This question is prompted by the movie Operation Finale, about the capture of Adolph Eichmann by Israeli agents in Argentina.

Important scenes in the movie show Eichmann arguing that his acts in WWII were those of someone defending his country against its enemies, and were no different than those of the Israeli operatives who captured him. They, too, were defending their country (Israel) against its enemies. Eichmann was clearly equating his role in the Holocaust (a word I don't think he used in the movie) with the Israelis capturing him in Argentina and extracting him to stand trial in Israel. At a minimum, and ignoring torture and starvation, Eichmann was off by a factor of 6 million.

As I listened to this, I thought what sophistry! But sophistry isn't strong enough for the moral tone-deafness of that argument. Just going from the portrayal in the movie, I would say he is actually insensible of the difference.

Sophistry, from Oxford Dictionaries:

The use of clever but false arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving.

‘trying to argue that I had benefited in any way from the disaster was pure sophistry’

The synonyms for sophistry from Dictionary.com are even more wishy-washy:

deception, fallacy, misconception, subtle argument

Further synonyms from the same link, also wishy-washy:

casuistry: overgeneral reasoning///chicanery///deception///deceptiveness/// delusion///equivocation///evasion///fallacy///lie///oversubtleness///sophism/// sophistry///speciousness///spuriousness///trick.

Is there a word, phrase or expression which expresses the moral repugnance of this argument and the monstrous moral cognitive blindness (in the phrase of @MetaEd?

Obligatory sentence: Eichmann's arguments were the absolute nadir of _________.

If there are uses of sophistry in a commensurate context, that would be a useful answer.

  • 2
    I actually think sophistry would fit the context well enough? You say it lacks moral tone-deafness: if you were to expand a little bit on that, perhaps this might inspire answerers. Or could you explain a little bit more what makes Eichmann's argument so special? Sep 12, 2018 at 23:09
  • Need a clarification. When you say sophistry, it seems you suppose he's privately aware it's a false argument. Are you looking for some term like sophistry but more profound? On the other hand, when you say moral tone-deafness, it seems you suppose he's actually insensible of the difference, cannot hear the immorality of his own argument. Are you looking for some term to describe a monstrous moral cognitive blindness?
    – MetaEd
    Sep 12, 2018 at 23:28
  • @MetaEd Just going from the portrayal in the movie, I would say he is actually insensible of the difference.
    – ab2
    Sep 12, 2018 at 23:37
  • 'Skullduggery' is about as low as one can get, but 'sophistry' better expresses the intelligent deliberation which sophists use, insincerely, to construct a self-justifying argument which they know to be unreal.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 12, 2018 at 23:53
  • Hannah Arendt called it the banality of evil which pretty much fits the attitude you can see in old film footage, but that probably isn't quite what you want.
    – S Conroy
    Sep 13, 2018 at 0:31

1 Answer 1


There are other words than the Greek-derived word ‘sophistry’. ‘Casuistry’, from the Latin of the middle ages, is one. Both have come to denote clever arguments wielded but someone who knows there are hidden false steps or premises. The slurs were often, as it happens, unfair: levelled by the establishment at those that would challenge orthodoxy.

For anyone who cares about that highest of human aspirations, justice, based, as it is, on respect for truth and reason, sophistry (or casuistry) is the worst, most despicable perversion of justice. As arguments go, it doesn’t get worse.

What was infinitely worse was what he did, and went on doing over years. In that, he became Satan’s first minister, Beelzebub. And he lived a comfortable life doing it. Why worry about the best word to condemn this contemptible attempt to justify his part in the crime of genocide?

  • 2
    sophistry and casuistry are usually used in context of arguments. Arguments of themselves don't have to have any morality attached to them. And I don't think it's universally settled that lying is bad or evil per se. That's why I think the OP wants a word with an additional meaning to it. Also, why worry about the best word to describe a terrible atrocity? Well, we need words to describe things, sometimes unpleasant things. If you're a historian writing about the firebombing of Tokyo for example you may call it a crime, an expedient, a necessity etc.
    – Zebrafish
    Sep 13, 2018 at 4:12
  • @Zebrafish Yes, I agree with most of this. Statements are true or false: period. But we ought not to lie (except in certain difficult grey areas). Arguments are sound/valid or unsound (without, so far as I know, exception). And we ought not to use deliberately a cleverly disguised unsound argument to deceive. So sophistry is part of what is involved in deceit. A lot of it goes on in politics (always has). By association sophistry shares the badness of the harm done. Historically, we cannot get into comparisons of degrees of harm or evil. And the holocaust is still an open wound.
    – Tuffy
    Sep 13, 2018 at 8:30
  • 3
    You should edit out your last paragraph. While what you say may be valid, this sort of editorializing is not what this site is about, and I feel it detracts from the rest of your answer.
    – cobaltduck
    Sep 13, 2018 at 17:45
  • @cobaltduck Done.
    – Tuffy
    Sep 13, 2018 at 20:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.