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The Banality of Evil- Hannah Arendt

Paper Type: Free Assignment Study Level: University / Undergraduate
Wordcount: 2571 words Published: 12th Jun 2020

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Hannah Arendt (Hannah) is a German born Jewish political theorist, writer and a twentieth century philosopher (Kraft, Hannah Arendt). She fled from Germany to France in 1933 after Hitler’s rise to power promoted anti-Semitism. She escaped from France after the Nazi invasion and settled in New York in 1941. As she was a writer for New Yorker, she travelled to Jerusalem in 1961 to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann (Eichmann) (Yar, 2000).

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Eichmann was a member of the Nazi regime. He was a chief architect and executioner of Hitler’s genocidal solutions for the “Jewish problem” (Yar, 2000). Though his characterisations of these actions were obscene in nature and consequences, Hannah described them as banal. Hannah used the word “thoughtlessness” to explain her philosophy ‘Banality of Evil’ in her book called Eichmann in Jerusalem (ROBIN, 2014). Eichmann escaped from allied forces that had captured him after the second world war but was caught in Argentina in May 1960. He was trailed in the court at Jerusalem in 1961 and was finally executed in June 1962 (HISTORY.COM EDITORS, 2009).

Hannah explained Eichmann as an enemy of humanity from “Thoughtlessness.” She commented that; it was a sheer thoughtlessness — something by no means identical to stupidity — that predisposed Eichmann to become one of the greatest criminals of that period” (Allinson, 2011). Hannah concluded that Eichmann was unable to understand the victims’ sufferings. He didn’t perpetrate the genocide because of hatred, but it was due to the absence of imaginative capacities that enabled him to commit his activities. She said that Eichmann completely failed to exercise his capacity to think and act. He was unable to have an internal dialogue with himself, which would have possibly made him self-aware (Yar, 2000).

Hannah also explained, banality of evil and word thoughtlessness by reconstructing phenomenological constructivism, which observes the social world as a social process that is continuously developing and evolving – which consists of a network of assumptions and shared meanings (Yar, 2000). Hannah emphasized that lack of thought is to be incapable of breaking through the “mechanism” of second nature, which automatically and immediately connects situations, impressions, and opinions with one another. It also means being incapable of judging the rightness or appropriateness of one’s actions (Menke, 2015).

Hannah in effect aims to make available the objective structures and characteristics in-the-world as a distinct mode of human experience. This thought walks into her Philosophy of “Banality of Evil” (Yar, 2000).

Hannah’s Banality of Evil

Hannah refuted the assumption that all evil is inherently radical. She questioned whether an individual can do evil without being evil. According to Hannah by subjecting an individual to bureaucratic circumstances thoughtlessness becomes common place which allows one to commit evil without critical examination. Hannah suggested that such circumstances cause individuals to be conditioned to committing evil, giving rise to banal evil. Banal Evil is characterized by a belief that what one is doing is not evil, rather, what they are engaging in is a behavior that is, or has been, normalized by the society in which they reside. To compare, by definition evil is good gone wrong. All humans are born good, it’s the circumstances people are exposed to which gives birth to evil. The more evil circumstances that humans’ are exposed to, the more one thinks evil, the more one becomes evil, as stated by Margaret Thatcher ‘What we think, we become’ (Thatcher, 2013). Put simply think evil, become evil.

Hannah’s Banal evil centers around thoughtlessness and argues that people like Eichmann performed evil deeds without evil intentions. Thoughtlessness as defined by Hannah is the inability to think from the standpoint of somebody else’ (White, 2018) creating a disengagement from the reality of evil acts one commits. Hannah goes further to attest that one commits evil under extreme circumstances making it impossible to feel the wrongdoing. Under extreme circumstances one chooses, sometimes out of necessity to survive, to give up individual will to subscribe to a greater power. A point Hannah seems to miss is where evil intentions are created. She argues that the cause of evil is due to extraordinary circumstances. It could be argued that during exposure to extraordinary circumstances, and normalization or wicked doing, one develops evil intentions. Linking back to Margaret Thatcher’s quote “Watch your thoughts for they become words. Watch your words for they become actions”. It’s in this thoughtlessness detachment from the awareness of the evil nature of these intentions where Hannah has a case for banal evil.

According to mindfulness the purpose of all human life is joy, the basis is pure positive energy, attesting all humans are born good. All humans are connected to positive source energy, or source consciousness (Lejuwaan, 2010). This supports Hannah’s claim that one can do evil without being evil. Therefore, it’s the normalisation of, and exposure to, wicked doings where good humans become and subscribe to doing evil. For example, an infant born into a family of substance abuse, jealousy, and taught to lie to survive. This becomes normal for the child. The child thinks everyone behaves normally like this. These children tend to become dishonest and deviant adults as they by circumstances necessary to survive subscribed to evil family power. Was the child born evil, according to mindfulness no, but a five-year-old simply does not have a choice to escape from this extraordinary circumstance. Which thoughtlessly, unconsciously, seeds evil intentions of dishonesty and deviancy in the child. In war, soldiers willingly give up their individual will to subscribe to the military power. They are congruent with the cause, with the mission. In some cases, this means committing evil for the perceived greater good. For example, the US army mass murdered 300 women, children, and unarmed villagers at My Lai during the Vietnam war (HISTORY.COM EDITORS, 2009). According to Hannah’s theory of Banal Evil these soldiers are not inherently evil, they thoughtlessly committed to evil due to being exposed to extraordinary circumstances.

Strengths and Weaknesses

The Banality of Evil theory was very controversial at that time. The main criticism comes from historians, psychologies and philosophers.

First of all, if Eichmann was innocent, then all the fascists are guiltless. Because they just execute the orders and do their jobs. The horrors of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia were largely the responsibility of the system and its leaders. “It offered an explanation for the worst crimes of the century while absolving most of the perpetrators.” (New Scientist, 2014)

Second, if Eichmann could choose to obey, why couldn’t he choose to kill? This “choice” process proves that he is an objective individual with thinking ability, such as “I choose to eat” and “I choose to have children”, which indicates that people have the ability to judge. In the similar way Eichmann might have chosen obedience, which is basically his own moral attribution. Obedience must have bought him some benefits, such as a promotion or income security. Hence, in a way he was aware of evil and still subscribed to be evil.

Furthermore, some historians critiqued that Hannah only attended the first few days of Eichmann’s trial. Eichmann might have purposely appeared ordinary and dull to avoid punishment. The evidence from medical analysts who examined Eichmann said that he was born “dangerous and abnormal person”. (UKEssays.com, 2017)

As a Jew, Hannah suffered humiliation and persecution. But she maintained a clear and firm intellectual position that Jews should not resort to persecuting others just because Jews were persecuted. (Arendt,1963) Hannah as a philosopher stands firmly on a neutral ground to measure Eichmann’s evil caused by external circumstances (totalitarianism). Hannah divided “evil” into two categories. One is “extreme evil”, such as “evil” determined by the ruling will of totalitarian rulers, which is “great evil”. The other is the “banal evil”, the accomplices of the “evil” participants who do not think about their actions as Eichmann did. Hannah explained that Eichmann was unable to view the consequences of his decisions, hence he lost his ability to make moral decisions.

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Hannah’s Banality of Evil was supported by two infamous psychological studies, Milgram’s experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment, both of which proved that ordinary people are easily led to commit brutal acts to hurt or kill – by “just following orders”. (Mcleod, 2017) The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted by Philip in 1973. In this study, participants were randomly assigned to the role of a prisoner or prison guards. (Konnikova et al., 2015) The aim was to monitor group interactions and to try and investigate the psychological effects of perceived power.

The performance of the participants was explained by “deindividuation”, especially for the guards. Deindividuation explains that people will readily conform to the social roles they are expected to play, especially when they’re as powerful as prison guards. This is quite similar to Eichmann. In a totalitarian government, an ordinary person is prone to appalling brutality. This finding is very important for us to understand business ethics and risk management in the organizations.

Management Context

The Milgram Experiment also concluded that ordinary people can inflict pain to others if they are told to do so by someone with higher authority. In Management context, we can relate the Milgram Experiment to the concept of “Agentic State Theory”. Agentic State Theory is a state of mind where a person will allow another person to direct his/her actions with the expectation that he/she can pass on the consequences of these actions to the person giving orders.

The agentic state is very common at the workplaces where Managers are considered as someone with the authority to give orders. On the other hand, the employee is someone who will accept the task and perform the job with the expectation that he/she can pass the consequences of his/her actions to the Manager. The Enron scandal is a real-life example of how pressure from owners/ shareholders of a company can control behaviors of employees.

Sometimes people in businesses are faced with a dilemma where they need to choose between being ethical or pursuing company objectives such as profit or sustainability. Volkswagen’s emission scandal during 2015 is a manifestation of choosing between being ethical or maintaining profit. They cheated their emission test by controlling the nitrogen release to maintain higher profits.

Company culture is also a reflection of how agentic state is implemented in the organization. If upper management implements the Agentic State Theory, where employees are regularly informed about what to do without any suggestions or opinions then this is reflected in the company culture. Employees willingly behave less motivated and start acting as machines to just follow orders. They are not encouraged to think and give suggestions. This type of culture doesn’t promote accountability where employees become irresponsible for their own decisions and actions.

Hannah’s Banality of Evil and its relation to Agentic State Theory can be used to explain Management’s conduct and how, sometimes, management/leaders act out of their personal interest in the company for promotions and incentives.


From Management context and Hannah’s Banality of Evil, obedience through “thoughtlessness” is the fundamental rule to follow. The philosophy of Hannah gave us a framework in relation to motivations of evil. Although there are still questions on definition of what is evil and despite the condemnations the philosophy has, it allowed us to see a different perspective on why evil exists.


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  • HISTORY.COM EDITORS. (2009, November 9). My Lai Massacre. Retrieved from History: https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/my-lai-massacre-1
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  • NewScientist. (2014, September 10). The banality of evil? People aren’t so easily led. Retrieved from NewScientist: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22329860-800-the-banality-of-evil-people-arent-so-easily-led/
  • PUBLISHER, A. E. (1998-2019). Agentic State. Retrieved from AlleyDog.com: https://www.alleydog.com/glossary/definition.php?term=Agentic+State
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  • Thatcher, M. (2013, April 8). What we think, we become. Retrieved from Quotes: http://www.quotes.cl/what-we-think-we-become-margaret-thatcher/
  • UKEssays. (2017, May 18). Evaluating The Banality Of Evil Thesis. Retrieved from UKEssays Providers of Free Study Resources: https://www.ukessays.com/essays/philosophy/evaluating-the-banality-of-evil-thesis-philosophy-essay.php
  • White, T. (2018). What did Hannah Arendt really mean by the banality of evil? What did Hannah Arendt really mean by the banality of evil?
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