‘I have done nothing wrong.’ ‘ My conscience is clear.’ ‘I have done nothing that the rules don’t allow’. Some of these defences by MPs to criticism of their conduct are intriguing since they are so clearly not believed by many British people and provoke even more anger. It is interesting to consider why the MPs think this would be an adequate defence. What lies at the heart of such a response and why would anyone think that this is credible? Perhaps the answer is that they are not thinking, or rather not thinking enough.
The extent to which people unthinkingly follow the rules was a question that exercised the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. I would not want to trivialise her rumination on the roots of evil and totalitarianism by making a comparison with the silly greed and graft of a few British MPs, but there are parallels with the social processes she was pointing to. How was it, she mused when reporting on his trial in Jerusalem, that a man as ordinary as Eichmann could have committed the crimes that he did. She stunned and outraged a lot of people by referring to his behaviour as ‘the banality of evil’. What she meant by this was that in contemporary society where our ability to affect and control nature and each other is so enhanced, evil can arise when we simply show up to work and unthinkingly follow the rules as a banal, everyday act. Eichmann’s defence was that he was just doing his job, and he actually seemed to have been quite proud of how efficient he was. He considered himself a lynchpin in a bureaucratic system where the humanity of those he was dealing with disappeared for him. He was no longer humanly and humanely engaged with what he was doing.
Arendt went on to argue that even morals are not enough to prevent unthinking behaviour that leads to inhumanity, if we take morals to be derived from the Latin mores, meaning accepted and common ways of behaving. So, in contemporary terms we might set the MPs’ behaviour in the context of a society where others have also become accustomed to getting a lot for a little, for receiving huge bonuses, fame or money no matter how good or bad their ‘performance’. One might make the case that the dominant mores of our time have for some years been that anyone who is not out to promote themselves, to get a lot for a little, is a loser – perhaps we have become, as one government Minister said, ‘intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich.’
Systems, rules and procedures are powerful ways of organising human experience and we could not organise complicated societies and co-ordinate without them. However, to offer them as a defence of bad behaviour is to diminish one of the qualities that makes us uniquely human, and in Arendt’s tems, civilised: our ability to think.