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Posts Tagged ‘morals

“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him”*…

 

Adolf Eichmann at his 1961 trial

Can one do evil without being evil? This was the puzzling question that the philosopher Hannah Arendt grappled with when she reported for The New Yorker in 1961 on the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi operative responsible for organising the transportation of millions of Jews and others to various concentration camps in support of the Nazi’s Final Solution.

Arendt found Eichmann an ordinary, rather bland, bureaucrat, who in her words, was ‘neither perverted nor sadistic’, but ‘terrifyingly normal’. He acted without any motive other than to diligently advance his career in the Nazi bureaucracy. Eichmann was not an amoral monster, she concluded in her study of the case, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil(1963). Instead, he performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his ‘thoughtlessness’, a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. Eichmann ‘never realised what he was doing’ due to an ‘inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else’. Lacking this particular cognitive ability, he ‘commit crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong’.

Arendt dubbed these collective characteristics of Eichmann ‘the banality of evil’…

The banality-of-evil thesis was a flashpoint for controversy. To Arendt’s critics, it seemed absolutely inexplicable that Eichmann could have played a key role in the Nazi genocide yet have no evil intentions. Gershom Scholem, a fellow philosopher (and theologian), wrote to Arendt in 1963 that her banality-of-evil thesis was merely a slogan that ‘does not impress me, certainly, as the product of profound analysis’. Mary McCarthy, a novelist and good friend of Arendt, voiced sheer incomprehension: ‘[I]t seems to me that what you are saying is that Eichmann lacks an inherent human quality: the capacity for thought, consciousness – conscience. But then isn’t he a monster simply?’

The controversy continues to the present day…

Interrogate right and wrong at “What did Hannah Arendt really mean by the banality of evil?

* Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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As we think about the unthinkable, we might wish a crafty Happy Birthday to Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli; he was born on this date in 1469.  Machiavelli wrote comedies, poetry, and some of the best-known personal correspondence in Italian; but he is best remembered as a Man of Affairs, first as a servant of the Florentine Republic in a time during which Medici influence was on the wane.  His most famous work, The Prince— first published as a pamphlet in 1513– was written mid-career to gain favor with the Medici, who were at that point regaining dominance in Florence.  The essay on the exercise of power (inspired by Cesare Borgia) not only failed to win over the Medici, it alienated Machiavelli from the Florentine public; he never again played an important role in government.  Indeed, when the Florentine Republic was established in 1527, Machiavelli was effectively ostracized.

But published in book form posthumously (in 1532), The Prince began its steady growth in influence.  And of course today, Machiavelli is considered one of the fathers of modern political theory.

For an extraordinarily-insightful look at Machiavelli’s thinking, see Isaiah Berlin’s “The Question of Machiavelli.”

Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

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“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”*…

 

You are on an asteroid careening through the cosmos. Aboard the asteroid with you are nine hundred highly-skilled physicians, who have been working on developing a revolutionary medication that will cure every disease in the known universe. The asteroid’s current trajectory is taking it straight toward the Planet of Orphans, where all intergalactic civilizations have dumped their unwanted offspring, of which there are now 100 trillion, all living, breathing, and mewling. If you detonate the asteroid, all of the doctors will die, along with the hope for curing every disease in the universe. If you do not detonate the asteroid, the doctors will have time to develop the cure and send it hurtling toward the Healing Planet before you crash into and destroy the Planet of Orphans. Thus you face the crucial question: how useful is this hypothetical for illuminating moral truths?

The “Trolley Problem” is a staple of undergraduate moral philosophy. It is a gruesome hypothetical supposedly designed to test our moral intuitions and introduce the differences between Kantian and consequentialist reasoning. For the lucky few who have thus far managed to avoid exposure to the Trolley Problem, here it is: a runaway trolley is hurtling down the track. In the trolley’s path are five workers, who will inevitably be smushed to a gory paste if it continues along its present course. But you, you have the power to change things: you happen to be standing by a switch. If you give the switch a yank, the trolley will veer onto a different track. On this track, there is only one worker. Do you pull the switch and doom the unsuspecting proletarian, or do you refrain from acting and allow five others to die?…

How a staple of moral education “turns us into horrible people, and discourages us from examining the structural factors that determine our choices”: “The Trolley Problem Will Tell You Nothing Useful About Morality.”

[TotH to the ever-illuminating 3 Quarks Daily]

* Aristotle

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As we carefully consider the questions that deserve our response, we might spare a thought for German Idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; he died on this date in 1831.  While his ideas have been divisive, they have been hugely influential (e.g., here).  Karl Barth described Hegel as a “Protestant Aquinas,” while Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote that “all the great philosophical ideas of the past century—the philosophies of Marx and Nietzsche, phenomenology, German existentialism, and psychoanalysis—had their beginnings in Hegel.”

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Written by LW

November 14, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The rules of morality are not the conclusion of our reason”*…

 

The Pew Research Center’s 2013 Global Attitudes survey asked 40,117 respondents in 40 countries what they thought about eight topics often discussed as moral issues: extramarital affairs, gambling, homosexuality, abortion, premarital sex, alcohol consumption, divorce, and the use of contraceptives.  For each issue, respondents were asked whether the behavior is morally acceptable, morally unacceptable, or not a moral issue.

Explore the results (and see larger versions of charts like the one above) here.

* David Hume

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As we struggle to take the high ground, we might that it was on this date in 1881 that Clara Barton and Adolphus Solomons founded the American National Red Cross, to provide humanitarian aid to victims of wars and natural disasters.  Barton, who’d famously done medical relief work during the American Civil War, had later gone to Europe to provide aid during the Franco-Prussian War, and had encountered the European Red Cross.  On returning, and with the help of Solomons, she started the American branch of the organization. The group was quickly called into action, first in response to the Great Fire of 1881 in the Thumb region of Michigan, which occurred 1n September of 1881, as a result of which over 5,000 people were left homeless. The second major call on te Red Cross was the Johnstown Flood which occurred at the end of May, 1889. Over 2,209 people died and thousands more were injured in or near Johnstown, Pennsylvania in one of the worst disasters in U.S. history.

The Red Cross set up in a community hard hit by tornadoes, Florida, 2007

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