Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Responsibility and Judgment by Hannah Arendt

Responsibility and Judgment I am in the middle of reading Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil and thought I might like to see what Arendt wrote after her critique of Eichmann’s trial. About the same time I found myself wrestling with the ideas presented in Naomi Klein’s 2014 book subtitled Capitalism vs. The Climate, and entitled This Changes Everything. I thought, as I read about Eichmann in Jerusalem, that some of the same “lack of the ability to think” applies to the world’s populace when it comes to lifestyle and our impact on climate.

There was a great uproar when The New Yorker magazine published Arendt’s piece on Eichmann’s trial in 1963, mostly because Arendt questioned Jewish leaders for their complicity in the destruction of their own people by a lack of resistance to the German aggression against Jews. As it happens, Arendt had further thoughts after the Eichmann trial about the phrase she coined then: “the banality of evil.”

In the 2003 edition of Responsibility and Judgment is an introduction by Jerome Kohn which begins by recalling that in 1966, a few short years after her Eichmann article, Arendt addressed a large audience that had gathered to attend a colloquium in New York. Attendees were particularly concerned at this time with the U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, and wished to hear what Arendt advised: that is, what they could do individually and collectively to change U.S. policy.

But Arendt
"did not believe that analogies derived retrospectively from what had or had not worked in the past would avert the pitfalls of the present situation. As she saw it, the spontaneity of political action is yoked to the contingency of its specific conditions, which renders such analogies unavailing…Arendt did not mean that the past as such was irrelevant…but that the past is not past…the past—past action--can be experienced in the present…It is we as a people who are responsible for them now." (Kohn, Introduction, pp. vii-ix)
It occurs to me that she might give the same response to climate activists who sought to apportion blame for the condition of the world and the direction of policy.

In one of the shorter essays in this volume, called “Collective Responsibility,” Arendt begins
"There is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them…Two conditions have to be present for collective responsibility: I must be held responsible for something I have not done, and the reason for my responsibility must be my membership in a group (a collective) which no voluntary act of mine can dissolve, that is, a membership which is utterly unlike a business partnership which I can dissolve at will…This kind of responsibility is always political…[There is] a dividing line between political (collective) responsibility, on one side, and moral and/or legal (personal) guilt, on the other…In the center of moral considerations of human conduct stands the self; in the center of political considerations of conduct stands the world."
Basically Arendt is making the point that no moral or personal attitude to things we have not done absolve us of responsibility for these things, and that we have a collective responsibility as human beings to deal with them…something we probably already knew in the case of climate change, except that now we all are both [politically] responsible for past errors and [morally] for errors made now. This essay was written in 1968.

Three years later, in 1971, Arendt published “Thinking and Moral Considerations” which helps me when considering the climate crisis as an example of a failure to think, Arendt’s definition of evil. “…[Eichmann] was neither monstrous nor demonic, and the only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: it was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think.”

It is difficult to summarize Arendt since the points she makes follow one another, but in this essay she concludes
"Thinking in its noncognitive, nonspecialized sense as a natural need of human life, the actualization of the difference given in consciousness, is not a prerogative of the few but an ever-present faculty of everybody; by the same token, inability to think is not the 'prerogative' of those many who lack brain power but the ever-present possibility for everybody—scientists, scholars, and other specialists in mental enterprises not excluded—to shun that intercourse with oneself whose possibility and importance Socrates first discovered (i.e., ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’). We were here not concerned with wickedness, with which religion and literature have tried to come to terms, but with evil; not with sin and the great villains who became the negative heroes in literature and usually acted out of envy and resentment, but with the nonwicked everybody who has no special motives and for this reason is capable of infinite evil…

For the thinking ego and its experience, conscience, which ‘fills a man full of obstacles,’ is a side effect. And it remains a marginal affair for society at large except in emergencies. For thinking as such does society little good, much less than the thirst for knowledge in which it is used as an instrument for other purposes. It does not create values, it will not find out, once and for all what ‘the good’ is, and it does not confirm but rather dissolves accepted rules of conduct. Its political and moral significance comes out only in those rare moments in history when ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” when 'The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.’

At these moments, thinking ceases to be a marginal affair in political matters. When everybody is swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes, those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join is conspicuous and thereby becomes a kind of action.”
Please forgive my extended quotes which, out of context, may not make much sense. However, I am trying to carry you along with my thinking about the looming climate crisis, of which the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf of Mexico seems the most egregious folly. One simply has to finally take a stand, and this is mine. It seems the scientific “logic” that goes along with approvals of this sort is what got us here in the first place. Perhaps a more wholistic view is in order at this time.

To get back to this collection of Arendt’s essays, she wrote several at the time of massive upheaval in America, and though she did not address the pressing issue of resource depletion at that time, she did address issues of race, and the integration of schools. It is enlightening (exciting, even) and not really all that obscure to follow her arguments that school children were being forced into the front line positions of fighting racial discrimination, and that this was an(other) example of the failure of government to provide reasonable leadership and protection for the people they “served.”

What I come away with is Arendt disclaiming any particular sorcery when it comes to “thinking.” This is the right, indeed the obligation, of any human. We have not been doing ourselves, our community, our world any good by ignoring what was given. Thinking requires that we stop and think. We cannot think and do things at the same time. The point Arendt makes again and again is that we must think in order to avoid doing evil.

If you are interested and missed my earlier review of This Changes Everything, check it out here.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. This is perhaps her heaviest book. She has a lot of more readable ones, such as Men in Dark Times, On Revolution, On Violence. Also her huge Origins of Totalitarianism. I like her two social theory books, The Human Condition, and Between Past and Future.
    I was luck to spend a week with her at U of NH.

    1. I wonder, was she intimidating or did you have interesting and vital conversation? You, having read all of her work, may have been able to hold your own. Did you have criticisms or interesting challenges to her ideas that she was able to rebut?

    2. (I was delayed getting a google account working.) I didn't have a vital conversation. She was intimidating, and she tended to lead you to nod and agree with what she said. I was surprised she said she admired great criminals such as mob bosses. Me meeting with her was odd and symbolic.
      I and a radical Bolivian student were standing in the kitchen of our host. As he led her in to meet us he said "Now you'll meet the real radicals." This made her nervous; surprising given that she had had a Marxist husband and had escaped the Nazis in Europe. In nervousness she tugged on her string of pearls and it broke. Soon the student and I were crawling on the floor picking up the pearls she had cast before swine.