Forced Discharge: A Report on the Banality of Evil

By Ollie Sanderson-Nichols

In April 2020, the New York Post published an article with the header ‘Forcing nursing homes to take coronavirus patients is just insane – and evil’ (The New York Post, 2020). In this article, the editorial board of The Post lambasted the decision by state officials to mandate the discharge of elderly patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 out of overcrowded hospitals and back into local nursing homes. The principal complaint was that this led to significant reseeding of the virus amongst those most vulnerable to it, resulting in a considerable number of avoidable deaths. When asked why these especially vulnerable people had not been better protected, Governor Andrew Cuomo was alleged to have responded that ‘it wasn’t our job’ (ibid.) These events, the authors claim, were ‘evil’. I would like to examine this policy, and the invectives of evil levelled against it, by putting it into dialogue with Hannah Arendt’s own writings on the ‘banality of evil’. Ultimately, the question for us is: was a policy of ‘forced discharge’ a case of banal evil, and if so, what can we learn from this?

“Many more of us than we typically suppose – living ‘ordinary’, routinized lives – may well be implicated in the comportment of genuine evil, perhaps without even being aware of it.

Hannah Arendt coined the term ‘the banality of evil’ whilst reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a key figure involved in administering the so-called ‘Final Solution’ in Nazi Germany from 1941-1945. For Arendt, the banality of evil applies to cases in which extreme and exceptional wrongdoing is committed by people who appear so ordinary, or who understand their participation in such unexceptional terms, that they confound our attempts to determine their culpability. Whilst critics such as Richard Bernstein (2018, p.294) emphasise that Arendt’s is an account of only one kind of evil (banal evil, as opposed to evil as such) it is nevertheless the case that this phenomenon of banal evil might perhaps be exposed elsewhere too.

We can identify three main components at work in Arendt’s idea that will be relevant for our considerations moving forward: (i) the banality of character, which refers to the purported ‘ordinariness’ of banal evildoers; (ii) the banality of will, which refers to the dissonance between acts of banal evil and evildoers’ intentions; and (iii) the banality of judgment, which refers to the tendency for banal evildoing to repel or preclude independent thinking. Each of these components performs a conceptual move. I want to examine each component in turn (noting that whilst each appear to be present in Arendt, they are not always clearly delineated), explain the relevant move, and then consider what these moves might reveal when applied to our case.

The Banality of Character

Our first component refers to Arendt’s suggestion that those who commit extraordinarily evil acts may nevertheless appear extremely ordinary in their character and capacities. Despite the gravity of his acts, Arendt describes Eichmann as ‘terrifyingly normal’ (Arendt 2006, p.273, emphasis added) – indeed, she reports that ‘half a dozen psychiatrists had certified him as “normal”’ with one expert even going so far as to claim that ‘his whole psychological outlook […] was “not only normal but most desirable”’ (ibid., pp.25-26). There are at least two ways of interpreting the thrust of Arendt’s claim here: a superficial view that evildoers such as Eichmann may simply appear to be normal, and are therefore difficult to identify; or a more troubling view that evildoers such as Eichmann actually are average, ordinary people, such as you or I. This latter reading is particularly interesting, insofar as it runs against our tendency to pathologize or mythologize evildoers as somehow ‘other’, thereby challenging the consoling conviction that normal people are constitutionally incapable of committing such evil (Fine 2001, p.157).

“Is it really the case that each of us is as far-removed from evil as we typically assume?”

Considering the case of elderly, infectious patients being forcibly returned to nursing homes, an emphasis on the apparent normalcy of those involved in administering public evils is revealing for a number of reasons. Firstly, it deflates the idea that those responsible for serious wrongs need present as singular villains; indeed, it suggests that an undue focus on searching for diabolical villains may in fact serve to obscure culpable individuals who nevertheless appear ordinary, or even unassuming. Accordingly, whilst The Post’s editors focus on a number of headline figures, they offer little by way of consideration as to whom else – from unassuming civil servants to ordinary hospital administrators  – might also bear some burden of responsibility for this wrongdoing. Yet a recognition of the banality of figures involved in such purported evil can in fact render us more sensitive in our attempts to identify those who are truly culpable. Moreover, if we accept Arendt as saying that banal evildoers might actually be broadly normal (rather than merely appearing so) then this also entails that many more of us than we typically suppose – living ‘ordinary’, routinized lives – may well be implicated in the comportment of genuine evil, perhaps without even being aware of it. This, it seems, should give us pause to reflect on the impact of our own actions and decisions, particularly in the performance of what might otherwise appear to be innocuous, ‘run-of-the-mill’ duties.

The Banality of Will

The second component refers to the link between an evildoer’s conduct and their intentions. As Judith Butler (2011) notes, Arendt assessed Eichmann in the context of a technical-legal process geared toward demonstrating that Eichmann’s crimes sprung from fitting criminal intentions. However, cases of heinous wrongdoing exert pressure on this endeavour: when wrongs appear so shocking and incomprehensible as to become ‘evil’, the search for fitting intentions may lead one to think either that the criminal lacked intelligible motives (because no motive could reasonably fit the crime) or that they possessed truly infernal or inhuman motives that are beyond our capacity to assess. However, Arendt offers us a way past this bind by suggesting that such fittingness – this sense that the intention ought to fit the crime – need not always apply. Eichmann, for instance, seemed far more concerned with banal motives, such as furthering his career, than he was with committing genocide – from his perspective, it just so happened that genocide was an undesirable yet unavoidable part of the job (Arendt 2006, p.62).

Analogously, in our case, Dr. Howard Zucker is castigated by The Post for allowing scores of ‘casualties to mount’ (The New York Post, 2020) whilst nevertheless pursuing the more banal motives of easing pressure on overstretched hospitals. Yet to hold to a notion that such acts could constitute an evil only if they were accompanied by fitting “evil” intentions on Zucker’s part would disqualify the example: in all likelihood, it is simply not the case that Zucker intended his actions to cause such harm. As Arendt demonstrates however, by decoupling conduct from intentions, acts of evil can be rendered significantly more intelligible whilst nevertheless preserving full notions of accountability. That is, rather than depending upon unintelligible inner dispositions or incomprehensible motives as the condition of possibility for ascribing blame, Arendt offers a means of explaining both evil which depends solely on the assessment of practical acts, and the manifest judgements that these acts embody.

The Banality of Judgment

Our third and final component refers to Arendt’s view that banal evil in some way repels or precludes independent thinking, thereby diminishing one’s capacity to receive and exercise judgement. In her account of the trial, Arendt dwells on Eichmann’s tendency to engage in what his judges termed ‘empty talk’: a slew of ‘stock phrases and self-invented cliches’ that stood-in for genuine thought and also functioned to safeguard him from the judgement of others (Arendt 2006, p.49). As Arendt underscores, this is not stupidity – understood as faulty or sluggish processes of reasoning – but instead a genuine and profound inability to think for oneself, or from the perspective of others (ibid., pp.287-288).

This resonates with Governor Cuomo’s invocation of the “not my job” cliché when challenged about the performance of his duties: on the one hand, Cuomo’s use of the cliché serves the defensive function identified by Arendt of deflecting external judgement; on the other, as an internalised view, it also serves to preclude his engaging in a deeper and more critical reflection on the circumstances and choices available to him, particularly had he stopped to consider the issue from the standpoint of vulnerable service users. In this respect, the banality of evil also refers to an epistemic vice that manifests as a diminished capacity for expressing and receiving judgement: that is, a failure to reflect openly, carefully, and independently on the problems and solutions that are available, and to instead rely on shallow, prefabricated attitudes in place of such genuine thought.

Was the forced discharge of infectious COVID patients a case of banal evil, then? My sense is: yes. Arendt has helped us to understand that decisions can be monstrously evil without needing monstrous figures presiding over them. Indeed, many of the people involved in the performance of such evils may well be considered incredibly average or typical: normal people fulfilling unexceptional roles as civil servants, hospital administrators, or other key workers. Her writings also invite us to reconsider our presumptions that particularly egregious evils need stem from egregious intentions: Much as in the case of Dr. Zucker’s performance of his duties, many exceptional wrongs can arise despite being entirely at odds with the intentions of those involved in causing them. By the same token, her thoughts on the banality of judgement serve as a stark warning for us to be alert for signs of thoughtlessness, both in ourselves and others. As she points out, disastrous events can all-too easily arise out of thoughtlessness – papered over and sustained by cliché, platitude, and received orthodoxy. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I think, Arendt also gives us cause to reconsider how we think about the everyday wrongs we encounter, and perhaps even unwittingly participate in: is it really the case that each of us is as far-removed from evil as we typically assume?


Works Consulted:

  • Allison, H. (1996) Idealism and Freedom: Essays on Kant’s Theoretical and Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Neimann, S. (2010) ‘Banality Reconsidered’, in Benhabib, S. (ed.) Politics in Dark Times: Encounters with Hannah Arendt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.305-315.

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