Thursday, March 17, 2011

Only a God Can Save Us

The Nazi's murdered an estimated 6 million European Jews and a like number of undesired individuals. You probably knew this though. Of course, if you are like me then you do not keep the exact number stored in your mind, as confronting calculated slaughter on that magnitude is not a comfortable thing to do every day.

This evening I watched a film on the philosopher Heidegger and his Nazi ties. It is a matter of some great consideration how philosophy can reconcile Heidegger's monumental contributions to 20th century philosophy with his staunch support for the Nazi party. In a way this mirrors the wider quandary that has faced humanity as a whole since the Second World War, how to reconcile being human with the will to inflict such massive suffering.

When talking about the link between capitalist economics and industrial technologies, Marx held that technology did not usher in capitalism, but rather the other way around. Once our economic system became capitalism this created the impetus for us to develop the technologies of the Industrial Revolution. It is interesting to examine the link between the World Wars and the Atomic Age in a similar fashion.

Throughout much of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear Armageddon was a very genuine and very widespread reality. However, did our newfound fear of global catastrophe stem more from the recent advances in technology, or from the recent revelations at just how far humans were willing to go in their quest to destroy each other? What is more unnerving, simply the fact that we had the technology to kill a million or so people with a single bomb, or that we had the will to systematically murder tens of millions of people to pursue a political ideology?

One direct result of our attempt to come to grips with the Holocaust was the Milgram Experiment. In this experiment, the subject, at the order of an actor playing a scientist, was ordered to administer a set of increasingly powerful shocks to another actor, who simulated being shocked, in another room. The subject could not see the actor being "shocked," but could hear the actor screaming and complaining of a heart condition. Of the participants, 65% went ahead with the final 450 volt "shock." Milgram's conclusion was that, if prompted by a percieved authority, people are quite capable, if not willing, to do things that they consider far outside the bounds of morality.

Personally, I find the Milgram Experiment, which has been repeated in numerous variations, simultaneously disturbing and comforting. It is disturbing for the obvious reason, no one really likes to be confronted with scientific evidence that, while humans may be inherently good, we do not inherently do good. However, I think that it is comforting in that it allows us to gain some perspective on the Holocaust.

At first blush, one wonders how something as horrible as the Holocaust could be permitted to occur. What kind of monsters must the Germans have been to become cogs in the vast machine of death? But, considering the results of the Milgram Experiment and related studies, there is evidence that, while the Germans may have been monsters, they are no more monstrous than the rest of us. We do not need to struggle to understand the dysfunction that allowed the Holocaust, because it is a dysfunction which we most likely share.

Of course, accepting that we too could have been Nazi's does not exculpate the Holocaust of its horrors! Rather, it condemns humanity as a whole for this crime. I think this is a good thing for two very important reasons. Firstly, it allows us to respond to Nazi's as fellow human beings, and I am generally of the opinion that promoting the shared bonds between people, even if it is that between myself and a Nazi, is good for the human condition as a whole. Secondly, it is a call to vigilance, as recognition that we could perpetrate a similar atrocity ought engender a cautionary response to, hopefully, enable us, on a personal rather than societal level, to avoid committing such a horror.

Heidegger himself never expressed remorse at supporting the Nazi party. Does this mean that, unlike countless other Germans, he never came to the conclusions that his actions under the regime were unconscionable? Maybe being a Nazi was tied so deeply to his philosophy and his own being of self that to deny Nazism would be to repudiate his own sense of self. Or perhaps his silence merely demonstrates a deep shame at the subject. Whatever the case, I encourage you to consider Heidegger's guilt not as an impartial judge, but as a fortunate co-conspirator who, thankfully, never had to find out whether you would truly make the leap to accomplice.

Notes: The movie we watched was called "Only a God Can Save Us," after a quote from Heidegger later in life, on an unrelated subject unfortunately. If you think you see influences from Christianity in my post (none are righteous, love thy neighbor, judge not lest you be judged, forgive!) you are not wrong. Some other interesting psychology studies include the Stanford Prison Experiment and the work of Solomon Asch.

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