The title of this post attempts to echo a comment by Hannah Arendt in her book on Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. In this work she claims that after examination of all the interview material with Psychologists and other officials, and after witnessing the events of the trial, one can draw no other conclusion about the personality and character of Eichmann than that he merely was not able to think. This opinion flew in the face of the prevailing discussion which tended toward a religious categorization of what happened in terms of the evil of Eichmann’s actions and character. The comment “the banality of evil” seemed to many Jews to trivialize what had happened in the holocaust exactly because they believed strongly that a religious idea of the sacred served as the standard by which to measure a man and his actions. To a Philosopher who characterizes the humanity of a man in terms of his/her ability to think, however, the accusation has exactly equivalent dramatic value. Someone who fails to think in accordance with the basic categories of morality appears less than human. Popular opinion might even think of such people as monsters(rather than devils: but are not devils a kind of monster?).
So what is the evidence for judging that current political leaders might have difficulties with the capacity of thought in general but in particular with ethical thought? In an interview on television shown on CNN on the 26th January 2017, it was argued by the President of the USA that he believed that torture should be used on suspected terrorists and the reason he gave for his belief concerning the truth of his claim is that people in his intelligence agencies have told him that torture works. This was a somewhat surprising admission given an earlier claim that one of his own newly chosen cabinet ministers with extensive military experience had provided him with arguments that torture is not a good idea. Other commentators have pointed out that torture is in fact against the law of the country and a change in the law would be needed if it was to be a possible anti-terrorist strategy. I am not sure whether it was part of the same argument or a separate section of the interview but the President also seemed to be arguing that there was so much hate in the world that the decision to torture terrorists would not worsen matters noticeably. One is reminded here of the view of every humanist since Buddha that violence breeds more violence, that the policy of an eye for an eye would lead to a world of blind people trying to find their way to their destinations. It appears then that we have at least one current world leader who responds emotionally to both “sound bites” and images of the sizes of inauguration audiences without any thought or critical capacity. Of course it would be foolish to suggest that this leader is like Eichmann, the mass murderer in all respects or even most respects. The argument is only that there is sufficient resemblance between the banality of Eichmann’s behaviour as recorded in his pre-trial testimony and his witnessed court room behaviour and the banality of pre-and post inauguration behaviour of the latest President of the USA. The most obvious difference between Eichmann and Trump is, of course that Eichmann was merely a cog in the Nazi machine being directed by a larger cog higher up the chain. But for those of us who still read books, having ones life run by sound bites and television images is represented very well by the image of cogs blindly turning other cogs.
Indeed it might be the very banality of the behaviour and language of morally confused people that causes a mist of confusion to descend upon everyone in their vicinity and which allows a popular “acceptance” of alternative moral positions.
The danger of relativizing morality is that the next stage in that process is to believe that the law can be manipulated in the same way in which one manipulates other people. The law becomes another cog in the machine. Not to mention the fact that we have another leader to the East who cares little for International law and who has been characterized as delusional in relation to his behaviour in the Ukraine. The President of the USA wishes peaceful relations with this warmonger and it is not difficult to see why. The apprentice may be seeking a master in the arena of the manipulation of nations. He may be seeking to be a larger cog in a larger machine.