The Extraordinariness of Evil

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Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is famous — or, in the eyes of many, infamous — for its use of the phrase “The banality of evil” in describing the logistical author of the Holocaust. In Arendt’s estimation, Adolph Eichmann was uncanny because he was a bland functionary who spoke in clichés and acted without thinking — he was, indeed, according to Arendt, incapable of thought and therefore acting with self-consciously evil motivations. Before he was hanged, Eichmann spouted the grossest pabulum about “how we shall all meet again” in the next world, that “such is the fate of all men.” The sheer insignificant weightlessness of his words led Arendt to write the famous paragraph that concluded her chapter about Eichmann’s execution:

It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us — the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil. (p. 250)

There is much to contest in Arendt’s character sketch of Eichmann, who was probably not as thoughtless a patriotic automaton as she thought, and certainly far more virulently anti-Semitic. She may have wrong about Eichmann, but her conviction that horrible crimes against humanity have been committed by “nobodies” rather than monsters, remains compelling. Yet it is wrong to construe Arendt as taking Eichmann as paradigmatic of all evil, as somehow defining “Evil” as banality, as machine-like obedience to vicious culturally-sanctioned norms. Some, perhaps most, embrace wickedness as Eichmann or the conformist students of Milgram’s experiments did, but not all, not by a long shot. Arendt clearly expresses this when she contrasts Eichmann’s thoughtless evil with those whose malignancy is more explicitly expressed and conscientiously embraced:

[W]hen I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to a phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial. 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.”

Here, Arendt implies that for the phenomenon of Eichmann’s banal evil to exist, its counterpart must as well. The evil expressed by Iago, Macbeth, or Richard III — or, to bring things down to earth, Hitler, Heydrich, Himmler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Pinochet, among a galaxy of others — is not banal but extraordinary. And the reality of extraordinary human evil raises two serious philosophical and theological questions: how can it exist at all in a beneficent moral universe created by God, and how can it exist as something humanly chosen and humanly intelligible?


Attempts to answer the first question, “How does God allow evil, both physical (i.e., suffering) and moral?” began, in Christian theology, in reflections on the fall of humankind and the redemptive act of Christ. Augustine remains the key figure in this effort. Moral evil — sin — is baked into the human condition by the original offense of Adam that is passed on from human to human as the species reproduces. Sin is a free choice of the human will, but given the corruption of the human will in the fall of humanity, we are bound to place love-of-self over love-of-God due to this irresistible flaw in us, and thus we freely-yet-invariably choose both evil ends and evil means. As a result of the inescapable perversity of our fallen wills, God delivers us to a fallen world infused with suffering and death. Sin and suffering can only be overcome by an act of divine redemption, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the transformation of our wills effected by the redeeming and sanctifying grace this sacrificial act puts into motion.

Augustine’s theological biology of guilt, where original sin is passed-on in the event of conception (much like one “inherits” blue eyes from mother and left-handedness from father), is questionable to say the least. But one insight of Augustine remains salient: that evil is nothing positive but is a kind of privation, the non-existence of a good that should exist, but does not because of the bad choices of a disordered human will. Augustine’s conviction of evil as a willed nullity at the heart of being emerged in his polemics with the Manicheans, who postulated a dualistic system of a “good god” who created noble spirit and a “bad god” who created base matter. For Augustine, and following him most ancient and mediaeval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, everything that is, i.e. all creation, is good; therefore evil is best construed as something done, reflecting a lack or negativity or non-being in fallen human nature, rather than something that is.


The Augustinian-Thomist theory of evil is fundamentally theological: it cannot be understood apart from a narrative of incarnation, resurrection, and atonement. Apart from that narrative, in a completely secular context, it would unintelligible. Immanuel Kant, in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone, however, managed to secularize an essentially Augustinian view of moral evil as a perversity-of-will consistent with human freedom. For Kant, moral evil can be understood only as a radical defect in the quality of the human will. The steps of his argument are as follows:

· The only kind of morally-worthy motive for action is duty-for-duty’s sake. If one adopts as one’s maxim (rule-for-action) anything that is contingent on a human want or desire, one’s will is thereby heteronomous, and determined by something sub-moral. A truly autonomous, self-determining rational will is motivated by the categorical imperative, the injunction to act consistent with the demands of rationality-as-such: to act only on those maxims that are universalizable and which treat others as ends-in-themselves. In this way the categorical imperative defines autonomy, the self-consistency of the acting rational-will, and constrains all other hypothetical, “if-I-want-this-I-should-do-that” imperatives. It defines duty, and thus duty done for duty’s sake alone counts as a moral motivation. And because a will guided by the categorical imperative is self-determining or autonomous, not heteronomously bound by contingent wants and desires, it also defines the realm of human freedom. We are free to the extent, and only to the extent, that we recognize we acknowledge duty and do it simply because it is duty.

· However the human will is as a matter of fact inclined to re-order its self-regarding motives over its categorical duties: it thus freely chooses to compromise its freedom, understood as choosing under the categorical imperative. This cuts deeply into the constitution of the human will: Kant dubs this flaw in the will “radical evil” because it is rooted in a deep and entrenched human predisposition toward self-serving action at odds with duty, a tendency that cannot be completely extirpated. In this way, Kant secularizes Augustine’s idea of moral evil: it is a manifest defect of the human will, independent of any revealed story of the fall of humanity.

· Kant then constructs a typology of evil. First, there is frailty: one does evil not because one does not recognize one’s duty as duty, but because one is too weak to do it, a view of evil that parallels Aristotle’s account of akrasia or indiscipline. Second, there is impurity: one follows one’s duty, but mixes self-regarding motives in the process. Impurity is worse than mere frailty because it compromises right action by introducing wrong motivation. Finally, there is wickedness or perversity, where one inverts the order of self-regarding and duty-regarding motivations. If one does one’s duty it is only by sheer chance, where self-serving motives coincide with moral duty. Should circumstances change, the wicked person jettisons morality as inconvenient. This is the worst form of evil since one’s sole motivation is entirely heteronomous, or centered on one’s desires, and while the motivation might accord with duty it is never done from duty for its own sake.

Kant’s view of radical evil is, at one level, deeply at odds with itself. It holds, simultaneously, that the tendency toward evil, whether that of frailty, impurity, or perverse wickedness, is a permanent part of what it means to be human, while at the same time viewing it as chosen by a free act of will. This is a problem that bedevils Augustine’s view of evil as well. Augustine is committed to understanding moral evil as something freely chosen but, given the fall, something we inevitably will freely choose to do.

Augustine has some wiggle-room, however, in that his theory is a theological one. Evil viewed from the vantage point of fallen nature may be inevitable, but from the vantage point of grace the will has the option to be freed to freely choose the good. Kant, however, is constructing a purely secular account of moral evil, and does not have the luxury of theological escape hatches. Yet despite Kant’s theory of radical evil being, as Richard Bernstein puts it “at war with itself”, it does illustrate the commonplace occurrence of those who have led morally exemplary lives falling into unthinkable evil. It may be theoretically inconsistent, but Kant’s musings in Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone can illuminate both real and fictional lives that start off as praiseworthy and then go off the moral rails. Breaking Bad’s Walter White, the cancer-ridden chemist and devoted family man turned ruthless meth-king, is a case in point.


Kant, in both the Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone, outlines a theory of radical evil, but denies the possibility of what I have been calling extraordinary evil. Extraordinary evil, which Kant dubs “diabolical evil” (Teuflisches Böse) would invert the moral law from “do your duty for duty’s sake alone” to “do evil for evil’s sake alone.” This, for Kant, is a questionable motive for human beings, although it remains a possibility for demonic creatures. But literature abounds with putative examples of “devilish” wills, the classic expression of which, in philosophy, might be Augustine’s description of how he stole pears from an orchard as a young boy, simply for the thrill of doing something wrong (Confessions, II, v-x). Kant would construe Augustine’s case history differently than Augustine himself did. The young Augustine wanted a thrill, thus dis-ordering self-interested fun over moral duty; his will was at worst perverse rather than truly diabolical. Augustine’s immaturity might place his perverse Willkür in context, even if it does not mitigate its perversity. But it is not evil-for-evil’s sake by any means.

While Kant may be right about the scale of young Augustine’s offense, it still is not satisfactory, for a number of reasons. First, it does not catch Hannah Arendt’s worries, expressed in The Origins of Totalitarianism, that at least one form of “radical” evil goes beyond perverse self-interest to a “desire to make human beings superfluous”, a desire that de-humanizes both the acting subject and the human being objectively acted-upon. The technological de-humanization epitomized by Auschwitz was not primarily a matter of self-interest on the part of its architects (although careerist and anti-Semitic self-regard surely played a significant role). Torturing, killing, de-humanizing Jews was understood as an end in itself. The point of engineering the mass murder of Jews, Slavs, Roma, gays, and communists was to move away from the sovereignty of Good toward killing for killing’s sake. As Orwell’s O’Brien, the villain of 1984 put it, “the object of torture is torture.” Only someone self-willing a kind of devilishness would adopt that as a maxim.

Second, Kant might have been looking in the wrong place — theoretical moral philosophy — for his examples of diabolical willing and, not finding them there, concluded they do not exist. But they abound in fiction and drama. Shakespeare was a master of creating characters of extraordinary, diabolical evil who were quite believable in their own right. I would bet that most of us have met few, if any Iagos (and thank goodness for that) who are imbued, as Coleridge put it, with a “motiveless malignancy”, but Shakespeare demonstrated in his art that they were possible.

Consider: was Iago’s rage at Othello motivated by being passed up for a promotion? Then, once his plot against Michael Cassio succeeded, the play should have been over. Was he acting out of racism? In part, for certain, but ask yourself: Had Othello been white, would he have felt the same way, resentful of his joy at marrying Desdemona? It’s likely. Was Iago vengeful at Othello’s (possible) seduction of his own wife? The speed at which Iago dispatched Emilia at the play’s end complicates this reading of his motivations. It is possible to conclude that Iago’s evildoing defies any hypothetical imperatives, any “I must do this to get that” reasoning. Still, Coleridge does not get Iago quite right, because he is acting on an intelligible motive, that of a diabolical will — evil done for evil’s sake alone. And the scary part of Othello, which is as much a play about Iago as it is about its protagonist, is that Iago’s inhumanity, pace Kant, is not just devilish but all too human.

As Alfred the butler, in Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight Returns, put it regarding both the jewel thief in the Raj and The Joker, “some people just want to see the world burn.”


Fiction is fiction — trivially so, and as Wittgenstein put it, we fail if we limit ourselves to a one-sided diet of fictional examples. Are there manifest real-life exemplars of extraordinary evil that are as vivid and compelling as Iago, Richard, and Macbeth? That is: aside from the stock examples of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, et. al.?

One of them, I think, has been staring Americans in their collective faces for some time now. We have found it difficult to name this extraordinary evil as such because it has become so quotidian we hardly notice it anymore: we’re exhausted by it. Need I say more? I will, anyway. . .

In their book Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration (Simon and Schuster, 2019), an excerpt of which was published recently in The New York Times, Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis paint a picture of US border policy being formulated, impulsively and impetuously, by a President who seems obsessed with inflicting pain for pain’s sake, without regard to any end other than pain-for-pain’s sake. Consider:

Privately, the president had often talked about fortifying a border wall with a water-filled trench, stocked with snakes or alligators, prompting aides to seek a cost estimate. He wanted the wall electrified, with spikes on top that could pierce human flesh. After publicly suggesting that soldiers shoot migrants if they threw rocks, the president backed off when his staff told him that was illegal. But later in a meeting, aides recalled, he suggested that they shoot migrants in the legs to slow them down. That’s not allowed either, they told him.

As a thought-experiment, use Kant’s three-part taxonomy of human evil as a checklist. Is this a case of a frail or weak will? Clearly not: President Trump has no hesitation whatever in willing the gratuitous infliction of pain on would-be migrants or refugees; the sheer impractical idiocy of his suggestions reinforces this interpretation. Is it a case of an impure will, mixing duty with self-regarding motives? Again, clearly not. Even if one supposes, if one has the stomach for it, that Trump’s harsh anti-immigrant policy has merit, his personal benefit (e.g., strengthening his standing with his political base) could be met with far less draconian means than razor-wire and a moat stocked with deadly animals. Is this a case of perverse will, or self-interest trumping (please excuse the pun) duty? Again no. The barbarity, the sheer sadism of the means for intercepting and dissuading migrants is totally out of proportion to any political or personal end in view, however morally questionable it is on its own rights.

On the basis of this passage, among others in Shear’s and Davis’s text, I find it hard not to conclude that Trump is a clear example of what Kant thought impossible for human beings: someone possessed of a diabolical will, willing evil for evil’s sake.


American Liberals, often differing from others further to the left, have typically been skittish about using “the E-word” when describing political foes. With good reason: the Right has shown no such skittishness in bandying that adjective about with respect to their left-of-center adversaries, and often enough what is deemed evil in a person is embedded in qualifying and mitigating circumstances. This has led to a reluctance on the part of many liberals to calling Trump what he clearly is. It’s indeed a fact that “Trump is not Hitler”. But I wonder if is less a function of Trump’s personality or character than the fact that he is only getting started, and he is not a particularly clever would-be despot. Yes, there is a difference between alligator-and-snake infested trenches and gas chambers or gulags or killing fields. But it is a difference in degree. The motivation, the delight in inflicting pain and death as such and in themselves, is eerily similar.

Often enough Trump seems to be too much of an ignoramus to be truly evil; that he exhibits traits common enough in the mentally ill seems to place him apart from the category of evil. If you cannot distinguish good from evil, you can hardly be blamed for choosing it, and goodness knows what kind of pathologies lurk in his childhood history and biological makeup. But while this hesitancy to ascribe extraordinary evil to an individual is understandable, and is often enough commendable, it is not appropriate here.

The behavior of one who relishes the idea of people being consumed by alligators or having their flesh ripped by razor-sharp spikes can only be understood as sociopathic. Sociopathy, now designated by the anodyne term “Antisocial Personality Disorder” in the DSM-5, is not a neurosis, where action is impaired by an unconscious fear or wish, and not a psychosis, since the sociopath “reality-tests” well. But it cuts to the core of personality, which involves what Kant called both wille (the quality and nature of what one wills to do) and willkür (the ability to will to choose an action). Personality disorders are less about what you think, or are able to choose, than who and what you are. And this opens up the possibility that what one is can be what Kant denied, evil in a way that transcends ordinary human frailty, impurity, or wickedness.

The political sociopath is what he or she is (and it is usually a “he”), but like all sociopaths is not immune from being pegged as diabolical. The sociopath, lacking all sense of empathy, of others as Kantian ends-in-themselves, does not act in ignorance of the categories of good and evil, or inclined to ignore them when self-interest is threatened, but in utter indifference to them. Thus political sociopaths, in virtue of their position, are in a position to do far more damage. It is easier indeed to condemn those in a position of power who exercise a perverse will — one thinks of Richard Nixon. We all know the pull of self-interest, and there is nothing extraordinary about it. It can even be banal at times. But sometimes evil is anything but banal, and it is an obligation of practical wisdom, and political will, to know the difference.

Written by

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.

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