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Complex banality of evil (by Tomáš Sedláček)

A film about Hana Arendt and the records of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem is coming to the cinema. The book concludes that evil, most often and quite surprisingly, does not take the form of a demonic maniac, but - like Eichmann - looks like a clerk, a bureaucrat, another machine screw that just followed orders and hoped for promotion. Someone who is not ever very clever or of any remarkable interest. From this point of view, evil is represented by banality – its execution via a mindless following of the crowd and the contemporary ideology is enough; not to think much not to feel at all.

Some time ago I wrote about how the ethics moved towards institutions, as proposed by the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich. Ethics, now no longer carries any personal responsibility, or obligation to the old or sick, because that is why the pension and health insurance systems exist. The fact that this role is performed vicariously for us, even instead of us (somehow automatically, quietly, almost invisibly, one might almost say), although all of us somehow participate in this institutional system.  However, we do not accept personal responsibility just as responsibility for my safety is provided by the police or army.

But this shifting component of ethics from personal to institutional has its dark side, in that it can subtly or automatically can replace goodness and commit the bad acts. The specialized society these those institutions hold together and coordinate precisely, hardly shares any guilt, although the division of labor is easy to track and monitor. Therefore, technically, Eichmann behaved as judge, very unlike a natural person directly accountable for his personal actions, but as an institutional representative that lacks a human face, but Eichmann defended himself by claiming that he was not doing anything illegal according to the contemporary textbooks and predominant ideology of the time and the codified federal system. In such a system completely perverted things were happening: the Nazi regime officials, including soldiers, had remorse that they had remorse …

The traditional concept of the invisible hand is that it transforms the private vices into a common good. This is only one of possible variants. Arendt actually described the other side of the invisible hand of the market, which can also create a situation where personal good is transformed into a common vice. In this sense social encyclicals refers to sinful structures - if institutions are set incorrectly, the system can be full of the best intentions and people who are not aware of any sign that they are doing something wrong - and despite (or because) -  the result of the system is evil. Well, this is seen in the movie The Cube, where each of the protagonists - without knowing it - specialized in a certain part of the giant Rubik's cube construction, in which they were later seized and tortured to death. They of course discovered this possibility only after they were all thrown into this monstrous maze in a somewhat Kafka-esque style, without ever knowing why they are suffering because the allegations were announced them. They got ignorance for ignorance, one might say.

In this specialized society one can hardly see the final end of his actions. And as is often the case, not only the left hand does not know what the right is doing, but neither one of them does knows what it is doing, what it is building, in what greater plan it is participating. Similarly, we must be careful to not just abide the law by following the doctrines of textbooks and contemporary ideology to eventually become part of a system, which instead of contributing to the stability, created instability. And while we are at it, maybe we will be part of future generations that will be judged for what is common today - and even sometimes considered beneficial. Maybe the courts, similar to those of Nuremberg, for the way we treat our own unborn children, animals, the planet or some other area, which today cannot even see or perceive will return.

The banality of evil on a personal level is perhaps only exists in a very specialized complex society, where evil is divided into parts, so small, and so automated; immersed in the ideology almost invisible for men. For example, in the federation of consumer society, artists are involved (creators who make advertisements for things that are not needed), also social scientists (who are doing research what is possible to sell better) and psychologists (who use psychological tricks to subtly sell more). Each of them seems to do legitimate work – and as the part of the system they do so - but the result is something they really do not like; none of them. And to curse individually is like swearing at the officer that has written the law badly.

Adam Smith, who is associated with the term, invisible hand, which transforms the private vices to the common good, devoted the idea of compassion as a feature to somehow balance that cold, calculating and efficient hand. On this subject he wrote a book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, where compassion is considered as the main glue of well-functioning society.  A system can very easily become a complex structure full of sinful human banality of cruel evil that results from its efficiently and unconscious operation without compassion.

About the Author: Tomáš Sedláček (1977) is a Chief Macro-economic Strategist at ČSOB. He served as a non-political expert advisor to the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance of the Czech Republic, with special responsibility over fiscal consolidation and the reform of the tax, pension, and healthcare systems. He also served as an economic advisor then-president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel. ( 


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