Susan Neiman, author of Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Modern Philosophy
Responsibility and Judgmentby Hannah Arendt
Responsibility and Judgment gathers together unpublished writings from the last decade of Arendt’s life, where she addresses fundamental questions and concerns about the nature of evil and the making of moral choices. At the heart of the book is a profound ethical investigation, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” in which Arendt confronts the inadequacy of traditional moral “truths” as standards to judge what we are capable of doing and examines anew our ability to distinguish good from evil and right from wrong. We also see how Arendt comes to understand that alongside the radical evil she had addressed in earlier analyses of totalitarianism, there exists a more pernicious evil, independent of political ideology, whose execution is limitless when the perpetrator feels no remorse and can forget his acts as soon as they are committed.
Responsibility and Judgment is an indispensable investigation into some of the most troubling and important issues of our time.
Susan Neiman, author of Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Modern Philosophy
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Read an Excerpt
PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY UNDER DICTATORSHIP
To begin, I want to comment on the rather furious controversy touched off by my book Eichmann in Jerusalem. I deliberately use the words "touched off," rather than the word "caused," for a large part of the controversy was devoted to a book that was never written. My first reaction, therefore, was to dismiss the whole affair with the famous words of an Austrian wit: "There is nothing so entertaining as the discussion of a book nobody has read." As this went on, however, and as, especially in its later stages, there were more and more voices who not only attacked me for what I had never said but, on the contrary, began to defend me for it, it dawned on me that there might be more to this slightly eerie exercise than sensation or entertainment. It seemed to me also that more than "emotions" were involved, that is, more than honest misunderstandings that in some instances caused an authentic breakdown of communication between author and reader-and more too than the distortions and falsifications of interest groups, which were much less afraid of my book than that it might initiate an impartial and detailed further examination of the period in question.
The controversy invariably raised all kinds of strictly moral issues, many of which had never occurred to me, whereas others had been mentioned by me only in passing. I had given a factual account of the trial, and even the book's subtitle, A Report on the Banality of Evil, seemed to me so glaringly borne out by the facts of the case that I felt it needed no further explanation. I had pointed to a fact which I felt was shocking because it contradicts our theories concerning evil, hence to something true but not plausible.
I had somehow taken it for granted that we all still believe with Socrates that it is better to suffer than to do wrong. This belief turned out to be a mistake. There was a widespread conviction that it is impossible to withstand temptation of any kind, that none of us could be trusted or even be expected to be trustworthy when the chips are down, that to be tempted and to be forced are almost the same, whereas in the words of Mary McCarthy, who first spotted this fallacy: "If somebody points a gun at you and says, 'Kill your friend or I will kill you,' he is tempting you, that is all." And while a temptation where one's life is at stake may be a legal excuse for a crime, it certainly is not a moral justification. Finally, and in a way most surprisingly, since after all we dealt with a trial whose result invariably was the passing of judgment, I was told that judging itself is wrong: no one can judge who had not been there. This, incidentally, was Eichmann's own argument against the district court's judgment. When told that there had been alternatives and that he could have escaped his murderous duties, he insisted that these were postwar legends born of hindsight and supported by people who did not know or had forgotten how things had actually been.
There are a number of reasons why the discussion of the right or the ability to judge touches on the most important moral issue. Two things are involved here: First, how can I tell right from wrong, if the majority or my whole environment has prejudged the issue? Who am I to judge? And second, to what extent, if at all, can we judge past events or occurrences at which we were not present? As to the latter, it seems glaringly obvious that no historiography and no courtroom procedure would be possible at all if we denied ourselves this capability. One might go a step further and maintain that there are very few instances in which, in using our capacity to judge, we do not judge by hindsight, and again this is equally true of the historiographer as it is of the trial judge, who may have good reasons to mistrust eyewitness accounts or the judgment of those who were present. Moreover, since this question of judging without being present is usually coupled with the accusation of arrogance, who has ever maintained that by judging a wrong I presuppose that I myself would be incapable of committing it? Even the judge who condemns a man for murder may still say, and there but for the grace of God go I!
Thus, prima facie, all this looks like elaborate nonsense, but when many people, without having been manipulated, begin to talk nonsense, and if intelligent people are among them, there is usually more involved than just nonsense. There exists in our society a widespread fear of judging that has nothing whatever to do with the biblical "Judge not, that ye be not judged," and if this fear speaks in terms of "casting the first stone," it takes this word in vain. For behind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence the doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done. The moment moral issues are raised, even in passing, he who raises them will be confronted with this frightful lack of self-confidence and hence of pride, and also with a kind of mock-modesty that in saying, Who am I to judge? actually means We're all alike, equally bad, and those who try, or pretend that they try, to remain halfway decent are either saints or hypocrites, and in either case should leave us alone. Hence the huge outcry the moment anyone fixes specific blame on some particular person instead of blaming all deeds or events on historical trends and dialectical movements, in short on some mysterious necessity that works behind the backs of men and bestows upon everything they do some kind of deeper meaning. As long as one traces the roots of what Hitler did back to Plato or Gioacchino da Fiore or Hegel or Nietzsche, or to modern science and technology, or to nihilism or the French Revolution, everything is all right. But the moment one calls Hitler a mass murderer-conceding, of course, that this particular mass murderer was politically very gifted and also that the whole phenomenon of the Third Reich cannot be explained solely on the grounds of who Hitler was and how he influenced people-there is general agreement that such judgment of the person is vulgar, lacks sophistication, and should not be permitted to interfere with the interpretation of History. Thus, to give you another example from a contemporary controversy, the argument of Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy, in which Pope Pius XII stands accused of his singular silence at the time of the great massacres of Jews in the East, was immediately countered, and not only by outcries from the Catholic hierarchy, which after all is understandable. It was also countered by the falsifications of the born image makers: Hochhuth, it has been said, accused the pope as the chief culprit in order to exculpate Hitler and the German people, which is a simple untruth. More significant in our context has been the reproach that it is "of course" superficial to accuse the pope, all of Christianity stands accused; or even more to the point: "No doubt, there is ground for serious accusation, but the defendant is the whole human race".* The point I wish to
*Robert Weltsch, "Ein Deutscher klagt den Papst an" in Summa iniuria oder Durfte der Papst schweigen? Hochhuths "Stellvertreter" in der öffentlichen Kritik, Edit. F. J. Raddatz (Rowohlt: 1963) 156.-Ed.
raise here goes beyond the well-known fallacy of the concept of collective guilt as first applied to the German people and its collective past-all of Germany stands accused and the whole of German history from Luther to Hitler-which in practice turned into a highly effective whitewash of all those who had actually done something, for where all are guilty, no one is. You have only to put Christianity or the whole human race into the place originally reserved for Germany to see, or so it would seem, the absurdity of the concept, for now not even the Germans are guilty any longer: no one at all is for whom we have so much as a name instead of the concept of collective guilt. What I wish to point out, in addition to these considerations, is how deep-seated the fear of passing judgment, of naming names, and of fixing blame-especially, alas, upon people in power and high position, dead or alive-must be if such desperate intellectual maneuvers are being called upon for help. For is it not obvious that Christianity has survived rather handsomely many popes who were worse than Pius XII, precisely because it was never all of Christianity that stood accused? And what shall one say of those who would rather throw all mankind out of the window, as it were, in order to save one man in high position, and to save him from the accusation not even of having committed a crime, but merely of an admittedly grave sin of omission?
It is fortunate and wise that no law exists for sins of omis- sion and no human court is called upon to sit in judgment over them. But it is equally fortunate that there exists still one institution in society in which it is well-nigh impossible to evade issues of personal responsibility, where all justifications of a nonspe- cific, abstract nature-from the Zeitgeist down to the Oedipus complex-break down, where not systems or trends or original sin are judged, but men of flesh and blood like you and me, whose deeds are of course still human deeds but who appear before a tribunal because they have broken some law whose maintenance we regard as essential for the integrity of our common humanity. Legal and moral issues are by no means the same, but they have a certain affinity with each other because they both presuppose the power of judgment. No courtroom reporter, if he knows what he is doing, can avoid becoming involved in these questions. How can we tell right from wrong, independent of knowledge of the law? And how can we judge without having been in the same situation?
It is at this point that I think it would be proper to make my second personal remark. If the heat caused by my "sitting in judgment" has proved, as I think it has, how uncomfortable most of us are when confronted with moral issues, I better admit that not the least uncomfortable one is myself. My early intellectual formation occurred in an atmosphere where nobody paid much attention to moral questions; we were brought up under the assumption: Das Moralische versteht sich von selbst, moral conduct is a matter of course. I still remember quite well my own youthful opinion of the moral rectitude we usually call character; all insistence on such virtue would have appeared to me as Philistine, because this, too, we thought was a matter of course and hence of no great importance-not a decisive quality, for instance, in the evaluation of a given person. To be sure, every once in a while we were confronted with moral weakness, with lack of steadfastness or loyalty, with this curious, almost automatic yielding under pressure, especially of public opinion, which is so symptomatic of the educated strata of certain societies, but we had no idea how serious such things were and least of all where they could lead. We did not know much about the nature of these phenomena, and I am afraid we cared even less. Well, it turned out that we would be given ample opportunity to learn. For my generation and people of my origin, the lesson began in 1933 and it ended not when just German Jews but the whole world had been given notice of monstrosities no one believed possible at the beginning. What we have learned since, and it is by no means unimportant, can be counted as additions and ramifications of the knowledge acquired during those first twelve years, from 1933 to 1945. Many of us have needed the last twenty years in order to come to terms with what happened, not in 1933, but in 1941 and 1942 and 1943, up to the bitter end. And by this, I do not mean personal grief and sorrow, but the horror itself to which, as we can see now, none of the concerned parties has as yet been able to reconcile itself. The Germans have coined for this whole complex the highly questionable term of their "unmastered past." Well, it looks as though today, after so many years, this German past has turned out to remain somehow unmanageable for a good part of the civilized world. At the time the horror itself, in its naked monstrosity, seemed not only to me but to many others to transcend all moral categories and to explode all standards of jurisdiction; it was something men could neither punish adequately nor forgive. And in this speechless horror, I fear, we all tended to forget the strictly moral and manageable lessons we had been taught before, and would be taught again, in innumerable discussions, both inside and outside of courtrooms.
Meet the Author
Hannah Arendt was born in Hanover, Germany, in 1906, fled to Paris in 1933, and came to the United States after the outbreak of World War II. She was editorial director of Schocken Books from 1946 to 1948. She taught at Berkeley, Princeton, the University of Chicago, and The New School for Social Research. Arendt died in 1975.
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