This post was originally published on December 2, 2011.
Eight years ago this week, Michael Ignatieff accepted the Hannah Arendt Prize in Bremen. Ignatieff’s acceptance speech spoke of Hannah Arendt as an example, as an intellectual whose work and persona had inspired and guided him on his own course. As is appropriate, he praises Arendt and also challenges her, finding in his disagreements an intense respect for the provocation and courage of her thinking. Arendt inspires, Ignatieff concludes, because she is skeptical, dispassionate, and free. His speech is one of the best accounts of what makes Arendt so compelling as a thinker. I recommend it to you as this week’s Weekend read.
What most strikes Ignatieff about Arendt is her intellectual authority. He writes:
She was an example, first, because she created her own authority. She arrived in New York as a penniless refugee and by her death was widely respected as a public intellectual. She achieved authority by the power of thought. By authority, I mean that she was listened to, respected and widely regarded as a wise woman. I also mean that her influence has survived her and that the argument about her work continues a generation after her death.
Arendt’s authority flows from commitment to ideas, to, in Ignatieff’s words, an “intellectual life, that was free of any alliance with power, ideology, religion or coercive force.” Neither a liberal nor a conservative, Arendt sought simply to think, and rethink, what we are doing. Again, Ignatieff characterizes her beautifully:
She defended a life of the mind connected to the idea of persuasion: the free changing of a mind in interaction with a logical argument or a claim about the world grounded in evident or falsifiable facts. She was attentive to facts, understood the discipline they impose on thought, appreciated the moral code of empirical scholarship, the proposition that if the theory does not fit the facts, the theory must be changed. This is a moral idea simply because it requires people to admit that they are wrong, and since nobody likes to, everyone can find a morally dubious way to avoid doing so. Facts are stubborn things, and intellectual life has no essential morality unless it submits arguments to the discipline of such facts as we can discover about ourselves and the world we live in.
Arendt’s insistence on facts beyond ideology and politics made her old-fashioned to some. While everyone has a right to their opinion, she insisted that facts are sacrosanct, and no one has a right to change facts. Fidelity to facts meant for her a fidelity to living in a world with others, a shared world, one in which our disagreements cannot include disagreements over the unquestionable factual truths that make up our common world.
It is on the question of one such fact, however, that Ignatieff disagrees with Arendt. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt brought attention to the complicity of Jewish leaders who, during WWII, supplied Nazi leaders with lists of Jews and organized their fellow Jews for transport to concentration and death camps. A few resigned. Fewer committed suicide or resisted. But the majority collaborated.
These Jewish leaders often defended their actions as a lesser evil, keeping order where otherwise disorder might have reigned. But Arendt noted that they also kept themselves and their families off the transport lists. These were facts. While many Jews thought these facts should be hidden, Arendt insisted on telling the whole truth. Arendt argued that it is always right to tell the truth, no matter the consequences.
What is more, Arendt had the temerity to judge the Jewish leaders for their complicity. The Jewish leaders, she wrote, had defended their actions by the argument of the “lesser evil”— that their cooperation allowed them to save some Jews (themselves included) and was therefore a lesser evil; if they had simply handed the responsibility for selecting and organizing the Jews to the Nazis, that would have been worse.
For Arendt, this argument of the lesser evil was in form, although not in significance or import, the very same argument Eichmann employed. It was even closer to the actions of normal, average, everyday Germans who chose to work within the Nazi bureaucracy and legal system, justifying their actions by saying that if they resigned, others, even more heartless, would take their places. What unites the German civil servants and the Jewish leaders in Arendt’s telling is their willingness to justify morally suspect actions in the name of doing an unethical job as ethically as possible.
It is important to recall that Arendt did not advocate punishing the Jewish leaders. Hers was not a legal judgment. But she did insist that they should bear moral responsibility for their actions. In short, they had put their own safety and the safety of their friends and families above their obligations to those other Jews who were under their care. In short, they had valued the lives of some over others and cooperated in the selection of some for extermination.
Arendt’s argument of the formal similarity between the complicity of the Jewish leader and German bureaucrats was, Ignatieff argues, a mistake. It is worth hearing his argument at length. He writes:
Arendt had assumed that the choices that Jewish leaders made under Nazi occupation ought to be judged by the same standards of accountability to be applied to the perpetrators. She quoted her friend Mary McCarthy as saying, “If somebody points a gun at you and says, “Kill your friend or I will kill you”, he is tempting you, that is all.”
Arendt maintained that while it might not be possible to resist direct coercion, it was possible to resist temptation. This standard applied equally to perpetrators and accomplices. Without holding on to such a distinction, Arendt claimed, personal responsibility would be lost altogether.
Yet while it is a temptation for the perpetrator to say: “Kill your friend or I will kill you”, the victim so compelled is under a very direct form of coercion. Arendt has elided two very different experiences: the German perpetrator who could disobey orders that entailed telling others to kill and a Jewish collaborator who knew that the choices were between everyone dying and some dying, between dying then or dying later.
“I was told, “Arendt later said angrily, “that judging itself was wrong: no one can judge who had not been there.” But it was one thing to insist on the right to judge Eichmann and his kind, another thing to claim the equivalent right to judge—and condemn—the conduct of Jewish collaborators. The second case required a different kind of judgment, one that does not confuse understanding and forgiveness, but which does insist on empathy as a prelude to judgment. Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Empathy here means the capacity to enter into the moral world of those faced with intolerable choices and understand how these choices could be made. Empathy implies a capacity to discriminate between the condemnation appropriate to a perpetrator and that of his Jewish accomplice. The accusation here is fundamental: that in making ethical judgment the central function of intellectual life, and its chief claim of authority, Arendt had lacked the one essential feature of judgment: compassion.
There are a few things to say about Ignatieff’s critique. First, he assumes that for the Jewish collaborators the choice was between “everyone dying and some dying, between dying then or dying later.” Arendt disputes that fact. She denies that Jewish collaboration saved more lives than non-collaboration would have. Indeed, she argues that if the Jews had refused to collaborate, many fewer Jews would have been killed. The ensuing chaos would have afforded many Jews the chance to escape and would have inspired others to resist. Further, the complicity of Jewish leaders eased the Nazi’s job and provided labor and legitimacy that expedited the efficiency of the final solution. It is simply wrong, Arendt insists, to see the choice as one of dying now or dying later. One cannot know the results of action, which always begins anew and is unpredictable in its consequences. Jewish resistance in place of collaboration, she argues, might have saved lives. It would have required courage, however, that the leaders risk their own lives.
Second, Ignatieff argues that Arendt was wrong to judge the collaborators and that in doing so she denied them the empathy and compassion that are essential features of judgment. Here Ignatieff and Arendt have a real difference of opinion, and it is one worth thinking about.
Ignatieff insists that judgment requires compassion. We should get to know the person being judged, empathize with his plight, and make allowance for his wrongs based on the circumstances. Against this view, Arendt insists that compassion—which is an essential and praiseworthy trait in the personal realm—must be kept out of the political realm and divorced from questions of judgment.
Compassion with another requires an engagement with another in their singularity. Indeed, it is just such a lack of compassion with those Jews under their care that was absent on the part of the Jewish leaders and that allowed them to act such as they did. Instead of compassion, the Jewish leaders treated their fellow Jews with pity. The leaders eased the plight of their subjects by treating them pitifully and softly as they sent them off to die, but they were able to do so only by avoiding the true empathy of compassion that would have made such action impossible. If the Jewish leaders really had compassion, they could never have handed them over to the Nazis to be killed. In fact, it is this willingness to subordinate their compassion and singular relation to those they were responsible for, to the political logic of means-ends rationality that bothered Arendt.
What most bothered Arendt, however, was that the Jewish leaders judged it better to do wrong by sending others off to die than to suffer wrong themselves. This putting of their own self-interest above the moral requirement not to do wrong was, she argued, a violation of the fundamental moral law first announced by Socrates; that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong. It is for their poor moral judgment that Arendt judges them.
While the leaders should have showed compassion for those in their care, Arendt insists that a judge should not. Judgment requires distance. It is from her distant perch as a conscious pariah—an outsider who refuses to let compassion enter her judgments—that Arendt found the moral authority with which to judge the Jewish leaders. On the need for such judgment, she and Ignatieff simply disagree.
Enjoy Ignatieff’s speech. It is a shining example of how to accept an award with gratitude—appropriate for a post-Thanksgiving read. And let us know what you think.