I’m declaring a moratorium on Nazi examples in moral philosophy

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Anti Nazi spraylogo from Gamebanana

Anti Nazi spraylogo from Gamebanana by –HunteR–

OK, I was listening to the latest episode of Philosophy Bites, where Nigel “Daddy Warbucks” Warburton is interviewing Sean Kelly about Homer and Philosophy.  I have documented elsewhere my love and admiration of Warburton and the podcast, so this is not in any way to be construed as a criticism.  But a couple of things pushed my buttons.

At the beginning, David Edmunds says that philosophers haven’t regarded the epic poems of Homer as worthy of philosophical investigation.  I think Nietzsche did.  Small quibble.  What really annoyed me was that during the discussion, Kelly and Warburton are talking about group think/mob mentality (listen to the episode if you want to know how they got there from Homer) and Nigel uses the Nuremberg rallies as an example (pejoratively, of course).

Really Nigel?  The Nuremberg rallies?  You couldn’t come up with a more recent, more topical, non-Nazi example?  I get it, I agree:  Nazi = bad.  And if it seems like I’m picking on Nigel, I apologize.  But it’s painful to see, hear and read philosophers using National Socialism and the Holocaust as their ‘go-to’ examples to make points about moral theories.

It was a common pedagogical technique when we were teaching deontology vs. utilitarianism to pull out a ‘you’re a prisoner in a concentration camp and the guard tells you that you must kill one of X guys or he will execute all of them.  What do you do?’  It’s like Sophie’s Choice is the litmus test for moral decision making.  This use of extreme Nazi/Holocaust examples is ludicrous and, I would venture to say, immoral itself.

  • These examples are so far outside bounds of normal human experience as to be not at the limit, but outside normal moral discourse.  No one could be expected to act morally in these situations because moral rules no longer apply.  There is no right or wrong – just horror and inhumanity.
  • Start with the simple stuff before jumping into atrocity.  If you can’t make your point using a ‘should you tell your colleague that you saw her husband canoodling with another woman’, then you aren’t going to be persuasive asking which of her children she should murder.
  • We are in no position nor have we a right to make judgments about whether actions of victims in concentration camps were morally correct (most of the examples used are, sickeningly, based on fact).  It’s arrogant, insensitive and, I think, immoral to do so.

I realize the Nuremberg rally example is not so extreme and we might fruitfully have some kind of discourse about it, but as I said, it pushed a button.  A common criticism of academic philosophy is that it is out of touch with the concerns of every day people while a common sense notion of philosophy has the expectation that philosophers are worried about every day questions:  what should I do?  how should I live?  what does it mean to be a good person?  Failing to connect with a topical, recognizable context doesn’t help dispel the perception that philosophers are a bunch of navel gazers in an ivory tower without windows.

Anyone who would disagree that Nazis are bad and made people do atrocious things isn’t going to be worth having a discussion with.  Likewise, Nazi examples have value in demonstrating the depravity of which humans are capable, but are not of use for  settling disputes in moral psychology or philosophy.  Spare us the obvious and challenge us with something we can understand and wrestle with intellectually.  </rant>

–seth

Comments

  1. Rafe

    November 15, 2011

    That’s the spirit man!!

  2. rinky

    November 15, 2011

    I agree wholeheartedly with this.

    I started to draft a reply that voted to extend the moratorium on nazism-examples to also include the general category of torture-examples – on the similar grounds that there’s nothing left to learn from such thumpingly obvious thought experiments (and also on similar grounds of taste).

    But then I read this, and I reconsidered: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/15/opinion/the-torture-candidates.html.

    Much as it might be attractive to think, perhaps along with Dworkin, that there’s an objective truth to be discovered about this stuff – I look at the already uncrossable and apparently still growing divergence in strongly and sincerely held beliefs about torture and I think: _we must be living in different worlds_.
    –R.

    • Avatar of Seth Paskin

      Seth Paskin

      November 15, 2011

      Well said. The fact that people are willfully and cheerfully ignorant is not new or disturbing: the fact that they are running for the most influential political post in the world is.

  3. Martin

    November 15, 2011

    It’s a great point – a really nasty collation of the ‘authority’ argument and the ‘absurd’ argument.

    On a darker note, it’s also more than a bit exploitative – as with ‘Daddy’, the poem by Plath.

  4. Ameet

    November 15, 2011

    I see absolutely no problem in using these examples. They help cut through a lot of double-talk and help clarify what people actually mean by their moral positions. I will often see inconsistency in people’s moral positions when they claim to be moral relativists or nihilists… So I wonder… what exactly is their moral position? The logic of their position, imo, leads to the conclusion that torture isn’t really bad… Should I avoid asking the question… “is this what you really mean?”

    “Anyone who would disagree that Nazis are bad and made people do atrocious things isn’t going to be worth having a discussion with”

    But this is what a lot of moral positions lead to as a conclusion… the fact that you think it’s obvious what the Nazis did was bad… illustrates exactly why it’s a good example to use… every fiber of our being leads to the conclusion that these acts are wrong… but some moral philosophy advocated don’t… this needs to be explained… not just sweeped under the rug. The moral position needs to be clarified… is there some linguistic trick going on? Is this what the moral position leads to etc…

    Using extreme examples helps clarify the logic of a position… and get past linguistic games.

    • Daniel Horne

      November 15, 2011

      Hi Ameet,

      I see where you’re coming from, and I mostly agree. Yes, citing limit cases often helps a discussion. But I think Seth’s point is that you can go “reductio ad absurdum” without having to go “reductio ad hitlerum.”

      And there’s a context for everything. It might be useful in certain contexts to bring up rape as a limit case. But if you know that your interlocutor is a past rape victim, then common decency suggests that you might want to think of another example.

      By the same token, if one constantly pulls the Nazi card (or the slavery card or the Jim Crow card or the Trail of Tears card or the Japanese internment card, etc. etc.) from the deck–simply to prove the most mundane of points–I can see how some might conclude that doing so trivializes some very real past suffering.

      • Ameet

        November 15, 2011

        Hi Daniel. I agree with you about being sensitive to the people involved in the discussion.

        I think the very reason the examples you mentioned are brought up…. is because the people bringing them up take the suffering involved very seriously. They are well known examples and almost represent “evil” and “suffering” incarnate. As such, I think they help to get to the point quickly.

        Also, these examples carry a cultural/historical weight that is unavoidable. It is like the elephant in the room. We can avoid talking about it in the context of a moral discussion, but it’s always there under the surface.

  5. dominic

    November 15, 2011

    Seth

    Thank you for this little rant, i agree wholehartedly and have felt the same way many many times. Even Chomsky, useually above criticism, reverts to this. The Nazi example is way too easy and way too overdone. I know I’m just echoing you, but my problem with playing the Nazi card, so to speak, is that there are millions of other, BETTER examples of the failings of human nature. I mean, if you think about it, Nazism was really more like temporary insanity, as opposed to say the Spartans or Romans or ancient Persians, or Aztecs (etc. etc. etc.); empires and cultures who acted that way FOREVER.

    • rinky

      November 16, 2011

      “as opposed to say the Spartans or Romans or ancient Persians, or Aztecs (etc. etc. etc.); empires and cultures who acted that way FOREVER”

      You’re right. IMO that’s a big part of why nazi examples can seem particularly extreme/unrepresentative – because at least in our post-enlightenment corner of the world, it’s no longer the norm as it once was for cultures to be built on systematic brutality & exploitation.

      Here’s Peter Singer’s review of Steven Pinker’s book about this: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/books/review/the-better-angels-of-our-nature-by-steven-pinker-book-review.html.
      –R.

  6. dominic

    November 15, 2011

    I found Homo Sacer, by Giorgio Agamben, unreadable for a few reasons, but his overuse of the Nazi card was one of them. I remeber thinking “if this guy cant come up with something better than examples used by my seventh grade social studies teacher, i’m not sure he’s got much going on here.” There are other critiques of that work that i’d love to discuss sometime, but that was the relevant one.

  7. Noam Cohn

    November 16, 2011

    Seth said: “These examples are so far outside bounds of normal human experience as to be not at the limit, but outside normal moral discourse” and dominic said “Nazism was really more like temporary insanity”.
    I’m not sure that you’re aware of the danger of such comments. Nazism is hardly out of bounds of human experience, it was and still a very true condition. It was certainly not insanity! It was a human moral choice.
    Some of us might not be able to understand it from our point of view, and the way the holocaust has been depicted in movies has made it seem like some fantasy world, but it is as real and vivid as walking down the street.
    I have personally heard survivors telling their stories and visited what that is left of the extermination camps in Poland, and as a result I have realized fully that the Nazis were human beings with human choices and actions.
    The Nazi example might be extreme and hard to realize, but let us not denounce its legitimacy or forget that it is still a human possibility.

    • Avatar of Seth Paskin

      Seth Paskin

      November 16, 2011

      Noam–
      I appreciate what you are saying and want to be very clear: I did not say that what happened under National Socialism was outside the bounds of human experience. I said it was outside the bounds of *normal* human experience and as such, is inappropriate for discourse about *normal* moral behavior. My point was that if one is trying to make a point about moral philosophy, one should endeavor to use examples to which people can relate and which are more topical before jumping to atrocity.

      The study of the period and the attempt to understand what happened so that it may be prevented from ever happening again is necessary and as important now as ever. Education of each generation about the human capability for inhumanity is crucial to make sure that our history is a living memory. Advocating that and simultaneously that the events which occurred not be taken as token examples for philosophical discourse is not contradictory.

      I’m Jewish, I lost family in the Shoah, I have listened to a number of survivors, I have been to Auschwitz, the ghetto in Prague and numerous other memorials across Europe. I have celebrated the High Holy days in Germany. I’ve done Holocaust studies and been to the Holocaust museum in DC. I know what it means Never to Forget. This post was meant to honor the victims by not trivializing their experience.
      –seth

  8. David Buchanan

    November 16, 2011

    I think Seth has shown us what a proper rant looks like. It makes a real point with passion AND a sense of proportion. It’s an inspiration to all would-be ranters.

    Another problem with the overuse of Nazi examples and comparisons is that it dilutes and undermines any legitimate concerns with extreme right-wing political ideologies. Books like “Liberal Fascism” and tea-party protest signs depicting Obama with a Hitler mustache show that there is a great deal of confusion about the nature of fascism, particularly on the right. One good antidote for this confusion is to examine the features of fascist governments as they’ve appeared in nations other than Germany. If nothing else, it becomes immediately apparent that anti-Semitism and genocide are no more essential to fascism than is speaking German or goose-stepping in a parade. Wherever it appears, fascism is a muscular and aggressive assertion of a nation’s traditional identity and so it will differ depending the nation in which it appears. In Spain, fascism was very, very Spanish and very Catholic just like Italian fascism was very, very Italian. We can see more recent examples in South America and the former Yugoslavia. It’s always some kind of nationalism on steroids.

    And you can bet that if it appears in this country, fascism will be very, very American. The American fascists will be a flag-draped christian cowboy, a super-patriot in a business suit or some other image that flatters the national character and thereby comforts the fascist heart. I imagine it would be very white and christian too. As a result, most Americans would find American fascism to be about as alarming as apple pie and white picket fences. That’s why the other guy’s fascism looks so ugly and why our own fascism will be so seductive. It won’t seem strange or alien to the religious and ethnic majority. In fact, fascism could easily emerge by simply turning up the volume, so to speak, on the impulses that are already present.

  9. Laura

    November 18, 2011

    I certainly understand and agree with your passion about this subject, Seth. Nonetheless, this seems like an unfortunate problem of poor choice of metaphor and the fact that Nigel Wharburton used it makes me wonder…

    However, a moratorium concerns me. If you consider moral discourse as within a dynamic of partitions or levels, discussing an example of human depravity-exemplified by Nazi actions of horror-definitely fits into one of those discussion levels for the mere fact that the Nazis, and Hitler, were human. As such, I worry about your taking the use of the Nazi example out when discussing “normal” moral behavior. I’d like to know what “normal” moral behavior is. To some knowing their spouse is “canoodling” another is tantamount to having their child murdered–or themself. In terms of their moral belief system; their personal experience.

    Although I definitely agree that using the Nazi metaphor when discussing certain moral issues may be unwise because it risks diminishing the severity of the atrocities that were committed and the horrific experience of the victims, but to take it out of “normal” moral discourse–well, I think “normal” needs to be further and more carefully defined. There were German men and women who likely were engaged in “normal” moral behavior (theoretically) before joining the Nazi movement. We turn to that example so often because to this day, it shocks us.

    Makes one consider the word “normal” as a very dangerous one

  10. Ace

    November 20, 2011

    Nazi examples are so overused in mainstream discourse that it has lost its impact. I have definitely caught myself rolling my eyes more times than once whenever the Nazi’s are brought up by someone when they’re trying to make any kind of point.
    Given the heavy overuse in the mainstream, it seems to me that Nazi examples are a good way to get people disinterested in whatever you’re saying, because if we took every argument that cited Nazi’s seriously, then all roads would apparently lead to Nazism and genocide.
    It’s obviously popular because of the powerful impact it has on any decent persons emotions, but now it’s come to a point where it’s more emotionally manipulative and exploitative than emotionally impacting. That’s how I often feel anyway, like the speaker using the examples is just trying to emotionally exploit/manipulate me towards their POV. And I think its fair to suggest that most of the time, manipulating people is exactly what the speaker is trying to do.

  11. Ace

    November 20, 2011

    But should the fact that Nazi examples are so overused in the mainstream for manipulative purposes be good grounds for philosophers to avoid Nazi examples?
    I personally think so. But that’s just my opinion.

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