A new film about Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa – The Spirit of Hannah Arendt has just come out, raising once again the question of the banality of evil, a phrase Arendt made famous.
Hannah Arendt is best known for her reflections on how ordinary people can commit evil acts. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963, she basis her thesis on Adolph Eichmann, Hitler’s henchman and convicted war criminal. He was, according to Arendt, not only an ordinary person, but particularly thoughtful and well-read. It was this quality of intellectual sensibility and considered reason that made him all the more frightening.
Journalist Claire Carlisle notes that Eichmann was a particularly interesting case because he read and was convinced of the philosophical arguments of Kant, an influential German moral philosopher.
The Kantian "categorical imperative" expresses a moral principle that is entirely free of personal, self-centered inclinations. In respecting only rules that should be valid for everyone, the moral person refuses to put his own interests before anyone else's, or to value his own freedom more highly than another's. His morality is guided by respect for humanity itself – for human dignity, which is based on human freedom.In other words Kant believed that there were such things as moral principles which transcended any individual considerations of right and wrong actions. A rule that is valid for everyone is by nature a higher law and ought to be universally respected. One assumes that ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ is one of these moral precepts – it is universal, stands above all other personal and venal considerations, and has the force of true, unalloyed principle. Eichmann believed Kant, but apparently drew his own conclusions.
Eichmann followed the teachings of Kant up to a point and then no more:
Until 1942, said Eichmann, he had tried to live his life according to this Kantian moral principle. (This presumably includes his active involvement, from the early 1930s, with the Nazi party and the SS.) When he was given the task of deporting the Jews, however, he found that he could no longer follow this ethical ideal. He suggested that his freedom was taken away, so that he could not – in Kantian terms – be a moral agent at all: "Now I was trying to come to terms with myself, and I saw that I was unable to change anything and unable to do anything. I said to myself: 'I cannot for the present live entirely according to [the Kantian requirement], although I would like to do so.'"It is even more difficult to understand the crimes of Eichmann because of his reading of and respect for Kant. At least he thought about moral action, we say. Obviously, as for most of us, philosophical guidance has meaning only until our own lives are at stake.
At his trial Eichmann talked about finding himself in a "new" and "unprecedented" political situation. On his account, this brought about a fundamental moral disorientation: "There is no possibility of comparisons, and no one can have any idea of how it was. There was the war. I had to do just one thing." These words are chilling, but they are also tragic. "Just one thing" describes totalitarianism on a personal scale, the reduction of a single life to one horrifying purpose that excludes all other considerations – including morality, and humanity itself.
In his 2006 book “Becoming Eichmann,” the historian David Cesarani finds common ground with Arendt, writing, “as much as we may want Eichmann to be a psychotic individual and thus unlike us, he was not.” But Cesarani also uses the latest documents to argue what so many of Arendt’s detractors have expressed: “It is a myth that Eichmann unthinkingly followed orders, as Hannah Arendt argued.” Similarly, in her 2011 book “The Eichmann Trial,” the historian Deborah E. Lipstadt claims that Eichmann’s newly discovered memoir “reveals the degree to which Arendt was wrong about Eichmann. It is permeated with expressions of support for and full comprehension of Nazi ideology. He was no clerk.”Other observers suggest that Arendt was right in her general theory – that ordinary people are capable of extraordinary evil – she was wrong in choosing Eichmann as an illustration of it.
Jonah Goldhagen writing in Hitler’s Willing Executioners agrees, and states that without the complicity of ordinary Germans the Holocaust would not have taken place.
Other observers take exception with Goldhagen and Arendt and have suggested that because of the political strategy of Hitler, the extermination of the Jews was decentralized, broken up, and therefore difficult to reconstruct as the Final Solution that it was. No exterminations were carried out in Germany, so the gas chambers and ovens of Poland were very distant and remote. In other words Germans might have suspected, but they didn’t know.
Some Germans may have felt intimidated and afraid to speak out and risk punishment, imprisonment or death; others may have felt that it was not their affair – they didn’t conceive of the plan and they might not even approve of it, but they simply had to accept what their government was doing. Those within the lower echelons of the Nazi hierarchy often claimed that they were just following orders; and that the order and discipline of the military required rigid and unwavering obedience. Many Germans who knew of the Nazi plan were simply not courageous enough to shelter Jews as the Danes and some Dutch did. Such courage is beyond the perspective and strength of most people.
Goldhagen and others writing from his perspective insist that Germans simply had to know. A program so devilish, so extensive, and so relentless could never have been totally kept from public knowledge.
The question of the banality of evil rests on the nature of evil itself. Is there really such a thing? Augustine wondered how a just, good, and beneficent God could have created evil. In the dramatic confrontation between Christ and the Devil in the desert, Jesus resisted the Devil’s three temptations and in so doing established the framework of Christianity – the rejection of power, glory, and riches to clear the path to salvation. The Devil represented all that was antithetical to spiritual evolution; but through his seductive temptations was the incarnation of evil.
Evil according to Augustine was not only the horrendous, but in Arendt’s word, banal.
Christian philosophers have taken a more sophisticated view of the argument. The emergence of St. Augustine’s thinking – and one which has dominated the Christian Church ever since – is that there is no such substantive, distinct thing called ‘evil’. It is just the absence of good. As Claire Carlisle notes:
As a young man, Augustine followed the teachings of a Christian sect known as the Manicheans. At the heart of Manichean theology was the idea of a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. This, of course, proposes one possible solution to the problem of evil: all goodness, purity and light comes from God, and the darkness of evil has a different source.
However, Augustine came to regard this cosmic dualism as heretical, since it undermined God's sovereignty. Of course, he wanted to hold on to the absolute goodness of God. But if God is the source of all things, where did evil come from? Augustine's radical answer to this question is that evil does not actually come from anywhere. Rejecting the idea that evil is a positive force, he argues that it is merely a "name for nothing other than the absence of good".
However, Augustine was aware that everyone ‘knew’ that there was evil in the world. Whatever they called it, however they conceived of it, people observed the most horrific examples of anti-human behavior – Godless behavior, many thought; and since God was good, then there had to be a devil, somehow set up in his own kingdom as a kind of semi-autonomous state performing the necessary task of challenging ordinary mortals.
Augustine’s account of evil is, of course, metaphysical rather than empirical. He is not saying that our experience of evil is unreal. On the contrary, since a divinely-inspired world is naturally oriented toward the good, any lack of goodness will be felt as painful, wrong and urgently in need of repair.Many other philosophers have weighed in on the question of evil as Carlisle points out:
David Hume gave a pithy summary of the problem of evil in his 1779 Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?" For many critics of theistic religion – and Hume can be included among them – this is not a problem to be solved, but a basic and definitive objection to belief in a creator God. The obvious secular response to Hume's (rhetorical) question is to simply accept that the world is as it is, evil and all.
Kierkegaard argued much in the same way:
Kierkegaard thought that our freedom is itself a big nothing. He describes it as a yawning chasm at the heart of human existence, which has to be filled with decisions and actions. But of course this emptiness can never be filled. When we look down into the abyss of our freedom, says Kierkegaard, we feel sick and dizzy. We take a step back. All that nothingness makes us anxious. We are, in fact, afraid of our own freedom.
Kierkegaard agreed with Augustine that human beings are fundamentally proud, always wanting to overreach themselves, transgress any limits imposed on them, and deny their dependence on God. But he also emphasized that we are as fearful as we are proud – that we shrink back from the unlimited dimension of our being, which is freedom. This makes us very contrary creatures: we think we want to be free of all constraint, but at the same time this freedom terrifies us. Human sinfulness, says Kierkegaard, is a result of this unhappy combination of pride and fear. (Carlisle)
In stating that “human sinfulness is a result of this unhappy combination of pride and fear”, Kierkegaard, he confirms theories of the banality of evil. We are so dominated by basic human instincts that our actions, both good and bad, are predetermined.
Nietzsche, a nihilist like Kierkegaard suggests that the only validation of human existence is to act ‘beyond good and evil’. The amoral action is done in disregard for right and wrong, and in so doing denies the existence of either absolute evil or good.
Tolstoy was eloquent in War and Peace and Shakespeare in his Histories were eloquent in their belief that history is simply a perpetual motion mechanism with the same predictable expressions of human nature played out in variations of each other determined and shaped by the environmental forces around us.
ISIS is not evil, but pursuing a political goal with clear intent, defiant purpose, and absolute will.
So where does that leave the rest of us? Weak certainly with little will or ability to act courageously. Complaisant, pleasure-seeking and happily ignorant of nettling questions of morality. Capable of meanness and torture. The famous ‘prison guard’ psychological experiment where subjects designated as guards willingly abused ‘prisoners’ comes to mind. Hateful and spiteful when it comes to grievance and slight. Petty, unforgiving, and nasty as a matter of course. Easily complicit with Nazi-like regimes but perhaps forgiven despite it because of all the above. And finally capable of the most unthinkable, brutal crimes of rape, murder, and dismemberment.
The argument about whether Arendt was right or wrong is moot. Laws, moral codes, and ethical standards have evolved because we are capable of the worst and most reprehensible behavior. It is not remarkable that we commit atrocities; only that we do not commit them more often.