• Are All Big Four Partners Evil Or Just Leadership? Pondering The Problem of Evil

    By • Feb 23rd, 2014 • Category: Food for Thought, Pure Content

    This is the text of my final paper for MLAP 33001 (Autumn 13), The Problem of Evil: From Job to the Present taught by Professor Stephen Meredith. I am currently enrolled in a Masters in Liberal Arts program at the University of Chicago. (If I ever retire it will be to teach.)

    We were required to answer two questions:

    Part 1: Does Kant’s definition or Augustine’s and Aquinas’s definition of evil as privatio boni in subjecto (privation of the good in a subject) describe [one of the subjects discussed in the course] better?

    Part 2: Are disease and mortality necessary evils that must be a part of any existence that can properly be called human?  In brief, would there be any “down-side” to the elimination of all human diseases?

    I chose to discuss Adolf Eichmann in the first question because one of the assigned books, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, resonated with me. I could not help thinking about the excuses my fellow professionals make for why they do not stand up and point out fraud and corruption in the course of their work. Auditing is not a life or death situation, but the profound financial and reputational losses inflicted by a monster fraudster like Madoff, for example, resulted in many people losing their will to live, even Madoff’s own son.

    Depending on whom you ask, the Nazi “Final Solution” logistics czar Adolf Eichmann was either a pathological monster or an efficient, thoughtless, banal, evildoing bureaucrat—the embodiment of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” as introduced in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961 was broadcast to the world. Israeli leaders such as Ben Gurion used it to push the message that a fanatical anti-Semitism had motivated the Nazis and that anti-Semitism still threatened Israel. To make this argument, Eichmann’s crime had to be against Jews specifically, not “crimes against humanity”. (The Nazis had also persecuted homosexuals, gypsies, Communists and socialists.)

    Arendt, however, saw a “terribly and terrifyingly normal” man, not the depraved monster prosecutors portrayed. In an earlier work on totalitarianism Arendt followed Kant: Evil is essentially radical in form. Eichmann challenged these assumptions. Eichmann was a “new type of criminal, who is actually hostis generic humani . . . [and] commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.”

    Eichmann blamed the philosopher Emmanuel Kant for his actions. Arendt says Eichmann unexpectedly declared, during the police examination after his capture in Argentina that “he had lived his whole life according to Kant’s moral precepts, and especially according to a Kantian definition of duty.” Immanuel Kant writes that “[w]e call a human being evil . . . not because he performs actions that are evil (contrary to the law), but because these are so constituted that they allow the inference of evil maxims in him.”

    Does Eichmann’s “evil” describe him or what he did during World War II? Is Eichmann’s evil caused by a supernatural force operating in the world, something born within him or by something he chose himself?

    I recently saw another film, “The Last of the Unjust,” by Claude Lanzmann. His 1985 work Shoah is one of the best films about the Holocaust. This new film is about Benjamin Murmelstein, a Viennese rabbi who was interviewed by Lanzmann for hours back in 1975 as part of the Shoah project but never made it into that film. Murmelstein was one of the Jewish elders who led the Jewish community during the Third Reich. He had a close working relationship with Adolf Eichmann and became the Jewish leader at Theresienstadt, a Czech concentration camp the Nazis used as propaganda.

    NPR explains how “the pudgy, bespectacled, hyper-verbal Murmelstein” told his side of the story to Lanzmann.

    “…after the war, when he was being interrogated by Czech authorities, one official asked, “How come you’re alive?” Murmelstein’s retort was in kind: “How come you’re alive?” The very fact of Murmelstein’s survival was held against him; if he had managed to get through the war, it must have been because he had carried out the orders of the Nazis to their satisfaction. He had been forced to organize deportations from Theresienstadt to what he thought of solely as “the east” (but which, as he learned near the end of the war, was Auschwitz), and it was as if his own survival was the reward for this diabolical bargain.”

    Take what you will from this horrific example from another time. Ask yourself, “Are all partners in Big Four firms complicit in the industry’s betrayal of its public duty and the corruption of its obligations to investors or just the leadership?” (I was actually asked this same question by a Stanford graduate student a few weeks ago. For my answer you’ll have to invite me to speak.)

    Part 1: Does Kant’s definition, or Augustine’s and Aquinas’s definition of evil as privatio boni in subjecto (privation of the good in a subject), describe Adolf Eichmann better? The Nazi “Final Solution” logistics czar Adolf Eichmann is either a pathological monster or an efficient, thoughtless, banal, evildoing bureaucrat. What kind of “evil” was Eichmann? Was his evil caused by a supernatural force operating in the world, something born in him or by an evil like rabid anti-Semitism he chose via free will? Eichmann liked to blame Kant, but the answer is closer to St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Philosopher Hannah Arendt who chronicled Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1960 for the New Yorker may disagree on both counts. 

    St. Augustine taught that we are all capable of evil because that is the character of human beings. Hannah Arendt, in a review of The Devil’s Share[1] argued against the Augustinian idea that good and evil are inherent to the human condition. Eichmann’s evil alludes to St. Augustine and Aquinas privatio boni in subjecto, however, because Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann as ordinary and “banal” warns us that any man is capable of doing evil under the “right” conditions.

    Israel’s worldwide broadcast of Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961[2] carried a message that fanatical anti-Semitism had motivated Eichmann and the Nazis. Hannah Arendt published a book-length account of her earlier New Yorker articles in 1963 entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. [3] Arendt saw a “terribly and terrifyingly normal” man, not the depraved monster Israeli prosecutors tried to portray. The trial obscured “the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught usthe lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil”.[4] Eichmann was a “new type of criminal. . . [and] commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong.”[5]

    Eichmann declared[6] during the police examination after his capture in Argentina “he had lived his whole life according to Kant’s moral precepts, and especially according to a Kantian definition of duty.” The Kantian “categorical imperative” expresses a moral principle that is entirely free of personal, self-centered inclinations. The term “radical evil” comes from the first section of Kant’s book, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason[7], in a section entitled “Man is Evil by Nature”. He writes that “[w]e call a human being evil . . . not because he performs actions that are evil (contrary to the law), but because these are so constituted that they allow the inference of evil maxims in him. In order … to call a human being evil, it must be possible to infer a priori from a number of consciously evil actions, or even from a single one, an underlying evil maxim.” According to Kant, a “human being that is “evil” is an individual that is “conscious of the moral law and yet has incorporated into [his] maxim the (occasional) deviation from it.”

    Prior to the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, St. Augustine and Leibniz, who echoed Augustine, dominated discussions about the existence and form of evil in the world. Voltaire in Candide mocks Leibniz’ claim that a world where the Lisbon earthquake could happen could be the “best of possible worlds.” And then comes Kant writing we are not innately good or evil because then the creation of evil would have to be attributed to God. “Man himself must make or have made himself into whatever, in a moral sense, whether good or evil, he is to become.”[8]

    Arendt first makes the claim “that the terror of radical evil and total domination is possible through the perversion of the symbolic dimension of the Law, that is, a human being becomes its embodiment, its sovereign will,” in Origins in Totalitarianism in 1951.[9] Was Eichmann really a Kant man? Eichmann had distorted the categorical imperative in the first formulation (to make one’s maxim a universal law). “In Kant’s philosophy, that source [of the law] was practical reason; in Eichmann’s household use of him, it was the will of the Fuhrer”.[10]

    Eichmann is no victim of a Manichean “God versus Satan”, black/white, evil/good struggle either. Arendt’s view of “radical evil” is a capacity that does not require a demonic nature. Scholars like Muchnik[11] defend Kant’s position—and Arendt’s— that radical evil is not diabolical evil, but rather a tendency to place the claims of self-love before the moral law.

    Eichmann acknowledged that once he began carrying out the Final Solution, he stopped living according to Kantian principles. “He no longer ‘was master of his own deeds,’ and . . . he ‘was unable to change anything’”[12]. In “Moral Evil and International Relations”[13] Nicholas Rengger and Renee Jeffrey propose that “Arendt’s work signaled a distinct shift in the conceived relationship between evil and agency from a notion of radical evil, whereby agents responsible for an evil act are themselves considered “evil,” to the designation of the action, and not the person responsible for it, as “evil.”” In Arendt’s postscript she wrote: “In its judgment the court naturally conceded that such a crime could be committed only by a giant bureaucracy using the resources of government. But in so far as it remains a crime – and that, of course, is the premise for a trial – all the cogs in the machinery are transformed back into perpetrators, that is to say into human beings.”[14]

    Did Arendt get Eichmann right? She didn’t think Eichmann’s anti-Semitism, as evidenced by remarks made in the Sassen tapes[15] —recordings of conversations between Willem Sassen, a Dutch Nazi and journalist, and Eichmann in Argentina—was the central motivation for his evil actions. Arendt was criticized for that position. Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, wrote[16] that Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann “violates everything we know about the Nature of Man.… No person could have joined the Nazi Party, let alone the S.S., who was not at the very least a vicious anti-Semite …”

    The Sassen tapes do portray Eichmann as an ardent anti-Semite. Eichmann expresses reservations about killing, but not about killing Jews. But anti-Semitism alone did not explain sufficiently to Arendt how, or why, Eichmann so easily overcame his initial resistance to the Final Solution. Arendt portrays Eichmann as a “joiner,” a conformist, “a leaf in the whirlwind of time”. [17] He thrived on the power and meaning derived from belonging to the Nazi party and from being part of its grand plan. To Arendt, this “insecurity” more than anything else drove Eichmann’s actions during the war.

    Eichmann’s evil was thoughtlessness, a willful refusal to think, according to Arendt in service to pleasing his superiors and progressing in his career. Arendt wrote[18] “when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché,” and “his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” This shallowness is what Arendt calls “banality”. Cliché facilitated Eichmann’s participation in a social evil more profound, on a grander scale and more destructive than anything seen before. [19]

    An excerpt[20] from the Sassen tapes published in Life magazine in 1960 shows how un-thoughtful Eichmann was about the brutality of the Final Solution, even early on. In a description of his first encounter with the murder of Jews he talks, matter-of-factly,[21] about the remnants of a massacre he’d witnessed: “I was so close that later I found bits of brains splattered on my long leather coat. My driver helped me remove them. Then we returned to Berlin.”

    Societal conditions—in Eichmann’s case Nazi Germany—can systematically make moral judgment difficult, if not impossible or unnecessary, according to Arendt. Eichmann’s extreme case of thoughtlessness does reveal something about evil in general: “…such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man”. According to Arendt, however, “it was a lesson, neither an explanation of the phenomenon nor a theory about it.”[22]

    Part 2: Are disease and mortality necessary evils that must be a part of any existence that can properly be called human?  In brief, would there be any “down-side” to the elimination of all human diseases?

    A world without disease and mortality would be an existence that cannot properly be called human. You may believe that a cosmos regulated by natural law must inevitably also create, sometimes assisted by human beings with free will, suffering and death through disease, natural disaster and environmental destruction. You may instead believe that mankind is flawed because of the sin of Adam and Eve so suffering and, maybe even evil, are necessary conditions to purify our souls, develop our character, and grow spiritually and psychologically. You may even think that this is “the best of all possible worlds” because it is God’s creation, however painful that world must necessarily be. In any case, disease and mortality are essential to this human life. They’re a mirror image of new life, health and longevity. Symmetry requires both, whether that symmetry is imposed by natural law, divine intervention or some combination of the two.

    We seek meaning for suffering, disease and death because of its inexplicable randomness. Live long enough and you’ll see there is no quid pro quo. A virtuous life rarely, with any predictable odds, produces enough currency to pay your way out of disease or death. Wicked, evil, thoughtless people that cause pain and suffering for others do not suffer themselves nearly often enough. Anton Chigurh tells us in the film[23] No Country For Old Men that it’s pointless to expect otherwise:

    Anton Chigurh: And you know what’s going to happen now. You should admit your situation. There would be more dignity in it.
    Carson Wells: You go to hell.
    Anton Chigurh: [Chuckles] Allright. Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?

    It’s enough to cause some to reject the existence of an omniscient and omnipotent God. But the alternative—that a benevolent God allows pain and suffering on earth, even of innocents, because there will be some vague and uncertain “harmony” in the afterlife—should be more troubling. As Ivan Karamazov says in The Brothers Karamazov, “It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in the stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears, to ‘dear, kind God!’”

    And yet, St. Augustine tells us in City of God[24] “when the good and the wicked suffer alike, the identity of their suffering does not mean that there is no difference between them. Though the sufferings are the same, the sufferers remain different. Virtue and vice are not the same, even if they undergo the same torment… the violence which assails good men to test them, to cleanse, and purify them, effects in the wicked their condemnation, ruin, and annihilationwhat matters is the nature of the sufferer, not the nature of the sufferings.”

    How does this work? In the Gospel of John, chapter 9 Jesus was challenged with the question of why a certain man was born blind. Was it because of his sin or his parents’? “Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”[25] Then Jesus healed the man. C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain[26] explains this: “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”


    [1] In a review of Denis de Rougemont’s The Devil’s Share in Partisan Review 12, no. 2 (1945): 259-60; reproduced in Arendt, Essays in Understanding, 133-35.

    [2] On the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Eichmann trial, the Israel State Archives presented a selection of documents related to the Eichmann affair in all its varied aspects. They can be found here. http://www.archives.gov.il/ArchiveGov_Eng/Publications/ElectronicPirsum/EichmanTrial/EichmanTrialIntroduction.htm

    [3] Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem. Penguin. com, 1963.

    [4] Arendt, Eichmann, 252

    [5] Arendt, Eichmann, 276

    [6] Arendt, Eichmann, 135, 136

    [7] Kant, Immanuel. 1998, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason: And Other Writings. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy.  Boston: Cambridge University Press.

    [8] Kant, Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. And Other Writings.

    [9] “Radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous. The manipulators of this system believe in their own superfluousness as much as in that of all others and the totalitarian murderers are all the more dangerous because they do not care if they themselves are alive or dead, if they ever lived or never were born.” Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

    [10] Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 136.

    [11] Muchnik, Pablo. Kant’s Theory of Evil: An Essay on the Dangers of Self-love and the Aprioricity of History. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

    [12] Arendt, Eichmann, 136.

    [13] Rengger, Nicholas J., and Renee Jeffery. “Moral Evil and International Relations.” SAIS Review 25, no. 1 (2005): 3-16.

    [14] Arendt, Eichmann, 289

    [15] According to the Israeli Archives page, “One of the interesting issues arising during the collection of evidence related to the ‘Sassen Document’, an interview conducted by Willem Sassen, a Dutch journalist with a Nazi past, with Eichmann in Argentina in 1956. In December 1960 ‘Life’ magazine published excerpts from the interview, and it was revealed that there was more damaging material there than in the statements by Eichmann in his interrogation.”

    [16] Barglow, Raymond. Film Review: Hannah Arendt and the “Banality of Evil”. Tikkun, June 10, 2013

    [17] Arendt, Eichmann, 32

    [18] Arendt, Eichmann, 49.

    [19] A recent essay by Dan Rhodes and David Kline in TheOtherJournal.com likens Eichmann’s use of cliché to the sorry state of today’s political discourse. “What we think is most problematic about the current state of political discourse is the degree to which both sides are increasingly dependent upon recycling clichés and stock phrases (under the auspices of talking points) in order to appear as if they have real answers to the problems of political life.” http://theotherjournal.com/2012/03/15/the-banal-road-to-perdition-cliche-political-failure-and-what-the-tea-party-can-teach-us/

    [20] Berkowitz, Roger, Excerpts From The Sassen papers, The blog of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, July 12, 2013. http://www.hannaharendtcenter.org/?p=11112

    [21] The language is reminiscent of two scenes from the Coen brothers film No Country For Old Men, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. In one, the killer Anton Chigurh is on the phone with the husband of a woman he’s just murdered:

    Anton Chigurh: I know where you are.
    Llewelyn Moss: Yeah? Where am I?
    Anton Chigurh: You’re in the hospital across the river, but that’s not where I’m going. Do you know where I’m going? [blood flows on the floor, and so Chigurh lifts his feet and rests them on the bed]
    Llewelyn Moss: Yeah, I know where you’re going.
    Anton Chigurh: Alright.
    Llewelyn Moss: You know she won’t be there.
    Anton Chigurh: It doesn’t make any difference where she is.

    In another scene, the Sherriff ends a soliloquy about some dreams he’s just had with the line, “And then I woke up.”

    [22] Arendt, Eichmann, 288.

    [23] No country for old men. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2008.

    [24] Augustine, Saint. The city of God. Vol. 2. T. & T. Clark, 1888.

    [25] Standard King James Version (Pure Cambridge) http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/John-Chapter-9/

    [26] Lewis, Clive Staples. The problem of pain. HarperCollins, 2009.

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    8 Responses »

    1. Leges Sine Moribus Vanae . Interesting take on the abuse of evildoing bureaucrats hiding under the manipulation and complexity of commerce.. Aurelius Augustinus and Aquinas of interest in “Just War” i think the thought kings would do themselves a favor in thinking Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

    2. I am no great fan of the Big Four–especially in light of their record of failed audits. But your question in the context of unimaginable PHYSICAL evil at the hand of the most sadistic “machine of evil” is a loooong stretch.

    3. @Peter Goldman

      I understand your distaste for the comparison and I risked that in making it. But I took the course to understand why men are evil. ( I believe evil exists and is inherent in some.) This passage of my paper may explain a bit why I could not stop thinking about our profession as I read the book by Arendt:

      “Arendt portrays Eichmann as a “joiner,” a conformist, “a leaf in the whirlwind of time”. [17] He thrived on the power and meaning derived from belonging to the Nazi party and from being part of its grand plan. To Arendt, this “insecurity” more than anything else drove Eichmann’s actions during the war.

      Eichmann’s evil was thoughtlessness, a willful refusal to think, according to Arendt in service to pleasing his superiors and progressing in his career. Arendt wrote[18] “when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché,” and “his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” This shallowness is what Arendt calls “banality”. Cliché facilitated Eichmann’s participation in a social evil more profound, on a grander scale and more destructive than anything seen before. [19]”

    4. Big 4 partners know that they make vastly more money by lying, cheating, and stealing in their opinions. So far, there has been no downside. No investigation by any state Board of Accountancy has been initiated. We’ve got to start promoting the stockowner/investor interest. Big 4 partners make plenty already.

    5. Leges Sine Moribus Vanae (“laws without morals are useless,”) the problem is in the information age the auditors and corporations are playing in the realm where supporting cover thy A$$es by the letter not intent of the law. As the Big 4 invoke or verify pushing the edge ( shopping tax, intellectual property, recognizing assets, inventory, beneficial offshore ownership, Swiss accounts, IMF frauds, ect). The reality of cover thy A$$ is a problem.. I think it very difficult when the major institutional holders are pushed for returns not safety, Jobs, or the like.. ESOPS could be an answer but Those 7 deadly sins kick in…. loooong stretch disagree lots of pride, envy,gluttony and greed are the big 4…

    6. I don’t know enough about Eichmann to express an opinion. A brain scan with a professional assessment would be helpful. To me it is all a brain thing. For example, some people are incapable of empathy. Call them evil, but do they have a choice? I certainly think there is value in debating what constitutes evil and how it comes to be. However, I wish we could spend a significant amount of time examining what we are. We are a species evolved from a primate line. We think we have a conscious will, but many, including me, consider it an illusion. Our consciousness is a lately laid on supplement, that has given us an amazing ability to manipulate our environment, but also has produced a quite neurotic species. Let’s inhale deeply, exhale calmly and take a straight on look at ourselves without freaking out.

    7. it is absolutely gross that you dare to try to make any sort of parallel, comparison, or link between these topics, motives, rationale, background, and / or thought processes. You obviously have no comprehension for the atrocities of the holocaust if you even dare bring it up in the context of setting the stage to “if partners are evil”. while I may not always agree with your view or spin, I could at least understand and respect the thought process. not now – this is reprehensible.

    8. @Neverwassodisgusted

      I am sorry you feel that way. I have enormous reverence for the suffering of those who perished and also those who survived the Holocaust.
      I was immersed in it for the class I took, read the Arendt book, and even took a trip to the Holocaust Museum in DC late last year in order to get even closer to it. It was the topic of my final paper for the class.

      All that time I could not help thinking about Arendt’s definition of Eichmann’s evil as “banal”. As I explained in an earlier comment, it was her more detailed description of him as a bureaucrat and a joiner, that reminded me of the “pleaser” type I have described before that is vulnerable to unethical and even evil acts.

      My purpose in posting was to post my paper and to describe my experience with the recent Lanzmann film. But this blog and my writing is about the accounting profession. I will not apologize for trying to apply the insights I’ve gained and the lessons we have learned about human nature during a tragic horrible period in history to what I am focused on today.

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