For 20th-century German philosopher Hannah Arendt, most evil is committed by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.
Where does evil come from? Are evil acts always committed by evil people? Whose responsibility is it to identify and stamp out evil? These questions concerned 20th-century German philosopher Hannah Arendt throughout her life and work, and in her final (and unfinished) 1977 book The Life of the Mind, she seems to offer a conclusion, writing:
“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
Indeed, Arendt was a German philosopher and political theorist who saw the techniques and evil consequences of totalitarian regimes firsthand.
Born into a secular-Jewish family, Arendt fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, eventually settling in New York, where after the war she covered the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.
In her report for The New Yorker, and later published in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arendt expressed how disturbed she was by Eichmann — but for reasons that might not be expected.
Far from the monster she thought he’d be, Eichmann was instead a rather bland, “terrifyingly normal” bureaucrat. He carried out his murderous role with calm efficiency not due to an abhorrent, warped mindset, but because he’d absorbed the principles of the Nazi regime so unquestionably, he simply wanted to further his career and climb its ladders of power.
Eichmann embodied “the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them.” His actions were defined not so much by thought, but by the absence of thought — convincing Arendt of the “banality of evil.”
The “banality of evil” is the idea that evil does not have the Satan-like, villainous appearance we might typically associate it with. Rather, evil is perpetuated when immoral principles become normalized over time by unthinking people. Evil becomes commonplace; it becomes the everyday. Ordinary people — going about their everyday lives — become complicit actors in systems that perpetuate evil.
This idea is best understood within the context of how Arendt viewed our relationship to the world. We live and think not in isolation, Arendt argues, but in an interconnected web of social and cultural relations — a framework of shared languages, behaviors, and conventions that we are conditioned by every single day.
This web of social and cultural relations is so all-encompassing in shaping our thought and behavior we are barely conscious of it. It only becomes noticeable when something or someone doesn’t conform to it.
For example, if you were invited to a formal dinner, and proceeded to forego cutlery and eat your meal with your hands, you’d draw many a strange and disapproving look — perhaps you’d even be asked to leave by the more militant guests, for whom ‘eating with cutlery at formal dinners’ is such a deeply ingrained principle as to be worth defending with vigor.
But do we ever take the time to truly challenge the principles we’ve inherited, to ensure they stand up to our own individual scrutiny? Are we even aware of our biases and learned behaviors? For Arendt, the answer to these questions is largely no — and it is precisely our tendency to adopt judgements without thinking that allows evil's banality to flourish.
For, if we’re not careful, evil principles can gradually emerge to become the new normal, and like the militant cutlery-using guests at the formal dinner party, we’ll defend those principles not necessarily because we’ve independently concluded they’re worth defending, but because they’re 'normal'.
In relation to something as heinous as the crimes of Nazi Germany, this uncomfortable conclusion caused quite a stir in Arendt’s day. It implied the crimes of Nazi Germany were not the responsibility of a handful of purely evil men. Those men kickstarted it, but society enabled it: a lack of critical thinking, a desensitization, a human susceptibility to totalitarianism — this is what led to the murder of millions.
Arendt had Nazi Germany as her template, but argued systemic oppression and the gradual normalization of evil can occur anywhere, any time, and at any scale.
Can you think of anything you’re desensitized to today?
Arendt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil remains a fascinatingly relevant read, delving deeply into the systems that drive our moral standards and consequent behavior. Her view on evil’s banality suggests its antidote begins in active thinking. By being sensitive to different viewpoints and scrutinizing everything we might otherwise adopt or conform to unconsciously, we can be guided by reason, rather than misled by rhetoric or propaganda.
In other words, it is only through thinking for ourselves that we avoid drowning in the tidal wave of information, custom, and circumstance the world throws at us. It's not easy, but by practicing philosophy, we can weigh things and take responsibility for our judgements and behaviors independently, rather than risk becoming an unthinking enabler of principles we wouldn’t necessarily subscribe to, if only we took the time to think about them.
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