Friday, July 28, 2017

Hannah Arendt Exploring Thinking and Moral Behavior

In her essay, “Thinking and Moral Considerations,” Hannah Arendt writes:
Clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence.
She writes that while it’s not possible to always be “responsive to this claim,” there are some people who seem unaware of it.

Arendt’s focus is on people in authoritarian states who acquiesce to evil and participate in it willingly. She doesn’t focus on deliberate wickedness, like how a sociopath or hardened criminal would act. She examines ordinary people who - in better times, under better governments - would strike you as moral in their day-to-day conduct.

She observes how in 1930s Germany, many people seemed to do an about-face on morality, showing a surprisingly superficial adherence to their old moral code (as if they needed rules governing their lives, but hadn't given much thought to the content of those rules - one set of rules could fill in for another). She then asks why other people didn’t acquiesce to evil. Not necessarily the people who actively resisted, but those who quietly refused to support or participate in any act they considered evil.

What she attributes the difference to is a certain capacity for thinking (and acting on that thinking through judging). The capacity for such thinking doesn’t depend on general intelligence or education; she specifically mentions highly educated, sophisticated, intelligent people who embraced the rise of the Nazis thoughtlessly. Her essay explores what this thinking entails - a kind of probing dialogue with oneself.

Some of her other essays explore this too. Here’s an excerpt from “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” describing the thought process as:
… the disposition to live together explicitly with oneself, to have intercourse with oneself, that is, to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself which, since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking.
And from “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy” -
Solitude means that though alone, I am together with somebody (myself, that is). It means that I am two-in-one, whereas loneliness as well as isolation do not know this kind of schism, this inner dichotomy in which I can ask questions of myself and receive answers.
Arendt doesn’t claim that thinking will automatically lead to clarity or beneficial results out in the world. It can also be exploited. For instance, thinking about an issue may result in only greater perplexity instead of firm conclusions. Someone can then slyly claim that if a firm conclusion is impossible, any conclusion is acceptable. But she makes excellent points about the dangers of people becoming deaf to themselves, and her essay also winds up being an exploration of what different philosophers have thought about thinking (with an emphasis on Socrates, waking people up from a stupor and unexamined prejudgments).

Going back to the first excerpt I shared. Clichés and stock phrases shut down thought not only during a society-wide upheaval with widespread evils. Consider situations that are damaging on a smaller scale (though all those smaller damages, perpetrated daily by many, can add up in an indifferent culture). To give one example, I was speaking with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who acts in toxic ways (belittling people, threatening them, playing mind games, etc.) and what constructive responses we could make to these behaviors. My friend at first seemed intent on discussing the problem, and he looked concerned. Then his face smoothed over, and he shrugged and said, “Nobody’s perfect.”

And that was it for the conversation. The stock phrase doesn’t hold up to scrutiny; "nobody’s perfect" doesn’t mean all imperfections are alike and have the same effect. But he didn’t want to apply scrutiny. He suspended thought and judgment, because he wanted to avoid dealing with an issue that was deeply uncomfortable. Consciously or unconsciously, he sensed that tackling the problem might entail more pain and effort than he was willing to put up with, especially in the short-term. (At least he wasn't going along with this acquaintance and becoming her minion, hurting other people on her behalf.)

How do you remain in dialogue with yourself? Not a quick exchange full of easy rationalizations, but a deeper process of questioning. How do you remember that you have to live with yourself? (On friendly terms, one hopes, and without slipping too much into distraction, addiction, disassociation, numbness, or clichés.) What are the different limits people set for themselves (I'll go this far, but no farther), and what determines these limits or changes them?

(I read this piece for Deal Me In.)


Brian Joseph said...

Great post.

I have been meaning to read Hannah Arendt for some time. Her essay's sound so interesting and important. The issues that she raises are things that I think about a lot. I have long been fascinated by people who seem to be moral. but who support to totalitarianism once totalitarianism takes power.

HKatz said...

You should read Arendt. She explores issues worth thinking about.