What is Evil? Genocide and the Banality of Evil

Banality and evil seem to be two contrasting words.

However,  the proposition that evildoers are indeed banal is transversal to various important  20th century world events and political writings. Who gets to define what is evil? George W Bush, famously described Iran, Iraq and North Korea,  as an Axis of Evil. Hitler is often described as an evil monster while Mein Kampf describes his thought of  Jews has the “symbol of all evil”. Pro-lifers circulate  the ‘10 reasons why abortion is evil…” article while pro-choice advocates state they are merely for a woman’s right to make her own reproductive health decisions. Tony Blair described Saddam Hussein as “But, the man is uniquely evil, isn’t he?” while the shorfalls of western world are often  described as the evils of modern society. Evil, is a mystifying concept only because it is very personal in its use.

So, what is evil within the context of human rights? And, should we even use the concept of evil in political or philosophical discourse?


What is evil? 

Evil is a profoundly immoral action.

Crime, wrongdoing and evil are all malicious intents against the public welfare. In traditional philosophical views these are closely related terms belonging to the spectrum of morality. In a law abiding society, it is imperative to distinguish evil from other concepts describing dishonourable conduct. So what is the difference between crime, wrongdoing and evil?

  • Crime is a legally punishable offence. This type of offence, which might be by action or omission, is always unlawful. Burglary, assault and fraud are examples of crimes in most jurisdictions.
  • Wrongdoing is an offence to moral righteousness. Wrongdoings might be criminal or not. For example, although lying and cheating may be morally reprehensible, they are not criminal offences in most jurisdictions. While a crime is clearly defined in legal codes, wrongdoing is intrinsic to personal judgment.
  • Evil is an action of “destructive, unmerciful and corrosive nature”. Just like wrongdoings, evil is not always a legally punishable offence. Within the field of human rights evil is generally ascribed to the worst crimes of human cruelty such as genocide, torture and murder.

Crime and wrongdoing fit the spectrum of morality. However,  certain aspects of human cruelty deviate so greatly from the norm that they can only be understood under the paradigm of evil. 

Genocide, cannot just be considered a moral wrong. Genocide cannot be only described as an injustice.  Therefore, philosophers such as Maria Pia Lara and Hannah Arendt, defended that certain aspects of human cruelty need an autonomous sphere of morality.

According to these two authors, evil is a necessary postmethaphysical concept in political theory.  It is postmethaphysical as cruelty and suffering  are concepts which are hard to describe with the use of conceptual tools:

Hannah_arendt-150x150“We don’t need to focus on the concept of intentionality of the subject in order to understand the role of the perpetrator, nor we need to measure the amount of pain inflicted upon the victim to understand what is morally at stake.”


Lara’s theory of evil expands its understanding by recognising that evil also differs from plain cruelty, since animals can be cruel to each other. Evil intends on stripping a person of its humanity. Evil robs people of certain human characteristics such as spontaneity, freedom, plurality and dignity.

Given the seriousness of Evil, it is hard to imagine it could ever be banal or that its perpectrators could even be thoughtless. However, that is exactly what the theory of the banality of evil proposes.


What is the banality of evil?

The theory of the banality of evil defends that perpetrators of human cruelty are often rather normal individuals. These evildoers are not sadistic monsters but rather thoughtless conformists and, the normality of the evildoers is utterly terrifying.

This theory was coined by HannahArendt in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem. A report on the banality of Evil. The book was largely based on a series of articles that Hannah Arendt wrote for the New York in 1961 while covering the trial of Eichmann, a high ranking SS officer, in Jerusalem.


Eichmann in Trial By Israel Government Press Office – Israel National Photo Collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17872972

Eichmann was a Transportation Administrator for the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Problem’. He personally authorised the deportation of six millions Jews into concentration camps during the Nazi Regime. Hannah Arendt describes her first impressions of Eichmann as not at all horrible, and states “Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a monster, but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was aclown”.

Throughout the trial, Eichmann seemed to be unable to think critically, speaking largely in  stock phrases and Nazi cliches. Eichmann did not hold any personal  hatred against Jews. He justifies his role in the genocide by stating he was merely doing his job.  He claimed to be not guilty of crimes against humanity as he had never directly killed anyone Jewish or otherwise. By all accounts, Eichmann was an obedient employee and law abiding citizen of the Nazi regime. His willingness to conform, desire to obey and lack of critical thought are all banal traits in human beings.  Arendt considered that while the evil-doer was banal, the actions were monstruous and not at all common.

The theory of the banality of evil has also been explored in scientific studies such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Stanley Miligram experiment. Both studies, concluded that under the right circumstances ordinary people could be influenced  to commit atrocious acts such as torture and murder.

The theory of  the banality of evil denotes  that imagining  evildoers as sadistical monsters is a convenient escapism.  It allows us escape the confrontation with our own morality,  the morality of our elected leaders and the morality of our political systems. In the context of politics, obedience is support and,  as citizens,  each of us,  has the ability to do good, bad or even evil.


Reccomended readings:

Arendt, H. 1963,  Eichmann in Jerusalem. A report on the banality of Evil.

Lara, P.M. 2007, Narrating Evil. A Post Metaphysical theory of Reflective Judgment.



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