Few topics are as delightful to discuss over a cuppa on your ordinary Monday evening as evil. Pure, horrible, terrifying evil. Can’t wait.
Here’s a thought to ruin your night’s sleep: did you think that for evil to be done, you need an extraordinary kind of person, or extraordinary circumstances? A really wicked kind of person, who takes delight in cruelty? Or if not a cruel person, then at least extreme circumstances that force one to choose between two evils? Not so, says Hannah Arendt. She contends that evil is very banal. If you don’t pay attention, if you don’t think or resist, if you just do your job, if you just do what is expected of you, you might be doing horrible evil right now. Evil is not some extraordinary thing, Arendt argues, evil is “terrifyingly normal”.
Arendt attended the trial of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. She was a journalist at the time. Eichmann was a Nazi who designed the time tables for the logistic operation to and from concentration and extermination camps. He was very good at this job, and thanks to his effort, the killing of millions of Jews happened efficiently. Eichmann, thus, made a major contribution to one of the greatest evils of the 20th century.
But in court, his defenses were all cliches: he was just doing his job, he was just obeying orders, he was just doing what was expected of him, he was just trying to do his job well. And it’s true: Eichmann never saw any prisoners, he just shifted some papers on his desk and made some phone calls to ensure the trains were all running on time. It’s not that he didn’t know that these trains were full of Jews and that they were going to their final destination, but he never thought about it very deeply. He never paused to think whether something horrible might be going on, and whether he might be bearing some responsibility for these atrocities.
Arendt was puzzled by Eichmann. She had read Immanuel Kant, who explained evil in terms of weak or corrupted will: humans have a propensity to subordinate moral law to self-interest, and that’s when evil is done. But Arendt was not satisfied by this explanation. It explained neither the horror nor the scale of such evils as the Holocaust. And it failed to explain Eichmann’s evil in particular. Eichmann was just an ordinary man, not a monster. His motives were commonplace. He had no deep or wicked desire to exterminate a group of people, he just wanted to do his job well.
Thus, Arendt concludes, Eichmann was just an ordinary man, doing evil. Evil is as banal as Eichmann’s motives. Yet, she doesn’t let him off the hook, because it is his thoughtlessness that makes him culpable, according to Arendt. He should have paused to think about what was going on, what he was doing, and what his role and responsibility was.
The banality of evil is disturbing. If ordinary people can so easily be lead to do evil, then who guarantees us that you and I aren’t a cog in some evil machine right now? This disturbing thought is illustrated quite starkly by experiments like the Milgram experiment, in which 26 out of 40 subjects were willing to administer a fatal electric shock to an innocent individual simply because an authority told them to.