The Ethics of Human Rights (20): Why Are There Genocides?

How can there be genocides? Genocides, and especially the holocaust, seem to be impossible to understand. They leave even the most astute thinkers perplexed. What is it that makes ordinary people, people who have never before engaged in violence or crime, turn on their neighbors and even friends in the most extreme way, without any apparent rational reason or provocation?

Hannah Arendt has written a lot about this, and she made the following observation while watching the trial of Eichmann in Jerusalem:

Eichmann committed his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. (source)

Under extreme circumstances people seem to lose their “moral compass”. They are

swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes in. (source)

This is what Heidegger called the “dictatorship of the They“: society, the general cultures or mores and the common practices force individuals to act in certain ways and undermine their independent judgment.

It is indeed difficult to tell right from wrong, independently, if almost everyone around you tells you that wrong is right. People’s sense of morality – or moral compass – is deeply influenced by the society they live in and grow up in. If you live in a racist society, chances are high you end up being a racist.

When this “dictatorship of the They” is purposefully cultivated by political elites, propaganda, indoctrination etc, and when, furthermore, it is combined with thoughtlessness or the willingness to give up on thinking – as was the case of Eichmann – then evil and genocide are just a small step away. Thinking, according to Arendt, makes it hard to engage in evil. Thinking is the silent dialogue with yourself. Since people generally want to be in harmony with themselves, it’s better to be the victim of an injustice than the perpetrator (in the words of Socrates), because the perpetrator has to live with the criminal. In this way, a conscience is a byproduct of thinking (Arendt), and the absence of thinking leads to immorality.

However, this explanation of evil, immorality and genocide is unsatisfactory, because it abandons moral responsibility and the possibility of moral and legal judgment. Arendt was acutely aware of this. If we again take the case of Eichmann, how can we possibly judge and convict him if his actions were the result of social pressure and his inability to think? Civilized legal systems as well as moral systems understand that the intent to do wrong and freedom of choice are necessary prerequisites for the commission of a crime.  No responsibility without mens rea: “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea”, “the act does not make a person guilty unless the mind be also guilty”.

It’s good to understand how morality is influenced by circumstances and culture, and how crime can result from education, society and thoughtlessness, but that’s not the whole picture. People aren’t just products of their environment. They can think and choose, except perhaps under the most extreme circumstances (such as torture). And I don’t think Eichmann lived in such extreme circumstances. This element of moral freedom is shown by the fact that evil people can arise from the best of circumstances.

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