The growing respectability of torture in the United States and its coming legalization, among other things, have sent me back to Hannah Arendt to look for some recommendations for how to proceed.

She was a refugee from, and a student of, a time and place in which

…the few rules and standards according to which men used to tell right from wrong, and which were invoked to judge or justify others and themselves, and whose validity were supposed to be self-evident to every sane person either as a part of divine or of natural law.… without much notice… collapsed almost overnight, and then it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.

And she put a lot of effort into trying to understand how this happened, and what, if anything, we can do to interrupt it. I’ve lately been reading a collection of her writings called Responsibility and Judgment in which much of the material directly attacks this problem, and most of the rest at least touches on it.

The most and greatest evil, Arendt believes, is not done by wicked or evil people, but “by people who never made up their mind to be either bad or good” — “by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.”

Such people, in times when the conventional morality that serves societies reasonably well most of the time goes through a polar shift in which the “thou shalt not”s become “thou shalt”s, go along to get along — having no habit of using anything but conventional morality as a guide.

This evil — “banal” evil as she famously put it — is committed, according to her theory, by people who do not think. This isn’t to say that these people are not intelligent, or cultured,1 or knowledgeable. “Thinking” has a particular meaning in Arendt’s framework: it is a process of internal dialog, one that is necessarily done in withdrawal from society and real-world concerns (that is, you can’t think at the same time you are working or conversing). This withdrawal she calls “solitude” but it is a solitude that you share with yourself in a peculiar duality that enables the dialog to take place: you split in two and converse with yourself.

Thinking is not a method for determining hard-and-fast eternal truths about good & evil, but is a process of doubting and testing. It is related to remembering, in that if you think over what you have done and try to fit it into your life story, this is one way of remembering it. In contrast, if you do not think, and therefore forget your own actions, you are capable of doing anything “just as my courage would be absolutely reckless if pain, for instance, were an experience immediately forgotten.” … “The greatest evildoers are those who don’t remember because they have never given thought to the matter, and, without remembrance, nothing can hold them back.”

If you do not think, you are “rootless” — at the mercy of the winds that might blow you into some new, pathological moral convention. It’s not necessarily the case that having roots means that you’re wisely-rooted, but it does mean that you have a stake in your own personality and self-imposed limits on what you are capable of doing. Without these roots, you have no limits, you are capable of anything, and your own character is a matter of indifference to you. In short: you are dangerous.

Thinking, which is to say being in dialog with yourself, is what gives you this stake in your own character — it “results in conscience as its by-product.” You don’t want to be spending your time in dialog with a monster: “If I do wrong I am condemned to live together with a wrongdoer in an unbearable intimacy.” This is of such importance that, as Socrates put it, it is better to be wronged than to do wrong.2

Arendt admits that while this may sound like a nice aphorism, its opposite seems more plausible. But “while many prefer to do wrong for their own benefit rather than suffer wrong, no one will prefer to live together with a thief or a murderer or a liar. This is what people forget who praise the tyrant who has come into power through murder and fraud.”

But here this “living together with” metaphor seems to be stretched too far.

If conscience is a by-product of thinking, because thinking includes this need to live in harmony with ourselves — that is if we are not expected to have some sort of pre-existing moral yardstick available through reason or divine revelation or what have you — then why do I not want to live in harmony with a self who is a murderer or a thief? The reason why I do not want to live with a murderer, assuming I do not have a pre-existing moral yardstick by which I judge murder to be wrong, is because I’m afraid of being murdered; I don’t want to live with a thief because I don’t want to be robbed; and I don’t want to live with a liar because I do not want to be deceived. But you’re not going to rob or murder yourself, and if you lie to yourself you may believe with some justification that you are doing this to your own advantage. Why would you not want to live with yourself as a liar, thief, or murderer unless you already held these things in contempt, in which case the whole exercise of trying to determine who you would be willing to live with as a way of bootstrapping your moral judgment seems beside-the-point.

The living-with-a-liar thing seems to be the crucial part: if you live with a liar, you cannot trust the inner dialog with which, by thinking, you pursue the truth you presumably love. Perhaps if you love truth, and therefore do not lie to yourself, an abhorrence for murder and theft will necessarily follow.

I see another problem: if this need to live in harmony with yourself is so vitally important that you would rather suffer wrong than commit it, rather be murdered than murder, rather drink hemlock than go into dishonorable exile, and so forth, then it seems likely that this will override any but the most extreme love of truth. If you and the self you are in dialog with can achieve this crucial harmony by agreeing to a comfortable lie, and the alternative is to be in disharmony over an uncomfortable truth, what’s holding you back from embracing the lie?

This love of truth and this need to live in harmony with yourself also seem so rare to me that the question of how to encourage them seems no easier than the question we started with — how to discourage people from participating in bureaucratic massacre and the like. How do you encourage people to love truth or to strive for integrity?

For that matter, where did I get the crazy idea that it is wrong to torture someone? Is such a notion even really part of my character, or is it some custom that I have rootlessly blown up against and that I am vulnerable to being swept away from in a change of wind?

In truth, I am most repulsed by torture in the abstract and the less I know of the victims and perpetrators and of the perpetrators’ motives. As things get more specific, I can get frightened (if I imagine myself or those I love being tortured) or I can even take some delight in the thought (if I imagine, say, Attorney General Gonzalez getting some first-hand experience of some of the techniques he’s helped to provide legal cover for).

Maybe my expressions of moral revulsion around torture are a sort of gambit — an attempt at prompting reciprocal altruism. I make an explicit promise to eschew torture even when I may be indifferent or hostile to its victims in the hopes that this will encourage other people to behave the same way to me and those I love.

Doesn’t seem like this would make much headway. Pious incantations of the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative are easily made — enforcing reciprocal altruism requires a lot more, including being able to verify and observe and monitor those you’re reciprocating with.

So I’d have to believe that these incantations have some powerful persuasive force all their own, without an effective mechanism of enforcement. Perhaps I can claim to have the force of Reason on my side (lord knows, many a philosopher has tried), or, even more persuasively, the Word of God. Socrates himself made a nod in this direction, suggesting that the mass of people who do not think, and therefore cannot self-generate moral behavior, must be held in line by a myth of a final judgment and threats of eternal punishment.

Such things have been tried with at best limited success, but nobody with half a brain really believes them (though many profess them). We “are committed (it would seem) to think of conscience as an organ that will react without hope for rewards and without fear of punishment.”

Nietzsche would call this appeal to morality a gambit of the weak — if you think you can impose your preferences by force, you have no need to appeal to some universal standard of right and wrong, you just do your thing; on the other hand, if you are defenseless, big talk may be all you’ve got.

Moral behavior might, however, be a kind of demonstration of strength. In the same way that a bird with colorful feathers is advertising to potential mates that it has plenty of resources to waste on bright plumage (and so it must be one fit and clever bird) — a person who engages in moral living is announcing a cocky unconcern for the loss of whatever advantages come from being immoral or amoral. In contrast, for a person who really is in a position of weakness — someone whose children are starving, or someone addicted to drugs — morality is an expensive luxury.

Clarence Marsh Case, in The Social Psychology of Passive Resistance, points out that Franklin Henry Giddings had made this argument in his Democracy and Empire: “Not less are all the higher virtues — philanthropy, compassion, and forgiveness — manifestations of power… Moreover, it is only the men that have energy to spare who are normally altruistic. On the physiological side, altruism is a mode of expenditure of any surplus energy that has been left over from successful individual struggle. The meek shall inherit the earth, not because they are meek, but because, taking one generation with another, it is only the mighty that are or can be meek, and because the mighty — if normally evolved — are also by differentiation meek.” Giddings is here explicitly responding to Nietzsche.

 — 

But that’s all very speculative. Assuming morality and moral philosophy aren’t just some sort of fang-flashing, and if you aren’t buying the questionable moral foundations perennially discovered in Reason or God, what is there to keep you interested in ideas of right and wrong? What motive do you have to evaluate your own actions by this sort of standard?

I’ve toyed with the idea that in life we have one shot to be the sort of person we admire, and that this is motivation enough:

Nothing matters, ultimately, except to the extent that we decide that it matters. No God will fill out a performance evaluation for me. I won’t be reincarnated as a prince or a lamprey. Our suffering and triumph means nothing in the greater scheme of things. Cruel and evil people prosper and then die old and satisfied in their sleep while innocent children have their arms ripped off by bombs and die of dysentery. Neither get redemptions from a heavenly accountant — from the perspective of eternity, their books are already balanced and their accounts are of no account. My bones will crumble to dust in no time at all, and my name will be forgotten as quickly. And I am going to try to be a good person anyway because that’s what I want to do with my life.

But I still found myself relying on what I called “an ethical ‘sixth sense’” — this mysterious conscience. But of today’s villains, the torturers and terrorists and demagogues, who’s to say they don’t have their own sixth sense or that they aren’t enacting the character they admire? Arendt said that this “sixth sense” is misleading: “these feelings indicate conformity and nonconformity, they don’t indicate morality.”:

Conscience supposedly is a way of feeling beyond reason and argument and of knowing through sentiment what is right and wrong. What has been revealed beyond doubt, I think, is the fact that such feelings indeed exist, that people feel guilty or feel innocent, but that alas, these feelings are no reliable indications, are in fact no indications at all, of right and wrong.

But at some point I must feel that I wouldn’t want to live with myself if I were to do X, Y, or Z. Why wouldn’t I want to live with a torturer? Because I would feel guilty, I would be repulsed at myself, all of this because of this same unreliable ethical sixth sense. I also can’t help but feel that there are reasons why some things are right and others wrong that lie outside of me — it would be wrong for me to torture someone because of something to do with them, not just something to do with me. Could it really be that there is nothing more at stake in moral questions than my own opinion of myself?


  1. Though Arendt claims that among the Nazis, none of “these highly cultivated murderers… wrote a poem worth remembering or a piece of music worth listening to or painted a picture that anybody would care to hang on his walls… [because] no gifts will withstand the loss of integrity which you lose when you have lost this most common capacity for thought and remembrance.”
  2. Arendt believes this to be an entirely negative standard — that is it only tells you what you cannot do not what you should do. In other words, I cannot do X because I could not live with an X-doer. I don’t understand why you cannot just as easily think something like “I couldn’t live with someone who would neglect the opportunity to do Y or who would fail to do my Z obligation.”

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