capacity. This mysterious, vacant space in their souls, between thinking and feeling, is the suspected site of the inner crime. This barren of the spirit, rendered fallow by the blood of unkept brothers, is the precinct of the disembodied intellect, which knows the way things work but not the way they are.

It is my view that the underlying moral schism that contributed to these extreme manifestations of evil has also conditioned our civilization to insulate its conscience from any responsibility for the collective endeavors that invisibly link millions of small, silent, banal acts and omissions together in a pattern of terrible cause and effect. Today, we enthusiastically participate in what is in essence a massive and unprecedented experiment with the natural systems of the global environment, with little regard for the moral consequences. But for the separation of science and religion, we might not be pumping so much gaseous chemical waste into the atmosphere and threatening the destruction of the earth's climate balance. But for the separation of useful technological know-how and the moral judgments to guide its use, we might not be slashing and burning one football field's worth of rain forest every second. But for the assumed separation of humankind from nature, we might not be destroying half the living species on earth in the space of a single lifetime. But for the separation of thinking and feeling, we might not tolerate the deaths everyday of 37,000 children under the age of five from starvation and preventable diseases made worse by failures of crops and politics.
—Al Gore, Earth in the Balance, 1992

Source: Quotations Collected by David Conner, Part 2

Posted by niganit at December 18, 2007 7:02 AM
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