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An Extreme Example? Using Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem in the Business Ethics Classroom

1 June 2005


With Eichmann in Jerusalem, we have, I would admit, a most unlikely case study for use in a business ethics classroom. The story of Eichmann is already some sixty years old, and his activities in his career as a Nazi were far beyond the pale of even the most egregious cases found in the typical business ethics case books. No doubt, there is some truth to the fact that introducing Eichmann’s story into an applied ethics class would inevitably depict an unseemly analogy between the practices of latter day corporations and the bureaucracy of the Nazi era. My argument here, though, is that the story of Adolf Eichmann, as depicted in Hannah Arendt’s well-known Eichmann in Jerusalem, offers a philosophically cogent account of judgment and ethical decision-making that future business managers and employees would do well to heed. Indeed, Eichmann in Jerusalem, originally a series of press accounts for New Yorker magazine, deserves consideration alongside the Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, and other classic ethics texts in a business ethics syllabus. This is not to say that Arendt’s work is uncontroversial; there are serious questions to be raised about both her depiction of Eichmann and her conclusions about “the banality of evil.” Nevertheless, her account of ethics, which, with its account of ethical duties and its case study of Eichmann’s character, shows both its Aristotelian and Kantian influences, is a warning to readers who would conflate morality with state laws and their duties with the needs of superiors. In short, I argue that, despite her well-known critique of modern large scale economies and her general avoidance of discussions of post-industrial corporations, Arendt may be a business ethicist of the first order.


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