What happens to Morality in Times of War? Lessons from the Kurt Gerstein Case.

A man enters the Waffen SS in 1941, in order to discover what is really happening there. His name is Kurt Gerstein. He has been jailed and thrown out of the NSDAP before, because of resistance activities against the suppression of the freedom for Christians to live their faith. Having become a member of the ‘Bekennende Kirche’, the part of the protestant church that did not accept government influence in matters of religion, he wrote critical leaflets. When a member of his family was murdered as part of the so-called ‘euthanasia-program’ (which put psychiatric and mentally disabled patients to death) his worries over the developments in his country became more pregnant. When, a hygienic expert in the SS, responsible for fighting typhus outbreaks in camps and barracks, he finds out about the mass killings of Jews, he dedicates himself to getting this information out, to foreign governments, to the Vatican, and to his own protestant circles. He also tries to prevent the murderous gas, which he ordered himself for fighting epidemics, to reach its human victims.

In both goals he largely failed. The allies, we know now, did know what happened in the extermination camps, but chose not to interfere – their primary goal being to win the war. When Germany was defeated, Gerstein wrote down his story for the allied authorities, but was jailed himself as an accomplice. Shortly after, he was found hanging in his cell. His case became the subject of twenty years of legal proceedings – the ethical analysis of his case has only yet begun.

The story of Gerstein came to my knowledge through the movie ‘Amen’, which is based on the novel by Rolf Hochhuth on the silence of the Vatican while the holocaust was going on. As the plot of the movie is largely fictional, I wanted to know more about Gerstein’s horrible dilemmas – and searched the internet. The most interesting work I found was a thesis from 1999 by Canadian historian Valerie Hebert, which analyses the difficulties in the various post-war legal proceedings to determine whether Gerstein was a resistance hero, an accomplice to the mass killings, or still something else. Seven years later Hebert reworked the thesis to an article for the journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The most interesting aspects of her work on Gerstein are

  • her discussion of the legal difficulties of passing judgment on the acts of an individual in the midst of a genocide – difficulties we have seen repeated from the later cases of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
  • her stressing the remaining ambiguity of Gerstein’s choices, even when we accept his goals to have been the right ones, and take the dangers he faced into account.

I watched and read thinking how his case not only presented a challenge to the legal system, but also to ethics. From a consequentialist point of view his acts should be criticized – as they did not lead to much good;  but from the standpoint of an ethics of duty they seem more acceptable – because his intentions were good. A documentary made by the German-French channel ARTE chooses the latter point of view and thus forces a way out of the inescapable dilemma examining the Gerstein case. To my view this is the easy way out. What both ethical theories neglect is the fact that a moral law, as well as a concern for good results shrink to powerless instruments over against situations when large collectives of human beings are drawn into murderous acts on a mass scale. Some philosophers have attempted to develop new ethical approaches which take war, totalitarianism and genocide into account. Levinas for instance, and Arendt. I doubt, however, whether the ‘appeal of the other’ or ‘the banality of evil’ can capture the dilemmas and choices of someone like Gerstein. We need an ethics which digs deeper into human psychology, as well into the sociology of war and mass murder. Such an ethics, to my knowledge does not yet exist. Leaving us empty handed before the task to understand the ever new racisms, genocides and wars that leave their victims around us. And what we cannot understand, we will not be able to dismantle.

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19 comments
  1. Michael S. Pearl said:

    Some philosophers have attempted to develop new ethical approaches which take war, totalitarianism and genocide into account. Levinas for instance, and Arendt. I doubt, however, whether the ‘appeal of the other’ or ‘the banality of evil’ can capture the dilemmas and choices of someone like Gerstein. We need an ethics which digs deeper into human psychology, as well into the sociology of war and mass murder. Such an ethics, to my knowledge does not yet exist.

    Levinas, of course, never presented or seemed much interested in a systematic ethics. Instead, he can be appreciated as having recognized a need to emphasize and concentrate upon responsibility, the possibility that each individual person has a developable ability to respond non-impersonally and non-disinterestedly for the sake of the encountered other, a response-ability based merely upon realizing the possibility of acting for the sake of the encountered other without demanding or even expecting reciprocity.

    From such responsibility follows the sense and the teaching that individuals are de-humanized (or de-humanize themselves) or impede their full human potential when they serve as mere functionaries with disinterest in the person of the encountered other (and this ties in with the banality of evil). Even Buber, despite the added emphasis he placed upon reciprocity, held that the lack of reciprocity on the part of the other encountered with the responsibility of love did not justify a subsequent disinterest in the personal being of the other.

    Buber tried to address social issues in terms which related back to the I-Thou which was at the heart of his ethical sense, and although he used the terms social and political in essentially the opposite manner in which Arendt used those terms, both of them held that it is critically important that socio-political activities and interests not be allowed to displace (but especially eliminate) non-impersonal and non-disinterested responsibility.

    Buber and Levinas were quite clearly aware of the foolhardiness of trying to derive a systematic ethics from the I-Thou or from the otherwise-than-being of responsibility as love for the encountered other, and Arendt was similarly aware (as can be seen in her discussion about the nature of authority). This does not mean that there is no place for rationality in ethics; instead, it simply means that judgment always inescapably demands (or always is) personal creativity, and it means that all ethics reasoning must be checked by reconsiderations into the nature of what it means to love, to respond for the sake of the other(s) being encountered.

    Any aberrant individuals aside, is it not the case that (the possibility of) the response-ability discussed above lies at the very core of human psychology?

  2. onesis said:

    I very much endorse the topic, the way Angela introduces the problem, and also the wonderful response involving deep scholarship and reflection given above by Michael.

    I wondered about the following sentences as well: “We need an ethics which digs deeper into human psychology, as well into the sociology of war and mass murder. Such an ethics, to my knowledge does not yet exist.”

    If ethics is always situational, and if there is always a gap between a person having ethical ideals (such as love, responsibility and reciprocity) and those to whom such ideals do not matter, then human psychology and sociology, being based in descriptive accounts only, will hardly provide a way to bridge the gap. It will simply mirror the gap that already exists.

    Michael’s final sentence points to the problem, that is not possible to put to one side “any aberrant individuals”. Such are those to whom ethics is simply a matter of adopting a psychological or sociological rationalisation for doing whatever they would do anyway, in which case for such individuals the term “ethics” signifies nothing.

    For philosophers, the problem is also one of philosophers own making. If ethics is moral philosophy, and if moral philosophy has as one of its antecedents and primary exemplars in Plato’s attempt to solve the problems of ethics and justice by way of an ideal community ruled by philosophers, and if the very notion of an ideal community also harbours what is most inimical to the free expression of love, responsibility and reciprocity, then this sets philosophers with a quite specific and definite task. That task is the relentless interrogation and critical inquiry into the ethical limits of community.

    In short, the proposal is that membership of any community does not extinguish the ethical responsibility of any of its members by way of passing on responsibility for good conduct to community leaders and moral experts. What this finishes off, is the notion of a philosophical expert (a Kant for instance, or a Bentham) as providing the overarching framework that merely requires particular instances of application.

    Instead we are back to the daily effort of each person to live up to ideals that cannot be justified by way of referencing to some original point of illumination. Perhaps the best that philosophers can offer is their own example, based on being fellow travellers towards a destination that seems at best uncertain. And this necessitates honesty about not being able to solve to any degree of satisfaction, by means of ethical theory, let alone psychology, the moral dilemmas that we encounter.

    • Michael S. Pearl said:

      If ethics is always situational, and if there is always a gap between a person having ethical ideals (such as love, responsibility and reciprocity) and those to whom such ideals do not matter, then human psychology and sociology, being based in descriptive accounts only, will hardly provide a way to bridge the gap.

      Where ethics refers to a manner of thinking and judging that has non-impersonal and non-disinterested responsibility/love for individual (meaning presumed-to-be unique) others at its core, then psychology and sociology are potentially useful only as being informative of generalized perspectives. However, there are always “gaps” between individuals encountering one another, and those gaps do not have to be as extreme as those “between a person having ethical ideals (such as love, responsibility and reciprocity) and those to whom such ideals do not matter”. The particulars which render each individual unique remain always beyond the grasp of others no matter how well aware one person comes to be about the details of an other person’s uniqueness, and this fact means that generalized perspectives such as psychology and sociology necessarily cannot adequately direct – much less resolve – the ethical situation (the possibilities associated with responding for the sake of an other) which arises when individuals encounter an other.

      This does not mean that generalizations or categorical manners of thinking have no place in ethics; instead, such modes of thought – along with thinking that an encountered other is in some ways similar to one’s own self – only present the most preliminary possible ways in which to respond for the sake of the encountered other. The response of the other to the preliminaries can give additional information/insight into the unique particularities of that other person so that the response for the sake of the encountered other is an always iterative process (except, possibly, for the briefest of encounters which might only entail letting the encountered other know that he or she is at least deserving of being noticed simply for being).

      Michael’s final sentence points to the problem, that is not possible to put to one side “any aberrant individuals”. Such are those to whom ethics is simply a matter of adopting a psychological or sociological rationalisation for doing whatever they would do anyway, in which case for such individuals the term “ethics” signifies nothing.

      My reference to “aberrant individuals” was intended simply to allow for the possibility that there might be some sort of mechanism which would make it impossible for some individuals to ever have a personal awareness of the possibility of responding for the sake of an encountered other. Such an individual would not have an undeveloped or under-developed response-ability (in cases of un- or under-development, discussion in terms of response-ability could give way to response-capability); rather, such a person would be said to utterly lack response-ability.

      Upon my interpretation of what I observe about the human condition, I expect it is the case that the ability to respond non-impersonally and non-disinterestedly for the sake of encountered others is usually not well developed, maybe in large part because the importance of that development can hardly be said even to be much promulgated. Might this be because this is an ability that is regarded as being of relatively lesser significance or value? And might this lesser valuation be rationalized by regarding the personal response for the sake of each encountered other as too risky a way of acting given the common perceptions regarding the context of human interaction seen not just primarily and largely but also by necessity as an enterprise which pits individuals against individuals (as well as groups against groups)?

      … membership of any community does not extinguish the ethical responsibility of any of its members by way of passing on responsibility for good conduct to community leaders and moral experts. What this finishes off, is the notion of a philosophical expert (a Kant for instance, or a Bentham) as providing the overarching framework that merely requires particular instances of application.

      Instead we are back to the daily effort of each person to live up to ideals that cannot be justified by way of referencing to some original point of illumination. Perhaps the best that philosophers can offer is their own example, based on being fellow travellers towards a destination that seems at best uncertain. And this necessitates honesty about not being able to solve to any degree of satisfaction, by means of ethical theory, let alone psychology, the moral dilemmas that we encounter.

      Agreed. This can be related to Derrida’s undecidability which I prefer to express in terms of indeterminateness, both of which could just as well be related back to the infinite to which Levinas refers. But the main points remain that responsibility (the possibility of responding non-impersonally and non-disinterestedly for the sake of an other) is inescapable, and we remain uncertain about (and, therefore, never fully satisfied with) the quality of our responses.

      • onesis said:

        Agreement, from me, on all your comments and responses Michael, and thank you!

  3. Wayne Podrouzek said:

    Enter the dilemma of all those who would hold that there is any kind of ethics outside of the preferences, cognitive or emotional, of the actor. And the greater problem is the support of Law and Justice on the bases of ethics. And then, of course, there’s victor’s ethics (the underpinnings of Victor’s Justice), which complicates the individual with the social and the luck of being on the winning side.
    This is why I believe that we should eschew belief in the construct of “ethics”. It is like any belief in a deity: there is no evidence for the belief, although it does make some folks feel better; and the one you decide to believe in cannot be supported any more than any other anyone might decide to believe in. “Ethics” like all the other gods that have come before, has done little more than poison everything, and provide a righteousness for inflicting cruelties on those with whom one disagrees.

  4. onesis said:

    Wayne comments “That is why I believe that we should eschew belief in the construct of “ethics” ”

    So let’s discuss this philosophically shall we? The reasons that Wayne offers are to do with (a) the existence of dilemmas and (b) that ethics inadequately supports Law and Justice (somewhere or other) and (c) ethics seems to involve a certain amount of luck.

    From here Wayne leaps into the mode of polemics, ridiculing ethics as belief in a deity.

    Hang on there Wayne. Deities as typically believed in (e.g. Christian or Islamic) make pronouncements on how humans should act. That sort of ethics (divine command theory) is not the only sort.

    Other sorts of ethics are grounded in reason (Kant) or sentiments (Hume) or the recognition that moral judgements are what humans make and we have to take account of these (GE Moore and others) or that moral language is something we actually engage in and it is not the same sort of language as stating matters of fact (RM Hare). Before all that is the controversy between Plato and Aristotle that still exercises people’s thoughts.

    So the analogy with a deity is not as apt as you make out. Stating that ethics “poisons everything” itself needs an account, one that you have not given. I would have thought that ethics has one virtue at least and it is an injunction to at least pause and think before we act.

    And all that is only just a beginning, and we are not even at war!

  5. NulliusInVerba said:

    Yes, you’ve captured my position quite well on a couple of accounts: ethics is akin to belief in a deity either because of reason or sentiment, or that humans believe in these things and we need to take account of those things (perhaps not unlike mental illness). There are several folks who have written or debated on the pro side of religion, and their arguments seem to me to be of one of those three ilks. Further, ethics seems to be, as does belief in a deity, largely a function of upbringing and personal choice (although there are “converts” as well, thereby furthering the analogy).
    And I would have agreed that ethics would be a virtue in that it causes us to pause and think, except that it doesn’t seem to, does it (or at least not for most of us most of the time)? It is rather a cudgel used by those who have sufficient prejudice de jour on their side to enforce their behavioural weltanschung on the rest of us. There is nothing like ethical righteous indignation, whether theistic or secular, to underlie abuse, or at least to condone it.

    You might be able to push me a bit on the “luck” thing, but I don’t think so. If my position about ethics being based on prejudices de jour holds any force, then I think the rest follows. Whoever wins the battle determines the prejudices (think about almost any war and about the “ethics” that followed giving the winning side and the “ethics” that would have followed given the losing side won – think who would have been hung and why). And this same thinking follows in law, does it not? So many decisions are handed down based on the “reasonable person” argument, are they not? Well, who is this reasonable person. Certainly not a Stoic sage. It is whomever agrees with the prejudice de jour. In the 1950s it was legal, just, moral, ethical, to castrate homosexuals (Turing being a fav example of mine). Today it is not (well, not in England, Canada, Europe, and some other places – I believe it’s still eithical and thus legal to kill them in other places).

    Regarding thought being exercised, I rather enjoyed the subtly of the older religious “philosophers” in the arguments concerning whether “God” could have a tripartite nature or must be singular. Doesn’t mean I have to think there is anything “real” about the topic. And I was pretty exercised by much Thomist philosophy as well. Again, I don’t think I need to ascribe a reality to much of that deliberation to be “exercised” by it.

    And I don’t think I could possibly enumerate all the things with which I disagree that have been based on “ethics” either deistic or secular, from the Spanish Inquisition, through witch burning (done for ethically pure reasons, after all), through the rejoicing for the just kill of benLaden, through the ethical purity of water-boarding (granted that was recanted, at least officially by some), to the kidnapping of the Doukhobor children by the BC government (suppored by ethical argument) until the adults obeyed the government and stopped protesting, through the ethics of the “cultural revolution”, through the “ethical balance” of the proportion of collateral damage targets acceptable in our current sanguine conflict in the middle east, through the just use of solitary confinement, and onward. And one that particularly erks me today is the continued restriction of free speech and argument on university campuses based on some “ethical” notion or whatever (the protection of the weak, thin skinned, backboneless, and stupid) – if there was the basis for evil, I think this might be it (a la Paine). I fear people who believe in “an ethics” just as much as I fear people who believe in “the god(s)”. They strike me as the same sorts of folks, all in.

    And so it turns out that whatever the current ethical prejudice de jour is underlies our current legal practices, and people live and die based on those – and I don’t mind saying that I disagree with much of what passes for “ethical law making”, not that my disagreement makes those things bad or unethical (wouldn’t that just be a tad inconsistent).

    So, my position is that ethics, like belief in whatever supernatural good there may or may not be, is essentially no different from the choice (or argument about) the supernatural belief in good. It’s been a long time since I did my philosophy or religious studies classes (which I gobbled up just because I found them so interesting), but many folks have put pay to “ought from is”, and I think Abraham put pay to the notion that “God knows best”, so where does that leave us? If we want to consider ethics an intellectual exercise, then I’m good with that. If one wants to hold that the drive to be considered is a thing one thinks is “good”, then I’m good with that. I’m just not good with calling it something that has or should have any force, something like “ethics” or “morality” or “god said” or whatever. Argue which is the good, vanilla or chocolate, just don’t call it ethics.

    • Michael S. Pearl said:

      So, my position is that ethics … is essentially no different from the choice …

      If ethics is identical to – or if it begins with – the possibility of responding non-impersonally and non-disinterestedly for the sake of an encountered other, then it is impossible to escape ethics. Yet, certainly once one is aware of such a possibility, responding non-impersonally and non-disinterestedly for the sake of an encountered other is always a choice.

      If one wants to hold that the drive to be considered is a thing one thinks is “good”, then I’m good with that.

      Given the choice above, the issue then switches immediately to the nature or characteristics of responses which are non-impersonal, non-disinterested, and for the sake of an encountered other.

      I’m just not good with calling it something that has or should have any force, something like “ethics” or “morality” or “god said” or whatever. Argue which is the good, vanilla or chocolate, just don’t call it ethics.

      Ethics as described above has no external force, and, especially in consideration of the fact that there is no singular necessary manner of expression, it is an easy matter to eschew use of the term ethics and instead speak in terms of the possibility of responding non-impersonally and non-disinterestedly for the sake of an encountered other, for example.

      • onesis said:

        Yes, I too support the view of ethics that it has no external compulsive force. I would add to this that it has no internal manipulative thought control of others either. Thus from this perspective Wayne’s comments about ethics (likening it to a deity) suffers the problem attending the concept of deities. Some deities, as conceptualised in mythology and sacred texts, seem to have compulsive or manipulative powers, and on my view such deities are unworthy of being venerated. If there was a deity that comprehended the condition of humanness we bring to encountering others, of being uncertain and vulnerable, and prone to misinterpretation, then of course such a deity would be worthy of veneration.

  6. Thanks to all commenters – so many views on what ethics is, can or should be! They made me reflect some more on what I wrote or didn’t write…

    1) The contributions of Levinas and Buber are certainly very important, and could describe very well the reaction of Kurt Gerstein when he witnessed the murder, in one day, of 5000 people. His response to what he saw was to have to speak out and get other countries or the church to intervene (what he could not do as an individual). It can not describe or make understandable very well, I think, why he chose to enter the SS in order to get more knowledge of what the regime was doing, nor why ‘wanting knowledge’ is in itself something with a moral quality.

    2) What is ethics? My view is that ethics should be a philosophical, but also interdisciplinary, enterprise to get a better understanding of the moral behavior of people. Not to understand just in an empirical sense. But also to understand what are the conditions for speaking in a moral fashion, and what moves people to consider something good or evil, and what are the complexities that make up moral dilemmas as such. To do so we need psychology and sociology, not to explain morality away, nor to provide solutions for moral problems (that would not be doing ethics in my view) – but to clarify and better understand the dilemmas and our difficulties in valuing what people do or choose in actual situations. Thus, ethics could provide instruments for people to better understand themselves, and perhaps make different choices. Ethics can never give prescriptions to individuals that are in the middle of moral dilemmas.

    • onesis said:

      I agree with 1).

      In relation to 2) if ethics is to be interdisciplinary it must presuppose an interdisciplinary engagement that is itself philosophical. I mean by this that the terms of the engagement would be open to being critically examined. If a discipline wanted to enshrine its own formulations as being beyond such examination, and make them a precondition for any engagement with others, then the engagement would fall back into the methodological presuppositions of the discipline in question.

      In short the question is whether psychologists and sociologists are prepared to be philosophers (in the Socratic sense of that term, rather than in the positivist or pragmatic sense in which philosophy is regarded as a handmaiden to science).

    • Michael S. Pearl said:

      I have not yet read all of Valerie Hebert’s “Disguised Resistance? The Story of Kurt Gerstein”, but I have read enough to be able to note how his story well exhibits the typical moral complexities which are so very often absent from the sorts of thought experiments commonly found in philosophical considerations about morality and ethics.

      In retrospect, it seems rather clear that Gerstein’s best option was to have run away while he was on vacation during a Mediterranean cruise. But that is only a retrospective clarity. The retrospective perspective can conveniently dispense with the actual context of Gerstein’s own life – including his religious life during which he would have been taught (as but a few often apparently incompatible examples) the need to honor his father and mother, during which he would have been warned about trying to serve two masters, and during which he would have been taught to not behave as one who is without hope.

      By 1933, when Gerstein was intent upon standing “as strongly as possible” with “National Socialist penetration of the economy” while “cling[ing] tenaciously to the foundation of the Church”, Hannah Arendt had lost hope in Germany and its intellectuals and concluded that she must leave Germany. The fact that Gerstein felt a need to juxtapose Nazism and the Church strongly suggests that he was to some extent aware of a potentially dire conflict between at least aspects of the Nazi ideology and what he supposed should be the position of the Church. But, at that time, did he have any evidence that even the most heinous aspects of Nazism would become manifest? Did Arendt have any such evidence?

      Karl Jaspers thought that Arendt was wrong in her hopelessness; he apparently thought that the German people would not allow the Nazis to manifest in governance the hatred that was at the core of their ideology. Gerstein might very well have had some similar expectation. Yet, did Jaspers (or Gerstein) have any evidential basis for hopefulness? (It can be useful to delve into the nature of evidence here.)

      Retrospectively, it is obvious that Jaspers (and Gerstein) were wrong; likewise, it is obvious that Arendt’s assessment of the situation was much more correct, but it is worth noting that Arendt’s assessment of Nazism did not significantly differ from how Jaspers regarded Nazism, and there is reason to think that Gerstein was similarly aware that the horror at the core of Nazism could metastasize.

      The point here is that very often the ethical response cannot be put off until additional evidence and knowledge can be gathered; for anyone who would bother to pay attention to the fulness of Nazi thought, it was (or could have been) plainly clear how utterly damnable the Nazi ideology was – at least from that perspective which puts at the core of human being the idea of valuing the uniqueness of each individual person and responding non-impersonally always for the sake of the encountered other.

      A further point to be garnered from the Gerstein story is that the ethical conundrum entails not just how to respond but very often also when to respond. If Jaspers and Gerstein had opted to speak out against Nazism much more bluntly and vehemently right from the beginning, would that have impeded the Nazi cancer? There is no reason to imagine so, and they both would have realized as much. After all, it was a very easy matter for abstract attacks on Nazism (and abstract is very much what they would have been in 1933) to be dismissed as jeremiads lacking concrete evidence. (This can be a tangent for going off into consideration about the place of persuasion or its compatibility with the ethical; this can also be a tangent for considering the relation between witnessing and the ethical.)

      Such a tack by Gerstein might well have altered the course of his life, but the innumerable possibilities regarding how and when to respond emphasize the undecidability (or indeterminateness) of the ethical – an undecidability which, despite its undecidability, is always followed by a deciding.

      This undecidability/indeterminateness screams out against the notion – even the possibility – of an ethical systemization and, instead, highlights the absolute importance of always returning to judging and deciding on the basis of a non-impersonal and non-disinterested concern for the other. This concern is to be present even when the judging/deciding regards not just an encountered other but also encountered others who have differing interests.

      • onesis said:

        Michael, I can only appreciate what you are saying about the complexity of the decision that Gerstein faced in 1933, and then having to live with the consequences of that decision thereafter. There is a critical turning point (an existential moment) and it happens without the evidence that can only come in hindsight. Those who cast judgements from the vantage point of history are not giving enough consideration to that existential moment (which you have described so well in your posting above).

        I’ve read critiques of Socrates, that what he should have done was flee from Athens to save not just his own skin but the future of philosophy. The suggestion is that he even had an opportunity to do this after the death sentence was pronounced.

        The decision to stand and face the possibility of condemnation and death goes right to the heart of existential modes of thinking. Interpreting Gerstein’s decision to stay, and to become more involved as a witness of the atrocities he already knew were underway, speaks to me of a certain depth of character. He may have even foreseen the possibility that if he survived, his eye-witness accounts and the revelations he made based on them, would be used as evidence against him; that he was a collaborator and a perpetrator himself.

        Nazism is only one of many ethically unjustifiable political systems. Most are not so naked and open. The political system in Australia where I live routinely hides its own atrocities. Those of us who know about some of them choose to remain here (and to where would we flee anyway?)

        We can only stand and choose to resist oppression insofar as we are able. The only instruments we have are words (futile for the most part) and actions of solidarity with those who are oppressed. For the most part such actions are symbolic at best, and many of our daily actions inadvertently support oppressive regimes.

        As oppressors we tend to wear happy smiling faces. We do not even know we are oppressors. We have jobs, security, and a glowing inner warmth. We sleep well at night. We are the beneficiaries of the atrocities of others, the genocides that underpin every nation. Insofar as we pass by the oppressed in the streets, and give them no recognition as being oppressed, then we are fulfilling the role of the priest and the Levite in the old story.

  7. Michael S. Pearl said:

    onesis said:

    I would add to this that it has no internal manipulative thought control of others either.

    This is absolutely correct.

    onesis said:

    Thus from this perspective Wayne’s comments about ethics (likening it to a deity) suffers the problem attending the concept of deities. Some deities, as conceptualised in mythology and sacred texts, seem to have compulsive or manipulative powers, and on my view such deities are unworthy of being venerated. If there was a deity that comprehended the condition of humanness we bring to encountering others, of being uncertain and vulnerable, and prone to misinterpretation, then of course such a deity would be worthy of veneration.

    In a discussion about deities, considerations into the nature of authority and command could be useful. It would, of course, lead elsewhere than the most common understandings associated with those terms; nevertheless, I maintain that the ethics discussed here is wholly compatible with the sense of God (or transcendence however understood) as presented by Abrahamic – as well as other – religions. Especially Buber – but also Levinas – would certainly agree; then again, I expect that even Arendt could have agreed (had that been a prime interest of hers), although her focus would probably be more on the failings of practiced mass-religions to not only adhere to the ways of but even reveal the nameless/unnameable God who need not even be referenced for Godli(ke)ness to be made manifest. But, like I said, that is a matter for other discussions.

    • onesis said:

      I agree, and think that this is the sort of discussion that Angela would like to see on her blog. Angela’s blogs are exemplary for going into regions that purely analytical philosophers either ideologically refuse to go, or else tremble at the very thought of going.

      There is a lot of “metaphysical” interest (in the old fashioned meaning of the term, of what is meaningful but which cannot be demonstrated to be) in Arendt, particularly in “The life of the mind”, and at places in her correspondence with Jaspers.

  8. onesis said:

    >>to clarify and better understand the dilemmas and our difficulties in valuing what people do or choose in actual situations. Thus, ethics could provide instruments for people to better understand themselves, and perhaps make different choices. Ethics can never give prescriptions to individuals that are in the middle of moral dilemmas.<<

    This, concisely written, sounds very much like an agenda for applied ethics. It also is the exact same direction of thinking of two teachers of ethics with whom I studied many years ago, Peter Isaacs and David Massey, at Queensland University of Technology.

    These approaches of an interdisciplinary nature are at the core of many current initiatives in ethics. My own thesis (for a research degree) with one of these men in a supervisory role, and the other as an esteemed teacher (at that time). My thesis involved a synthesis of various concepts of ethics and sociological proposals put forward by Anthony Giddens.

    Twenty or so years later I am still contemplating the undue problems created by incorporating social science representations into ethics. I had to make a return to the "ontological difference" (as proposed by Heidegger) to realise why anything I wrote in ethics was liable to be taken down an instrumentalist pathway (as indeed you yourself indicate by suggesting that "ethics could provide instruments for people to better understand themselves").

    The problem is in the instruments, understood conceptually. Typically the concept of instruments in the social sciences is modelled on the experiments conducted by Sir Isaac Newton, wherein he used a prism to separate white light into its coloured components. This he labelled "the analytical method" and it is this same method that was taken over by those who wished to understand human beings in psychological and sociological terms.

    The problem is that what works for analysing light does not work for analysing humans. The "prism" of analysis is only metaphorical, and so what ends up being created are metaphorical subjects.

    Metaphors can be apt or less so, however, the bigger problem is that the social sciences tend to take them as real entities. The upshot is that the social sciences tend to be the birthplace of an immense amount of confusion, and also a tendency for the subjects of its inquiry to start to thinking of themselves solely in the terms of that inquiry. Giddens himself labelled this "the double hermeneutic" and seemed pleased with the result.

    I do not regard this social science project as innocent. My own approach since then has to more deeply engage with attempts to deconstruct the social science regime. By this I mean, to show that the analysis of human subjects via the use of various terms (even the term "subject") objectifies and renders humans helpless under its gaze.

    I see this as the silent war that is taking place, in which ethics has to struggle to find a way to survive and provide a better way to go, than by way of reducing humans to outputs and artefacts of expert knowledges.

    • Hi David, I completely agree with your account of the social science regime. I myself left a study in sociology in 1980 for not wanting to partake in this. I like to look back to times when all the human sciences and philosophy were not separated so much – from 1900 untill 1945, say. My ‘real’ sociologists, the ones who can bring something real to philosophy, are of course critical theorists. Not only old Horkheimer and Adorno, but also some rare present day survivor here and there. 😉

      • onesis said:

        These conversations are hermeneutic, and probably therapeutic, to boot.

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