Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the philosopher Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, specifically her concept of “the banality of evil“.

A few months ago, I was vigorously discussing a work matter with a colleague, and trying to explain why I have a knee-jerk reaction against “because the boss said so” explanations when asked to do things. I alluded to Arendt’s the banality of evil, coined from her coverage of the Eichmann trial. Initially, my colleague thought I was comparing him with Eichmann (which was completely not the case: my colleague is a very high integrity and moral man who has often spoken his mind when he thought things made no sense); thankfully, I managed to clarify that I wasn’t comparing him to Eichmann at all, but more that it is a constant battle that each individual must constantly do to prevent doing evil by sheer thoughtlessness, especially in any system or environment we operate in.

I thought this Haaretz article was a pretty good description of Arendt’s concept of “banality of evil”. In particular, these passages caught my eye (with my highlights):

Arendt takes the Nazi example as a point of departure to understand the essence of historical evil and morality. No extreme evil, not even Nazism, springs from a vacuum or is completely disconnected from the functional mechanisms, cultures and subcultures of the world, even if it represents an unprecedented phenomenon. In this sense, no evil is outside history or outside mankind. The individual’s collaboration with the world in which he grew up, and the way in which that world shapes and molds him by the force of ingrained conditioning, until he becomes flesh of its flesh, is morality’s most ancient arena of struggle. No person is entirely free from being conditioned by images, prejudices, concepts of beauty and ugliness, clichés or social norms that he grew up with and which abut exclusionism and racism.

This is the reason, according to Arendt, that the battle against evil must be waged in the recesses of the individual’s morality and of thought, which by definition constantly challenges and questions consensual world orders. It’s a personal struggle of each person against social and historical fixations, patterns and legacies – what Arendt calls “the burden of mankind” that rests on man’s shoulders. The same mankind, which, along with humanism, also cultivated and justified for generations a history of evil in all its forms – imperialism, colonialism, racism and group, national and private egoism – always aimed at excluding and trampling the other.

Moreover, thinking, which is obligated to accommodate the situation of the Other, requires the totality of our human abilities. It is the essence of our humanity. For example, thinking is not content with listening to the Other; to understand and think about the world one must be capable of stepping into the Other’s shoes. That calls for empathy, deeply emotive thought (as opposed to sentimentality), commitment and the necessary imagination to project, as far as possible, your own personal experiences onto the other. For Arendt, retreating from the world into oneself, insularity, isolation and addiction to logic per se, which is the opposite of thought, deal a death blow to thinking and constitute the root of all evil.

Faced with what Arendt terms the “automatic processes of the world,” in which egoistic group, national and individual evil inhere, it is always incumbent on the thinking, moral individual who is endowed with freedom of choice to abort them. Hence also the notion of the responsibility and guilt of those who choose to ignore evil and even collaborate with it, directly or indirectly. Accordingly, Arendt, in contrast to many of her generation, believed that Eichmann’s death sentence was entirely justified (not because he embodied evil, but because he embodied extreme evil against humanity, evil that sought to exclude a whole people from humanity and to exterminate that people, thereby eradicating the principle of the diversity of humanity, which is effectively its essence).

Above all, there is no evil that does not occur in the name of some “necessity.” Participation in evil is always said to be due to lack of choice, in the name of egoistic group, personal and national interests, which are in concrete or imagined danger and place themselves above morality and humanness. This collaboration with the evil of the world to which one belongs far transcends the question of obedience. Nor does it involve so much a “special kind” of forgetfulness of humanness, a notion that Illouz mistakenly attributes to Arendt. “Evil is thought-defying,” Arendt asserts, that is, a profound dumbness with respect to the world and the Other, and systematic turning away from humanness, morality and conscience, in some cases – as in Nazism – to the point of reversing the concepts of good and evil.

…The question should be – and this is the question that Arendt posed in all its acuity – “What needs to happen in a society for some majority to transform evil into morality?” That is the question that spawned Arendt’s insight about the banality of evil – a concept that, if we read Arendt closely, encapsulates the totality of evil’s strategies to penetrate into the world and present itself as acceptable, logical, as the voice of the majority, as a mission. (The most shocking example is found in Heinrich Himmler’s well-known speech at Poznan in 1944: “We had the moral right, we had the duty to our own people, to kill this people that wanted to kill us.”)

At its crux, Arendt’s arguments are due to a fundamental asymmetry: we often act due to what we think of as necessary and good. However, evil often warps and cloaks itself, presenting itself as acceptable, logical, a “necessity”.

However, necessity is not a clear gauge for whether something is morally good or bad. Hence, we need to be very, very careful when people say things like “there’s no right and there’s no wrong”, “we need to be practical & pragmatic”, “what’s good is what’s good for us, what’s bad is what’s bad for us”, “I’m just doing my job, and that’s beyond our payscale to bother”, etc.

Initially, I was a bit confused whether banality of evil conflicted with the Buddhist teaching of Right Intention/Motivation. Intention/motivation is important in Buddhism, because intention creates kamma/karma. Thus, if an action is done with right intentions and motivations, it has its effect. So if one had no intention, surely that means there is no consequence or effect due to one’s actions? A common example that is given is, if I accidentally killed an insect, that has no bad karma.

However, on reflection, there is an important nuance to consider. In the Dhamma, Right Intention/Motivation comprises of three parts: renunciation/letting go, kindness, gentleness. Wrong Intention/Motivation is in turn made up of three factors: grasping, ill-will, and ruthlessness. The crux is about the last term, ruthlessness, which implies thoughtlessness, carelessness, and not considering if there is a negative consequence to one’s actions. It is in the realm of ruthlessness that negligence resides. And it is this negligence that causes the banality of evil, allowing evil acts to happen.

Thus, if one accidentally kills an insect because of negligence & carelessness (e.g. can’t be bothered), that has a very different mental effect from someone who kills by accident despite best efforts to prevent killing. It’s the difference between a drunk driver and a sober driver who accidentally kill someone else. It’s the difference between thoughtlessness and thoughtfulness.

In my mind, then, the concept of Wrong Intention due to ruthlessness, thoughtlessness, carelessness is then the same as Arendt’s banality of evil : in both cases, there is moral negligence at play.

“So what?” you might ask.
So this makes it imperative for each of us to constantly ask ourselves “are we doing good or unintentionally causing harm?”, and to also exercise caution if people within our sphere unintentionally head towards the wrong direction.