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Analysis of Hannah Arendt’s Views on The Cause of Evil

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Is evil the product of a misguided choice or the outcome of lacking moral concept? Hannah Arendt, an author of many texts including Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, was born in Hanover, Germany. She escaped Nazi Germany in 1933 to France and eventually moved to the United States in 1941. Her literature on the evil actions of the Nazis and their root causes does not stand to defend their actions; rather, it stands to provoke thought on the way that evil actions are carried out. Arendt attempts to use an unbiased perspective to prove her beliefs that the cause of evil is banal and ordinary, which is supported by the thoughtless, cruel actions of Adolf Eichmann.

Actions and orders can have evil implications, but the thought process behind each action or order is an ordinary one, as if it required no thought. Evil is a concept that will always be present as long as people have free will. Arendt developed a theory to describe the nature of thoughtlessness based on the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann and his evil actions. Arendt believes that any person can commit evil actions without paying much attention to potential consequences; this shows that these people do not process moral implications, and that people can justify their involvement in the acts as simply following orders. Thoughtlessness is not necessarily a specific mindset; rather, it is used to describe the way an individual makes a choice. For example, Eichmann was tasked with relocating specific groups to concentration camps and ordering their slaughter. Arendt argues that he did not want people to be slaughtered, but he carried his orders only so that he could advance his own personal career.

Hannah Arendt argues that all people can have a tendency to disregard moral implications when responding to strong authority. The banality of evil is derived from the disconnect between the people who hold power from the population that is afflicted. Individuals who hold power, such as Eichmann, pass orders down the chain of command in which they never personally see the repercussions, though they indirectly imposed this evil. Arendt cites the Milgram Shock Experiment which took place in 1961, one year after the trial of war criminal Adolf Eichman. The purpose of the experiment was to study how long the average American would persist in obeying an authority figure during a procedure where they believed they were administering potentially fatal electric shocks. The Milgram Experiment concluded that “Ordinary people are likely to follow orders given by an authority figure, even to the extent of killing an innocent human being. Obedience to authority is ingrained in us all from the way we are brought up” (McLeod). Any person taking orders from a prefect cannot be considered an accomplice to the crime they were ordered to commit. It stands to show that many people, when put in any given situation, may be likely to disregard moral guidelines and continue to follow orders; this exaggerates the thoughtless nature of evil, one of the main components of Arendt’s thesis.

Arendt believes that Eichmann did not necessarily display thoughtlessness throughout the entirety of his life. She argues that he was not necessarily a fanatical antisemite, but rather pursued career opportunity when he chose to rise to the high echelon of an extremist regime. In his trial he argued that he was not enjoying slaughter and homicide; he was simply concerned with doing his job in the most efficient way possible. He did not attempt to target Jews after the dissolvement of the Nazi party. After his involvement in the Schutzstaffel, he fled Europe to live a simple life working in a factory, until he was later captured and executed after his trial. While Eichmann was a part of the Nazis, he proposed a plan to send Jews to Madagascar rather than kill them. This account was detailed in the text “When, a year later, the Madagascar project was declared to have become ‘obsolete,’ everybody was psychologically, or rather, logically, prepared for the next step: since there existed no territory to which one could ‘evacuate,’ the only ‘solution’ was extermination” (Arendt). He did not attempt to contest his dignitaries after this plan to expel Jews. The evidence presented by Arendt about his Madagascar plan contradicts material in the course that states how Eichmann was a fanatical antisemite. Eichmann only exhibited thoughtless behavior when working with the Nazis.

Evil is a byproduct of thoughtlessness when commiting actions without fully considering the consequences as well as selfish motives such as acquiring money and power. Thinking is a fundamental part of life for every person, yet it is a difficult concept to define. Arendt believes that Eichmann did not have sadistic motives when working in the Schutzstaffel “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together” (Arendt). The most immoral action of the atrocities committed by the Nazis was exploitation of the nature of human tendencies to conform to authority. The high officers of the Nazi party were aware that giving out orders was the most unethical part of their agenda; people such as soldiers and low ranking officers would be very unlikely to contest the orders of their superiors.

Thoughtlessness is more closely related to unconsciousness than it is to ignorance. Ignorance implies that a person makes a choice and disregards an instinctive thought to take action. The unconscious part of the brain composes the nature of human behavior and is comparable to thoughtlessness. Arendt describes thoughtlessness as a normalcy of conformity which is exhibited by all people, as revealed by the conclusions of the Milgram Shock Experiment. The conscious mind is the part of the brain that creates thoughts, and the unconscious part of the brain is what denotes the moral limit at which people will continue to follow orders. Arendt believes that thinking is a barrier to prevent mankind’s tendency to commit evil actions; despite this, there is no specific antidote to evil because it is ingrained in human nature.

Thoughtlessness is called banal by Arendt because she is trying to prove that the nature of all behavior is ordinary or banal. Reactions, reflexes, and habits generally dictate a majority of a person’s daily actions when at work, school, or in times of leisure. It can be comedic to understand the routine ways in which humans behave. As exposed with the upper echelon officials in the Nazi party, people naturally avoid hard interatctions or decisions when faced with moral complications. Nazis are one of many organized groups in the world that uses a chain of command, enabling the powerful to avoid confrontation with the oppressed. It is comedic that the people creating the evil of the world behave and make decisions in a similar fashion to ourselves.

Thoughtlessness is a product of overwhelming control of a group or society. Any individual can be thoughtless when performing a mundane task, however people in America tend to consider moral implications of their actions because of societal norms. Our culture has dictated what is considered to be right and wrong in any given situation, which makes committing an evil action a deliberate choice. Many people in contemporary developed nations are considerate and conscious of actions; yet, many others are able to ignore the implications of their actions for personal gain or in order to avoid unwanted consequences.

The nature of evil is often banal, boring, and ordinary. Hannah Arendt analyzes the professional career of a man that was tried for war crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and affiliation with the Nazi party. Although he was found guilty, evidence from the Milgram Shock Experiment shows that not all Nazis would necessarily be considered his accomplices. Regardless of this evidence, Arendt argues that all evil stems simply from insufficient time spent thinking. Hannah Arendt is a Jew who escaped Nazi Germany and should understand better than most the extent of inhumane and evil actions caused by Nazis. Despite this, she uses her pedestal, as an author, to analyze the nature of evil itself. 

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