At the heart of Eichmann's banality was not thoughtlessness but evasiveness, and the 'interplay between knowing and willing'
Last week we considered the case of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, whose trial was analysed by Hannah Arendt in her Report on the Banality of Evil. My article offered more questions than answers. Was Arendt right to argue that the root of Eichmann's actions was "thoughtlessness", rather than a more recognisable kind of evil? What kind of thoughtlessness can be attributed to a man who read Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, and concluded that he was unable to follow the principles of Kantian morality? Having made a series of decisions (joining the Nazi party and the SS, for instance) that led him to be appointed transportation administrator, how free was Eichmann to refuse to organise the deportation of Jews to the death camps? Does the political situation in Nazi Germany do anything at all to mitigate his guilt?
Arendt is surely correct to point to the ordinariness, or "banality", of Eichmann's crimes. Of course, the very fact that an apparently normal person could become one of the most notorious criminals of the Nazi regime indicates a profound distortion of morality. (A psychologist like Philip Zimbardo would no doubt argue that social, institutional factors contribute to this distortion by obscuring the humanity of both victims and perpetrators.) But Arendt's claim that Eichmann was distinguished by "sheer thoughtlessness" needs to be clarified.
If he did not think, this was because he chose not to – and this means that thoughtlessness is not the most fundamental factor here. Rather, at the heart of Eichmann's immorality is his evasiveness. This is evident in his attempt to escape capture after the war (he was on the run for about 15 years before he was brought to justice), in his denial of responsibility during his trial, and in his unsuccessful appeal against the death sentence. But perhaps even Eichmann's reflection during his time as transport administrator – his reading of Kant, his conclusion that "I cannot for the present live entirely according to [the Kantian requirement], although I would like to do so" – was a subtle evasion. In this case, an appearance of thoughtfulness masks, and colludes with, the avoidance of certain thoughts.
Eichmann's evasiveness seems to be characterised by what Kierkegaard called "a dialectical interplay between knowing and willing". Kierkegaard argued that, on the question of evil, the key difference between ancient Greek philosophy and Christianity was that the Greeks (Plato in particular) equated immorality with ignorance, whereas Christians insist that this is a matter of the will. We have already seen this principle at work in Augustine, who defines sin as the will's turning away from God. Kierkegaard, who was especially attuned to the subtleties of human self-deception, points out that what looks like passive ignorance is always in fact an active ignoring. One of the ways in which the immoral will pursues its own interests is by selectively seeking out or avoiding knowledge. In other words, we choose what to think about, and when and how to think about it.
According to this Christian moral framework, Eichmann has to be found guilty. The replacement of pre-Christian ideas of fate and genuine ignorance – the basic ingredients of classical tragedy – with an uncompromising insistence on human freedom has, of course, made its way into philosophies that are not explicitly religious. Kant, for example, offers an analysis of "radical evil", which is the will's decision to give self-interested inclinations priority over moral imperatives. (These inclinations cannot themselves be the source of evil, since they belong to the causal order of nature and are therefore unfree.) Kant argues that a "propensity to evil" is universal, "subjectively necessary", "woven into human nature" – and yet, he insists, it remains our own responsibility since it lies in our freedom. Indeed, it belongs to the very structure of this freedom.
It is certainly difficult for Kantians to square this circle. And this difficulty points to the close relationship between Kant's moral philosophy and Christian theology. Kant thought that both ethics and religion had to be based on reason alone, and so he denied that God (or belief in God) could be the source of moral values. But in his book Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone he gives a philosophical expression – and arguably a philosophical defence – of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. Both Christian sin and Kantian "radical evil" are supposed to be universal and unavoidable features of human nature, and yet still the result of human freedom.
Even an atheistic philosopher like Jean-Paul Sartre is committed to this Christian principle of freedom. Sartre's distinctive gloss on the principle is his concept of bad faith. Like Kierkegaard's "interplay between knowing and willing", this idea highlights the freedom underlying Eichmann's evasive thoughtlessness. According to Sartre, our tendency to evasiveness is directed at freedom itself: bad faith is a refusal of freedom that is, nevertheless, a free act. Eichmann argued at his trial that "as a minor recipient of orders I had to obey, I could not evade that". But for Sartre this kind of excuse amounts to an evasion – whether cynical or self-deceptive – which, since it is itself a sign of freedom, is always an untruth.