On the Banality of Wilful Blindness

Judith Bovensiepen

Notions of corporate and social responsibility are often evoked to appease critics– especially in the petroleum industry. This has led to cynical representations of the energy industry as immoral and to important criticisms of the very notion of “ethical capitalism”. By focusing on the planning and implementation of a large-scale petroleum infrastructure project in Timor-Leste, specifically on the interactions between the national oil company, government officials and so-called affected communities, this paper explores the dynamics of moral reasoning that come to the fore during these interactions. It examines how supporters of the project navigate around known criticisms, tacitly ignoring potentially negative consequences. Contrary to more cynical portrayals of the oil industry, this paper argues that this dynamic works through rather “banal” mechanisms (to borrow a term from Hannah Arendt). “Setting the terms of reference”, or “following procedure” are among the many phrases and practices that allow supporters to overlook the economic and technical problems and non-sustainability of the project they are promoting.