Philosophers as Bureaucrats of Sadism

I have been lecturing the past two weeks on Hannah Arendt, moving through her Origins of Totalitarianism before approaching her others works as the semester proceeds. Class discussion has focused around vexing questions about responsibility, which in Arendt means not just those functionaries of violence but also, most controversially, Jews and others caught up in the machinery of violence. I’ll post today’s lecture a bit later, but part of it contains this quotation from Arendt from a 1964 essay on responsibility under a dictatorship:

I had somehow [she is here describing her Eichmann book] 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 when the chips are down, that to be tempted and to be forced are almost the same, whereas in the words of Mary McCarthy [an important writer and friend of Arendt’s], who first spotted this fallacy: “If someone points a gun at you and say ‘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 is certainly not a moral justification. (p. 18)

Whatever one thinks of Arendt’s analysis, what interests me for this quick-ish post is that the response engenders a problematic one that makes me (or the professor in any political or ethics course) into a certain sadist imagining the lines between this and that behavior–between what counts as coerced and that which doesn’t. That is, it doesn’t take long for questions to be raised about where one should, in light of Arendt, put the line between temptation and force, to use her words from above. What about if someone shot you in the leg? What if I’m not yet being water-boarded (we dealt with a quote from Arendt on torture as having a natural force) but fear it? What if… What if…? This is the daily bread of many ethics and political philosophy courses, but I have become more adamant about refusing this gesture. Arendt’s point is not to begin to detail situations that would absolve one of responsibility, but in fact the reverse, since she’s trying to remove all bad faith determinisms. And it’s not a “what if” scenario above, but McCarthy (and by extension Arendt) are referencing a well-worn post-War disavowal of responsibility by various functionaries: it was like (and all hangs on the abyss between the terms of this analogy) one had put a gun their head. And Arendt in turn says, well, in fact, let’s see if even in that case one has zero level of agency.

Moreover, it’s certainly not a task for us to imagine–sadistically–those cases that count, like the worst form of arm-chair philosophizing, a point I also had in mind when torture came up during the late Bush years in the classroom and students wanted to hash out various 24-style scenarios. Why spend our time in classes in such joint fantasies? Some will suggest that this then means that we will allow the lines to be blurred, we won’t distinguish–abstractly, mind you–between what is torture and what isn’t, and so on. But as philosophers, this only has the affect of making us bureaucrats of that violence, like those Bush-era (and no doubt, also Obama-era) attorneys parsing out in Kafkaesque ways all manner of horrors. We are not here to quantify pain, adjudicate this level of horror and no more, etc. Rather I always return the question: why precisely does that abstraction interest us, rather than dealing with the very specific example at issue? Why a need to measure how much horror a hypothetical Arendt would permit–here and no more? These moments end up as creative lessons in irresponsibility–not the reverse, a point I hope follows a bit from the above. If this means that leaves me out of many “applied ethics” or “political” discussions, then so be it.

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