Have you ever been working on a project and felt like you were moving on “automatic”? You hit a rhythm and find yourself going from one step to the next without even needing to think about it. Whatever you are doing is so familiar that it has become second nature. We’ve all been there at some point. We act, but we don’t necessarily think about our actions.
That is the essence of a concept proposed by 20th century Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt. She called it “the banality of evil”. Arendt fled Nazi Germany and eventually settled in New York. Then in 1961 she covered the trial of one of the primary organizers of the Jewish Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. Afterwards, she published a report describing her impressions of Eichmann as she watched him throughout the legal proceedings. We may expect that she would describe a man who resembled so many of our Hollywood villains. The only thing he would be missing is the handlebar mustache that he could twirl with his fingertips. But that was not what she saw. According to Arendt,
Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III “to prove a villain.” Except for extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. … In principle he knew quite well what it was all about … He was not stupid. It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period. And if this is “banal” and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.
To put it simply, Eichmann’s attitude was no different than anyone else who was just doing his job. Of course, we can all recognize that his job involved perpetuating some of the evilest acts in history, but he simply never thought about it. He no more thought about the details of what he was doing than a baker deeply ponders his actions while baking 12 dozen rolls to get ready for the morning rush. He just hits that groove and goes through all the necessary motions. In Arendt’s words, the evil that Eichmann committed had become, to him, banal. It wasn’t that he thought through what he was doing, performing some ethical calculus and deciding it was the right thing to do. He never thought about it at all. If he was motivated by anything it was to do a good job and advance his career, in a similar sense to so many of us. And that is what made his actions all the more frightening.
Arendt argued that this “banality of evil” was a stereotypical feature of totalitarian regimes. However, even if you don’t live under the thumb of such a regime, this banality can still raise its ugly head. “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.”
An animal can become violent when it feels threatened and backed into a corner. Survival instincts kick in and it will act in a way that it may not if it wasn’t in that desperate predicament. As humans, our “corner” may be the weight of extreme economic, social or political pressure. Someone who falls on hard times and doesn’t have enough money to make ends meet may feel tempted to illegally take something from another person. The stronger the weight, the bigger the temptation. Any time these things happen, according to Arendt, people may start treating evil acts as if they are nothing out of the ordinary. They allow themselves to not think about the moral implications of their actions and eventually come to genuinely believe that their actions are no different than anyone else who is innocuously going about their day.
Arendt’s description has an uncanny resemblance to some modern attempts to justify abortion. Take, for instance, the oft repeated line that abortion is a private medical procedure and as such the decision is best left to a woman and her doctor. If we were talking about removing an appendix or getting wisdom teeth pulled, few people would disagree. These are normal, everyday procedures about which we rarely give much thought.
But if we allow ourselves to think, there is a fundamental difference between removing an appendix and removing the unborn. As Francis J. Beckwith says,
the conceptus is a new, although tiny, individual with a human genetic code with its own genomic sequence (with 46 chromosomes), which is neither her mother’s nor her father’s. From this point until death no new genetic information is needed to make the unborn entity an individual human being. Her genetic makeup is established at conception, determining to a great extent her own individual physical characteristics … The conceptus, from the very beginning, is a whole organism, with certain capacities, powers, and properties, whose parts work in concert to bring the whole to maturity.
This science, however, never enters into the “private medical procedure” argument. It is not that the scientific data is considered and rejected. It is never even considered.
How do people reach this point? If Arendt’s theory is correct, it is the natural consequence of strong temptations to relieve seemingly impossible suffering or pressure. An unwanted pregnancy can provide that pressure. We live in a society in which many corners feed women the lie that they cannot succeed if they have children. They are told that if they carry a baby to term, all their hopes and dreams will go down the drain. When women are constantly bombarded with such messaging, it is hardly surprising that they feel trapped and are tempted to rid themselves of the one thing they believe is trapping them: the unborn child. In light of the scientific evidence, though, it is undeniable that this way out” involves killing a child. If the woman allows herself to think things through, she will have to face up to this reality. The immense temptation, however, produces people who instead permit themselves to see abortion as banal. If they were to think through the moral consequences they may not like the conclusion. So, instead, they simply fail to think about it at all.
Arendt’s banality does not explain every pro-choice argument. Some (such as the argument from bodily autonomy) clearly do acknowledge the humanity of the unborn. But for those that do not, we can fairly ask how it is that someone can come to a place where they do not even give a thought to whether abortion kills an innocent unborn child, especially in light of the overwhelming scientific evidence that this is precisely what is happening. They advance arguments that assume there is no human life and speak as if the act of having an abortion is just as banal as baking twelve dozen rolls in the morning. The remedy, then, if someone’s actions are characterized by thoughtlessness, is to promote thoughtfulness as best we can. Talk to people. Confront them (with grace) with the scientific evidence for the distinct humanity of the unborn, creating something of a cognitive dissonance between what they want to believe and the new information you provide. When that happens, they will eventually have to try to resolve the inconsistency.
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.
— — —. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Orlando: Harcourt, 1966.
Beckwith, Francis J. Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 287-88 (emphasis in original).
 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (Orlando: Harcourt, 1966), 459.
 Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 67.