Moral Perplexities: Unthinking Evildoers

(I recently posted the following as my commentary on a quote I chose to explore on Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities web site, where I regularly contribute to the Quote of the Week column hosted there.)

“Whatever the source of moral knowledge might be—divine commandments or moral reason—every sane man, it was assumed, carried within himself a voice that tells him what is right and what is wrong, and this regardless of the law of the land and regardless of the voices of his fellowmen.” Hannah Arendt, Some Questions of Moral Philosophy, in Responsibility and Judgment, ed. Jerome Kohn, (New York: Schocken Books, 2003) p. 61.

In a series of lectures she wrote for two courses she taught, one in 1965 at the New School and the second in 1966 at the University of Chicago, Arendt mapped out some of her complicated thinking about moral philosophy and the “perplexities inherent in the human faculty of willing.” In these lectures, she drew heavily on Kant and Nietzsche, but began her reflections by calling attention to the historical motivation for her concerns: “We—at least the older ones among us—have witnessed the total collapse of all established moral standards in public and private life during the nineteen-thirties and –forties, not only…in Hitler’s Germany but also in Stalin’s Russia.” (54). The distinction between right and wrong that it was assumed “every sane man” heard like a voice within him had not stood the test of time. How easily, Arendt observed, ordinary people had changed their habits of mind, exchanging one set of values for another “with hardly more trouble than it [took] to change the table manners of an individual or a people.” (50). How had this happened? If acting morally, and not just legally, depended on the “thinking” conversation one had with oneself about what one should or shouldn’t do, then it was as if large sections of the population in every strata had simply stopped thinking, did what they were told to do, and then proceeded to forget.

Two weeks ago today, Anders Behring Breivik, the 33-year-old Norwegian man who admitted to killing 77 people last July in two separate attacks, entered a specially outfitted courtroom in Oslo to stand trial for criminal acts of terrorism and mass murder. After the charges against him were read, Mr. Breivik pleaded not guilty. “I acknowledge the acts, but not criminal guilt – I claim I was doing it in self-defense.”

He would have preferred, he added, to appear before a military tribunal; he was, he contended, a political activist involved in a war in Europe.

Since he admitted his acts, the trial now turns on the question of Breivik’s sanity.  Two psychiatric reports have produced contradictory conclusions; the first found him insane at the time of the killings, suffering from paranoid schizophrenic delusions, while the second declared him sane.

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“[E]very sane man, it was assumed, carried within himself a voice that tells him what is right and what is wrong.” In his own words, Breivik was no exception. Before he started shooting, Breivik explained at his trial last week, he heard “ ‘100 voices’ in his head telling him not to do it.” But that moment of hesitation passed; he had prepared himself for years through a process he described as a deliberate program of dehumanization. Steeling himself against the comprehension of what he had done was important, he added, because “he would break down mentally” if he allowed himself to empathize with his victims.

“The criterion of right and wrong, the answer to the question, what ought I to do? depends in the last analysis neither on habits and customs, which I share with those around me, nor on a command of either divine or human origin, but what I decide with regard to myself,” Arendt observed in the same essay on moral philosophy. (97) What keeps a person from committing atrocities, or “evil” acts, is, for Arendt, the capacity to be a “thinking being, rooted in his thoughts and remembrances, and hence knowing that he has to live with himself.” This same capacity produces “limits to what he can permit himself to do, and these limits will not be imposed on him from the outside, but will be self-set.” These same limits, she continued, “are absent when men skid only over the surface of events, where they permit themselves to be carried away without ever penetrating into whatever depth they may be capable of.”

Breivik’s description of his yearlong “sabbatical” playing a video game, World of Warcraft, for up to 16 hours per day serves as an indication of the program of dehumanization to which he subjected himself. And his years’ long immersion in the ideology and methods of radical terrorism, culminating, ironically, in his endorsement of Al Qaeda as “the most successful revolutionary movement in the world” serves as an example of the kinds of “thoughtlessness” that can become a willed experience, in individuals and in groups, and is a necessary prelude to despicable acts. But then, Breivik never imagined he would survive July 22; he envisioned his action as a suicide mission, perhaps the ultimate act of willed forgetfulness, the annihilation of the possibility of thought and judgment themselves.

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