What is it about?
Why did so many seemingly normal people become complicit with National-Socialism? In other words, why do people become complicit with political evil? Hannah Arendt devoted much of her later work to answer these questions. Her reports of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the person in charge of the Final Solution, led her to coin the polemical notion of "the banality of evil." The worst kind of evil, Arendt believes, does not stem from fanaticism, hatred, or sadism, but rather from superficiality and thoughtlessness. This does not mean, however, that evil-doers like Eichmann do not choose their own actions. German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose views on evil influenced Arendt, shows that superficiality and thoughtlessness are often the result of a choice, namely, the choice to destroy one's responsibility. From this perspective, the reason why so many seemingly normal people are willing to be complicit with crimes such as mass-murder is that they have shunned their sense of responsibility, and are therefore indifferent to the meaning of their actions.
Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash
Why is it important?
The problem of evil has been the source of many debates in recent years, partly as a consequence of Hannah Arendt's writings on the topic in connection to Adolf Eichmann, and partly as a consequence of the uses of "evil" in public discourse after 9/11. Reading Arendt's notion of "the banality of evil" in dialogue with Kant's famous notion of "radical evil" clarifies some of the problems involved in understanding why people become complicit with evil in politics, illuminating aspects of evil that we would miss if read one or the other notion alone.
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This page is a summary of: Between banality and radicality: Arendt and Kant on evil and responsibility, European Journal of Political Theory, April 2016, SAGE Publications, DOI: 10.1177/1474885116640725.
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