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3.2.10 – A Lesson Still Unlearned: Arendt and Radical Evil

A Lesson Still Unlearned: Arendt and Radical Evil
Marc Lucht, Virginia Tech

Abstract: Hannah Arendt’s notion of radical evil constitutes an important advance on Kantian ideas about the sources and extent of moral impropriety. For Kant as for many other moral thinkers, the selfish privileging of one’s own interests over those of others threatens to lead to the reduction of others to the status of mere means to one’s own ends. Arendt recognized that even worse than treating others as resources or objects is representing them as superfluous; in the latter case, others are represented not just as possessing value relative to one’s own projects, but as possessing no value at all. This paper lays out Arendt’s analysis of the conditions for the representation of others as superfluous, and argues that this notion of radical evil can illuminate troubling features of contemporary life, especially the anthroposupremacist refusal to acknowledge that sentient non-human animals matter morally.


Moral philosophers reflecting upon the nature of goodness and the conditions for moral responsibility are troubled especially by the moral dangers of selfishness. In Kantian versions of ethics, moral impropriety is connected with the reduction of others to mere means, that is, to tools or resources, who then are ascribed value on the sole basis of their capacity to contribute to or frustrate the realization of one’s own goals. Representing others just in terms of their relation to me and my projects is selfish, tantamount to a violation of their dignity. For thinkers such as Kant, the propensity to do so is evil.i Duty, on the other hand, obligates me to recall that others possess an absolute worth independent of their relation to my interests, and requires me to respect others by representing and treating them not merely as means to my ends, but also as ends in themselves. For Christian thinkers, the sources of sin most often are attributed to selfish desires (such as greed, lust, envy, and gluttony), and the selfless willingness to sacrifice one’s own benefit for others is held up as a great virtue. For utilitarians as well, the cultivation of feelings that motivate one to choose in such a way as to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number, is a cultivation that works against selfishness. Indeed, for most utilitarian thinkers, the goal of morality is not just my own personal happiness, but the well being of all sentient beings: selfishness is liable to lead us astray, for it inclines us to treat our own well being or happiness as more important than that of others. For utilitarians as for Kant, selfishness tempts us to represent or treat others as less important than they are. Most moral philosophy regards selfishness as an important source of moral impropriety or evil, for it brings us to under-value the worth and claims of others in relation to our own. This under-valuing of the worth of others amounts to a kind of practical solipsism, for it is a failure to allow others to really touch us or matter fully for us, it is a failure to acknowledge their lives in the fullness of their reality, significance, and import.ii Arthur Schopenhauer puts the point memorably:

Egoism is colossal; it towers above the world […]. There is no greater contrast than that between the profound and exclusive interest everyone takes in his own self and the indifference with which all others as a rule regard it, similar to the indifference with which he regards them. There is even a comic side to seeing innumerable individuals of whom each regards himself alone as real, at any rate from a practical point of view, and all others to a certain extent as phantoms […]. The absence of all egoistic motivation is […] the criterion of an action of moral worth.iii

Hanna Arendt’s work deals with a wide range of issues, including existentialism, religion, the roots and nature of totalitarianism, the nature of guilt, the politics of her day, and even literary criticism. This essay will offer a few remarks about one important lesson her thought holds for contemporary moral thought. Arendt recognized that the traditional accounts of evil are inadequate to help us understand the moral dimensions of some of the more horrific features of 20th Century history, and I shall suggest that her account offers resources helpful to making sense of elements of our own situation. Especially important is her observation about the inadequacy of traditional accounts of the connection between selfishness and moral impropriety or evil.

Arendt claims that one thing totalitarian horrors such as the Holocaust and Soviet terror make plain is that the categories of moral philosophy are inadequate. Her moral thinking operates within a Kantian framework, but much of what Arendt witnessed could not be fully illuminated by the notion of evil as the mere selfish propensity to use others as means. Borrowing Kant’s language, we often talk about objectifying others, about treating them as objects, when we use them without regard for their dignity or their own interests. For thinkers such as Kant and Schopenhauer, it is selfishness that drives us to do so. Arendt, however, observed something she took to be substantially worse than the reduction of others to mere resources. For assigning value to someone on the sole basis of the extent to which they contribute to the satisfaction of our goals, reducing someone to the status of a thing, even enslaving someone, assigning them a monetary value, and subjecting them to an economy of exchange, nevertheless is still the ascription to that person of some value. We may attend merely to their instrumentality, their worth only in relation to us and our projects, but they still are assigned some worth. What Arendt believed she witnessed was the reduction of humanity not just to tools and objects, treated as if their only value was relative to the interests of someone else, but the reduction of humanity to the value-less, to the status of something with no worth at all. This reduction she calls radical evil.

In a 1946 letter to the philosopher Karl Jaspers, Arendt wrote that, “there is a difference between a man who sets out to murder his old aunt and people who without considering the economic usefulness of their actions at all (the deportations were very damaging to the war effort) built factories to produce corpses.”iv European thought suffers, she wrote to him in 1951,

from the preconception that the most evil things human beings can do arise from the vice of selfishness. Yet we know that the greatest evils or radical evil has nothing to do anymore with such humanly understandable, sinful motives. What radical evil really is I don’t know, but it seems to me it somehow has to do with the following phenomenon: making human beings as human beings superfluous [….]. This happens as soon as all unpredictability – which, in human beings, is the equivalent of spontaneity – is eliminated.v

Arendt’s insight is that the sorts of selfishness that motivate one to treat others merely as resources or obstacles cannot account for the representation of others as without any worth at all. The latter representation is of a magnitude that she takes to constitute not just evil, but a kind of radical evil that traditional moral philosophy failed to anticipate. Her thinking about the nature of radical evil is intended to shed light on the exceptional implications of the horrors of the 20th century, and to enable moral philosophy to come to grips with what she took to be the novel ability of totalitarian regimes to eliminate personality itself.

Arendt’s analysis focuses on conditions that lead to such superfluousness. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she argues that the representation of other persons as superfluous is accomplished in a series of steps. First is the destruction of legal personality. People are placed outside of the protection of the normal legal system, and “total disenfranchisement” is accomplished by a completely arbitrary system of persecution for which anyone at any time is subject to arrest and entirely new categories of crimes are created for no apparent reason, an arbitrary and “constantly fluctuating” party line that “almost daily makes new groups of people available for the concentration camps.”vi Thus she notes that the “people who are the executioners today can easily be transformed into the victims of tomorrow.”vii Total disenfranchisement results also from the creation of stateless groups of people, such as certain kinds of refugees who are deprived of any citizenship. In each case, she argues, what is denied to people are not just particular rights such as that to freedom or speech or life, but something more radical: the very right to have rights, that is, the refusal to recognize that their interests matter at all.

The next step towards the creation of superfluous people is the destruction of moral personality. This is accomplished especially through procedures such as the “consciously organized complicity” of everyone in a regime’s crimes, so that the “distinguishing line between persecutor and persecuted, between murderer and his victim, is constantly blurred.”viii When an entire population is rendered complicit, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. The final step towards rendering people superfluous is the elimination of spontaneity, the elimination of the capacity to “begin something new out of [one’s] own resources.”ix It is such spontaneity that enables one to adopt or create a perspective on the world which is different from that of the ruling ideology, that enables exactly that pluralism of perspectives which is so troubling to those who regard the world as a single, logical, ordered, predictable system. Arendt thought of concentration camps as laboratories in which “human beings in their infinite variety,” as she said in a 1953 speech, could be reduced to an homogenous “bundle of reactions that, given the same set of conditions, will always react in the same way.”x “This process,” she said, “is carried so far that any one of these bundles of reactions can be exchanged for any other […]. Pavlov’s dog, trained to eat not when it was hungry but when it heard a bell ring, was a perverted animal […]. Totalitarian government’s failure or success […] depends on its ability to transform human beings into perverted animals.”xi For Arendt, spontaneity and the distinctive individuality it makes possible are essential to what it is to be a human being capable of making moral claims recognizable by others. To eliminate autonomy is to eliminate personality, and is the attempt to eliminate the source of moral worth.

Arendt’s discussions of the reduction of human beings to superfluousness focus primarily on what was done to those people and how. What I find especially intriguing, however, is the question her thinking raises about how others are permitted or taken to matter, and what conditions make possible phenomena such as the morally catastrophic failure to acknowledge that others have any worth at all. Perhaps Arendt would not agree with this, but it seems to me that the stripping of legal and moral personality and the elimination of what she took to be a distinctively human autonomy or spontaneity make possible the treating of others as having no value at all because in these circumstances it is very difficult to recognize or see them as dignified or as having any worth. This may be one reason why she says that the camps were ideal training grounds on which “perfectly normal men were trained to be full fledged members of the SS,”xii for the camps provided environments where one could be habituated to seeing others as predictable mechanisms or mere ciphers without value.

Arendt’s thought is anthropocentric in orientation. A great deal of more recent moral thinking has exposed the pernicious limitations of anthropocentric bias.xiii But Arendt’s work offers great resources for non-anthropocentric moral reflection as well. Here I want to suggest that it is precisely the sorts of deprivations she has in mind that have brought us to a situation where all too often we are able to regard not only large numbers of human beings but also vast numbers of sentient non-human animals as superfluous. This is why, for instance, we have permitted ourselves to become complicit in practices such as the employment of live baby male chickens as packing filler, and their being discarded as mere industrial byproduct in dumpsters and incinerators, and the panoply of other horrors associated with factory farming, and may help to explain our all too frequent indifference to the human victims of genocidal practices around the world, and to widespread laws in the United States criminalizing human homelessness and even the feeding of the homeless. To dwell briefly on just one of many possible examples, early in 2001 the United Kingdom saw an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, a contagious but treatable, easily preventable, and rarely fatal viral infection. In an attempt to control the disease, between February and September of 2001 vast numbers of non-human animals were slaughtered and burnt. Estimates range between 6.5 million and well over 10 million sheep, cattle, and pigs. The majority of these animals were not infected; as the newspaper The Telegraph reported, “About 500,000 lambs were killed in the light lamb disposal plan because they were considered unsellable.”xiv Matthew Scully writes that reports “described terrified cattle being chased by sharpshooters, clambering over one another to escape. Some were still stirring or blinking a day after being shot.”xv He notes that, “These animals, millions of them not even infected, were all killed only because their market value had been diminished and because trade policies required it – because, in short, under the circumstances it was the quick and convenient thing to do. By the one measure we now apply to these creatures, they had all become worthless. For them, the one difference between what happened and what awaited them anyway was one of timing.”xvi Whereas once non-human animals regularly were integrated into human life as obstacles, slaves, and resources, increasingly animals have come to be regarded as having no real value at all. Once their utility or market value evaporates, they are superfluous and disposable.

At issue are not merely the ways in which animals are subjected to the practices of factory farming; indeed, most of the animals who are part of the meat industry have a value to the businesses that operate the farms and it is only when their market value disappears that they come to be treated as superfluous. More significant here is the fact that all too many people regard the interests and well being of those and many other creatures with utter indifference. For many if not most people within societies such as ours, these creatures and their interests just do not matter at all. A number of thinkers have pointed out parallels between the normalized treatment of non-human animals and the Holocaust. Perhaps one reason many people find the analogy compelling is because of the sheer scale of the industry of death: In the United States alone, 115 million pigs are slaughtered for food every year. That is more than 300,000 pigs killed every day. The conditions in which most of these pigs live and die are conditions of incredible suffering. Every year in this country, 38 million cows and calves are killed for food, and more than 8 billion chickens. Another reason thinkers have claimed to recognize an analogy between the Holocaust and the routine treatment of animal life may be the hubris making possible such practices as well as entrenched attitudes of speciesism and anthroposupremacy. The Nobel Prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer was a Polish Jew who immigrated to the United States when he recognized the rising threat of National Socialist Germany. Soon after, most of his family was murdered in the Holocaust. As his saintly character Herman Gombiner puts the point, human beings “have convinced themselves that man, the worst transgressor of all the species, is the crown of creation. All other creatures were created merely to provide him with food, pelts, to be tormented, exterminated. In relation to them, all people are Nazis; for the animals, [the world] is an eternal Treblinka.”xvii Arendt’s notion of radical evil enables us to recognize another set of considerations that may make such an analogy compelling: in the case of widespread indifference to the interests of sentient animals, and, if Arendt is correct, in the case of the Holocaust as well, entire populations are regarded as if they are superfluous.

There is a long tradition of thinkers arguing for the immorality of the human exploitation of other animals. To take one recent and prominent example, Gary L. Francione argues that assigning to sentient creatures the status of chattel property makes possible practices in which animals are treated as things and resources, and thereby constitutes a violation of their interests and personhood.xviii He argues that speciesism is analogous to racism, and that permitting modes of treatment of non-human animals that would be impermissible with respect to human beings is merely arbitrary and hence unjustified. Francione writes:

[…] there is no characteristic that serves to distinguish humans from all other animals for the purposes of denying to animals the one right that we extend to all humans [ i.e., the right to not be property]. Whatever attribute we may think makes all humans special and thereby deserving of the right not to be the property of others is shared by nonhumans. More important, even if there are uniquely human characteristics, some humans [e.g., infants, the senile, insane, mentally disabled] will not possess those characteristics, but we would never think of using such humans as resources. In the end, the only difference between humans and animals is species, and species is not a justification for treating animals as property any more than is race a justification for human slavery.xix

Employing Kant’s moral categories, Francione claims that “the moral universe is limited to only two kinds of beings: persons and things,” and he argues that if “we extend the right not to be property to animals, then animals will become moral persons.”xx Thus Francione decries the way in which the property status of non-human animals results in their being reduced to the status of legal and moral thinghood, and he argues that any attempt to demonstrate that human beings ought to be treated as ends in themselves whereas other animals may be treated merely as things falls prey to unjustifiable speciesism. For Kant, the reduction of rational beings to the status of things constitutes a violation of their dignity and the propensity to do so is the evil lurking in the human heart. For Francione, the reduction of sentient beings to the status of things is a violation of their dignity and constitutes a great moral wrong. Francione does not use the language of “evil” as Kant was willing to do, but it is clear nevertheless that for him most human beings are guilty of grave moral improprieties because of their treatment of animals, and that any non-vegan culture sanctions as a matter of course practices that are morally impermissible. Yet for Francione, as for Kant, moral offense arises when dignified creatures are treated as things; Arendt gives some reason to think that the situation is even worse than Francione recognizes. For animals in many societies are not merely reduced to things and resources, but often are regarded as superfluous, as possessing no value at all. If Arendt’s notion of radical evil is cogent, then we must consider the possibility that societies in which human and other sentient creatures are deprived of the right to have their interests respected sanction crimes of greater magnitude than evil.

What is it that has brought us to the point where human beings in cultures like ours are able to represent sentient human and non-human living creatures as entirely without value? What makes it possible for so many of us to fail to recognize other sentient beings as mattering, and as making moral claims upon us? Whence this moral blindness? Perhaps once again Arendt offers a helpful clue. She offers us a way to understand that our practices have obscured our moral vision. Once human and other living beings are deprived of legal personhood, we begin to be habituated to seeing them as mattering less than otherwise we might. Once the creation of so many of the products we purchase depends upon the use and deaths of animals, we are all complicit. When animals are confined to living situations where they are afforded nearly no options for movement or choice, when they are subjected to the managerial intensity of modern industrialized farming, they will increasingly come to appear as little more than organic robots behaving in stereotyped ways. When practices of animal exploitation, and animal exploitation supporting the most trivial of purposes, are integrated into our daily lives in the most routine ways, such that it comes to appear entirely normal that animals would be made to suffer excruciating pain and horrific deaths merely because we happen to like the way that certain garments look and feel, or because we prefer the appearance of certain cosmetic products, or because we enjoy the taste of a particular food, then we may become habituated to attend to them as little more than phantoms making no claims upon us and possessing no value other than as potential meat, fur coats, or wall decorations. If animals are reduced to thinghood, if their only value is taken to be something like market value, when even that purely instrumental value is lost, they all too easily come to be seen as worthless. When representations of animals as mere automata continue to be incorporated into school textbooks (representations which blithely ignore the implications of the Darwinian model of evolutionary biology and a wealth of research from cognitive ethology), when the language we thoughtlessly employ includes words such as “pests” and “vermin,” and stock phrases such as “They’re just animals,” and when so much of our culinary and economic practice incentivizes us to work very assiduously to avoid facing up to the fact that vast numbers of non-human animals are capable of suffering and do live lives that matter to them in some way, it becomes all too easy to fall prey to the same failure of which Arendt accused Adolf Eichmann: failing to attend closely, reflect, and think or imagine oneself into the situation and point of view of someone else.xxi I would like to close by suggesting that we still have a lot to learn from Arendt’s thinking about radical evil, and ought to reflect carefully on the many ways in which we have as yet failed to heed some of the most important lessons of the 20th century and still evade facing up to our responsibility to ensure that those who are most vulnerable be allowed to matter.


i See, for instance, Kant, Immanuel. Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Translated by Theodore Greene and Hoyt Hudson. New York: Harper & Row, 1992, especially pp. 31 – 41, and Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason. Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1929, pp. 73/76 – 74-77).

ii Kant connects selfishness with solipsism in Kant, Immanuel. The Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Mary Gregor. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 433/229 and p. 450/245.

iii Schopenhauer, Arthur. On the Basis of Morality. Translated by E.F.J. Payne. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2004, p. 132 and p. 140, Schopenhauer’s emphasis deleted.

iv Kohler, Lotte and Hans Saner, editors. Hannah Arendt/Karl Jaspers Correspondence 1926 – 1969. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992, p.69.

v Hannah Arendt/Karl Jaspers Correspondence, p.166.

vi Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1979, p. 451.

vii Arendt, Hannah. “Mankind and Terror.” In Essays in Understanding: 1930 -1954, edited by Jerome Kohn, 297 – 306. New York: Schocken Books, 1994, p. 303.

viii The Origins of Totalitarianism, pp. 452 – 3.

ix The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 455.

xMankind and Terror,” p. 304.

xiMankind and Terror,” p. 304.

xii The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 454.

xiii See, for instance, Francione, Gary L. Animals, Property, and the Law. USA: Temple University Press, 1995, Hatley, James. “The Uncanny Goodness of Being Edible to Bears.” Rethinking Nature: Essays in Environmental Philosophy. Ed. Bruce Foltz and Robert Frodeman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, Rachels, James. Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, Rollin, Bernard. Animal Rights and Human Morality. Canada: Prometheus Books, 1992, the essays contained in Sessions, George. Deep Ecology for the 21st Century. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc., 1995, Steiner, Gary. Anthropocentrism and its Discontents: The Moral Status of Animals in the History of Western Philosophy. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2010, and Wise, Stephen M. Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals. USA: Perseus Books, 1999.

xiv Uhlig, Robert. “10 Million Animals were Slaughtered in Foot and Mouth Cull.” The Telegraph. January 23, 2002. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1382356/10-million-animals-were-slaughtered-in-foot-and-mouth-cull.html

xv Scully, Matthew. Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call To Mercy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002, p.xi.

xvi Dominion, pp. ix – x.

xvii Singer, Issac Bashevis. “The Letter Writer.” The Collected Stories. New York: The Noonday Press, 1996, p.271. Attempts to draw parallels between the human treatment of animals and the Holocaust unsurprisingly are controversial. For illuminating discussions of the debate, see the essays reflecting on portions of J.M Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello in Gutman, Amy, editor, The Lives of Animals. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999, and in Cavell, Stanley, Cora Diamond, John McDowell, Ian Hacking, and Cary Wolfe, Philosophy and Animal Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. See also Jacques Derrida’s consideration of the analogy between genocide and factory farming in Derrida, Jacques. “The Animal that Therefore I AM (More to Follow).” Trans. David Wills. Critical Inquiry 28 (Winter 2002): 369-418, especially pp. 394-5.

xviii See, for instance, Francione, Gary L. “Animals – Property or Persons?” Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. Ed. Cass R. Sunstein and Martha C. Nussbaum. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

xix Francione, pp. 130-1.

xx Francione, p. 131.

xxi See Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, revised and enlarged edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1994, especially p. 49.



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