Ends, means and the banality of evil

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For each of the different types of ethical/moral systems that this blog has been exploring lately, I have been asking the question, “Is this ethical system sufficient for making moral judgements and ethical decisions?” This post looks at the “end-based” models of recent discussion, such as teleology and consequentialism. Two of the “fatal flaws” that render these moral systems as insufficient, and even sometimes harmful, are found in phrases that have come into the language from two classic books, the first from Niccolò Machiavelli and a more recent one from Hannah Arendt.

“The ends justify the means”

The first phrase is, “The ends justify the means,” which is from The Prince, the seminal defense of teleology written by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527). Whether the Italian politician Machiavelli meant these words as an observation of how politicians operate in practice, or were instead a reflection of his personal view, has long been debated. But regardless, the phrase has taken on a life of its own.

In terms of the four “ethical minds” I have been writing about, this phrase is often a statement of fact. In order for the natural end-goal fixation of the core human brain to win out, it may well need to overrule all of the other messages coming from elsewhere in the brain. Getting to the desired goal may well require suspending “the rules of the game,” as well as suspending (looking ahead to future posts) the natural empathetic feeling of concern for the impacts on other people, or not taking the time to philosophize about the “bigger picture.” When I hear sports coaches say, “Winning is everything,” I assume they mean it.

Machiavelli lives today in the cynical calculus of Evangelical ministers like Jerry Falwell, Jr., who portray President Trump as a kind of resurrected “King David,” tolerating what would have been called out as great sin in any other president, trading their support in exchange for hoped-for Supreme Court justices who will institute their “Christian” version of Sharia Law. The end, in their view, justifies the means.

“The banality of evil”

Which brings us to that “ethical minefield” of a word known as “evil,” or as personified in many religions, “Evil” with a capital “E”.

In many theological traditions, Evil is a non-human, external force, often at the level of demigod (as in the traditional Christian portrayal of Satan) or even “God,” in some more fringe religions. Satan gets the blame for the ills of the world ranging from the Nazi Holocaust during World War II, all the way down to some being who tempts me to eat that piece of chocolate “devil’s food” cake.

Hannah Arendt coined the term “the banality of evil” in her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Her point in this work was to suggest that the evils of the Nazi regime were characterized not by some external satanic and evil source, but rather by how easily “ordinary folks” could be swayed to perform despicable acts against humanity.

The “banality of evil” here is that these “inhuman” acts are, rather than rare, far too common across cultures and time, with the Holocaust being the extreme that proves the rule. Humankind, in Arendt’s argument, does not need an external Evil with a capital “E” to commit these acts. Simple fear of “the other” appears to be sufficient, if effectively stoked by political leaders and cooperative media. When the end goal is to “protect myself” from the feared (even if fictional) enemy, the “means to the end” may well include gas chambers or the nuclear annihilation of very ordinary and helpless human beings.

Arendt has her critics, many who insist that “good” humans are not so easily led to perform inhumane acts. I read some of the protests against Arendt, however, as “motivated reasoning.” If you believe in a “real Devil,” then you may not allow yourself to entertain the thought that “good people sometimes do bad things” without some kind of supernatural intervention.

I have to admit that I still find Arendt’s argument powerful. It is not difficult at all to find “normal Americans” who openly express their favor of the mass human annihilation of entire countries or religions that they currently fear. At a minimum it is easy to demonstrate that a majority of Americans no longer believe that the Geneva Conventions and earlier traditions prohibiting torture, which kept American abuses of POWs to a remarkable minimum during World War II, apply to the United States, as long as the enemy is Muslim. I wrote about this in a recent post about the confirmation hearings for the newest CIA director.

And we see the “banality of evil” in the news right now in the actions of ICE (the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement service), made up of thousands of “ordinary folks” who have begun separating children as young as 18 months old from their parents in their attempts at enforcing of border security. This is clearly “concentration camp” behavior in a new place and time.

Unfortunately, Hannah Arendt and Niccolò Machiavelli are proven prophetic every day.

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1 thought on “Ends, means and the banality of evil

  1. Bruce Lindgren

    If “the end justifies the means is to be an adequate justification for our acts, the “the end” really needs to be the end. Or, to put it another way, we need to look at all the ends that result and not just the narrow “end” that we prefer to focus on. The danger of Machiavelli’s position is reductionism—that we will focus only on the narrow “end” we wish to achieve without considering all of the “ends” that are likely or possible.

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