The Root Of All Evil
The root of all evil is thoughtlessness. No, that’s not exactly the Arendt quote. She said in her famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, that there seemed to be a correlation between evil and thoughtlessness. She explained that what she meant was that Eichmann (in his answers to the prosecutors during his trial) seemed to have not thought through the full implications of what he did. He seemed unthinking. The implication of this was that more rational thinking would have caused him to reconsider his actions. The only problem with Arendt’s conclusion was that Nazi Germany was full of rational thinkers – Eichmann included. It seems more likely (and in this I am indebted to the excellent article ‘Exploring the Holocaust Through Hannah Arendt’s “Banality of Evil” By Laurence Rosenberg – available in full online) that the reason that Eichmann appeared unthinking during the trial was because he saw it as a foregone conclusion that he would be found guilty and therefore did not put any real effort into his responses to the questions of the prosecutors. He also may have found it more acceptable to play the unthinking bureaucrat rather than begging for mercy like some of his colleagues.
Nonetheless, in a different sense, it can still be said that ‘the root of all evil is thoughtlessness’. In this sense, thoughtlessness refers to the inability to fully consider the existence of another human being as an equal and separate entity. From this perspective, most if not all evil can be seen as two possible forms of thoughtlessness – not ‘making space’ for the other, or not ‘attending to’ the other. In the first case, one ‘runs over’ the other; in the second case one turns away from the need or pain of the other. Both are forms of thoughtlessness; i.e., the failure to consider the needs, feelings and desires – perhaps the very existence – of another person.
Once, when walking out of the library at the university where I was attending graduate school, I saw a teenaged boy walk up behind an unsuspecting man and punch him in the head. As the man turned around, startled, the boy ran away. This is what is meant by not fully considering (allowing for) the existence of another human being. This is the root of all evil. In similar fashion, walking by when someone stumbles is also the root of all evil – though perhaps to a slightly lesser degree (omission versus commission).
So while it may seem at strange at first glance, the largest global atrocity and an action as simple as walking in front of someone and failing to say ‘excuse me’ both come from the same root – the lack of consideration for the existence of the ‘other’. It is simply the difference of many orders of magnitude on the same continuum.
(Obviously the degree of awareness and intent involved impact the degree to which an action can be said to be evil. Many actions that have very negative consequences are done with little to no awareness or negative intent. However, it can also be said that to be human is to be responsible for one’s actions.)
The converse is also true: The root and essence of all (human) good is the act of considering the existence of, making space for and attending to the needs of another human being. The root of all good is thoughtfulness.
There is a catch to this, however. One cannot attend to the needs of another in such a way that one injures the self – at least not on a regular basis. This is because we ourselves are also human beings worthy of consideration and thoughtfulness – we are not exempt from the same thoughtful treatment that others deserve. The exception to this rule might be when the life of another is at stake – at times like those, a greater level of sacrifice or danger to the self would be warranted.
In case it seems like it might get complicated to weigh and balance the needs of the other versus the cost to the self – it is complicated. This is where the exercise of good requires rational thinking (though unlike Arendt, rational thinking does not create good, it merely supports and sharpens it) – like the exercise of integrity discussed in the previous column, the practice of good and the avoidance of evil takes thought and judgment. It can be said that being evil is easy – all that it takes is a lack of thinking of the existence of the other. However being good takes thought and consideration – being good (and doing good) can be complicated.
One might think that if the root of all evil is thoughtlessness, and the root of all good is thoughtfulness, the all-purpose antidote would be empathy. Makes sense, right? Well – not so fast. More on that in the next column.
Next Week: Feeling Bad Just Isn’t Enough