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  • Eichmann's Kant
  • Carsten Bagge Laustsen and Rasmus Ugilt

1. Distorted Kantianism

What was most disturbing in Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem was his claim that in practice he had followed Kant's categorical imperative. Had Arendt not stated that Eichmann was incapable of moral reflection, that his obedience was “blind”? Arendt believed that Eichmann's being expressed a “banality” of evil, that is, an evil emanating not from a will (to do evil) but from a lack of thinking. Eichmann was not a pathological criminal; “banality” was a quality of his being rather than of his evil, which was “monstrous” (Arendt 1978a, 4). Eichmann followed the law but did so “blindly,” without ethical reflection. He chose not to measure his acts up against moral standards. But how could he then consider himself to be a Kantian? Moreover, how can it at all be of interest to someone concerned with Kantian moral philosophy to deal with the challenge lurking in Eichmann's claim to Kantianism?

It is important to note that Arendt tells us that Eichmann distorted Kant's categorical imperative. She does not claim that Eichmann's use of Kant had totally failed. At any rate, Eichmann needed to legitimize his acts, and he did this by expressing veneration for Kant's moral philosophy. Of course all ethical doctrines can be distorted, and the idea that Kant's philosophy paved the way for the Holocaust is absurd. In fact, one could argue that the “ethical” project of Nazism was more communitarian than deontological in nature. Our point, however, is a different one: by investigating Eichmann's distortion one can illuminate and rephrase the crucial requirements of a Kantian ethics. In this we proceed, in line with other postfoundational approaches, via negativa. Eichmann is investigated as the negative “other” of Kantian moral philosophy, an “other” that the Kantian philosopher must necessarily consider in order to position him- or herself critically.1

“Critical” should here be understood in the proper Kantian sense, meaning the endeavor reason undertakes in order to come to terms with itself. Coming to terms with oneself does not mean finding an absolute or secure foundation but, rather, realizing the aporias inherent in one's own being. Thus the Kantian critical project is a project of finding the limits within which reason is able to operate free of aporias. In the present context of moral philosophy this could easily be taken as the project of finding a way for the actualization of the moral law, of [End Page 166] giving reason room to be active in the phenomenal world. In this way Eichmann seems to be an instance where morality has completely failed in becoming thus actualized. As we shall see it is rather the opposite that is the case: the story of Eichmann is a story of how the moral law is all too easily actualized.

The possibility for Eichmann's distortion is already given in the first formulation of the categorical imperative (to make one's maxim a universal law). The moral law is not obeyed for specific causes but solely because it is a law. The moral act is to be understood not as an expression of the good but as pure duty: “your duty is . . . to do your duty” (Žižek 1996, 79). This, for Eichmann, became the duty to follow the Führer's will. Precisely because this duty was imperative (categorical) he could avoid thinking. For him there existed no difference between the Führer's will and the moral law or, in more general terms, between legality and morality. He could thus recognize his subjection to Hitler's will as an unproblematic act. He had personally sworn him the oath of allegiance, and this included an obligation toward his word of command (Arendt 1992, 149). The Führer's word was given immediately and imperatively. It had the power of the law (Gesetzkraft) and hence was not to be doubted (Arendt 1992, 148).2

What is central here, however, is the role of moral psychology in Kant. There is a connection in Kant between the moral law and the recognition of guilt and sin. What drives the moral subject is...


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