Beau­ti­ful Souls

Eyal Press
  • Review
By – April 27, 2012

Jour­nal­ist Eyal Press’s com­pelling work explores the nature of moral courage and the capac­i­ty to tran­scend con­ven­tion­al moral stan­dards. The book begins with ref­er­ences to the psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors involved in the process of resist­ing evil author­i­ty. These pas­sages are lim­it­ed in scope giv­en the vast lit­er­a­ture on the devel­op­ment of altru­is­tic behav­ior and empa­thy.

The author’s bias toward a social psy­cho­log­i­cal view of evil results in an overem­pha­sis upon sit­u­a­tion­al ethics as opposed to a more nuanced devel­op­men­tal mod­el to explain the dynam­ics of becom­ing a res­cuer or a resister. Read­ers sym­pa­thet­ic toward the view that ordi­nary peo­ple can become mon­sters under the right envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions will find them­selves com­fort­able with Press’s nar­ra­tive. On the oth­er hand, those who see the Eich­manns of the world and the peo­ple who sup­port them as indi­vid­u­als who obtain sadis­tic grat­i­fi­ca­tion from their mur­der­ous activ­i­ties will be deeply trou­bled by the con­cep­tu­al frame­work of this book. This becomes evi­dent ear­ly on when Press min­i­mizes Daniel Goldhagen’s posi­tion that much of the geno­cide of the Holo­caust was vol­un­tary in nature (“will­ing exe­cu­tion­ers”) and that the killing was under­tak­en with exu­ber­ant joy.”

This book’s val­ue and the ease with which it can be rec­om­mend­ed comes from the author’s abil­i­ty to bring to light the ideals and beliefs of an array of indi­vid­u­als who exhib­it­ed unpar­al­leled moral courage and eth­i­cal matu­ri­ty at great risk to their lives. Gen­tile res­cuers of Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust, a Serb sav­ing Croats dur­ing the Bosn­ian war, Israeli sol­diers refus­ing to serve in the West Bank, a finan­cial indus­try whistle­blow­er are each elo­quent­ly portrayed. 

Beau­ti­ful Souls, despite the above reser­va­tions, is a valu­able addi­tion to any col­lege library and can serve as an excel­lent start­ing point for in-depth class­room dis­cus­sions of moral dilem­mas and the nature of eth­i­cal deci­sion-mak­ing under extreme stress. Acknowl­edg­ments, notes.

Steven A. Luel, Ph.D., is asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of edu­ca­tion and psy­chol­o­gy at Touro Col­lege, New York. He is a devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist and psy­cho­an­a­lyst in pri­vate prac­tice. He is co-edi­tor (with Paul Mar­cus) of Psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic Reflec­tions on the Holo­caust: Select­ed Essays.

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