The Limits of Responsibility: Revisiting Eichmann

Sharon April 29th, 2007

My post about Eichmann and the applicability of the banality of evil argument to those who cause climate change was extremely controversial. I got a lot of comments and private emails that argued out with me in great detail. The discussion was overwhelmingly wise and respectful, and I learned a lot from it. I’m very grateful to those who took time to debate and discuss this subject, and I appreciate the degree to which you’ve improved my thinking. I think the subject who who is responsible, and how responsible, deserves more consideration than I gave it in my comparatively short and designed-to-provoke post, so I’m going to address some of the responses here. I’ll be delighted if this causes more discussion. This is rather long, philosophical and wordy, as is my wont, so I’ll forgive you if you go off and have a beer instead, though ;-).

The first argument that I encountered, that I think was absolutely on target is the claim that if everyone is Eichmann, no one is Eichmann. And, of course, that is absolutely true - there is no doubt of that. Kiashu, Michelle and others all persuasively argued this, and, of course, they are right. I actually never intended to imply that every person in the world was equally responsible, but neither did I clarify what I meant.

My error came in not defining who I was speaking of, and expressing myself more generally than I should have. It is obviously true that there are a large number of people in this country, probably the vast majority, who are completely unequipped to work their way through the network of complicated information to find out what the impact of their actions are. For those who do not understand, who are not equipped to understand, for those who have not the ability to sift through the disparate connections between their actions and their impact, or for those who are so caught up in other exigencies that they cannot, there is no question that they are not evil. They are acting, for the most part, inadvertantly. And in fact, I never intended to claim that every person was Eichmann. As Michelle points out, her 2 year old (and mine) are off the hook, as are a lot of other people. But maybe not all of them.

If we are to recognize categories of moral responsibility, we might divide us up into four such categories.

1. Those who do not know, and cannot know, and who thus act inadvertantly (the majority at this point)
2. Those who do not know, but could know and choose not to.
3. Those who do know, and do understand, but either choose not to act or to admit responsibility
4. Those who do know and do act.

I think it is important that we recognize that these are different categories, and their degree of complicity is different. Now let me first say that I have no real interest in trying to figure out who falls into what category - this is merely a way of thinking about the problem of responsibility.

For those who cost others their lives but do not know, and do not intend, and could not easily know, I would argue that they are not doing evil, but they are *responsible* for their actions. That is, they are obligated to try and compensate others for what they have done. That is, even if you inadvertantly cause harm to others, you still owe those others some debt - apology, reparations, comfort, aid. If you knock someone over by accident, you help them up, apologize, if you have broken their packages offer to replace it. The same is true of inadvertant harm you do others. That means that those who did not know are not feed from responsibility, but they are freed from the accusation of moral evil.

But what about the next two categories? They were the ones I was thinking of when I wrote my post about Eichmann in my living room. They are people like me - well educated, priveleged, comparatively well off, fortunate in many ways. They (we) read whatever the Very Important Paper is in their region, and take in a variety of news and information. They track their stocks and research their restaurants, travel destinations and medical conditions (I won’t write we here because I don’t have any stocks, don’t travel and am healthy, but I’m not so very far away, either). These are usually the people who do the most harm in their society - they consume more energy that poorer people, they have more stuff, they spend more money, they (we) are the ones investing in the World Bank and keeping the growth economy moving.. They (we) tend to have all the skills and abilities necessary to know, and they have at least some exposure to the material - they look at the climate change headlines, consume the news, and they don’t necessarily take it any further. Again, I am not tarring anyone here - this is how I began, and sometimes it is who I still am. I am still figuring out my own degree of complicity in the destruction of the world.

But are these people innocent? That is, if you know very generally that climate change is a threat, if you read the headlines and look at the stories, see the movie and watch the news, but choose not to devote any more intellectual energy to discovering what your role in this is, is that an accident or a choice? I would argue that it is a choice, and a disturbing one - the “if I choose not to know, I don’t have to change.” That is, these are people who choose not to offer the future of their own lives and their children’s lives, and those of people elsewhere in the world the same attention that they give the latest film offerings, a new restaurant or an allergy medication. I would argue that there is a real and meaningful degree of will involved in this - an act of intention that says that their own responsibility can be obviated as long as they close their eyes as tightly as possible. This is wrong - IMHO, this falls in the category of at least criminal negligence. The question becomes - do we have any moral responsibility to ensure that we are not killing other people.

And that’s a new question for us. The history of the 20th century was one of people being able to kill more and more at a distance, and more and more people being able to kill on scale none of us has ever fully grasped. Even now we don’t understand what we can do in most cases. But with this increase of power has not come an increase of personal responsibility, or a willingness to bear that responsibility, and it has expanded our incentives to deny. My own belief is that unless people are held responsible for their denial, they will continue to close their eyes as the corpses pile up. Is this evil? I don’t know, but for many philosophers, denial of the suffering of others is right at the border of moral evil. And to me, as we become more aware of peak oil and climate change, and more and more people develop the tools to understand what we are facing, this question will become more and more acute - are you relieved of your responsibility by maintaining plausible deniability? And what will we become if we allow that to excuse us?

Next come those who know, but deny responsibility, or do not act. Perhaps my largest difference with some of my critics is that I think this group, and the one preceeding it, are more significant than they do, and more numerous. There are many people out there who admit that global warming is a problem, but have not changed their lives, or believe that the responsibility lies with someone else. Now I will be the first to admit that changing your life and yourself is a process. I am not directing my criticism at those who are beginning, and seeking another move, but at people who do not admit that they are responsible to resist, as Arendt put it.

These are people who understand that the consequences of their actions are presently and will lead to harm to others - maybe even harm to themselves, but who don’t act. They do this (and I understand this because I am one of them), from inertia, or fear, or the sense that it is hopeless to begin without leadership or without government initiative. Or they think their own reasons for what they do are justifiable - that is, “I’m a very busy person and I have to pay the mortgage.” They tend to prefer not to express their justifications explicitly, because we all know “I have to pay the mortgage so people in Bangladesh have to die” is not going to cut it, so we leave unexpressed (and often unthought) the outcome of our action. It doesn’t make anyone less dead, but it is more palatable. Christopher Buckley, in his novel _Thank You For Smoking_ calls this the “yuppie neuremberg defense” and I think that’s pretty close to right.

I have done this. I do do this. I understand that it is frustrating to act when it seems hopeless, it is easier to rely on governments and others to take responsibility, and we do all have good reasons. But if I cannot end my sentence of justification with “And thus, it is perfectly reasonable that Vietnamese children starve to death because of me” and believe that, then I can’t do it. Why? Because such reasoning is evil. Not just bad, but evil. To say my actions justify killing others for my convenience and comfort is evil. And it is not less evil if we choose not to say the words aloud. As Arendt points out, resistance is always an option. It may not get us the results we dream of. But sometimes that isn’t the point - sometimes the point of resistance is that without it, we become something we do not wish to be.

My old friend George Franklin is one of the smartest people I know, and also has a much deeper and more subtle grasp of both philosophical and legal categories of responsibility than I do, and he argued ,

“By defining conduct as genocide that is not willfully aimed at exterminating races, you criminalize that conduct and create a Manichean situation–the elect and the damned, those who reduce emissions and those who, for one reason or another, don’t). The problem here is that if the damned are guilty, they deserve punishment. This thinking creates a slippery slope that may even lead to certain persons feeling justified in committing violent acts against those they perceive to be guilty of genocide. After all, wasn’t violent action justified against the Nazis? (Remember, Eichmann was executed.) Should we blow up the houses of persons who don’t recycle? I am exaggerating, of course, but remember that the red brigade and weather underground started from similar white/black premises. Hortatory rhetoric does what it’s supposed to do; it persuades people to take action. We can’t always know what form that action will eventually take.”

I think George has raised some good issues. The first is that I should take a greater degree of responsibility for my own rhetoric, and be explicit about what it is (and is not) that I am calling people to do and not to do in response. So I will do so now.

I am calling people to do - nothing. Or rather, nothing, save to look at themselves. All I suggest we do is take a good, and close look in our mirrors. It is certainly not my job to single out the sinners and the saints - I’m not sure there any saints to find, and that kind of reasoning is more the purview of a different faith than mine. For me, this is about one’s responsibility to be an ethical person, and I have enough trouble doing that for myself without sitting in judgement of others. But I would quote Ralph Waldo Emerson here on the subject of “Compensation,”

“The fallacy lay in the immense concession that the bad are successful; that justice is not done now. The blindness of the preacher consisted in deferring the base estimate of the market of what constitutes manly success, instead of confronting and convicting the world from the truth; announcing the presence of the soul; the omnipotence of the will; and so establishing the standard of good and ill, of success and falsehood.”

Emerson argues that we are punished now, not just in some future life, for the ill we do in the world. And I agree. We are punished by the kind of people we become - by the fact that when we look in our mirrors, if we have any great honesty, we see the things we deplore looking back. We are punished imperfectly by the responses of others - that is, those we sinned against judge us, and they devise their own punishments. We saw the two towers fall, and claimed that it was done because they hate our freedom - but, of course, Bin Laden and others told us why. They took their revenge, and we ours, and so on until the whole world perishes. And there are millions of people who will do the same - they will imperfectly render back the evil done to them, and bring more harm into the world. And someday, we will face our children, or our grandchildren, or if you believe in one, G-d, and we will be called accountable. What will our grandchildren say to us? What will they do when they know that we wrought this evil upon them. Will they accept our protest of innocence? Justice is not done once, but over and over again, imperfectly. Better that we not bring the imperfect hand of justice down upon ourselves. I do not wish to see this happen, and I think it is better to see the evil in ourselves and rout it out than to face whatever fraction and shape of justice we will see.

George also accuses me of “us and them” rhetoric. I don’t think that’s actually true. The first person plural was not an accident in my original message, and I do not exempt myself from responsibility for my own action and inaction. There is only “us” here, all with varying degrees of responsibility and exculpation. And no matter how carefully we mend our ways, there is no doubt that we will continue to do some harm. The world has progressed to the point that whatever we do impacts others, both negatively and positively. But that’s not an excuse for not reducing that harm to its absolute minimum. It is true, however, that I am drawing a line in the sand - if you know, or can know, your obligation to resist doing harm is absolute.

Many people took me to task for my claim that intentionality isn’t required to do evil. George pointed out that Eichmann intended the consequences he caused. Kiashu argued,

“Whether they should feel bad or not is irrelevant. Believing in Jewish ethics, I believe that only actions and results matter; if a bad person does something with good results for bad reasons, it’s still got good results, so their motives are irrelevant - except insofar as they affect their future actions.”

I agree that Eichmann did intend the consequences of his action, but one of the important points that Arendt makes is that he didn’t much care (this may or may not actually have been true of Eichmann personally, but for the purposes of this discussion we’ll accept Arendt’s claim) what harm he did. Yes, he did his harm knowingly, but his interest and intention were not focused on what he accomplished, but on his own personal ends. I think there is more common ground here that either of my critics is inclined to admit. In this case, we may not intend our ends, but we share with Eichmann the condition of being mostly concerned with achieving our personal ends. The difference is that for those who could know or do know, they choose not to carefully consider the outcomes, an option Eichmann didn’t have.

I would use a legal analogy - we do believe that intentionality matters in how we judge the crimes we commit. If for example, I stab my husband with a tuning fork in the heat of passion, others will judge me differently than if I take the tuning fork, and plot an elaborate scheme to murder him with it. But only up to a point. The act is still murder. At best, if I were to accidentally murder my husband (in some way I can’t figure out) with a tuning fork, one might call that an accident, or at worst, criminally negligent homicide. But what would happen if I kept doing it, over and over and over again, and stream of tuning fork induced corpses appeared in my yard (ok, this is past silly)?

Intentionality matters in how we judge - but not enough to erase the stigma of evil. That is, the avoidable things we knowingly (or willfully unknowingly) do to others are still acts of murder. Our responsibility may be somewhat diminished - although each such act and each bit of knowledge we reject or ignore raises our responsibility. But is lack of intentionality enough to make what we do not evil? I tend to think not, although I’m open to debate here.
I do think Kiashu gets it wrong about Jewish Ethics. I take this fairly seriously, and I do realize that my prior post and my current one may well be committing the ethical error of failing to judge fairly. What I will say is that I am doing the best I can on this one, but I do recognize that it is a real concern.

But Kiashu’s claim that motives are irrelevant is better support for my case than hers (his?). But more importantly, Jewish law is very clear, I think that we are responsible for what we *do not* do, at least as deeply as we are for what we do do, and that we bear moral responsibility for things we do by accident. I am no Talmudic Scholar of any sort, so I’m sure my arguments are open to dispute, but as I see it, the Talmud and Torah both support the notion that we are obligated to understand the consequences of our actions and also to make amends for them.

For example, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch says of the person who sins inadvertantly, speaking of Parsha Vayakira,

“A shogeg sins because of inadvertence or forgetfulness, i.e., because at the moment of sinning he is not attentive with body and soul to acting in accordance with the commandments and the Torah, because he is not, in the words of the prophet, “concerned (hared) about My word” (Is. 66:2). This lack of concern and rigorous attention to living according to the Torah and its commandments is the essence of the sin committed “unwittingly.” Therein lies the “transgression” which comes in the wake of the “sin,” as it is written, “of transgression, … whatever their sins”[mipish’ehem lekhol hatatam] (Lev. 16:16).”

That is, we are obligated to keep up a reasonably high level of consciousness and self-awareness. The word “rigor” here, is, I think important. This, I think, supports the notion that we can hold some people at least to the standard of being obligated to know what the consequences of their actions are.

Moreover, the Jewish concept of repentence is relevant here. In order for us to repent from any sins we’ve committed (and harming others is undoubtably a sin), we must engage in four steps.

1. Acknowledge the wrongdoing (ha-karat hachet) - that is, we are obligated to understand fully what we have done. This involves speaking our failures aloud, without minimizing or lying. So we have no choice but to fully understand the consequences of our actions in order to be forgiven for them.

2. We must undo the damage and ask for forgiveness. This, of course, leads to the great problem of murder - because the victim cannot speak or give forgiveness (even if they wanted to), you can never be forgiven for killing others willfully. This would be, IMHO, a strong reason for those of us committed to Jewish ethics not to kill people. And how can we undo the damage of a warmed planet? We cannot. We can never be forgiven for that either.

3. We must ask G-d for forgiveness. Rabbi Telushkin notes in his _Code of Jewish Ethics_: “Even when vicimts of te most terrible crimes extend forgiveness to their
assailants, we cannot assume that, in the absence of sincere repentance, God forgives the criminals.” (Telushkin, 166).

4. We must resolve not to sin this way again.

The simple fact is, IMHO, within Jewish Ethics there is no justification for defending actions based upon an incomplete understanding of their consequences. We are simply held to a higher standard than that. We *have* to know both what is right and whether what we’ve done has met that standard.

Squrrl asks if this isn’t primarily about guilt. The answer is no, I don’t think it is. Guilt is an emotion I don’t have a lot of truck with - we tend to feel guilty about things that we don’t intend to stop doing. “Oh, I really shouldn’t eat this cookie…oh, I really shouldn’t eat this next cookie.” To me, this is a deeper issue - guilt doesn’t do us any good. But responsibility, there’s a different animal.

For me, the issue is never how you should feel about things, but about how you should act. But moral knowledge is the only tool we have to enable us to act well - when we choose our actions, there is a great deal at stake. And unless we understand that this will lead us in a particular direction, including making us into particular kinds of people, we cannot choose wisely. For me, the Eichmann analogy is useful not because it makes us feel bad, but because it helps me dissect the impact of my actions. The question is not “am I pure enough” but “am I doing the right thing.” And when the answer is no, that means I have to change.

The one thing almost everyone who criticized me argued was that arguments like this are fundamentally alienating, that they turn off people we need to attract. And maybe that’s true. I don’t know if it is or isn’t - I think, for example, most formal religions would not exist if some people didn’t want to hear firm designations of right and wrong laid out. But the question that comes up for me is whether it even matters if this is alienating. To me, the relevant question is whether it is true or not. That is, if it is true that we are murdering people by our actions, and that we are doing so with some degree of understanding (or willful misunderstanding) of what we do, does it matter whether it alienates people to say so? Is it right not to say so? I don’t know the answer to this. I do know that I personally believe we do more harm by giving tacit permission to leave the consequences of your actions unexamined than we do by alienating them. This is a judgement call, of course, and I may be wrong. But as more and more people come to understand the consequences of their actions, I believe we must make denial, or failure to participate a non-option for all those who could do so. If I’ve alienated you, my apologies. If you go away and stop trying because of me, I’m sorry. But I’m not sure that that loss is enough to make me leave the truth as I see it off the page. If nothing else, realize you are in good company - you’ll hardly be the first person I’ve ever alienated, often for less good reasons ;-).

My doctoral dissertation was in part about Renaissance skepticism, which is roughly defined as the failure to recognize that other people are as real as you are. And of course, that’s natural - Stanley Cavell in many of his books observes precisely how normal it is not to believe that other people’s pain is like your pain, and their joy like yours, and not, deep in your gut, to believe that other people matter quite as much as you do. And this, I think, is the root of things here.
We are killing people, because we do not believe that they are fully real. We cannot grasp that the Pakistani mother who walks half a mile to scoop water for her child from a muddy ditch because the planet has warmed and her usual sources of water are gone, and who watches her children die from contaminated water is as real as we are, and loves her children and suffers as much as we. We cannot imagine that the native American people who see one loved one after another fall through the ice and die while hunting for food, and weep because their children are hungry are as real as you and I and our children. On some level, we have trouble even believing that our children are as real as we are - that some day their experience of insufficiency and poverty and fear will be as real as the fear we feel about change - and immeasurably greater.

There is no meaningful way to make others as viscerally real to ourselves as we are. If we have a good imagination, we can begin to try, but that’s far to contingent a solution. The only means out of this problem is this - to grant other people their subjectivity and their reality regardless of how it *feels* to us - that is, to recognize what Rabbi Hillel said is the whole of the Torah “That which is hateful to you, do not do to the other.” It doesn’t matter whether we understand them, or love them or care about them at all. The only way we can recognize and accomodate and live together is this - if you would not want it done to you and yours, do not do it to another. And for that, we must look, and learn. We extend subjectivity to the other as a gift of one human being to one another - because even though you may not feel as real as I do to me, the basis of any possible connection - of courtesy, respect, love, or even simple extension of human dignity is this - that I grant the possibility that you are fully real.

Ok, this was long and heavy and most of you probably got bored and wandered off ;-).
On to something more fun. On Monday, just to prove that I also want to hold hands with those who want to change, I’m going to start the first of my 52 week lifestyle change posts. I’ll offer 1 way per week to change your life to make it more sustainable, and hope that for those who have just begun (and those who might have missed one of these), doing something for a week will lead to doing it for a lifetime.



7 Responses to “The Limits of Responsibility: Revisiting Eichmann”

  1. Kiashuon 30 Apr 2007 at 1:50 am

    A most impressive post, and I’m flattered that my coments and those of others are worthy of such a ong and well-considered piece. It makes me feel all rabbinical ;)

    It requires a long response. So long, in fact, that I’ll probably have to go and start my own blog on these issues…!

    P.S. And I’m a boy ;) “Kiashu” is comes from my name - like the Rambam - very pretentious of me, I know! :D

  2. Kiashuon 30 Apr 2007 at 2:33 am

    Alrighty, here you go! See Green with a gun. Sounds sinister, doesn’t it?

  3. Michelle in Gaon 30 Apr 2007 at 4:06 am

    Very good. M
    (The age of carbon accountability
    was the phrase I was trying to think of earlier. :) )

  4. Anonymouson 30 Apr 2007 at 2:09 pm

    In some ways, acknowledging my guilt or responsibility or whatever we call it, makes it easier. For me to say, yes, I know that what I am doing is wrong, and I will accept that and try to do less wrong is easier and constantly pretending to myself and other that it’s all just fine.

    This Sunday, while my church had a meeting over the fact we can’t pretend we don’t have a budget gap because there is no long any money lying around to transfer from fund to fun. (BTY, a lot of blaime was heaped on the cost of fuels, but no one was willing to address the idea of insulating the church.) My dd and their friends were making coloring kits — taking unused pages of old coloring books and making little bags of gently used crayons to go with them for the children waiting for their meals at the soup kitchen to use. It’s a lovely idea. I’m very proud of my dd coming up with the idea when were at the soup kitchen and she saw a overwhemed mother slap her child. But it begs the question of why people are using up their own coloring books and crayons, and the fact the soup kitchen wanted everying in clear plastic bags (read zip locks) means that for every child who isn’t getting clipped around the ear for not siting still, another child is paying the price. (I can not get the soup kitchen to collect used zip locks from their patrons, even though they hand out all sort of things in them.)

    I can only say, I think we are going less harm buying zip locks that spending the same amount of money on certain other things. We’d do even more good to spend the money on seeds and find a place for a community garden. (Not that Trenton doesn’t have a thriving comunity garden program.)



  5. Anonymouson 01 May 2007 at 7:17 pm

    On the limits of (ir-?)responsible language, please see this:

    Then this:

    Probably only few of you know of the (almost amazing to me, 25 years a Canadian Green) increase in Green political support in Canada. Recent polls have the national Greens at 13% and rising!

    In large part this is due to the calibre & persona of the party leader, finally attracting serious “mainstream media” focus. She has a penchant for speaking straight from the heart, with all the attendant possible political difficulties of unguardedness. Of course, she was referring to comments of someone else (himself partly irresponsible on other matters) in the links above. But I offer this as comment on care of expression, esp. for talented people like Sharon.

    There is a great deal indeed to share from sources from (my own) Jewish tradition on such topics.
    This has been all too little explored. Perhaps I should find time to share with you, promising as your approach appears to be.

  6. Sololeumon 02 May 2007 at 12:13 am

    You can get overly intelectual about responsibility. We all consum thefore are part of the problem - you may not blame the less inteligent or you blame the Ph.D’s but what does it matter.
    There are a few logical steps that show we must all adopt a different lifestyle - say like the Old Order Amish of a few decades ago -

    1. Our resource deposits take more energy now to process than previously.
    2. We are about to enter energy decline.
    3. We have not started to emark upon a renewable economy.
    4. Once decline starts to bite we will be struggling to keep up with existing demand without spending huge amounts of energy on constructing the low EROEI alternatives.
    5. We are experiencing ever growing problems due to climate change.
    6. Energy shortages and Global Warming caused by our technologies that rely on fossil fuels.
    7. With reference to 4 above and the current state of techology, there are no real alteratives for us to retain our western lifestyle.
    Therefore it is only logical to enter voluntarily into a simple lifestyle before it is thurst upon us.

    What is really needed is a mass movement to bring this state about.

    Just image another 15 million small scale Amishish farmers in the USA alone and 1 million here in Australia.

    Keep up the good work,


  7. Anonymouson 05 May 2007 at 5:34 am

    Interesting stuff-had to laugh at the tuning fork/ murder bit.

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