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2013 was the 50th Anniversary of “The Banality of Evil” December 17, 2013

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Culture, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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While it is still 2013 I want to mark the anniversary of an important concept in moral philosophy, the re-legitimizing of the concept of evil through the writings of German philosopher Hanna Arendt. 50 years ago Arendt launched a concept that was to have an enormous influence on discussions in the field of ethics for the rest of the 20th century, discussions that continue to this day––an influence that has had wider consequences than she probably imagined. She launched the idea of the banality of evil.
Interestingly, philosophers in the early 20th century, especially within the Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition, had all but given up on the word evil. Too much religious baggage (just think of the problem of evil, the theodicy: how can a good god allow horrible things to happen?), too judgmental, too moralizing––at a time when most English-speaking philosophers were grappling with the meaning of words rather than with the meaning of life. Back in the 19th century and further back, thinkers such as Immanuel Kant had no problem throwing themselves and their readers into discussions about the ultimate meaning and values in life, and the notion of an evil person was not alien or uncomfortable as a  topic of analysis.But what is a moral philosopher to do when, in the mid-twentieth century, the ultimate worst conceivable behavior runs rampant across the continent of Europe? Call it “bad behavior”? Call it “behavior frowned upon by most people according to the standards of Western societies?” Call it “a moral choice made by a cultural subset?” Or “just another form of acculturation?” What words could a mid-twentieth century philosopher use to describe Nazi atrocities that wold seem sufficient? In 1963  Arendt, a German Jew who had narrowly  escaped the Holocaust, witnessed the trial in Jerusalem of captured Nazi official and instigator of the Holocaust Adolph Eichmann, and observed that to her surprise he did not look like a monster.  He looked, and sounded, frighteningly normal. And that, she said in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil, was the terrifying key to the Nazi engagement in terror, torture and murders: The Nazi torturers were normal people who, either under pressure from superiors, or from twisted values and twisted thinking, had reached the conclusion that torturing and killing innocent human beings was the right and normal thing to do. It had become a banality––the banality of evil.
And thus was launched a renewal of the concept of evil in philosophy; removed from a religious context, it focused on the inner “Schweinehund,” our baser, cowardly instincts that make us follow the crowd, or go with the lowest common denominator when it comes to standing up for simple decency and humanity, to the point where we are willing to disregard the humanity of another person if someone in authority tells us we’re not responsible, that it is for the good of all, or that bad things will happen to us if we don’t comply. Stanley Milgram corroborated the phenomenon with his “electric shock experiments”––to see how far a person would go when told to shock people who had given the wrong answer to a question. It is a relief to know that nobody was really being shocked, but utterly disconcerting that most of Millgram’s subjects were quite willing to shock people to death when told that they had to. Banality of evil. And a few years later Philip Zimbardo ran his now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment unintentionally resulting in real  harm caused to “prisoners” by “prison guards.” The participants were merely students doing role-playing, because the “prison guards” had been told to be ruthless to the “prisoners,” but some of them took to their roles with zest, and very quickly. Zimbardo himself pointed out, in his book The Lucifer Effect from 2007, that the willingness of the “prison guards” to commit atrocities was the banality of evil rising in completely normal people put into a situation where their moral compass had somehow been disengaged—a situation that her saw paralleled in Abu Ghraib. (I’ve visited the subject several times before in this blog, such as in “The Concept of Evil, and Joseph Duncan,” and “On a Scale of 1 to 22…”, so essentially I’m merely summing up what I’ve said several years ago, but with the specific anniversary of the concept in mind.)
So since the 1960s we have, in philosophy, been able to use the term “evil” as a term for the moral weakness lurking in almost every individual which can make us follow or even give unspeakably vicious orders and forget about the humanity of other people. But is that enough? It took courage for Arendt to reintroduce the concept of evil into the philosophical vocabulary; it took integrity to give voice to a condemnation that most thinkers felt, but perhaps were too polite and well-schooled in non-judgmental meta-ethics to engage in.
And now it is the question whether we’re ready to, once again, redefine the concept of evil. Because surely not all acts that cause irreparable and deliberate harm is caused by people following orders or bad role models. Sometimes some individuals make choices they know will cause harm, and they know it is considered wrong by society, but they want to do these things, anyway, for gratification or profit. The march goes on, from school shootings to imprisonment in locked rooms or basements of women (sometimes strangers, sometimes daughters!) for sexual gratification, to serial killings. Is that the banality of evil, too? I don’t believe so. Immanuel Kant would say that such choices deserve the term evil because they are (1) deliberately done, (2) with awareness that they violate society’s standards, (3) causing intense physical or psychological pain or damage to innocent people, and (4) done for selfish reasons. Is it possible that those individuals are possibly more mentally ill than “evil?” Perhaps, but as long as our legal system allows us to recognize a criminal as “sane” if he or she has a sense of the moral rules of society, then breaking the rules is a deliberate act more so than the act of a helplessly sick person. So perhaps it is time to allow an old concept to return to our modern vocabulary of ethics? In my textbook, The Moral of the Story, I have adopted the term “egregious evil” for such behavior, to differentiate it from “banality of evil,” but it is still a good question whether we are referring to evil acts, or evil persons, because therein lies a world of difference.
Maybe in the future we can come up with a term that is better suited to describe such acts of deliberate, egregious harm, a term that will allow a society to express its moral outrage while at the same time recognizing whatever neuroscientific insight into criminal pathology that we may acquire? Until then I will feel comfortable with a cautious application of the old word evil in its two applications—banal and egregious.