Beyond Bluebeard: Arendt’s "Some Questions of Moral Philosophy"05-31-2015
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By Philip Walsh
“Our decisions about right and wrong will depend on our choice of company, of those with whom we wish to spend our lives. And again, this company is chosen by thinking in examples, in examples of people dead or alive, real or fictitious, and in examples of incidents, past or present. In the unlikely case that someone should come and tell us that he would prefer Bluebeard for company, and hence take him as an example, the only think we could do is to make sure he never comes near us.”
-- Hannah Arendt, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy”
In 1965-66, Hannah Arendt taught a course entitled “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy” at the New School of Social Research. An edited version of the lectures were posthumously published as an essay in Responsibility and Judgment. The essay reveals the continuation of Arendt’s thinking about morality that followed the Eichmann trial as well as the germ of the idea, explored further in The Life of the Mind, of the relationship between thinking and morality. This quotation reveals some of the startling conclusions she arrived at.
Arendt was profoundly sceptical not only of ‘moral philosophy’ but also of the ordinary, everyday morality that her generation of Germans took for granted before the Nazi seizure of power. Both moral philosophy and conventional morality place obligation at the center of concern. Arendt rejected this association. In its most fully elaborated philosophical form – Kant’s conception of the moral law as binding on all rational beings – she regards obligation as coercive. Moreover, it conflicts with the principle of autonomy at the heart of Kant’s own ethical system. But Arendt also rejects the association because it proved to be such a weak reed when the ‘chips were down’. In “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy”, Arendt initially considers two kinds of moral actors who found themselves confronted with the imperative to act under conditions of Nazi rule. There were first ordinary Germans who by and large continued to abide by the conventions of ordinary obligation and who thereby became more or less complicit with the crimes committed during the period 1933–45. The second were ‘those few’ who, whether they acted on their insights or not, “never doubted that crimes remained crimes even if legalized by the government,” as Arendt expresses it in Responsibility and Judgment. The consciences of this group “did not feel an obligation but acted according to something which was self-evident to them even though it was no longer self-evident to those around them”. This openness to conscience Arendt links to the propensity to think, or engage in internal conversation – to live as a ‘two-in-one’. These people, who are not necessarily susceptible to the rule of everyday morality (and therefore are perhaps more likely to be bohemians than magistrates), become ‘politically relevant’ only in times of crisis. It was Arendt’s thinking about these actors that initiated the thought-train she later pursues in the Introduction to Thinking, the first volume of The Life of the Mind. It was also these people who she saw as closest to the example of Socrates and who she thought might provide a bridge between morals and politics though the exercise of judgment.
To see this, it is worth considering two other kinds of moral actors discussed in ‘Some Questions’ and elsewhere. The first consists of those who conform most closely to Plato’s (not Socrates’) ideal, whose goodness arises not through the activity of internal conversation but through direct perception of the Idea of the Good. Such people perceive this through the ‘eyes of the mind’, and do not engage in internal moral deliberation. Arendt does not dwell much on these Platonic moral actors in the essay and offers no specific examples of them. Plausible candidates emerge elsewhere in her writings. For example, in On Revolution, the Christian variant of Platonic goodness appears in the character of Billy Budd in Herman Melville’s novel of the same name. Billy is simply ‘absolutely good’, primordially innocent, an incarnation of the Christian ideal. While Arendt does not deny the existence of such people, her admiration for them is tinged with the insight that their morality is far removed from the realm of action, where it cannot survive. Indeed, such moral instincts are, as Arendt expresses it in On Revolution, ‘passions’, emotions ‘located in the human heart’. Moral passions are alien to politics since they “abolish the distance, the worldly space between men where political matters, the whole realm of human affairs are located”. Platonic/Christian morality is therefore incapable of bridging the divide between morals and politics, and is even anti-political.
The other group of moral actors were those, like Eichmann, who refused to think, and committed immoral or evil acts as a result. These actors, as Arendt puts it in Responsibility and Judgment:
refuse to be persons … [W]rongdoers who refuse to think by themselves what they are doing and who also refuse in retrospect to think about it, that is, go back and remember what they did (which is tushuvah or repentance), have actually failed to constitute themselves as somebodies. By stubbornly remaining nobodies they prove themselves unfit for intercourse with others who, good, bad, or indifferent, are at the very least persons.
Although these two secondary types of moral actors are clearly sharply opposed to each other, they share a similar disengagement from internal or external dialogue. Neither those whose actions stem from ‘the heart’, nor those ‘nobodies’ who refuse personhood, follow Socrates’ dictum to talk and think about ‘piety, justice, courage and the rest’. He stands then not only as the source of a moral order distinct from that of ‘obligation’, but also a potential bridge to politics, since his thinking arises from ‘conditions of human plurality’. This thinking capacity can, Arendt suggests, provide a defense against committing immoral action, although it provides no positive template for acting morally in any given situation. Neither is there a rule or imperative that can be invoked to induce people to engage in such conversation. It is, rather, a capacity, a practice, in which Socrates was, indeed, a virtuoso; that is, he took pleasure in doing it well, for its own sake.
This thought-train leads, finally, in “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy” to the problem of how to cultivate a Socratic stance towards both moral and political life. For thinking – internal conversation alone – is not sufficient. In political life, one must also make judgments, which are not the same as thoughts. Specifically, Arendt advocates reflective judgment, which operates not by subsumption but by discerning appropriate examples to follow, by reasoning through likeness and difference. Arendt’s reflections on this were inspired by Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment, although her conclusions are attenuated, and she did not live to develop them properly in the third volume of The Life of the Mind. But one point is clear from Arendt’s reflections on the limitations of both moral philosophy and conventional morality: the capacity for internal conversation tends to be developed in the context of conversing and discoursing with others, and the disposition to do this emerges as an outcome of something like taste. But judgments of taste, as Arendt points out in her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, which were to become the core of the third volume of The Life of the Mind, are not amenable to education in the conventional sense. They are, rather, derived from the ‘company one keeps’, from one’s choices of friends, conversation partners, associates and favored authors.
To choose Bluebeard as one of these companions may be rare enough, but to think the possibility of doing so is to remain aware of the human faculties that can preserve moral and political integrity.