Education and Ethics: Agency and Love of the World

The question of character and education emerge in the course of our seminar on Arendt exploring the concept of judgment and Arendt’s argument that those who failed to “think for themselves” often became supporters of totalitarianism.

In an essay on the subject of personal responsibility, Arendt stressed that those who refused to support the Nazi regime were able to judge for themselves and that they came from all works of life and backgrounds. They continued to utilize “an independent human faculty, unsupported by law and public opinion, that judges in full spontaneity every deed and intent anew whenever the occasion arises.” (Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” in Responsibility and Judgment, ed. J Kohn, (2003), p. 41).

Earlier in the essay she comments that:

Unfortunately, it seems to be much easier to condition human behavior and to make people conduct themselves in the most unexpected and outrageous manner, than it is to persuade anybody to learn from experience, as the saying goes; that is, to start thinking and judging instead of applying categories and formulas which are deeply ingrained in the mind, but whose basis in experience has long been forgotten, and whose plausibility resides in their intellectual consistency rather than their adequacy to actual events. (p. 37).

An article in Huffington Post by philosophy professor Myisha Cherry discusses the importance of engaging everyone, even the marginalized, in a conversation about ethics and character, and describes a summer institute she designed for this purpose, working with formerly incarcerated persons. She contrasts “character talk”  with an educational approach that seeks to change individual behavior rather than engage everyone in “character talk” while simultaneously exploring a critique of social conditions. As she argues:

Social conditions can help us become more virtuous but being morally virtuous does not equate to a change in social conditions. Instead of letting the oppressor off the hook, character talk has the potential of challenging the state and other institutions to improve social conditions so that lives can be improved morally.

So, what is the relationship between education, including education in “character” or the development of an ethical stance, and the nature of judgment as Arendt sees it—becoming and remaining able to “think for one’s self” without a banister to guide us “when the chips are down,” as she used to say?

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