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Evil

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Posted (edited)

Carl L. Becker contended that to modern man, words like "sin" and "God" left a bad taste in his mouth; how can such words, so antiquated, so malodorous, leave the lips of our contemporaries? Perhaps "evil" has, in the present day, found its place among those shunned words. In fact, it seems in many circles, the only "evil" comes from speaking of "evil" from taking it seriously, from not treating it as the outdated relic of a dead age.

I think whatever word we use, discussion about "evil" has ever so much to do with this notion of responsibility. It seems there is a tradition within the realm of thought pertaining to ethics/morality that moral responsibility is contingent on ability, the "can" as it relates to the "ought." This can be put in the following simple maxim: no responsibility without ability. To borrow and paraphrase Erasmus: how can you hold a man responsible for not lifting his right hand to save a peer, if his right hand is tied down? He simply does not have the ability to assist his brother.

Everywhere are the signs that this notion of 'responsibility' is in the process of dying, and at time when man, perhaps more than any time in the history and development of man, has taken the role of Prometheus upon himself: coupled together, the mix could not be more dangerous.

Spider-Man comes to mind: "And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come- great responsibility!"

Perhaps "responsibility" will one day leave that ole sour taste in the mouth of our children, and then, it would seem, there is only power and ultimately unadulterated destruction.

Hugo, I do not see how calling a person or action "evil" precludes the attempt to understand, in fact, it is only in light of this decision to call a particular reality "evil" that there stands anything uniquely in need of understanding at all <-- at least, it seems that way to me. Evil has much to do with coupling the undesirability and 'ought not-ness' of a state of affairs with, and very importantly, uniqueness. Even when evil is everywhere, it is unique; if we are to grant the necessary "sameness" that comes with moral nihilism, there is nothing unique in a given state of affairs to understand.

Why should we try to "understand" evil? The intellectual may be of the understanding that "understanding" evil is of primary importance, but the warrior, the saintly knight who finds himself on the front lines of battle, seeks eradication, not understanding, and perhaps this is for the best, perhaps we need more warriors and less intellectuals who may prove to 'understand' evil right out of existence. Then again, and this is the ever present, always and everywhere, danger: in our mad desire to seek evil's banishment from existence, its eradication, we often only cause the replication of that which we sought to destroy.

How can we fight monsters without becoming monsters?

Edited by DeadCanDance
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The trouble is, it's not clear to me what calling something evil achieves, other than to cut short our attempts to understand. Perhaps that's the point: eventually we have to stop trying to fathom why someone acted as they did and make a moral assessment of their actions. For me, though, the quotes from The Kindly Ones suggest that it's better to push the effort to understand as far as we can, beyond what's palatable and even to put ourselves in the positions of evildoers and ask if we would or could have behaved similarly. Although the results may not be comfortable, and may not even provide answers, it strikes me as so much more difficult to admit "I might have done that, but for circumstances" than to resort to moral frameworks and wrestle with evil in that way.

I think, in general, that it should be a matter of pride that there are certain states of mind, or certain actions, that you can't understand. But, at the same time, and just as you suggest, because you can't fully understand the basis for a particular behavior, no matter how horrible it might be, renders it injust to fully evaluate it.

It is interesting that one of your excerpts mentions humanity, because I think what you say about finding it impossible to understand the motivations or "inner sense" of someone who commits a horrible action questions our sense of humanity. What distinguishes animals from human beings, in one sense, is that we can understand human beings more fully, and have a far more intimate grasp of their inner state. When someone else acts inhumanely, we find it difficult to grasp their inner state, and therefore we become less humane with respect to that person. We find it impossible to treat that person humanely, and we break the tie that binds all human beings together. The solution, I guess, has been to divide the human race into civilized people and barbarians, but this division brings with it inhumanity for both sides.

What I'm finding more and more necessary is an extreme form of justice which unwittingly breaks every attempt to establish a moral order to the world. For instance, your speculation that "I find his actions unfathomable, but I need to judge him anyway." Genuine justice, however, forbids such a need. It is injust to judge him, but it is injust not to judge him, and it is injust to choose the lesser of all evils. It is injust not to have been there to prevent his actions. The moral order of the world, as I define it, is nothing but the end result of these various needs of morality whereby we conceive the world as more agreeable to morality, which makes morality easier for us, and reduces the number of these sorts of morally impossible situations. This includes, for example, that whole metaphysics of responsibility whereby only actions can be causes, and thereby only the people who act have responsibility. It shouldn't be easier to judge than to be judged, as the more I look at it, the more they look like the same thing!

And it has occurred to me, on numerous occasions, that ideologies, when they suggest they have a moral basis, usually rest instead on this moral order of the world.

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Evil has had a long history in modernity, but it has changed and two major events demonstrate this: Lisbon and Auschwitz. The earthquake at Lisbon destroyed the European confidence in their weltanschaaung, the Enlightenment, and classified evil as human suffering in the natural order of things. But Auschwitz pre-empted evil from the natural world and shrunk it to the behavior of people that transgressed reasonable and rational norms of society.

After Arendt, our concept of evil has matured, from the easy category of pathological or diabolical monsters, who gleefully committed atrocious crimes for the sake of pure evil, to the even more horrifying absence of personal animosity or cold efficiency, and a complete lack of imagination. Banality turned out to be an even more severe indictment of Eichmann than the traditional practice of demonization, because that would spare us the tougher assignment of analyzing what allowed such atrocities to be performed with utterly clear conscience.

The charge that Eichmann didn't realize what he was doing, that he couldn't think from the standpoint of another person was a clear example of banality, and has much to do with what Baudelaire blamed for his evil actions – a devil that he didn't believe in the first place. They both performed their actions without a true investment in a higher principle. Jean Paul Sartre chose Baudelaire as the prototypical bourgeois subject who shoved responsibility of his actions onto his environment. He blamed the system for his own deeds much like how Eichmann was described by Arendt as “sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is 'banal' and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 288)

Evil is never 'radical' … it is only extreme, and it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimesnion. It is thought defying' because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustated because there is nothing. That is its 'banality.' Arendt, letter to Gershom Scholem, 1964

Instead of giving into the romantic picture of radical evil, our human ability to judge is still possible. Arendt argues that, especially after the loss of faith in divinity that governs or oversees human existence, we should move towards a de-demonization of evil. Arendt says “What comes to light is neither nihilism nor cynicism, as one might have expected, but a quite extraordinary confusion over elementary questions of morality.” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 295)

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Posted (edited)

Everywhere are the signs that this notion of 'responsibility' is in the process of dying, and at time when man, perhaps more than any time in the history and development of man, has taken the role of Prometheus upon himself: coupled together, the mix could not be more dangerous.

What do you mean by "this notion of 'responsibility' is in the process of dying"? And "man (...) has taken the role of Prometheus upon himself"? Do you mean by the latter that its potential is too big?

I am sorry, I couldn't understand this very well. Could you explain it another way... pleeeaase?   :oops:

Edited by Sugoi

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Posted (edited)

I wrote this before reading DCD response but I am basically expressing similar sentiments. It comes down to this: How can we fight monsters without becoming monsters? Well, I can think of three ways just from reading this thread (1) see the monster in ourselves and from there try and understand the monster in the Other. In effect, we could deny that the monster is truly Other. (2) We could deny that there are monsters at all from the same premise ( it's not the only possibility) content with an implicit determinism by circumstance or biology. (3) Affirm absolutely that there are monsters, human monsters that nevertheless are not us. Character trumps all. The general thrust of the response below ( written hastily yesterday) is a combination of all three. Sorry, if it makes things a bit confusing. Anyway, onto it.

The trouble is, it's not clear to me what calling something evil achieves, other than to cut short our attempts to understand. Perhaps that's the point: eventually we have to stop trying to fathom why someone acted as they did and make a moral assessment of their actions.

I agree with the perspective described here though I share the one expressed in The Kindly Ones ( other book I need to pick up now, damn you). I think both sentiments are correct and while you may not see the point, what is uncomfortable for me, is to consider that evil can or has the potential to, exist as choice, as viable action. Granted, that no one can act without circumstance, what is to be decided is whether or not people can nevertheless make choices from the very belly of their own being, circumstances merely providing the stage for them to do what they want, evil or otherwise. What does calling something evil in this case achieve? It makes plain the nature of the action as choice, to which the response is not an attempt to understand or wonder what you'd do in that situation but to fight it, to disavow it with vigor. In other words, there is no escape, no "explanation" of evil as deriving from an interdependent state of affairs of which one, in some sense, can identify with and be sympathetic to but instead, a situation where "we have to stop trying to fathom why someone acted as they did and make a moral assessment of their actions." This is not less of a burden or easier to deal with - it would only be so if it is presupposed that Evil has to be understood, that there are deeper layers, always, than what is manifest. My suggestion is that, in some cases, there simply might not and thus the calling of something evil far from cutting short our attempts to understand is the best we can do.

Honestly, this is a far more uncomfortable for me. Firstly, because it presents us with the possibility of an evil that is utterly banal as Cam as brought up via Arendt. It is just done without thought or care. In a world where there are a multitude of explanations, an atomic obsession, if you will, of breaking things down into smaller parts, I'm suggesting we may have something that we cannot break down, cannot find solidarity with, even if this solidarity is uncomfortable and unwanted. Just naked evil staring you in the face. Secondly, because of the clear existence of righteous fanatics and fundamentalists, people that obviously need to consider things as outlined in the passages from Th Kindly Ones, instead of turning their own fundamental and simplistic views into justifications for the most horrendous behavior. It is more uncomfortable precisely because this conviction for GOOD (whatever we think that is) despite the horrendous excess of pain and suffering these convictions have and continue to cause, there is something recognizable in it.

For me, though, the quotes from The Kindly Ones suggest that it's better to push the effort to understand as far as we can, beyond what's palatable and even to put ourselves in the positions of evildoers and ask if we would or could have behaved similarly. Although the results may not be comfortable, and may not even provide answers, it strikes me as so much more difficult to admit "I might have done that, but for circumstances" than to resort to moral frameworks and wrestle with evil in that way.

Perhaps, I'm not reading it right but this is not more uncomfortable for me precisely because of the inherent solidarity that comes about as a result of this more complicated view. The passages you've outlined explain quite well the psychology of why this would be uncomfortable though. In so far as we're able to simply label actions "evil" we can assuage ourselves of having to think too much, of considering what we might do in similar circumstances of the "evildoers." It disturbs our own pretense that we're righteous and calls into question our very own thought habits, and actions. After all, the sort of world we're born in may afford us the luxury of not making decisions many so-called "evildoers" don't have to on a daily basis. Thus, our self-righteousness is undermined, as we can no longer blankly label people or actions "evil" without thereby considering the context in which they occur - i.e what would I have done? We can experience this horror in the simplest of questions: what is so different from me and a Nazi soldier? Many of us think we could never have participated, could have never been misled or convinced to commit such genocide but the evidence is all around us that we could: much of the psychology involved in what we do in our daily lives mirrors what happened on such a large scale, the capacity to detach, to explain away, and to do what one is old in spite of even your own convictions.

However, while all this is doubtless true, it is too much for me to focus on the circumstances. And for the simple reason that not every one responds the same way. Do we simply distinguish the circumstances to explain the actions of those that refused to engage in such "evil" acts? Certainly, Good is just as much a result of this dependence between context and character but is that all it is? Can a person legitimately ( or 'authentically') convince themselves of their own character such that faced with an infinity of circumstances, they would act in such a way that is good or evil all the time? Most of the time? Or must one simply admit they don't know? Is "Good" itself "but, for circumstance" and where are we to go when we come to these conclusions? Do I try to make sure that I'm never faced with certain circumstances, refuse to even engage them or do I steel my character now convinced that if things were different, I might be a completely different person? Do I become flexible or inflexible in the face of such a reality?

This is partly where the question of freedom and choice in relation to evil come to the fore for me because increasing knowledge and nuance is not enough. What do we do with this knowledge? Where do we go from here? Implicit in the question is the belief that we can do something, that we don't simply nod our heads in agreement and continue the same as ever ( less, of course, we reason that whatever will be done about it occurs out of sight, in the determinate structure of our genes, brains or whatever else). Instead of merely acquiescing in the face of this knowledge, it means something; it opens up new horizons. What I remain terribly conscious of, despite all "evidence" to the contrary is that the human being, in learning about himself is not learning about a rock or atom, a static entity, but something malleable, something that can take this self-knowledge and do something with it, even invert it. In other words, in so far as we learn about ourselves, we are learning about our habits, habits which indeed have been dictated by nature ( and later by culture) but which are nevertheless not absolute. What this means is that the more knowledge we develop of ourselves, conceivably, the more of ourselves we master.

Thus, we can boldly accept or think the possibility of man being truly free, to act in his own interests, in spite of circumstance ( his character though determinate can by him be determinable). And this is to push towards a world where labeling man's action as evil is not a way to avoid conversation and/or looking into ourselves. Rather, it is one in which this is an answer and the question becomes, again, what is to be done about it? How do we fight the monster with becoming a monster?

The horrible fact remains that the possible achievement of human freedom ( implicit as I argue above in learning more and more about ourselves) means that evil, as choice, will forever be a viable and open option. And there is nothing to be done but to realize you'll have to fight it. No final state of solidarity, no kinship, no clever demonstrations of its interdependence but the stark reality that a possible consequence of freedom is the infinite possibility of evil. All that will happen is that we have a more sophisticated machinery for delineating "evil" as such from those that are evil out circumstance or any other gradations on this theme. In the end, we move beyond good and evil not necessarily by abandoning the concepts but being able to recognize them, apodictically, in their various manifestations.

A bit grandiose but those are some of my thoughts.

Edited by mosaic
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I've been thinking about evil recently, particularly via the lenses of two books I read. The first is John Kekes' The Roots of Evil ... Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones ...

First off, I highly recommend both of these books. In this relatively brief posting, I will be concentrating on the Kekes book. There is a lot which is good about the Kekes book, but I will, for now, try to highlight a shortcoming in the Kekes work, a shortcoming which does not in fact detract from what is good but, instead (and maybe paradoxically), ends up forcing a greater consideration into the issue which is supposed to be at the core of the book.

[Kekes] allows that determining someone's motivations is fallible but insists that we shouldn't therefore shy away from making moral decisions about evil actions.

The trouble is, it's not clear to me what calling something evil achieves, other than to cut short our attempts to understand. Perhaps that's the point: eventually we have to stop trying to fathom why someone acted as they did and make a moral assessment of their actions. For me, though, the quotes from The Kindly Ones suggest that it's better to push the effort to understand as far as we can, beyond what's palatable and even to put ourselves in the positions of evildoers and ask if we would or could have behaved similarly. Although the results may not be comfortable, and may not even provide answers, it strikes me as so much more difficult to admit "I might have done that, but for circumstances" than to resort to moral frameworks and wrestle with evil in that way.

Kekes wisely and correctly commences his discussion about evil by considering how that term is used non-emphatically in ordinary language, as if evil were a "thing" with features which identify or are constituent of evil. A key feature of evil, according to Kekes, is that it indicates something excessive -- something that is excessively bad, and that is fine; however, what Kekes fails to do (as far as I recall - and it has been a few years since I read the book) is actually take heed of the quotation with which he starts the first chapter, a quotation which the reader can reasonably expect to indicate the ultimate focus of the book:

John Kekes, The Roots of Evil, p. 1 Evil facts ... are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life's significance and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.

-- William James,
Varieties of Religious Experience

James's interest is not in the identification of evil; his interest is in what evil can reveal about the rest of life. James's interest is not in being able to justify "calling something evil"; his interest pertains to a significance other than the evil itself.

The very title of the Kekes book, The Roots of Evil, suggests that Kekes will be more interested in something other than just evil itself. With its emphasis on the roots rather than on evil itself, the Kekes work can reasonably be expected go a long way towards moving beyond the rather pedestrian concern of whether some act or other is evil or not. And, indeed, Kekes delves extensively into factors which lead to situations which are rather clearly evil (as in despicable), and these delvings would be very informative -- if only Kekes had realized that these contributing factors virtually demand that the essence (so to speak) of evil lies not in an ultimate excess but, rather, in much that is utterly mundane, often even in the banality of convention.

At times, Kekes seems to come very close to breaking free from the common association of evil and excess. However, it is almost as if Kekes were imagining that such a breaking free would require dispensing with the association of evil and excess.

But, that simply is not the case!

Instead, what Kekes would have to consider is how evil might obtain even before there is excess. Just as it makes little sense to insist that something very bad is not evil since it is not (yet) excessive (never mind how ridiculous it is to speak as if there were actual metrics for qualities), it similarly makes little sense to insist that there is a necessary or stark distinction between evil and its roots, the factors which ultimately result in or produce evil!

Evil does not possess people; people produce evil. And it is not just monstrous people who produce evil, but, so long as evil is only regarded as an excess, evil is a condition most easily assignable to others, and people have next to no reason to think about how the commonplace factors of their own lives might either result in or contribute to evil. After all, we usually think that we have good reasons - justifications - for our inclinations, our thoughts, and our actions.

Were people to actually regard evil as something which should not be, which should be prevented from coming to be, then people would realize that there is ultimately no distinction of substance between the roots of evil and the excess of evil; it is the roots which must be addressed rather than the excess; it is only by addressing the roots that the excess can be precluded.

Kekes, however, insists (again, as best as I currently recall) on emphasizing the excess rather than the roots of evil, and that leaves evil as something always produced and effected by others. But, evil -- certainly the roots of evil -- is not found only in others.

Michael

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Monsters are not, and cannot be, evil. Sharks, crocodiles, grizzly bears, and Tyranasaurases are not moral beings, and evil, like “good”, is beyond their ken or capacity.

When humans perform evil acts, we call them “monsters” in order to disassociate them from “humanity”. However, to the extent that they ARE non-human (insane, or brain damaged, or some such) they cannot be evil. It scares us that they ARE human, and that they, like ourselves, are capable of horrifying acts. So we call them, “monsters” or “brutes”.

I know this is a minor aside in this discussion – but I thought I’d point it out, since so many people are using the term.

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I think the real issue the excerpts from The Kindly Ones are getting at is not just that the brutality was born of attempts (and failure) to banish "the other", but also that calling something evil or trying to set it into a separate category ultimately only does the same. DCD is right that we can, with the best of intentions, be in the position of someone who "seeks eradication, not understanding", but perhaps in trying to find justification for excluding evil from normal or acceptable conduct and setting it apart we come up against the same unbearable resistance that defeated the sadistic guards, the "silent persistence" of evil.

I'm thus not convinced that it's useful to think of evil in terms of its banality because it doesn't go far enough. If it's the case that evil "possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension" then I suspect this is because no actions do or ever can. Here, again, is the argument from Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics:

On important propositions...Suppose one of you were an omniscient person and therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive and that he also knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived, and suppose this man wrote all he knew in a big book, then this book would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment. It would of course contain all relative judgments of value and all true scientific propositions and in fact all true propositions that can be made. But all the facts described would, as it were, stand on the same level and in the same way all propositions stand on the same level. There are no propositions which, in any absolute sense, are sublime, important, or trivial.

[...]

If for instance in our world-book we read the description of a murder with all its details physical and psychological, the mere description of these facts will contain nothing which we could call an ethical proposition. The murder will be on exactly the same level as any other event, for instance the falling of a stone. Certainly the reading of description might cause us pain or rage or any other emotion, or we might read about the pain or rage caused by this murder in other people when they have heard of it, but there will simply be facts, facts, and facts but no Ethics.

What I want to suggest is that part of the discomfort associated with evil and the relief that we achieve by declaring certain actions evil is due to this banality of everything; or, which perhaps amounts to the same thing, that nothing is either banal or noteworthy. We call something evil because we want to assert that other things are good - that what we consider acceptable is significant, that it does mean something, and that the world is not mute in the face of our efforts to imbue it with value. What makes this worse, if anything, is the shared humanity that comes of realising that these categories we impose on the world have no impact on it: we are, as it were, beating the world as the guard beats the prisoner, trying to force it into recognising an order that affirms our significance and delegitimises behaviour or characteristics that harm it.

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Good post, Hugo. Banality or noteworthiness are not intrinsic to “facts” (just as evil or good are not) – they describe our reaction to the “facts”. From a religious perspective, good and evil are eternal (and “factual” – many believe we literally end up in heaven or hell) – it is the “facts” that are ephemeral. This emphasis on morality may have adaptive value for human society. As we move into a post-religious age, we recognize that good and evil are banal (in the sense that they are human and often ordinary, not “demonic”). Where will that lead us? Is the banality of evil destructive to society?

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One question though, we keep coming back to the idea that evil is banal. If that is the case, then do we still have any right to evaluate things as evil? When I step on an ant walking through the parking lot, is that evil? It is certainly banal. And when a country chews up and spits out a veteran to live on the streets to talk to himself the rest of his life, is that banal? It is certainly seems evil.

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The trouble is, it's not clear to me what calling something evil achieves, other than to cut short our attempts to understand. Perhaps that's the point: eventually we have to stop trying to fathom why someone acted as they did and make a moral assessment of their actions. For me, though, the quotes from The Kindly Ones suggest that it's better to push the effort to understand as far as we can, beyond what's palatable and even to put ourselves in the positions of evildoers and ask if we would or could have behaved similarly. Although the results may not be comfortable, and may not even provide answers, it strikes me as so much more difficult to admit "I might have done that, but for circumstances" than to resort to moral frameworks and wrestle with evil in that way.

Hugo

I just want to say, briefly, thanks for the post and raising the issue.

I have been observing evil, whenever I come across it, including when I observe it

in myself, mainly because I see it as an intriguing aspect of reality, which could be responsible for the interferes with what I consider the state of union with the divine, or a state of perfect happiness, nibbana if you want to all it that way

I had no idea what I was looking for at first, as evil is often a given part of the world, and it comes embedded and disguised and entwined with parts of human nature and this plane of existence we are on

Some 'evil' may also be necessary to some extent. (another discussion) So we put up with it.

I do not have the time to write a dissertation on evil, which would be a good idea btw, but let me just say that I have started to see patterns and connotations

and have slightly become obsessed with this topic in recent times.

I have started looking at evil as an 'entity'. which is aggressive, it exploits every opportunity to make ppl do wrong, its viral (it spreads quickly without people knowing they are acting on its behalf passing it on to others, and yes it does feed on weaknesses of human beings, especially ambition and pride.

I admit I never believed in the devil, I had always thought it was some concept invented to scare people off and keep them in fear.

Til I saw the devil in my face, staring right at me. Every lie, every action carried out to serve selfish motives, everything that enlarges our personal ego

is a tiny small little bit of evil which however, I learn, is feeding into a bigger evil which ultimately is 'the devil' , the sum of everything that is evil.

I can also say with some certainty that there lack of knowledge (ignorance) is the main fertile soil for evil to latch onto, and grow

I therefore have some issue with biblical representation that 'search for knowledge' is associated with desire to be like God therefore an evil desire.

I don't know the Bible well enough but i remember some 'rubbish' of the sort being taught to me at catechism as a child.

One of the reasons why 'advancing knowledge' is at the heart of my personal and professional interest, as well as participation in this forum

Lets attempt a taxonomy of evil sometime

Slightly agitated

PG

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I'm thus not convinced that it's useful to think of evil in terms of its banality because it doesn't go far enough. If it's the case that evil "possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension" then I suspect this is because no actions do or ever can. Here, again, is the argument from Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics ...

Just a quick comment between travels ...

The ultimate point about the banality of evil is just how commonplace are the roots of evil. This is a point with which Arendt might have disagreed, and I think I will be able to find a statement by her which could be used to indicate that she would have disagreed (if I am recalling the gist of her remark correctly). However, were Arendt to disagree (or, actually, stand by such a disagreement after discourse with yours truly - Heh), she would have been wrong, and her error might well have been related to such observations as the fact that instances of banality are far more common than are instances of fulminant or radical evil. But, all that shows is that banality is not itself a sufficient condition for a fuller development of evil, although it might be argued that instances of banality are common and widespread enough to be sufficient for the complicity which, in turn, is at least necessary for what have been, historically, the most fulminant evils.

A recommendation to think about "evil in terms of banality" is primarily (if not only) intended as a new modern perspective on evil. It is only by coming to grips with such an aspect that individuals move beyond regarding evil as something wholly or necessarily alien to themselves, as something found only in others, and as something in which one's self could never conceivably participate or to which one's self would never contribute. And, this "move beyond" by thinking in terms of the banal does not make the mistake of simply denying the reality of evil or of dismissing evil from reality; this move beyond takes place while preserving a rightful role for judgment.

Thinking of the banal as roots of evil is merely a preliminary step, and preliminary steps - by their very nature - do not "go far enough". Not going far enough is not, of course, a reason not to examine the claimed relationship between the banal and evil. And, it may well be that if an investigation does indeed "go far enough", what will become evident - and, for many, uncomfortably so - is that ordinary, simple propositions are just not up to the task of dealing with ethical matters.

Michael

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The Arendt statement which I had in mind in my previous posting to this thread is to be found in the book, Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, edited by Melvin A. Hill. The statement comes from an exchange Arendt had with Christian Bay, a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto. This exchange took place in November 1972 at a conference on “The Work of Hannah Arendt” held in Toronto and in which Arendt took part.

Bay said (p. 307), “I think perhaps [Arendt's] most serious work is her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem; her pointing out with such force how Eichmann is in each of us.”

Bay's remark is quite clearly using “Eichmann” in a figurative sense, and Bay's comment hardly seems objectionable when taken by itself and given Arendt's association of Eichmann with the commonplace.

This makes all the more stunning the vehemence evident in Arendt's reaction to Bay (p. 308): “[Y]ou like my book Eichmann in Jerusalem and you say that there is an Eichmann in each one of us. Oh no! There is none in you and none in me! ... I always hated this notion of 'Eichmann in each one of us.' This is simply not true.”

The above is what I had recalled as “a statement by [Arendt] which could be used to indicate that she would have disagreed” about “just how commonplace are the roots of evil.” The fact of the matter is, however, that, in her response to Bay, Arendt is not actually addressing the notion that the roots of evil are very often lodged in the banal; this is not surprising inasmuch as Arendt, so far as I an aware, never directly dealt with the roots of evil notion as it is beginning to be discussed here. Instead, Arendt is using Bay's Eichmann comment as a way of setting up an attack on the rest of Bay's remarks and – maybe especially – with regards to his general attitude.

The following excerpts from Bay's comments should be sufficient to capture the full tone and context to which Arendt would be responding with her above Eichmann disagreement:

Christian Bay, p. 307 I have a very different concept of the calling of a political theorist from that of Hannah Arendt. I should say that I read Hannah Arendt with pleasure, but out of esthetic pleasure ... I think it is beautiful ... her sense of unity in history ... to be reminded of all the great things the Greeks have said that are still somehow pertinent today. I think, however ... there is a certain lack of seriousness about modern problems in much of her work ...

I get very impatient with abstract discussions at length on how power differs from violence. I would like to know not only what is justice ... but how can the political theorist make us become more committed and more effective in fighting or justice – and for that matter, for human survival, which is the number-one problem. I was disturbed when Hannah Arendt said that her desire is never to indoctrinate. I think that this is the highest calling of the political theorist: to attempt to indoctrinate, in a pluralist universe, of course.

Before I delve further into Arendt's remark about the Eichmann-in-each-of-us notion, I want to note that in contradistinction to Bay's thinking that indoctrination is conceivable as an esteemed calling, Arendt says: “I try, not to indoctrinate, but to rouse or to awaken [p. 309] ... I do want to share. And I do not want to indoctrinate” [p. 336].

Arendt does not present Eichmann as a person who indoctrinates, or as a person who proposes indoctrination as a good and proper action, or even as a person in the least bit concerned with indoctrination. Accordingly, there would hardly be a basis for using Arendt's Eichmann observations to assert that Bay's regard for indoctrination indicates any Eichmann in Bay or comparatively more Eichmann in Christian Bay than is to be found in Arendt. But, that still leaves open the possibility that this fondness for indoctrination might amount to a root of evil in Bay which is not in Arendt.

It is in response to the tone and context of Bay's remarks that Arendt says she hates this Eichmann-in-each-one-of-us notion and says it “is simply not true” while “the opposite, that Eichmann is in nobody” is as “untrue”. Arendt denies that Eichmann is in Bay or herself, while saying this “doesn't mean that there are not quite a number of Eichmanns.”

Arendt is using this response to the Eichmann-in-each-of-us notion to set the stage -- at the very least -- for eviscerating Bay's thoughtless criticism of “abstract discussions”. Arendt says this Eichmann-in-everyone notion “is much more abstract than the most abstract things I indulge in so frequently”.

What Arendt is not doing is bothering in any way with what has in this thread been talked of as the roots of evil. Were Eichmann applicable as a term suitable for indicating these roots, then and only then would it be at all possibly sensible to invoke an Eichmann-in-each-of-us notion, but, then, it would also be just as sensible to assert that Christian Bay is much further along on the way to evil simply as a result of the esteem in which he holds the notion and purpose of indoctrination.

One reason why Bay's beloved Eichmann-in-each-of-us notion is “more abstract” than the distinctions with which Arendt is so often concerned is that the Bay notion is abstracted to the point of having lost all distinctions; the Eichmann-in-each-of-us notion, thereby, has become useless inasmuch as it is left with no constructive applicability.

It might be the case that we are all potential Eichmanns, but Eichmann himself - that is to say the Eichmann who, by his own admission, did what he was accused of having done - was not a potentiality.

Therefore, it is just as Arendt claims: Christian Bay's abstract Eichmann-in-each-one-of-us notion “is simply untrue”. When Arendt tells Bay that his Eichmann-in-everyone notion “is much more abstract than the most abstract things I indulge in so frequently”, she goes on to add,

-- if we mean by abstract: really not thinking through experience.

What is the subject of our thought? Experience! Nothing else! And if we lose the ground of experience then we get into all kinds of theories.

Arendt is, of course, denying that those thoughts in which she indulges “so frequently” are actually especially abstract even though they are abstracted from experience and even though the matters about which she thinks demand more effort than Bay's impatience can tolerate.

In what way is Bay's Eichmann-in-everyone notion grounded in experience? It is only grounded in Arendt's own Eichmann experience which was described in her report, Eichmann in Jerusalem, and in which the banality of evil remark first appeared. So well known has the banality remark become that many are often surprised to learn that it appears only at the end of that work. As Kekes notes in his book, The Roots of Evil, “Arendt concludes her account of the [Eichmann] trial” with the banality of evil remark.

This means that the banality of evil is not the issue under investigation in Arendt's Eichmann piece. Arendt never claims that evil is (necessarily) banal, nor does she claim that the banal is (necessarily) evil.

Eichmann, on the other hand, was certainly evil - which is to claim nothing more than the fact that he became evil or that he by his own acts made evil manifest. But, to all appearances he was quite ordinary (maybe even painfully so). Eichmann was no monster; he was a human. But, he did act monstrously, and it is almost as if Arendt was surprised by the very ordinariness of Eichmann; it is almost as if Arendt had expected to be struck by something glaringly exceptional in such a man as Eichmann.

Instead, what she was stunned by was banality.

The banality in no way detracted from – nor did it deny the reality of - the evil. Evil had been experienced and not just interpreted, but that evil did not emanate from some place beyond the world; that evil was given animation by, at best, a most ordinary man. The same can be said with regards to Stangl on whom Kekes concentrates in his book, The Roots of Evil.

This, then, means that the focus logically shifts to the matter of how ordinariness relates to or can effect evil. To what extent does evil depend on ordinariness? Is ordinariness in some way itself a root of evil? If ordinariness can somehow nourish or give rise to evil, can it also nourish or give rise to good? Good and evil would both seem to be distinguishable from ordinariness, but is good more likely than evil to arise out of ordinariness? Or, is evil more likely to arise?

It is wholly inadequate to think that there is wisdom in something like the Bay Eichmann-in-everyone abstraction when there is no impetus for trying to determine what it is that would convert our (possibly) being potential Eichmanns into our being actual Eichmanns. To assert that the difference between being potential and actual Eichmanns is nothing other than the difference in circumstance is effectively to deny – at the very least - the reality both of individuality and responsibility.

Well, not quite. It is actually much worse than that.

If the difference between being potential Eichmanns and actual Eichmanns is nothing other that the difference in circumstance, it is the circumstances which are claimed to be individual but the persons are denied effective individuality of personhood.

Arendt's veritably tossed off banality of evil remark became an unintended soundbite. She never meant it as a philosophical principle or even as a proposition (no matter how others may have taken it). What Arendt realized (although she never put it in such terms) is that anyone desiring to preclude evil would have to seek the roots of evil in the commonplace, the banal – starting with that experience known as one's own self.

Arendt did not concentrate on characterizing the banality of evil in her 1963 Eichmann piece; she actually did that much earlier, in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. It is just that even in that much earlier book this characterization was not the intended (nor even the accidental) core issue. However, after the banality of evil remark was made, it is more clearly the case that the relationship between evil and the ordinary was very much an important part of Arendt's thinking about totalitarianism -- even if she was not (overtly) thinking about evil when she was investigating totalitarianism.

In fact, what might be most remarkable about Arendt's Totalitarianism is how very thoroughly Arendt anticipates every move a person might make to keep evil as a matter always alien to one's self and pertaining only to how others are to be judged. And, this is to indicate that "evil" is not properly a judgment; it is not only a retrospective. The focus in considerations about evil is, rather, most appropriately employed if and where there is any interest in precluding evil.

Kekes's section on Stangl provides a relatively more accessible vision than does Arendt's Totalitarianism into how the banal and evil can relate. Accordingly, I will take up Kekes's Stangl in my next posting in order to possibly lay some groundwork for the fuller picture presented in Arendt's Totalitarianism, a picture which is fuller if it is the preclusion of evil which is the interest and the goal.

Michael

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Evil had been experienced and not just interpreted, but that evil did not emanate from some place beyond the world; that evil was given animation by, at best, a most ordinary man. The same can be said with regards to Stangl on whom Kekes concentrates in his book, The Roots of Evil.

This, then, means that the focus logically shifts to the matter of how ordinariness relates to or can effect evil. To what extent does evil depend on ordinariness? Is ordinariness in some way itself a root of evil? If ordinariness can somehow nourish or give rise to evil, can it also nourish or give rise to good? Good and evil would both seem to be distinguishable from ordinariness, but is good more likely than evil to arise out of ordinariness? Or, is evil more likely to arise?

Here is part of the description/personal history which Kekes gives of Stangl.

Franz Stangl, The Man, in The Roots of Evil by John Kekes Franz Stangl was born in a small town in Austria in 1908. His father was ... a night watchman ... [with] past service as a soldier in an elite regiment ... who imposed what he regarded as military discipline on his family. ... He died when Stangl was eight years old ... Stangl's mother then married a widower who had two children. He was a kind man, a good stepfather, and Stangl became inseparable from one of his stepbrothers who was his age. [stangl] went to school, and he learned to play the zither so well that he later earned quite a bit of money by giving lessons. He left school at fifteen and apprenticed for three years in a textile mill. He then passed the required exams and at eighteen became the youngest master weaver in Austria. ... He earned good money ... After five years at this work, he realized that he had achieved all he could in the textile mill. He then applied to join the police. He sat for a difficult exam, passed, and in 1931, at the age of twenty-three, was told to report to the police for basic training. After two years he became a rookie. He did very well and was sent for further training to the police academy. In 1935 he was transferred to the political division of the police, where he worked as an investigator, wearing civilian clothes, charged with detecting antigovernment activities. To have achieved all this by the age of twenty-seven was spectacular success.

His personal life was going well. In 1935 he married the woman to whom he had been long engaged. They had a close marriage, and their devotion to each other did not falter through the many years and tumultuous events ... He loved his wife, cared deeply for her opinion, and she reciprocated. They eventually had two children, whom he loved and who loved him. Theirs was an exemplary family, the psychological mainstay of his life, and he was always loyal and protective of them ... His wife was a devout Catholic, but he himself, although nominally Catholic, had no deep religious commitment and went to church only rarely. ... he also had close friendships ...

In 1938 came the Anschluss, the incorporation of Austria into Germany. Even before it, Stangl had sympathized with the Nazi Party in Austria and with what the Nazis were doing in Germany. After the Anschluss, members of the Austrian police had to demonstrate their loyalty to the Nazi cause in numerous ways. Those who failed lost their jobs, many were maltreated, and some were sent to concentration camps. Stangl knew this, of course, and he was among those who had satisfied the Nazis by, among other things, renouncing his Catholic allegiance. In 1939 the political branch of what used to be the Austrian police and to which Stangl belonged was incorporated into the Gestapo. Stangl was given the rank of Kriminalassistent, which was less than what he thought he deserved, and after vigorous protest he was raised to the rank of Kriminalbeamter. In 1940 he was told to report for duty as the police superintendent of a special institute, where the highly secret euthanasia program was run by the Nazis. It involved, at first, the murder of people deemed to be incurably insane or having low intelligence; later political prisoners were added.

When Stangl understood what the program was about, he was at first reluctant to accept the position. It was then explained to him that the actual murders were done by the medical staff, the victims were in a vegetative state, the selection process required the certification of several physicians, programs like this were legal in America and Russia, they were kept secret in Austria and Germany only to spare the sensitivity of the general population, and his role would merely be to uphold law and order. It was also explained to him that with the position came promotion, the alternative to accepting it involved a much worse position and no promotion, and he was reminded of the fate of those whose loyalty was in question. Stangl then accepted the position and reported to duty. He soon found out that what he was told about the program and the safeguards were all lies, but he stayed on. He did not tell his wife what his new job involved. And he claimed not to know that the people murdered included political prisoners who were transferred from concentration camps. The murders were done by gas.

The foregoing is only the early part of Stangl's history; he would later become - and is best known as being - Kommandant at Treblinka. The latter part of his personal history can be taken up in a later posting. But, is there anything in what has been covered to this point which indicates that Stangl was anything but an ordinary - even if somewhat accomplished - man? Are there revealed any particularly notable and/or exceptional character flaws evident in the way this man is described?

Michael

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Some other matters to consider along with the few mentioned in the previous posting include whether there is anything in the presented passage which is to be described as "evil"; whether Stangl instigated or contributed to any of that which might be referred to as evil; whether that evil would have occurred even if Stangl had taken no part in it; whether and how and when Stangl could have avoided participation in that "evil", and whether and when Stangl's avoidance of participation might have resulted in some other undesirable (if not evil) outcome.

Michael

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