Wednesday, January 22, 2020

What Did Hannah Arendt Really Mean by the Banality of Evil?

Arendt found Eichmann an ordinary, rather bland, bureaucrat, who in her words, was ‘neither perverted nor sadistic’, but ‘terrifyingly normal’. He acted without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy. Eichmann was not an amoral monster, she concluded in her study of the case, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Instead, he performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his ‘thoughtlessness’, a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. Eichmann ‘never realised what he was doing’ due to an ‘inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else’. Lacking this particular cognitive ability, he ‘commit[ted] crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong’.

Arendt dubbed these collective characteristics of Eichmann ‘the banality of evil’: he was not inherently evil, but merely shallow and clueless, a ‘joiner’, in the words of one contemporary interpreter of Arendt’s thesis: he was a man who drifted into the Nazi Party, in search of purpose and direction, not out of deep ideological belief. In Arendt’s telling, Eichmann reminds us of the protagonist in Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger (1942), who randomly and casually kills a man, but then afterwards feels no remorse. There was no particular intention or obvious evil motive: the deed just ‘happened’.


In terms of Catholic philosophy at least, there's nothing particularly remarkable about the idea that evil can be banal.

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'Eichmann was not an amoral monster': but if "amoral" is to mean anything useful an amoral monster is exactly what he was. Maybe she means that he wasn't immoral, having no awareness of a morality that covered the case.

But almost every use of "amoral" that I've seen has just been a euphemism for immoral.

Posted by: dearieme | Jan 22, 2020 12:01:14 PM