Monday, May 02, 2005

Arendt and the banality of evil

German philosopher and journalist Hannah Arendt caught my attention today upon reading a post by the "savage saint" on leveling artless criticism and attempting a pseudointellectual argument. The argument goes like this:
"You feel (obviously) that the ‘price is worth it’ – ala Madeleine Albright. You feel that xxxxx (take your pick) Iraqis being slaughtered, in order to take out a grotesque dictator is a price that is worth it."

It's hard to know where to go with this. The poster throws in a couple of big words in order to add an air of authority to the post; we get "utilitarianism" to show how he is up on philosophy and then Arendt's banality of evil for a little classic name-dropping (always the refuge of the ignoramus) but his argument is this: "How could you be willing to sacrifice ten people for a thousand?"

If we assume that all people are equally deserving of life, and that our inaction will result in more death, and our action will result in less death, then that seems like a pretty clear moral choice. This is usually the point in the argument where, confronted with the actuality of ones' patently absurd stance, the poster changes course and says "well, there was a better way".

Hindsight being twenty/twenty, it's the sort of unfair debate tactic used to avoid a substantive debate about moral choices. Since we didn't have to make that choice, and in fact, NEVER have to make such choices, then the poster probably considers it the fallacy of the false choice.

By that same logic, the US should not have helped the allies in WWII defeat the Germans. The death of the innocent people in that war is not an argument for fighting fascism, though fascism would presumably have led to more extermination of millions.
I find such arguments troubling and nihilistic to say the least. The sum total of it, in fact, is to simply argue that a million victims of nazis or baathists aren't as important as the twenty thousand victims of America. I am not good at math, but in the cold calculus of human rights, I know which sacrifice I would make.

The poster mentions Arendt in passing, and I did a little searching to familiarize myself with her. Her position in his argument was as a prop, but upon examining her thesis on the banality of evil, I was troubled by it. Her thesis was along the lines of the "evil in all of us" paradigm. Sort of a modern philosophical version of original sin. She wrote the phrase at the end of her series of pieces called "Eichmann in Jerusalem". I could see the Ward Churchill element going here; it's clear CHurchill was alluding to Arendt's thesis in his now famous criticism of the "little Eichmann's" in the WTC who were now the victims of this understandable act.

She believed that Eichmann wasn't the result of ideology, but a boring bureaucrat just doing his job. That ordinary people can get caught up in evil and do, and that at it's core, evil is something ordinary, not spectatcular. I can't be sure that this is an original idea, or even noteworthy. It seems to be the kind of idea that gets tossed back and forth between parties, each accusing the other of being guilty of it. It has, however, caught the public eye for some time now.

The essence of it is that we are all part evil. We can all be nazis. It's the kind of intellectual grandstanding I'm not comfortable with. IN answer, I can only say, that I am not capable of such actions, and I don't believe most people are, without the comfort of an ideology and personality as a catalyst. Evil and calamity are absolutely spectacular, and YES, ordinary people can be part of it as easily as they can refuse to be. To deny this is to deny that there really is such a thing as evil.


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