The banality of evil: "obeying the rules" or using them as an excuse?

The banality of evil: “obeying the rules” or using them as an excuse?

Human beings learn to distinguish the bad from the good since childhood, especially with the help of parents who teach them to guide their actions. However, some children explain their bad behavior by saying that their parents told them that their actions were appropriate. As time goes on, children find their way to define such things and gain their understanding and moral principles. Even in adulthood, certain individuals tend to justify their deeds by the fact of being “controlled” by their principal, the state, or other authorities, taking totalitarianism as an example. “A Totalitarian regime is a form of government that theoretically permits no individual freedom and that seeks to subordinate all aspects of individual life to the authority of the state.”(Duignan,2022). Supporting such a regime leads to a total loss of ability to think and make decisions independently, hence people can throw off their responsibility and hide behind their executive. A similar case occurs in Hannah Arendt’s report “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, which raises the problem of “the banality of evil”, committed by Adolf Eichmann, the murderer of six million Jews. Subordinates like Eichmann use laws and orders as an excuse, claim that they act unjustly not by choice, but by order, and do not bear responsibility for their actions. Although they commit evil, such cruel actions also have reasons like being the victim of circumstances: being forced to act according to orders, supporting the belief of “natural selection”, or seeking validation from the executive, therefore being incapable of thinking independently.

Since there is a certain authority, there is no necessity to make decisions and think individually, thus people become unable to produce their own opinion and tend to be dependent on their state. They shift the blame for their actions onto the state or regime and claim that they were powerless to act otherwise. “[Eichmann argues:] what he was accused of were not crimes, but “acts of the state”…” (Arendt, 2006). Meaning that the crimes he had committed were by an order and not by his own will. Doing what is evil or good is no longer Nazi regime followers’ own choice, but a duty that they have to perform. Hence, they start to forget if their deeds are good or not since the understanding of their actions becomes defined as “competent and incompetent.” Consequently, subordinates who live under such regimes cannot act of their own will and, like Adolf Eichmann, become dependent on the commander: “[Fearing of having to] live a leaderless and difficult individual life, [Eichmann] would receive no directives from anybody, no orders and commands…no pertinent ordinances would be there to consult…” (Arendt, 2006).  This confession confirms that Nazis  indeed consider their leader Führer as “the absolute center of the present legal order” (Arendt, 2006).  They rely on his decree, forgetting about their rights to contemplate regardless of the regime they live in.

Committing evil deeds may also stem from thinking that using violence is necessary in terms of self-defense. Nazi regime followers tend to think that doing injustice is better than suffering it, even though it is evil and brings extreme pain and agony to their victims. They consider their acts as defending themselves: as long as they assault first, there would be no one to assault them. No wonder there is such a saying among the people: “The best defense is an attack.” There even was a dedicated slogan in Germany: “der Schicksalskampf des deutschen Volkes”, translated as “the battle of destiny for German people”, meaning, “[the war] was started by destiny and not by Germany… It was a matter of life and death for the Germans, who must annihilate their enemies or be annihilated” (Arendt, 2006). The war was destined by fate, it would have happened anyways, and the only thing Nazi people were concerned about was natural selection, thinking that only the strongest shall stay alive, and not taking into account the fact that their actions were pure tyrannical crimes. They were ready to kill millions of Jewish people in cold blood and did not mind jockeying for the sake of their goal. 

 Absolute admiration for a leader can also serve as a reason for not seeing the consequences of certain actions – a spell that blinds subordinates from distinguishing what is a wish of their executive and what is good or evil in reality. Indeed, Eichmann was not an exception in the ranks of those who fell under such a spell. He desired to be like his idol Adolf Hitler, hence, in pursuit of imitation and validation he lost his own identity, his hopes, and desires, trying to follow Führer’s footsteps. Furthermore, Eichmann wanted German people to take him as a role model, saying: “Act in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it” (Arendt, 2006).  The fact that Adolf Eichmann was obsessed with Hitler was not a secret. His main wish was to have his deeds approved and validated by his idol, no matter if he committed numerous crimes and ignored moral principles. He needed to believe that Hitler would have validated him. “The Führer’s words had the force of law” (Arendt,2006). His orders were taken with total seriousness and determination, just like the laws, and every subordinate was willing to perform the duty. The admiration for the Nazi people’s leader also made them law-abiding citizens, for whom obeying Hitler’s rules and orders was a priority. 

However, humans still can resist the state’s or regime’s pressure and choose to act in ways that align with their moral values and principles. For instance, during the Holocaust, there were numerous instances of people who risked their own lives just to help Jews escape from the Nazis despite the danger they faced. These individuals were not just acting on impulse but were making conscious choices to defy the regime and commit acts of good. Their actions confirm the fact that even in the most oppressive circumstances, people still can decide how to act. Human beings are called ‘individuals’ for a reason, they can think individually and independently of others owing to their uniqueness. “The reason we are called individuals is that we have individual personalities, individual brains, individual ideas…We are all individual people…We have our thoughts…” (KEEPFIGHTING, 2023). The thing every human being should keep in mind is that everyone is unique and has a right to act according to their own will and moral values. Everyone chooses his/her fate. Even people, who live under a totalitarian regime, still have a choice to act well in terms of morality and humanity. 

Although the totalitarian regime of Nazi Germany exerts extreme pressure on people to conform, human beings still have the ability to make decisions whether to act in ways that align with their moral values or blindly obey and execute orders and, like Eichmann, claim that he/she “no longer was a master of his [or her] own deeds” (Arendt,2006). They can choose to resist the oppression of the regime, work actively against it, strive for independence, or simply act in accordance with their moral principles. In any case, individuals cannot simply shift the blame for their actions onto the regime and claim that they could not help it and had no choice but to act otherwise. Being a law-abiding, dedicated, and admiring subordinate does not make people good in terms of morality. Throwing off and not bearing responsibility does not exclude the fact the crimes people commit are inappropriate and even ruthless. On the contrary, it just makes them look more irresponsible and spineless. In addition, obeying orders is not an excuse for committing evil. Individuals have agency, and with agency comes responsibility.



Arendt, H. (2006).Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Classics

Duignan, B. (2022) Totalitarianism. Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 25 February 2023.

KEEPFIGHTING Production (2023). Daily Thoughts #20. “Why are called individuals?” (0:42-0:56) Accessed 5 March 5, 2023.