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June 3, 2013

Movies about philosophers rarely rise above the spoof level of Monty Python's depiction of a soccer game between German and Greek philosophers (won by the Greeks when Archimedes decides to stop pondering and actually kick the ball).

In that light, it is curious to see the release of a film on Hannah Arendt, a secular Jew and leading 20th century philosopher. While Arendt made her mark in academic philosophy, she came to public attention through her commentary on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi colonel in charge of running the trains to Auschwitz.

Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe Eichmann, a man who took no responsibility for the deaths of six million Jews because he personally had killed no one, lived in accord with his duties and was following orders in arranging for the slaughter of millions. Arendt sharply distinguished Eichmann's banal evil from the radical evil of the Nazi system.

Her phrase "the banality of evil" remains with us, pointing to the guilt of bystanders who implicitly endorse evil by doing nothing to prevent it. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton said Arendt's articles in The New Yorker were "Not just an indictment of one man and one system, but a sordid examination of conscience of the entire West."

The Catholic moral tradition refers to "material cooperation with evil" in which one facilitates the objectively wrong actions of others by doing something that helps them carry out their choices. Not all material cooperation is morally wrong, but much of it is. For example, the owner of a gun store may learn that one of his customers intends to murder someone after purchasing weapons from his store. The storeowner is materially cooperating with the murder if he then sells a gun to that client.

More pertinently, the publicity surrounding the deaths of more than 1,100 garment workers in Bangladesh and the horrific working conditions in many other clothing factories in that country impose a moral obligation on retailers and consumers to avoid material cooperation with an industry that endangers its workers.

One cannot brush aside one's involvement by saying that by buying clothes made in impoverished nations, one is simply getting the best price and has not personally killed anyone.

A global economy increases the chances of our unknowingly supporting oppression. However, global communications increases our ability to gain pertinent information about our consumer purchases. We cannot brush aside our responsibility to learn the consequences of how we spend our money.

Nor should philosophers and other commentators wait until the 89th minute of the soccer game before they raise their voices against the evil in our midst.