The Nature of Evil

A good friend of mine, Paul Schlehr, made an interesting comment on a recent blog I wrote about the “banality” of evil. That word is Hannah Arendt’s and it is used by her to describe the evil she witnessed in covering the trial of Adolph Eichmann. Paul suggested that her analysis does not cover every possible case of evil and he has suggested in the past an interesting model — a human “bell curve” from good to evil with most of us in the middle somewhere and folks at either end either thoroughly evil or inherently good, even saintly.

Now, to begin with, we live in an age that denies the legitimacy of such words as “evil,” insisting the “good” and “evil” are merely words we attach to personal perspectives of our own private worlds. “It’s all relative,” we hear on every street corner. I suggest that this view is simplistic and am convinced on philosophical and psychological grounds that there is evil and that humans are quite capable of performing evil deeds as well as extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion. I find my friend’s model, the bell curve, quite appealing. Most of us do seem to be somewhere in the middle and there are those — like the man mentioned by Paul in his comment who beat up a homeless person on the street because the latter witnessed him stealing from a second homeless man — or like the men who tied up a young Frenchman and beat him with a crowbar and made him watch as they gang-raped his girl friend on a public transport in Rio de Janeiro recently, as reported by Yahoo News.

These strike me as examples of unmitigated evil, a sign that these people are without conscience and quite capable of inflicting pain on others and quite possibly enjoying it. This clearly goes beyond the notion of “banality” that Arendt speaks about. This is not mere thoughtlessness, as Paul correctly points out. Sigmund Freud seems to have been closer to the truth. You may recall that he was convinced we all repress sadistic impulses — which come out when we laugh at the clown who gets hit with a pie in the face, for example — or when the chair is removed from under the man about to sit down at the table. In fact, laughter is one of the main ways we release these sadistic impulses according to Freud. The impulses themselves are not socially acceptable and we are brought up to suppress them as much as possible. We do so, according to Freud, by means of the formation of our conscience  (the “Super Ego”) which keeps those impulses at bay long after we learn to repress them as children. Humor is socially acceptable, as is the vicarious delight we take in viewing an accident, or violent games on TV. Whether we like to admit it or not, these sadistic impulses are there and some people don’t bother to suppress them but rather take delight in expressing them in violent acts toward others — like those actions mentioned above.

I do think we have to allow that Arendt’s analysis of the evil committed by people like Adolf Eichmann can be called “banal,” in the sense that he simply never stopped to think about what he was doing. He was a mindless bureaucrat who fretted about keeping the trains on time. A great many people in Germany at the time mindlessly fell in line with the Nazi propaganda and, given centuries of hatred toward the Jews, they were perfectly willing to look the other way during the “final solution.” Most of these people were not directly involved in the gassing of the Jews — even Eichmann himself never witnessed such an event, we are told. Those that were directly involved in the torture and death of those untold millions of people clearly must be regarded as in a different class altogether from those who oversaw the operation and scheduled the trains. These folks resemble more closely those who today direct drone flights into crowds of people, never witnessing the events and finding solace in the notion that they are not killing human beings, they are killing the “enemy.” The real enemy, however, may indeed be within — as Paul suggests.


9 thoughts on “The Nature of Evil

  1. Beautiful yet tragic post. you are so right about all of the above, and comparing the ‘pilots’ of the drones to the ones who coordinated the trains. Wrong is wrong, though some are also following orders which is what makes war so tragic. How does someone who has yet to find a strong backbone stand up to a superior in times of war?

  2. Good follow-up. You made me think of a cite from a post I wrote on “How Do You Know Who the Good Guys Are?” in response to the famous NRA comment about the only cure for a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with gun. I think I used a statistic around lying that supports the bell-curve supposition. You have people on each end that will tend to tell the truth and tend to lie, then you have everyone else in-between who are constantly in conflict on whether a lie will suffice vs. the truth. So, getting back to Paul’s point, I think most of us are gray and the mindless bureaucrat who sees making waves as a risk, they can justify doing their small part as a cog in an evil system. We need the truthseekers to speak out and make people see the error of their ways. Well done. BTG

  3. You stir a lot of thoughts, Hugh, and do it well! As always.

    Could Eichmann and his machinery also have been banal because, rather than not thinking about what they were doing, they thought about it in a way that made them see the Jewish and other victims as not human, but as product? It’s obvious they did see them that way, but could there have been a moment when they or something external changed the way they thought about their victims? And with that change, were therefore able to mechanize the killings in a way that resembled the assembly line? Cookie-cutter style, so precisely managed? In that vein, they would have had to have done some thinking ahead of time — self-brain-washing or some sort of asinine or insane justifications (in Hitler’s case) — that enabled them to change their perception of the humans being killed.

    I think of the Rio rapists you describe as sort of “Clockwork Orange” thugs who act so fiercely out of rage that they do not think about what they were doing. Eichmann and others like him were so calm it is as if they thought themselves into a sort of trance or mindset of denial. And as the war neared its end, it is as if they came out of the trance: the way so many of the Nazis fled, including Eichmann himself who fled and hid for 15 years, or went undercover in Europe (pretending to be displaced people, etc.) suggests they knew they had done something heinous. If they never thought about it, or never saw it as wrong, why flee? Or, maybe it was easy not to think about it as long as the Nazis held power and were overrunning the weaker nations in the early stages of the war, which fed a lot of delusions.

    But back to the word banal itself. I haven’t read as much Arendt as I have more historians and some memoirs and good chunks of the transcript of Eichmann’s trial. Could it be “banal” in the sense of it becoming routine, rote and not regarded as any different than any of the other sorts of repression and violence prominent in the Nazi regime? And not banal in the sense that they didn’t think about it? I’m not disagreeing, just wondering, because this is something I’ve read and thought over a lot and it is hard to find any damn scale to measure it against. Not just the Nazis, but in other places where genocide has occurred. Thanks Hugh!

  4. I am not completely convinced of what I am about to write, but it is the current direction of my thinking. I think the “moral bell curve” is really about our ability to “hear” and “respond” to the call of conscience in our lives. I know the word “conscience” was fallen into much disfavor, but I do think it has some value and meaning. Examples of what I mean: the man who beat up my friend did so because he either has very little ability to hear the call of conscience telling him not to do something or he has found ways to mitigate against the call. The other extreme can best be summed up by your son and the story of “The Illegitimate Treat” you first shared with me so many years ago. Your son represents someone with a hypersensitivity to the call of his conscience. I am suggesting what we call “evil” in some situations might be nothing more than the ability to ignore our conscience, which may have some connection to thought, or lack thereof. The sociopath might be someone who simply cannot, in any circumstance, hear, understand or respond to their conscience. The actions of Eichmann might have been the result of banality on his part, true. Those actions might also be explained by his inability to hear or respond to his conscience and might have no connection to thinking or banality at all.
    Good blog topic, Hugh. I am enjoying the lack of banality being enjoyed here. LOL

    • I don’t see the distinction at the end of your comment: if something has become routine we tend not to think about it. Arendt focuses on the lack of inner dialogue among those who participated in the “final solution” — chiefly Eichmann. But he was committed to routines and his entire focus was making sure the prisoners got where they were scheduled to be on time! Now, that’s “banal.”!!

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