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The Evil of Banality

On The Life and Death Importance of Thinking

Elizabeth Minnich

How is it possible to murder a million people one by one? Hatred, fear, madness of one or many people cannot explain it. No one can be so possessed for the months, even years, required for genocides, slavery, deadly economic exploitation, sexual trafficking of children. In The Evil of Banality, Elizabeth Minnich argues for a tragic yet hopeful explanation. “Extensive evil,” her term for systematic horrific harm-doing, is actually carried out, not by psychopaths, but by people like your quiet next door neighbor, your ambitious colleagues. There simply are not enough moral monsters for extensive evil, nor enough saints for extensive good. In periods of extensive evil, people little different from you and me do its work for no more than a better job, a raise, the house of the family “disappeared” last week. So how can there be hope? The seeds of such evils are right there in our ordinary lives. They are neither mysterious nor demonic. If we avoid romanticizing and so protecting ourselves from responsibility for the worst and the best of which humans are capable, we can prepare to say no to extensive evil – to act accurately, together, and above all in time, before great harm-doing has become the daily work of ‘normal’ people. « less more »
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Pages: 256Size: 6 1/4 x 9 3/8
978-1-4422-7595-9 • Hardback • December 2016 • $85.00 • (£54.95)
978-1-4422-7630-7 • Paperback • December 2016 • $29.95 • (£19.95)
978-1-4422-7597-3 • eBook • December 2016 • $28.99 • (£19.95)
Elizabeth Minnich received her doctorate from the New School under the direction of Hannah Arendt. Following twenty-five years as a Core Professor in the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the Union Institute, she now divides her time between Charlotte, NC, where she is professor of moral philosophy at Queens University, and Washington, DC, where she is a Senior Scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She is the author of Transforming Knowledge (Temple University Press, 1990, 2005) and co-author of The Fox in the Henhouse: How Privatization Threatens Democracy (Berrett-Koehler, 2005).
Introduction:What Were They Thinking?

Chapter 1: Truth and Fiction: Camus’
The Plague
Chapter 2: Thinking about Not-Thinkingh

Chapter 3: Changing Minds
Chapter 4: Escaping Explanations, Excuses
Chapter 5: Meaning, Truth, Rationality, Knowledge, and Thinking
Chapter 6: Romanticizing Evil
Chapter 7: Intensive Evil, Extensive Evil
Chapter 8: The Ordinary for Good and Ill
Chapter 9: Phillip Hallie: It Takes a Village
Chapter 10: Preparing for Extensive Goodness?
Chapter 11: Looking for Good Beyond the Village

Chapter 12: The Banality of Goodness?
Chapter 13: Seeding Prepared Ground
Chapter 14: Large-Scale Enclosures: Meaning Systems
Chapter 15: Physical Enclosures of Bodies, Minds
Chapter 16: Laying out the Strands

Afterword: Teaching Thinking
Bibliography: Sources and Resources
Author Biography
The Evil of Banality is a subtle, original contribution to a literature that attempts to make sense of people’s evil-doings. The book approaches its main question, which it sets as guiding a years-long personal quest for an answer, from an Arendtian observation of Eichmann, which is that a necessary condition of evildoing is thoughtlessness. It refines this observation with Camus’ existentialist observations of choice. And it narrates an answer to its question using many and different examples, reflecting on them, and drawing conceptual distinctions that illuminate what banality is and how it is related to evil.”
Bat-Ami Bar On, Professor of Philosophy and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Binghamton University

This is a brilliant, wonderfully written, and tightly argued book. The key concepts of intensive v. extensive evil and intensive v. extensive good are exceptionally useful tools for sorting through the ethical dimensions of ordinary lives in a way that puts all of us on notice that it is simply not sufficient to use categories of the ‘unthinkable’ to distance ourselves from learning to think well, both separately and together.”
Sara M. Evans, Regents Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Minnesota

“While I believe it is an ever-present possibility that books can actually make us better people, I see it as quite rare that they either try to or are successful in doing so: I am convinced that this one can.”
Stephen Bloch-Schulman, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Elon University

"Very wise and honest book with a strong moral message. The sign of hope for those who still believe that education should immunize people against evil and make them more open for good. The author, identifying thoughtlessness as the most dangerous state of human mind, gives us also a hope for saving our souls as teachers. “The Evil of Banality,” like Cicero’s “De oratore,” reminds us that much more important is to concentrate on how we teach, than on what we teach. The best thing that can happen to everybody who believes in freedom and humanity is to think together with a person such as Elizabeth K. Minnich. This book allows you to do exactly that."
Jerzy Axer, Director of Collegium Artes Liberales, University of Warsaw

“This is a time when ‘The Fragility of Goodness’ is frightening. We need great thinkers like Martha Nussbaum and Elizabeth Minnich to think with. The Evil of Banality is vital reading for those charged with planning a less fragile future for our societies and institutions.”
Jan Parker, Editor-in-Chief, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education: an international journal of theory, research, and practice