Tuesday, September 25, 2018

‘The Banality of Evil’ – II

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. - Hannah Arendt  

What took the cake for Arendt was when Eichmann said that his whole life was lived according to Kantian precepts, including his obedience to Nazi authority. He invoked "duty" in an effort to explain his own version of Kantianism. Arendt writes: "This was outrageous, on the face of it, and also incomprehensible, since Kant's moral philosophy is so closely bound up with man's faculty of judgment, which rules out blind obedience."

Eichmann came up with what Arendt calls ‘an approximately correct definition' of the Kant’s categorical imperative: "I meant by my remark about Kant that the principle of my will must always be such that it can become the principle of general laws" (which is not the case with theft or murder, for instance, because the thief or the murderer cannot conceivably wish to live under a legal system that would give others the right to rob or murder him).  He said that he had read Kant's Critique of Practical Reason.

But then Eichmann contradicts himself as he explains his Kantian commitments. Although he had stated that his obedience to Nazi authority was Kantian, he acknowledges that once he was charged with the task of carrying out the Final Solution, he ceased to live by Kantian principles: "he no longer 'was master of his own deeds,' and  he 'was unable to change anything'". Arendt writes:
What he failed to point out in court was that in this "period of crimes legalized by the state," as he himself now called it, he had not simply dismissed the Kantian formula as no longer applicable, he had distorted it to read: Act as if the principle of your actions were the same as that of the legislator or of the law of the land - or, in Hans Frank's formulation of "the categorical imperative in the Third Reich," which Eichmann might have known: "Act  in such a way that the Führer, if he knew your action, would approve it" 
I have not read Kant. But Kant’s philosophy is explained in layman’s language in Michael Sandel’s book Justice. According to Kant, freedom means to act autonomously i.e. according to a law that I give myself, not as instruments of somebody or something outside of me. He says that the moral worth of an action depends not on its consequences but on its intentions. And only those duties have moral worth that are done because that they are right not because they are useful or convenient. And  Kant emphasized that people should be regarded as ends in themselves not as means to an end. For Eichmann to say that he was following Kant requires quite an imagination. Arendt writes:
But it is true that Eichmann's unconscious distortion agrees with what he himself called the version of Kant "for the household use of the little man." In this household use, all that is left of Kant's spirit is the demand that a man do more than obey the law, that he go beyond the mere call of obedience and identify his own will with the principle behind the law ...
Much of the horribly painstaking thoroughness in the execution of the Final Solution - a thoroughness that usually strikes the observer as typically German, or else as characteristic of the perfect bureaucrat - can be traced to the odd notion, indeed very common in Germany, that to be law-abiding means not merely to obey the laws but to act as though one were the legislator of the laws that one obeys. Hence the the conviction that nothing less than going beyond the call of duty will do.
Arendt recognized  that Eichmann was the perfect example of the modern man devoted to carrying out efficiently what he had been tasked to do without being burdened by feelings. He had carried out orders to the best of his ability and said that he did not want to be one of those who now pretended that "they had always been against it," whereas in fact they had been very eager to do what they were told to do. He said that although he had now ‘arrived at different insights’, it did not mean that he regretted anything: "Repentance is for little children." (Sic!)

Arendt says that Dostoevsky once mentions in his diaries that in Siberia, among scores of murderers, rapists, and burglars, he never met a single man who would admit that he had done wrong. She had little sympathy for the excuse repeatedly used by Nazis criminals: “I was a cog in the machine”; “I obeyed the orders”; “anybody would have acted the same way”… etc.  She writes about these people (people who did what the Nazis told them to do in order to advance their careers and later repudiated them when it became too hot) that they reminded her of this comment:
In his almost totally unknown Diary of a Man in Despair," ...Reck-Malleczewen wrote, after he had heard of the failure of the attempt on Hitler's life, which of course he regretted: "A little late, gentlemen, you who made this arch destroyer of Germany and ran after him, as long as everything seemed to be going well; you who . . . without hesitation swore every oath demanded of you and reduced yourselves to the despicable flunkies of this criminal who is guilty of the murder of hundreds of thousands, burdened with the lamentations and the curse of the whole world; now you have betrayed him. . . . Now, when the bankruptcy can no longer be concealed, they betray the house that went broke, in order to establish a political alibi for themselves - the same men who have betrayed everything that was in the way of their claim to power."

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