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Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship 
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Post Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship
I'm opening a thread on the essay "Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship" because I want to ask everyone what they take to be the gist of the whole essay. Feel free to open other threads on any particular topic that interests you in the essay, but once you've read the whole thing, please take a moment to drop back into this thread and talk about how you perceive those individual points to relate to what you take to be the thrust of the whole essay.



Mon Nov 12, 2007 6:39 pm
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I'm going to start by answering my own question. If you haven't already read the essay and formulated an answer to the question of what you think the central thrust of it is, please hold off on reading any replies. I'm interested in knowing what your uninfluenced opinion might be.

My take is that Arendt is recommending one way of addressing the morality of any particular political change, and recommending it specifically against a more typical way of addressing those changes. The key word, it seems to me, is judgment. When the political atmosphere of the day demands that you make a decision with moral consequences, she seems to be saying, it isn't enough to compare the options available to some pre-formulated set of premises.

What she's recommending when she talks about judgment (and I'm going to open another thread on this question) seems a lot more like intuition than reason, and I'm wondering how that's going to sit with a lot of BookTalk regulars.

Here's a pretty key passage:
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On the contrary, all our experiences tell us that it was precisely the members of respectable society, who had not been touched by the intellectual and moral upheaval in the early stages of the Nazi period, who were the first to yield. They simply exchanged on system of values against another. I therefore would suggest that the nonparticipants were those whose consciences did not function in this, as it were automatic way -- as though we dispose of a set of learned or innate rules which we then apply to the particular case as it arises, so that every new experience or situation is already prejudged and we need only act out whatever we learned or possessed beforehand. Their criterion, I think, was a different one: they asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves at all.


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Mon Nov 12, 2007 6:51 pm
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Arendt tackles some very heavy questions in this chapter. For example:

- How can I tell right from wrong, if the majority of my whole environment has prejudged the issue? Who am I to judge?

- To what extent, if at all, can we judge past events or occurences at which we were not present?

- Who should be qualified to discuss such matters: is it those who have standards and norms which did not fit the experience, or those who have at all to fall back upon except their experience...unpatterned by preconceived concepts?

- How can you think...judge without holding onto preconceived standards, norms and general rules under which the particular cases and instances can be subsumed?

- What happens to the human faculty of judgment when it is faced with occurences that spell the breakdown of all customary standards and hence are unprecedented in the sense that they are not even forseen in the general rules, not even an exception from such rules?

- Everybody else, from high to low, who has anything to do with public affairs was in fact a cog, whether he knew it or not. Does that mean that nobody else could be held personally responsible?

- Why did you become a cog or continue to be a cog under such circumstances?

- In what way were those few different who in all walks of life did not collaborate and refused to participate in public life, thought they could not and did not rise in rebellion?

- If we agree that those who did serve on whatever level and capacity were not simply monsters, what made them behave as they did? On what moral, as distinguished from legal, grounds did they justify their conduct after the deafeat of the regime and the breakdown of the "new order" with is new set of values?



Sat Nov 24, 2007 8:48 pm
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Arendt: In what way were those few different, who in all walks of life, did not collaborate and refused to participate in public life, though they could not and did not rise in rebellion?


Arendt answers her question in the selection that Mad brings to the discussion:

Quote:
Their criterion, I think, was a different one: they asked themselves to what extent they would still be able to live in peace with themselves after having committed certain deeds; and they decided that it would be better to do nothing, not because the world would then be changed for the better, but simply because only on this condition could they go on living with themselves at all.


These few represent that third part of the population in Germany that Arendt is judging: the few one's who said "No" to the demands of society and threats of Dictatorship; the great many who gladly, or effortlessly, or as a massive herd of respectable bovine, said "Yes"; and those who relished in the terror and violence and saw everything beautiful and right in their "Yes" to the Third Reich.

Why did these few say "No" while all around were saying "Yes"? Arendt's reply is that they simply could not live with themselves: a type of self-disgrace and personal betrayal that burned deeper than any Gestapo boot or social stigma.
Quote:
Arendt:To put it crudely, they refused to murder, not so much because they still held fast to the command "Thou shalt not kill," but because they were unwilling to live together with a murderer- themselves.


I haven't seen where in the text that Arendt introduces individual cases of those who said "No", so I'm not clear how she arrived at this conclusion regarding their motivations for opting out of the bovine or terrorist modes. How does she know it was an internal disgust more than an external command?



Sun Nov 25, 2007 12:19 pm
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Ok. I read the essay tonight. I am still trying to piece it all together. I have read what Mad and Dissident have posted before fully trying to offer a statement of intent on my own. Sorry Mad, I know you wanted un biased opinions...

Mad wrote:
What she's recommending when she talks about judgment (and I'm going to open another thread on this question) seems a lot more like intuition than reason


I agree, but disagree as well. I see it as a mixture of both. And believe it or not, I was thinking a similar thought as the one you forwarded above before I read your comment. I do not discount the role of reason though.

The way I see it, intuition is one factor that informs our ability to reason. Other factors are involved in reasoning as well, but if we cannot comprehend and think on things (my working definition of reason), then we would not know what to do with our intuition. Also, is intuition only something that few possess? It would seem so since more people fell into the 'immoral' behavior that the 'few' refused to succumb to.

Arendt states that

Arendt wrote:
the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances (societal/political changes) those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable...much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome (I disagree), but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds."


I was pleased with this line of reasoning (I use the term purposfully here). Freethinkers. People who usually use the available data and their ability to reason will make the difference.

Dissident wrote:
I haven't seen where in the text that Arendt introduces individual cases of those who said "No", so I'm not clear how she arrived at this conclusion regarding their motivations for opting out of the bovine or terrorist modes. How does she know it was an internal disgust more than an external command?


I did not see any individual cases either. So is Arendt speaking from her own experiences? Should we trust her assessment on this issue? Another component of her essay is the individual v. the masses, so this of course fits into that theme, but what IS her basis for this assertion? What 'external command' would you postulate in place of the 'internal disgust?"

I love the very end, regarding leaders, followers, slaves, obedience and consent. But I will post separately on that. I still want to re-read certain sections.

Mr. P.


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Wed Nov 28, 2007 11:36 pm
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Oh...and I am just looking for clarification on something. Are the people who refused to participate in the Reich's system 'heros' (or at least comendable), or guilty of bystanding do you think? I was thinking throughout my reading, and I am sure of it myself, that they were 'heros', but I just thought of this and thought I would ask for some opinions.

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Wed Nov 28, 2007 11:46 pm
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Dissident Heart wrote:
I haven't seen where in the text that Arendt introduces individual cases of those who said "No", so I'm not clear how she arrived at this conclusion regarding their motivations for opting out of the bovine or terrorist modes. How does she know it was an internal disgust more than an external command?


Well, given her history, the answer is probably quite simple: She probably just asked her parents. At least, that may be the germ of it. The more elaborate answer is that Arendt talked to a lot of people who lived through the Holocaust, and did a massive amount of reading with documentary evidence that was available.

Mr. P wrote:
Are the people who refused to participate in the Reich's system 'heros' (or at least comendable), or guilty of bystanding do you think?


I can't recall the precise passage, but I think I recall that Arendt does give her perspective on this somewhere in the essay. She says neither. Not participating was, in itself, a form of dissent, and important for at least that, but it is also very much a personal action, and for that reason, not inherently heroic. Opportunities for being genuinely heroic were probably somewhat limited, and I hardly think that we should blame people if they weren't all members of some hyperbolic underground resistance.

Quote:
Also, is intuition only something that few possess?


I would say no. Intuition seems, to me, to be a sort of short cut for making decisions that, approached rationally, would require more time and information than we currently possess -- possible more time and information than we're mortally capable of possessing. Some decisions have an impact that is so monumental, we couldn't possible take in all the information we'd need in order to make a fully rational decision, so we go on intuition. That's the case with the scenarios Arendt discusses. Once all of the social norms that determine what is moral are reversed, how do you decide which morality -- the old or the new -- is the correct one? You probably can't simply leap to the objective position that would allow you to judge both on a completely rational basis, and even if you could, you probably won't be able to do so now, in the moment when the decision must be made.

Glad you've joined in, Mr. P. Did you like the essay, you think? Was it, at least, helpful in bringing to the fore issues that are important?



Thu Nov 29, 2007 3:05 am
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I've avoided reading the other comments in any detail. So, if somebody has already offered a solution to the problems I've encountered, I beg forgiveness.

On the whole, I found the essay confusing, and I suspect this is because Arendt's argument is confused.

She quotes Mary McCarthy who claims

Quote:
If someone points a gun at you and says 'Kill your friend or I will kill you,' he is tempting you, that is all.


Later Arendt claims that

Quote:
There is no such thing as obedience in political and moral matters


Yet she also notes that

Quote:
... no man, however strong, can ever accomplish anything, good or bad, without the help of others.


Now, if Jack finds himself in a minority of one, then surely he is powerless since he cannot accomplish anything? And if he is powerless, he is in the position of a child, where he can be forced to obey, no? Temptation doesn't really seem to be the right word to describe that situation. In fact, Arendt states that:

Quote:
Impotence or complete powerlessness is, I think, a valid excuse.


I also find it a little odd that Arendt figures that the doubters and the skeptics are the most reliable, but at the same time, she seems to suggest that our only reliable sense of morality is intuitive. She also advises against 'applying categories and formulas'.

It's a bit wishy washy. We're supposed to think, but not too much. We're supposed to go with our intuition, but not too much. Which is fine advice if you have an end-goal in mind, but deciding upon that end-goal, Arendt doesn't really seem to have a solution.



Thu Nov 29, 2007 6:44 am
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Niall001 wrote:
Now, if Jack finds himself in a minority of one, then surely he is powerless since he cannot accomplish anything? And if he is powerless, he is in the position of a child, where he can be forced to obey, no?


Powerlessness to accomplish a thing and powerlessness to resist are two very different things. The Mary McCarthy quotation is explicit on this point. What can any person force you to do something if even pointing a gun at you and demanding obedience is only tempting you? The answer is, even if you're obeying a command under mortal duress, the action is still yours. Others around you may find it more sympathetic if you held out until threatened with execution, but the deed itself is still accomplished by your participation.

I don't see any indication in the essay that Arendt considers the human power to decline participation as mutable. Quite often we do take the political temptations that are offered to us, but there are plenty of examples that demonstrate that states (like Denmark) and individuals (like those German citizens who refused to participate) can resist even that temptation even when powerless, even when the it's presented as a choice between obedience and punishment.

Quote:
Temptation doesn't really seem to be the right word to describe that situation. In fact, Arendt states that:
Impotence or complete powerlessness is, I think, a valid excuse.


But in that context, she's talking about an excuse for not fighting the immorality around you. She does not take impotence or powerlessness as an excuse for participating in that morality yourself.

Quote:
I also find it a little odd that Arendt figures that the doubters and the skeptics are the most reliable, but at the same time, she seems to suggest that our only reliable sense of morality is intuitive.


Well, despite what Mr. P spoke of above, I don't think she's championing Freethought here. The doubters and the skeptics are valuable in these situations not because they apply a standard of reason that is independent of the given values and rationalizations of society, but simply because, by impulse, they tend to be wary of enthusiasms. They, like anyone else, must depend on their own internal faculties for judging a situation, but they're more likely to fall back on those faculties than a person who feels secure in championing anything that resembles a previously affirmed moral standard.

Quote:
It's a bit wishy washy. We're supposed to think, but not too much. We're supposed to go with our intuition, but not too much. Which is fine advice if you have an end-goal in mind, but deciding upon that end-goal, Arendt doesn't really seem to have a solution.


Wishy washy? Really? I think Arendt is suggesting the more difficult road here, and she seems very much aware of that fact.

It would be far simpler to suppose that there is an external moral standard, and that we can all just whip out our Little Orphan Annie Decoder Rings any time there's a moral quandary. The idea that we can use reason to arrive at a reliable moral solution to any problem presupposes that there is a reliable set of premises that we can reason from. But there's no particular reason to suppose that there is, and even if there were, how do we substantiate those premises? The Germans that leapt on board with the Nazis could easily square their prior moral convictions with their new political action, and by degrees that led to their involvement, as a nation, in something that, from our remove, seems patently evil.

So it isn't that we're not supposed to think too much. We can think all we want once we've established a basis for moral judgment, but rational thought itself provides no such basis. Things would be much simpler if it did. For one thing, there would be almost no grounds for disagreement over what is and what is not moral.

It almost looks to me as though the entire essay is meant to deal with the problem of the apparent failure of moral judgment in instances like the Nazi rise to power -- a problem seems to have really troubled Arendt only after the Eichmann trial. She proposes a solution to that problem by considering the examples of those who consciously refused to participate in that power. If it isn't a terribly comforting answer, that's probably because Arendt's experience and study finally led her to the conclusion that only the most tenuous threads connect humanity and morality.



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MA: It almost looks to me as though the entire essay is meant to deal with the problem of the apparent failure of moral judgment in instances like the Nazi rise to power -- a problem seems to have really troubled Arendt only after the Eichmann trial. She proposes a solution to that problem by considering the examples of those who consciously refused to participate in that power.



As I see it, this essay involves the judgment of five types of responses to the horror that was Nazi Germany:

1. Those who firmly embraced and fully endorsed the Nazi ideology and its attending social policies.

2. Those who were not ideologically commited, but gave their support to Nazi policies.

3. Those who neither embraced nor supported Nazi ideology or policy, and chose to remove themselves from political and public action.

4. Those looking back on the past horror and choosing not to deliver judgment on choices made during that time.

5. Those looking back on the past horror and choosing to deliver judgment on choices made during that time.

She, if I remember correctly, does not discuss those Germans who resisted Nazi ideology and policy through concerted acts of individual and collective violence: those who fought back, willing to kill and be killed in doing so. Nor does she include those many who did not kill Nazis, but risked their lives, and the lives of their families, in housing Jews and facilitating their escape.

Nor does she refer to those pockets of Jewish resistance that fought back with force of violence in the ghettos and in the concentration camps.

I think Arendt highlights 3 and 5 as examples of behavior (without the text in front of me) that can hope to salvage some degree of self respect and dignity for humanity: these are the ones willing to think for themselves, make unpopular choices, and be willing to risk great harm to protect their self-respect and personal dignity.

I think she highlights 2 and 4 as those most deserving condemnation and probably more dangerous than even those in category 1: these are the ones who hold to values just for the sake of something to hold on to, are obedient to authorities, and will sacrifice self-respect and personal dignity for acceptance in a social order.

Arendt is arguing that the demands of self-respect and personal dignity are more effective at mobilizing courageous moral behavior than the dictates of values and ideological systems. She makes the case for an individual's drive to think for oneself and act independently: a responsibility that demands decisions unfettered by public policy and social norm.



Last edited by Dissident Heart on Thu Nov 29, 2007 2:38 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Thu Nov 29, 2007 1:06 pm
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Mad wrote:
Well, despite what Mr. P spoke of above, I don't think she's championing Freethought here.


No time to get into all the responses yet...but I just wanted to address this. I never said she was championing freethought...but taking what she did say, I do not think I was off base by saying what I said. I think that the propensity of freethinking and skepticism is good for the very reason Mad offers...that people like this are inclined to hold back before jumping into the wave. I also think, in contrast to Mad, that these skeptics and freethinkers DO also rely heavily on reasoning to reach a decision on what actions to take and that these people are also less likely, on the whole, to fall into mass hysteria and support such pogroms.

Mr. P.


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MadArchitect wrote:
Powerlessness to accomplish a thing and powerlessness to resist are two very different things. The Mary McCarthy quotation is explicit on this point. What can any person force you to do something if even pointing a gun at you and demanding obedience is only tempting you? The answer is, even if you're obeying a command under mortal duress, the action is still yours. Others around you may find it more sympathetic if you held out until threatened with execution, but the deed itself is still accomplished by your participation.


Well to borrow from the Borg, resistance is futile, at least as an end in itself. If poor old Jack chooses to die for the sake of resistance, his family may starve, or they may simply be viewed as undesirable. Few of us exist in a situation where we do not have obligations to others. In most situations, you are not simply deciding to sacrifice your own life, you are choosing to inflict a certain amount of suffering on those associated with you. How many people would inflict suffering on their loved ones in order to carry out an action that will have no effect?

Quote:
But in that context, she's talking about an excuse for not fighting the immorality around you. She does not take impotence or powerlessness as an excuse for participating in that morality yourself.


That would make a little more sense.

Quote:
It almost looks to me as though the entire essay is meant to deal with the problem of the apparent failure of moral judgment in instances like the Nazi rise to power -- a problem seems to have really troubled Arendt only after the Eichmann trial. She proposes a solution to that problem by considering the examples of those who consciously refused to participate in that power. If it isn't a terribly comforting answer, that's probably because Arendt's experience and study finally led her to the conclusion that only the most tenuous threads connect humanity and morality.


But what I find frustrating is that Arendt takes the Nazi atrocities as the gold standard of evil, then works backward. I wonder would her theories hold up if she attempted to apply them to the Armenian holocaust or Rwanda? What about on the global scale? Many of us are happy to support systems that result in situations of inescapable poverty, dictatorship and other evils.



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misterpessimistic wrote:
I also think, in contrast to Mad, that these skeptics and freethinkers DO also rely heavily on reasoning to reach a decision on what actions to take and that these people are also less likely, on the whole, to fall into mass hysteria and support such pogroms.


To clarify, I don't recall having suggested that freethinkers don't use reason to decide what actions to take. My point was that Arendt isn't talking about freethinkers at all. Modern writers like Michael Shermer have made it seem like the words skeptic and freethinker are almost synonymous, but all Arendt seems to be talking about when she says skeptic are people who are reserved about agreeing with the judgments of others. Her phrase was "skeptics and doubters", and I interpret that to involve no particular methodology. These are simply people who look at what everyone else is doing and say, "Actually, 1 million people could all be wrong", without supposing what might be right. Doubt and skepticism open you up for some way of deciding what would be better, but I don't think any particular alternative is necessary for what Arendt is talking about. What's crucial is that moment where you say, "Maybe I won't join in." Only then is it possible to apply judgment, regardless of whether it is based on reason or intuition.

Niall wrote:
If poor old Jack chooses to die for the sake of resistance, his family may starve, or they may simply be viewed as undesirable. Few of us exist in a situation where we do not have obligations to others.


To put it quite bluntly, that isn't Arendt's concern in this essay. All she's asking is whether or not it's possible to be personally responsible for the morality of one's own behavior. The defense made by Nazi conspirators after the war suggested that it wasn't, and if that's the case, then we're faced with all sorts of questions as to whether or not it's possible to behave morally at all, whether the fact of political involvement precludes morality, and whether or not it's even possible to resist immoral political paradigms.

If the Nazi party chooses to make life difficult for your family, if they choose to put a bullet in your brain, they're the one's acting immorally. And maybe they can bully you into acting immorally, but that does nothing to mitigate the immorality of your action, nor your responsibility for how you've acted. Crying out, "What else could I have done?" may make us feel badly for the circumstances you had to face, but it doesn't change the fact that your actions hurt someone else. The only question Arendt really intends to address in this essay, it seems, is that of whether or not a person can reliably judge for themselves the morality of an action.

Quote:
In most situations, you are not simply deciding to sacrifice your own life, you are choosing to inflict a certain amount of suffering on those associated with you.


Not true, and as Arendt points out in the prologue, political action is hardly a mechanical phenomenon. Nazi Germany implicitly threatened every nation that might refuse to return expatriate German Jews to the Fatherland. Only Denmark refused and the consequences were practically nil. In that particular situation, it's as though Germany pointed a gun at Denmark's head, said "Obey, or else", and then simply pulled the gun away when Denmark refused. It doesn't always work out that way, but the point is that you're not deciding who to sacrifice in those situations -- the aggressor always decides, and ultimately, you can't be personally responsible for their actions. In the same situation, it's easily as possible that, even if you obey, you'll still get your brains blown out, or that your family will suffer. Caving in to coercion guarantees nothing.

More to the point, the people who were killed for refusing generally stood at the end of a very long line of people who had not refused. The people at the top of the hierarchy would have been unable to force any hands had there not been a majority of people willing to oblige them. Which is, I gather, the gist of Arendt's meaning when she says that it's impossible to achieve a political goal alone -- the injustices of the Nazi regime were made possible only by the cooperation of a majority of people who were willing to suspend their own judgment and carry out the will of those who would otherwise have been powerless.

Quote:
But what I find frustrating is that Arendt takes the Nazi atrocities as the gold standard of evil, then works backward. I wonder would her theories hold up if she attempted to apply them to the Armenian holocaust or Rwanda? What about on the global scale?


I don't see why not. In every case, what seems to be operative is a failure of personal responsibility: people allowing a political agenda to dictate what is and is not moral. Arendt deals with the Nazi atrocities mostly because that's what she's studied most. Not only did she flee with her family from Nazi Germany, but she studied politics during a period when World War II was the defining influence on global politics. In the meantime, so much has happened that it's difficult to tie everything back to that one war, but Arendt died in 1975, and did most of her writing during the 50s and 60s, when World War II still cast a shadow over the whole of modern history.



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Me: I haven't seen where in the text that Arendt introduces individual cases of those who said "No", so I'm not clear how she arrived at this conclusion regarding their motivations for opting out of the bovine or terrorist modes. How does she know it was an internal disgust more than an external command?

Mr. P: I did not see any individual cases either. So is Arendt speaking from her own experiences? Should we trust her assessment on this issue? Another component of her essay is the individual v. the masses, so this of course fits into that theme, but what IS her basis for this assertion? What 'external command' would you postulate in place of the 'internal disgust?"


I think suspicion of her conclusions is warranted, and she would welcome it, even expect it...in the context of this essay, to not challenge every conclusion is to not think, or more precisely, to not judge, to avoid responsibility. Mad states that her personal experience in Nazi Germany and the many interviews and research she engaged in is the basis for her assertion (and it is an assertion). Nowhere does she show who she interviewed, the questions she asked, the nuances and differences in responses, or if there were any that had contrary motivations than what she asserts.

It may be that all any of us can produce is assertion in these matters: we are not counting bodies, soldiers, warehousing arsenals, or establishing train schedules...we are trying to determine what motivates a person to act responsibly and judge the morality of others and themselves. To make it even more difficult, we are using perhaps the most obscene chain of events in modern history as our case: who wants to be responsible for the most heinous of atrocoties...who is going to tell the truth about their own complicity, or the actual deeds of those they know and perhaps even love? Who can we trust regarding a period of time when so much human decency and dignity are slandered and abandoned: who is trustworthy about these kinds of events?

Arendt's point is that those who did not participate, opted out of the public and political poison, stood apart and alone at great risk of harm, are the one's who are most trustworthy. Unfortunately, we never hear directly from any of them- only what she tells us.

Perhaps Arendt is projecting upon these noble souls her own ideal of human dignity and self respect? Strangely, in making the point that ideals are impotent in the face of crucial, terrifying decisions- she is constructing her own and lifting them up as the model, exemplar case. Even when she shows that ideals will not motivate responsible judgment, she is utilizing an ideal to make her case.



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Okay, so what's your alternative model for why people refused to follow the whole of society down an immoral path? I think we all recognize that Arendt was not writing a scientific paper and didn't provide citations in support of her argument, so we need not labor that point any further. And you've made your point that without any evidence having been made explicit we have to take her suggestion (or, if you'd rather, "assertion") as just that, a suggestion, and by no means definitive. Does this train of thought lead us anywhere, or are we left with just the doubt?


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