Modern philosophy shows that most atrocities are committed by normal people—not evil ones

Zachary Biondi in Quartz:

ScreenHunter_2596 Feb. 16 19.24That decency always overcomes evil is an axiom of American exceptionalism. We gird ourselves with quotes about the “arc of history,” spoken by exceptional individuals or presidents who were ‘presidential,’ and wait for history to bend. When we—the people Donald Trump has in mind as the “true Americans”—think about past atrocities like American segregation or Nazi Germany, we are confident that had we lived then, we would have been on the frontlines fighting against evil.

Evil is what monsters and terrorists do—it’s tangible violence carried out by real bodies against real bodies. Meanwhile, we sit in our homes, offices, and churches, and hope our government keeps us safe from the “evil.”

We assume that evil arises out of contempt, misplaced pride, or even mental disorders, but we are wrong. Decency and evil are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the greatest atrocities require masses of decent people.

In 1961 philosopher Hannah Arendt attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a man who helped carry out the Holocaust genocide. He was responsible for unspeakable horror. Yet, as Arendt observed, Eichmann was not a vicious or menacing monster. He wasn’t snarling and spewing hate. He was normal—a “half a dozen psychiatrists” had even certified it. He was like anyone you might pass on the street or sit next to on a bus. She writes that “he personally never had anything whatever against the Jews,” yet he oversaw their systematic execution with no compunction.

More here.

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