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Some Questions of Moral Philosophy

Author(s): HANNAH ARENDT


Source: Social Research, Vol. 61, No. 4, Sixtieth Anniversary 1934-1994: The Legacy of Our
Past (WINTER 1994), pp. 739-764
Published by: The New School
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Some Questions
ofMoral //
Philosophy / BY HANNAH ARENDT
Afterthepublication,in 1963,ofEichmann inJerusalem:A Report
on theBanality of Evil, Hannah Arendt'sattention became
focusedon moralandethicalquestions. On February 10,1965,
at theNewSchoolforSocialResearch, sheinitiateda seriesof
lectures
entitled"SomeQuestions of MoralPhilosophy." What
follows
istheintroductory lecture,
which, inan editedversion,
is
publishedhere forthe firsttime.The subsequent lecturesdeal
withissuesin ethicsand politics,
ethicsand philosophy, ethics
and concludewitha consideration
and religion, ofjudgingas
theconnection between and moralactivity.
political The entire
lectureserieswillbe publishedin HannahArendt: Essaysin
1953-1975,
Understanding forthcoming from Harcourt Brace&
Company.
Jerome Kohn

J^jadies and Gentlemen. The thoughtsof many of us, I


suppose,havewanderedbackduringthelastweeksto Winston
Spencer Churchill,the greateststatesmanthus far of our
century,whojust died afteran incredibly longlife,thesummit
of which was reached at the thresholdof old age. This
happenstance,if such it was, like almosteverything he stood
for in his convictions,in his writings,in the grand but not
grandiose manner of his speeches, stood in conspicuous
contrastto whateverwe maythinktheZeitgeist ofthisage to be.
It is perhaps this contrastthat touches us most when we
considerhis greatness.He has been called a figureof the
eighteenthcenturydriveninto the twentieth as thoughthe

© 1994.The HannahArendtLiterary
Copyright Trust.

SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Winter1994)

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740 SOCIAL RESEARCH

virtuesof the past had takenover our destiniesin theirmost


desperatecrisis,and this,I think,is trueas faras it goes. But
perhapsthereis moreto it. It is as though,in thisshifting of
centuries,some permanenteminenceof the human spirit
flashedup for an historically brief momentto show that
whatevermakesforgreatness-nobility, dignity,steadfastness,
and a kindof laughingcourage- remainsessentially thesame
throughout thecenturies.
Still,Churchill, so old-fashionedor, as I have suggested,
beyondthefashionsof thetimes,was byno meansunawareof
thedecisivecurrentsor undercurrents of theage in whichhe
lived. He wrotethe followingwords about thirtyyears ago
whenthetruemonstrosities of thecenturywereyetunknown:
"Scarcelyanything,material or established,which I was
broughtup to believewas permanentand vital,has lasted.
Everything I wassure,or wastaughttobe sure,wasimpossible,
has happened." I wanted to mentionthese succinctwords
which,alas, becamefullytrueonlysomeyearsaftertheywere
uttered,in orderto introduce,rightat thebeginningof these
lectures,the basic experienceswhichinvariably lie behindor
beneath them. Among the many thingswhich were still
thoughtto be "permanentand vital"at the beginningof the
centuryand yethave notlasted,I chose to turnour attention
to the moralissues,thosewhichconcernindividualconduct
and behavior,thefewrulesand standardsaccordingto which
menused to tellrightfromwrong,and whichwereinvokedto
judge orjustifyothersand themselves, and whosevalidity were
supposed to be self-evident to everysane personeitheras a
part of divineor of naturallaw. Until,thatis, withoutmuch
notice,all thiscollapsedalmostovernight, and thenit was as
though moralitysuddenly stood revealed in the original
meaningof theword,as a setof mores, customsand manners,
whichcould be exchangedforanotherset withhardlymore
troublethanit wouldtaketo changethe tablemannersof an
individualor a people. How strangeand how frightening it
suddenlyappeared thatthe verytermswe use to designate

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HANNAH ARENDT 741

thesethings-morality, withitsLatinorigin,and ethics,withits


Greekorigin-shouldneverhave meantmorethanusagesand
habits.And also that two thousand five hundred years of
thought,in literature,philosophyand religion,should not
have broughtforthanotherword, notwithstanding all the
highflownphrases,all assertionsand preachingsabout the
existenceof a consciencewhichspeakswithan identicalvoice
to all men.Whathad happened?Did we finallyawakefroma
dream?
To be sure, a few had known before that there was
somethingwrongwiththis assumptionof self-evidencefor
moral commandments as thoughthe "Thou shalt not bear
false testimony" could ever have the same validityas the
statement: twoand twoequal four.Nietzsche'squest for"new
values"certainlywas a clear indicationof the devaluationof
what his time called "values" and what formertimesmore
correctlyhad called virtues.You rememberthat the only
standardhe came up withwas Life itself,and his criticism of
thetraditional and essentiallyChristianvirtueswas guided by
the muchmoregeneralinsightthatnot onlyall Christianbut
also all Platonicethicsuse yardsticksand measurements which
are not derivedfromthisworldbut fromsomethingbeyond
it- be ittheskyofideas stretching overthedarkcaveofstrictly
humanaffairsor the trulytranscendent beyondof a divinely
ordainedafterlife. Neitzschecalled himselfa moralist, and no
doubt he was; but to establishlife as the highestgood is
actually, so faras ethicsare concerned,question-begging, since
all ethics,Christian or non-Christian,
presuppose thatlifeis not
thehighestgood formortalmenand thatthereis alwaysmore
at stake in life than the sustenanceand procreationof
individuallivingorganisms.That whichis at stakemay vary
greatly:it may be greatnessand fame as in Pre-Socratic
Greece; it may be the permanenceof the cityas in Roman
virtue;it may be the healthof the soul in this life,or the
salvationof thesoul in thehereafter; and itmaybe freedomor
justice,or manymoresuch things.

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742 SOCIAL RESEARCH

Were thesethingsor principles,fromwhichall virtuesare


ultimately derived,mere values whichcould be exchanged
againstother values wheneverpeople changed theirminds
about them?And would they,as Nietzscheseemsto indicate,
all go overboardbeforetheoverriding claimof Lifeitself?To
be sure, he could not have known that the existenceof
mankindas a wholecouldeverbe putintojeopardybyhuman
conduct,and in thismarginaleventone could indeed argue
thatLife,the survivalof the worldand the humanspecies,is
thehighestgood. But thiswouldmean no morethanthatany
ethicsor moralitywouldsimplycease to exist.And in principle
thisthoughtwas anticipatedbythequestionimplicitin theold
Latin saying,Fiat justitia,pereat mundus:Should the world
perishthatjustice be done? This questionwas answeredby
Kant: "If justice perishes,human life on earth has lost its
meaning" ("Wenn die Gerechtigkeit hat es keinenWert
untergeht,
mehr,dass Menschenauf Erden leben"). Hence, the only new
moralprinciple,proclaimedin moderntimes,turnsout to be
nottheassertionof "newvalues"but thenegationof morality
as such,althoughNietzsche,of course,did notknowthis.And
it is his abidinggreatnessthathe dared to demonstratehow
shabbyand meaninglessmorality had become.
Churchill'swordswere uttered in the formof a statement,
butwe,too fullof thewisdomof hindsight, shallbe temptedto
read themalso as a premonition. And ifit werejust a question
of premonitions, I couldindeedadd an astoundingnumberof
quotationswhichwouldgo backat leastto thefirstthirdof the
eighteenth century. The pointof thematterforus, however,is
thatwe deal no longerwithpremonitions but withfacts.
We- at leastthe older ones amongus- have witnessedthe
totalcollapseof all establishedmoralstandardsin publicand
privatelife duringthe 1930s and 40s, not only (as is now
usually assumed) in Hitler's Germanybut also in Stalin's
Russia,whereat thismomentquestionsare beingaskedbythe
youngergenerationthat have a great resemblanceto those
currently debatedin Germany.Still,the differences between

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HANNAH ARENDT 743

the twoare significant enough to be mentioned.It has often


been notedthattheRussianRevolutioncaused socialupheaval
and socialremoldingof theentirenationunparalleledeven in
thewakeof Nazi Germany'sradicalfascistdictatorship, which,
it is true,leftthe propertyrelationalmostintactand did not
eliminatethedominantgroupsin society.Fromthis,it usually
is concludedthatwhathappened in the Third Reichwas by
natureand notonlyby historicalaccidentless permanentand
less extreme.This may or may not be true withrespectto
strictlypoliticaldevelopments, but it certainlyis a fallacyifwe
regard the issue of morality. Seen from a strictlymoral
viewpoint, Stalin'scrimeswere,so to speak,old fashioned;like
an ordinarycriminal,he neveradmittedthembut keptthem
surroundedin a cloud of hypocrisy and doubletalkwhilehis
followers justifiedthemas temporary meansin the pursuitof
the "good" cause, or, if they happened to be a bit more
sophisticated, bythelawsof history to whichtherevolutionary
has to submitand sacrificehimselfif need be. Nothingin
Marxism,moreover,despite all the talk about "bourgeois
morality," announcesa new setof moralvalues.If anythingis
characteristic of Leninor Trotskyas therepresentatives of the
professional revolutionary, it is the naive belief thatonce the
socialcircumstances are changedthroughrevolution, mankind
willfollowautomatically thefewmoralpreceptsthathavebeen
knownand repeatedsincethedawn of history.
In thisrespect,the Germandevelopmentsare much more
extremeand perhapsalso more revealing.There is not only
the gruesomefactof elaboratelyestablisheddeath factories
and the utterabsence of hypocrisy in those verysubstantial
numberswho were involvedin the extermination program.
Equally important,but perhaps more frightening, was the
matter-of-course collaborationfrom all strata of German
society,including the older elites which the Nazis left
untouched,and who never identifiedthemselveswith the
partyin power.I thinkit is justifiableon factualgroundsto
maintainthatmorally, thoughnotsocially,theNazi regimewas

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744 SOCIAL RESEARCH

muchmoreextremethantheStalinregimeat itsworst.It did


indeed announcea new set of values and introduceda legal
systemdesignedin accordancewiththem.It proved,more-
over,thatno one had to be a convincedNazi to conform,and
to forgetovernight, as it were,not his social status,but the
moralconvictions whichonce wentwithit.
In the discussionof these matters,and especiallyin the
general moral denunciationof the Nazi crimes,it is almost
alwaysoverlookedthatthetruemoralissue did notarisewith
thebehaviorof theNazis butof thosewho only"coordinated"
themselvesand did not act out of conviction.It is not too
difficultto see and even to understandhow someone may
decide "to provea villain"and, giventhe opportunity, to try
out a reversalof the Decalogue,startingwiththe command:
"Thou shaltkill"and endingwitha precept:"Thou shaltlie."
A numberof criminals, as we knowonlytoo well,are present
in everycommunity, and whilemostof themsufferfroma
ratherlimitedimagination, it maybe conceded thata fewof
themprobablyare no less giftedthanHitlerand some of his
henchmen.Whatthesepeople did was horrible,and the way
theyorganizedfirstGermanyand thenNazi-occupiedEurope
is of greatinterestforpoliticalscienceand thestudyof forms
of government; but neitherthe one nor the otherposes any
moral problems. Moralitycollapsed into a mere set of
mores- manners,customs,conventionsto be changed at
will- not withcriminals,but withordinarypeople, who, as
long as moralstandardsweresociallyaccepted,neverdreamt
of doubtingwhattheyhad been taughtto believein. And this
matter,that is, the problemit raises,is not resolvedif we
admit,as we must,thattheNazi doctrinedid notremainwith
the German people, that Hitler's criminal moralitywas
changed back again at a moment'snotice,at the moment
"history" had giventhe noticeof defeat.Hence, we mustsay
thatwe witnessedthetotalcollapseofa "moral"ordernotonce
but twice,and thissudden returnto "normality," contraryto

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HANNAH ARENDT 745

whatis oftencomplacently assumed,can only reinforceour


doubts.
When I thinkback to the lasttwodecades sincethe end of
the last war,I have the feelingthatthismoralissue has lain
dormantbecauseitwas concealedbysomething aboutwhichit
is indeed much more difficult to speak and withwhichit is
almostimpossibleto come to terms-the horroritselfin its
naked monstrosity. When we were firstconfrontedwithit,it
seemed, not only me but to manyothers,to transcendall
to
moralcategoriesas itcertainly explodedalljuridicalstandards.
You could expressthisin variousways.I used to say,thisis
something whichshouldneverhavehappened,formenwillbe
unableto punishitor forgiveit.We shallnotbe able tobecome
reconciledto it, to come to termswithit, as we mustwith
everything thatis past- eitherbecauseitwas bad and we need
to overcomeitor becauseitwas good and we cannotbear to let
itgo. It is a pastwhichhas grownworseas theyearshave gone
by,and thisis paritybecausetheGermansforsucha longtimé
refusedto prosecuteeven the murderersamong themselves,
but partlyalso because thispast could not be "mastered"by
anybody.Eventhefamoushealingpowerof timehas somehow
failed us. On the contrary,this past has managed to grow
worseas theyearswentbyso thatwe are sometimes temptedto
think:thiswillneverbe overas longas we are notall dead. No
doubt,thisis partlydue to the complacencyof the Adenauer
regimewhichfor such a long time did absolutelynothing
about the famous"murdererswithinour midst"and did not
regardparticipation in theHitlerregime,unlessitborderedon
criminality, as a reasonto disqualifyanybodyforpublicoffice.
But theseare, I think,onlypartialexplanations:thefactis also
thatthispasthas turnedout to be "unmastered" byeverybody,
not onlyby the Germannation.And the inability of civilized
courtroomprocedureto come to termswithit in juridical
form,its insistenceon pretendingthat these new-fangled
murderersare in no way different fromordinaryones and
actedout of thesame motives,is onlyone, thoughperhapsin

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746 SOCIAL RESEARCH

the long run the most fateful,consequenceof this stateof


affairs.I will not speak about thishere wherewe deal with
moral,not legal issues.What I wantedto indicateis thatthe
same speechlesshorror,thisrefusalto thinkthe unthinkable,
has perhaps preventeda verynecessaryreappraisalof legal
categoriesas it has made us forgetthestrictly moral,and, one
hopes, more manageable, lessonswhich are closelyconnected
withthewholestorybutwhichlook likeharmlessside issuesif
comparedwiththehorror.
Unfortunately, thereis one moreaspectto be reckonedwith
as an obstaclein our enterprise.Since people findit difficult,
and rightlyso, to live withsomethingthattakestheirbreath
awayand rendersthemspeechless,theyhaveall too frequently
yieldedto theobvioustemptation to translatetheirspeechless-
ness into whateverexpressionsfor emotionswere close at
hand,all oftheminadequate.As a result,todaythewholestory
is usuallytoldin termsof sentiments whichneed not even be
cheap in themselves to sentimentalizeand cheapen the story.
There are veryfewexamplesforwhichthisis not true,and
these are mostlyunrecognizedor unknown. The whole
atmospherein whichthingsare discussedtodayis overcharged
withemotions,oftenof a not veryhighcaliber,and whoever
raisesthesequestionsmustexpectto be draggeddown,ifat all
possible,to a levelon whichnothingseriouscan be discussedat
all. Howeverthatmaybe, let us keep in mindthisdistinction
betweenthe speechlesshorror,in whichone learns nothing
otherthan whatcan be directlycommunicated, and the not
horriblebut often disgustingexperienceswhere people's
conductis open to normaljudgmentand wherethequestionof
moralsand ethicsarises.
I said thatthe moralissue lay dormantfora considerable
time,implying thatithas cometo lifeduringthelastfewyears.
Whathas made it come to life?There are, as I see it,several
interconnected matterswhichtend to be cumulative.There
was firstand mostimportantly theeffectof thepost-wartrials
of theso-calledwarcriminals.Whatwas decisivehere was the

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HANNAH ARENDT 747

simplefactof courtroomprocedurethat forcedeverybody,


to look at thesemattersfroma moral
even politicalscientists,
viewpoint.It is, I think,well-known thatthereexistshardlya
walk of life in which you will find people as wary and
suspiciousof moralstandards,even of thestandardofjustice,
as in thelegal professions.The modernsocialand psychologi-
cal scienceshave, of course,also contributedto thisgeneral
skepticism. And yet,thesimplefactofcourtroomprocedurein
criminalcases, the sequence of accusation-defense-judgment
thatpersistsin all thevarietiesof legal systems and is as old as
recordedhistory,defiesall scruplesand doubts- not, to be
sure,in thesensethatit can put themto rest,but in thesense
that this particularinstitutionrests on the assumptionof
personalresponsibility and guilt,on the one hand, and on a
beliefin thefunctioning of conscienceon theother.Legal and
moral issues are by no means the same, but theyhave in
commonthattheydeal withpersonsand not withsystemsor
organizations.
It is the undeniablegreatnessof thejudiciarythatit must
focusitsattentionon the individualperson,and thateven in
theage of masssocietywhereeverybody is temptedto regard
himselfas a mere cog in some kind of machinery-be it the
well-oiledmachineryof some huge bureaucraticenterprise,
social, politicalor professional,or the chaotic,ill-adjusted
chancepatternof circumstances underwhichwe all somehow
spendour lives.The almostautomaticshifting ofresponsibility
thathabitually takesplace in modern society comes to a sudden
haltthemomentyou entera courtroom.Alljustifications of a
non-specific abstract nature- everything from the Zeitgeist
downto theOedipus complexthatindicatesthatyouare nota
man but a functionof somethingand, hence, yourselfan
exchangeablethingratherthana somebody-breakdown.No
matterwhat the scientificfashionsof the time may say, no
matterhow much theymay have penetratedpublic opinion
and, hence,also influencedthe practitioners of the law, the
institutionitselfdefies,and mustdefythemall, or pass out of

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748 SOCIAL RESEARCH

existence.And themomentyoucometo theindividualperson,


the questionto be raised is no longer,how did thissystem
function, but whydid the defendantbecomea functionary in
thisorganization?
This, of course,is not to deny thatit is importantto the
politicaland social sciencesto understandthe functioning of
totalitariangovernments,to probe into the essence of
bureaucracyand itsinevitabletendencyto makefunctionaries
of men,merecogs in the administrative machinery, and thus
to dehumanizethem.The pointis thatthe administration of
justice can consider thesefactorsonlyto the extent thatthey
are circumstances, perhapsmitigating ones,ofwhatevera man
of fleshand blood did. In a perfectbureaucracy-whichin
termsof rulership is the rule by nobody-courtroomproce-
dure would be superfluous,one would simply have to
exchangeunfitcogs againstfitterones. When Hitlersaid that
he hoped fortheday whenit wouldbe considereda disgrace
in Germanytobe a juristhe spokewithgreatconsistency ofhis
dreamof a perfectbureaucracy.
The speechlesshorrorwhich I mentionedbefore as an
adequate reactionto the systemas a whole dissolvesin the
courtroomwhere we deal with persons in the ordered
discourseof accusation,defense,and judgment.The reason
whythesecourtroom procedurescouldbringto lifespecifically
moralquestions-whichis notthecase in thetrialsof ordinary
criminals-is obvious;thesepeoplewerenotordinarycriminals
but ratherveryordinarypeople who had committedcrimes
withmore or less enthusiasm,simplybecause theydid what
they had been told to do. Among them, there were also
ordinarycriminals whocoulddo withimpunity undertheNazi
system what they had alwayswanted to do. But muchas the
sadistsand pervertsstood in the limelightin the publicityof
thesetrials,in our contexttheyare of less interest.
I thinkitcan be shownthatthesetrialsled to a moregeneral
probingintothe specificshare of guiltof thosewho did not
belongto anyof the criminalcategoriesbut who playedtheir

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HANNAH ARENDT 749

role in the regimenevertheless, or whoeveronly kept silent


and toleratedthingsas theywerewhentheywerein a position
to speak out. You remember the outcry that greeted
Hochhuth'saccusationof Pope PiusXII and also myownbook
on the EichmannTrial. If we disregardthe voicesof directly
interestedparties-the Vatican or Jewishorganizations-the
outstandingcharacteristic in these "controversies" was the
overwhelming interestin strictlymoral issues. Even more
strikingthan thisinterestwas perhaps the incrediblemoral
confusionthesedebateshave revealed,togetherwithan odd
tendency to takethesideof theculprit,whoeverhe mightbe at
the moment. There was a wholechorusof voicesthatassured
me that"theresitsan Eichmannin everyoneof us" just as
therewas a whole chorusthattold Hochhuththatnot Pope
PiusXII- afterall onlyone manand one Pope- was guiltybut
all of Christianity
and even the wholehumanrace. The only
trueculprits,it frequently
was feltand even said,werepeople
likeHochhuthand myself whodared to sitinjudgment;forno
one can judge who had not been in the same circumstances
under which,presumably,one would have behaved like all
others. This position, incidentally,coincided oddly with
Eichmann'sviewon thesematters.
In otherwords,whilethe moralissueswere hotlydebated,
theywereat thesame timesidesteppedand evaded withequal
eagerness.And thiswas not due to the specificissues under
discussionbut seems to happen whenevermoral topics are
discussed,not in generalbut in a particularcase. Thus, I am
remindedofan incidenta fewyearsago in connectionwiththe
famousquiz showcheatingon television.An articleby Hans
Morgenthauin TheNewYorkTimesMagazine("Reactionto the
Van Doren Reaction," Nov. 22, 1959) pointed out the
obvious-thatit was wrongto cheatformoney,doublywrong
in intellectualmatters,and triplywrongfor a teacher.The
response was heated outrage: such judgment was against
Christiancharityand no man, except a saint, could be
expectedto resistthetemptation of so muchmoney.And this

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750 SOCIAL RESEARCH

was not said in a cynicalmood to make fun of philistine


respectability,and itwasnotmeantas a nihilistic
argument.No
one said- as would invariably have happened 30 or 40 years
ago, at least in Europe- thatcheatingis fun, that virtueis
boringand moralpeople are tiresome.Nor did anybodysay
thatthetelevisionquiz programwas wrong,thatanything like
a 64,000 dollar question was almost an invitationfor
fraudulentbehavior,nor standup forthe dignityof learning
and criticizethe universityfor not preventingone of its
membersfromindulgingin whatobviouslyis unprofessional
conduct,even if no cheatingwere to take place. From the
numerousletterswrittenin responseto the article,it became
quite clear thatthe publicat large,includingmanystudents,
thoughtthatonlyone personwas to be blamedunequivocally:
theman whojudged, and notthe man who had done wrong,
notan institution,notsocietyin generalnorthemassmediain
particular.
Now let me enumeratebrieflythe generalquestionswhich
thisfactualsituation,as I see it,has put on the agenda. The
firstconclusionI thinkis thatno one in hisrightmindcan any
longerclaim that moral conductis a matterof course- das
Moralischeversteht
sich von selbst-an assumption under which
the generation I belong to was still brought up. This
assumptionincludeda sharpdistinction betweenlegalityand
morality, and while there existed a vague, inarticulate
consensusthatby and large the law of the land spells out
whateverthe moral law may demand, therewas not much
doubtthatin case of conflict,
themorallawwas thehigherlaw
and had to be obeyed first.This claim in turncould make
senseonlyif we tookforgrantedall thosephenomenawhich
we usuallyhave in mindwhenwe speakof humanconscience.
Whateverthe source of moral knowledgemightbe- divine
commandments or human reason- everysane man, it was
assumed,carriedwithinhimselfa voice thattellshimwhatis
rightand whatis wrong,and thisregardlessof the law of the
land and regardlessof thevoicesof hisfellow-men.Kantonce

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HANNAH ARENDT 751

mentionedthattheremightbe a difficulty: "No one," he said,


"who spenthis life among rascalswithoutknowinganybody
else could have a conceptof virtue"-"DenBegriff
derTugend
würdekeinMenschhaben,wenner immerunterlauterSpitzbuben
wäre"-but he meantno more by thisthan thatthe human
mind is guided by examples in these matters.Not for a
momentwould he have doubted that,confrontedwiththe
exampleof virtue,humanreasonknowswhatis rightand that
its opposite is wrong. To be sure, Kant believed he had
articulatedthe formula which the human mind applies
wheneverit has to tell rightfrom wrong. He called this
formulathe CategoricalImperative;but he was under no
illusionthat he had made a discoveryin moral philosophy
whichwouldhaveimpliedthatno one beforehimknewwhatis
rightand wrong-obviouslyan absurd notion.He compares
his formula(about whichwe shall have more to say in the
cominglectures)to a "compass"withwhichmen will findit
easy
todistinguish whatis good,whatisbad.. . . Without intheleast
common
teaching reason anything we
new, need onlytodrawits
attention
to itsownprinciple, in themannerof Socrates, thus
showingthatneither sciencenorphilosophy is neededin order
toknowwhatonehastodo inordertobe honestandgood. . .
[Indeed,]. . . theknowledge ofwhateveryone is obligedtodo,
andthusalsotoknow,[is]within thereachofeveryone, eventhe
mostordinary man[Kant,1959,p. 20,ed.]
And if someonehad asked Kantwherethisknowledgewithin
reach of everybodyis located,he would have repliedin the
rationalstructureof the human mind, whereas,of course,
othershad locatedthe same knowledgein the human heart.
WhatKantwouldnot have takenforgrantedis thatman will
also act accordingto hisjudgment.Man is not onlya rational
being,he also belongsto the worldof the senses whichwill
tempthimto yieldto his inclinations
insteadof followinghis
reasonor his heart.Hence, moralconductis not a matterof
course,but moral knowledge,the knowledgeof rightand

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752 SOCIAL RESEARCH

wrong,is. Because inclinations and temptation are rootedin


humannature,thoughnot in humanreason,Kant called the
fact that man is tempted to do wrong by followinghis
inclinations"radical evil." Neitherhe nor any other moral
philosopheractuallybelievedthatman could willevil for its
own sake; all transgressionsare explained by Kant as
exceptionsthata manis temptedto makefroma law whichhe
otherwiserecognizesas beingvalid- thus,thethiefrecognizes
thelawsof property, evenwishesto be protectedbythem,and
onlymakesa temporary exceptionfromthemin hisownfavor.
No one wantsto be wicked,and thosewho nevertheless act
wickedly fallintoan absurdum morale-intomoralabsurdity. He
whodoes thisis actuallyin contradiction withhimself, hisown
reason,and, therefore, in Kant'sown words,he mustdespise
himself.That thisfearof self-contempt could not possiblybe
enough to guaranteelegalityis obvious;but as long as you
moved in a societyof law-abidingcitizensyou somehow
assumedthatself-contempt wouldwork.Kantof courseknew
that self-contempt, or ratherthe fear of having to despise
yourself, veryoftendid notwork,and his explanationof this
was that man can lie to himself.He thereforerepeatedly
declaredthatthereally"soreor foulspot"in humannatureis
mendacity, the facultyof lying[Kant,1868, pp. 132-33, ed.].
At firstglance thisstatementseems verysurprisingbecause
none of our ethicalor religiouscodes (withthe exceptionof
Zoroaster)ever containeda Commandment:Thou shaltnot
lie- quiteapartfromtheconsideration thatnotonlywe butall
codesofcivilizednationshaveputmurderat thetop of thelist
of human crimes.Oddly enough,Dostoevskyseems to have
shared- withoutknowingit of course- Kant'sopinion.In The
Brothers Karamazov, DmitriK. askstheStarov:"WhatmustI do
to winsalvation," and theStarovreplies:"Aboveall else,never
lie to yourself."
You will have remarkedthat I have leftout of thisvery
schematicand preliminary account all specificallyreligious
moral precepts and beliefs, not because I think them

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HANNAH ARENDT 753

unimportant (quitethecontraryis thecase),butbecauseat the


moment moralitycollapsed they played hardly any role.
Clearlyno one was any longerafraidof an avengingGod or,
more concretelyspeaking, of possible punishmentsin a
As Nietzscheonce remarked:"Naivität,
hereafter. als obMoral
wenn der sanktionierende
übrigbliebe, Gott fehlt! Das 'Jenseits'
absolut notwendig,wenn der Glaube an Moral aufrechterhalten
werdensoir [Nietzsche,1956, p. 484, ed.].1 Nor did the
churchesthinkof so threateningtheir believersonce the
crimesturnedout to be demanded by the authorityof the
state.And thosefewwho in all churchesand all walksof life
refusedto participatein crimesdid not plead religiousbeliefs
or fears,even if theyhappened to be believers,but simply
stated, like others, that they could not themselvesbear
responsibility forsuch deeds. This soundsratherstrangeand
certainlyis at odds withtheinnumerablepious pronunciations
of the churches after the war, especially the repeated
admonitionsfromall sides thatnothingwillsave us excepta
returnto religion.But itis a factand itshowstowhatan extent
religion,ifitis morethana socialbusiness,has indeedbecome
the mostprivateof privateaffairs.For, of course,we do not
knowwhatwenton in theheartsof thesemen,whetheror not
theywereafraidof helland eternaldamnation.All we knowis
thathardlyanyonethoughttheseoldestbeliefsfitfor public
justification.
There is howeveranotherreasonwhyI leftreligionout of
accountand beganbyindicatingthegreatimportanceof Kant
in these matters.Moral philosophyhas no place wherever
religion,and especiallyrevealed religion in the Hebrew-
Christiansense,is thevalidstandardforhumanbehaviorand
the valid criterionforjudging it. This, of course,does not
meanthatcertainteachingswhichwe knowonlyin a religious
contextare notof thegreatestrelevanceformoralphilosophy.
If you look back to traditional,premodernphilosophyas it
developedwithintheframework of Christianreligion,youwill
at once discoverthatthereexistedno moralsubdivision within

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754 SOCIAL RESEARCH

it. Medievalphilosophywas dividedintocosmology, ontology,


psychology, and rationaltheology-that is, into a doctrine
aboutnatureand theuniverse,aboutBeing,about the nature
of the humanmindand soul, and, finally,about the rational
proofsof the existenceof God. Insofaras "ethical"questions
werediscussedat all, especiallyin Thomas Aquinas,thiswas
done in the fashionof antiquity, whereethicswere partand
parcel of politicalphilosophy-definingthe conductof man
insofaras he was a citizen.Thus, you have in Aristotletwo
treatises which together contain what he himself calls
philosophyof thingshuman: his Nicomachean Ethicsand his
Politics.The formerdeals withthe citizen,the latterwithcivil
institutions; the formerprecedesthe latterbecause the "good
life"of thecitizenis theraisond'être of thepolis,theinstitution
ofthecity.The goal is to findoutwhichis thebestconstitution,
and the treatiseon the good life,the Ethics,ends withan
outlineof the programfor the treatiseon politics.Thomas,
boththe faithfuldiscipleof Aristotleand a Christian,always
mustcometo thepointwherehe has to differwiththemaster,
and nowhereis the differencemore glaringthan when he
holdsthateveryfaultor sinis a violationof thelawsprescribed
to naturebydivinereason.To be sure,Aristotletoo knowsof
thedivine,whichto himis theimperishable and theimmortal,
and he too thinksthatman'shighestvirtue,preciselybecause
he is mortal,consistsin dwellingas much as possiblein the
neighborhoodof the divine.But thereis no prescription, no
command, to thiseffect that could be or
obeyed disobeyed.
The wholequestionturnsaroundthe"good life,"whichwayof
lifeis bestforman,something obviouslyup to manto findout
and tojudge.
In late antiquity, afterthe declineof the Polis,the various
philosophyschools,especiallythe Stoicsand the Epicureans,
not onlydeveloped a kind of moral philosophy,theyhad a
tendency, at leastin theirlateRomanversions,to transform all
philosophy into moral teachings.The quest for the good life
remainedthe same: How can I attainmaximumhappiness

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HANNAH ARENDT 755

here on earth,onlythisquestionwas now separatedfromall


politicalimplicationsand raised by men in their private
capacity.This wholeliterature is fullofwiserecommendations,
but you willnot findin it,any more thanin Aristotle, a real
commandwhichultimately is beyondargument, as youmustin
all religiousteachings.Even Thomas,the greatestrationalizer
of Christianity, had to admitthatthe ultimatereason whya
particularprescription is rightand a particularcommandhas
to be obeyedlies in itsdivineorigin.God said so.
This can be a conclusiveansweronlywithinthe framework
ofrevealed religion;outsidethisframework, we cannotbutraise
thequestionwhich,as faras I know,Socrateswas the firstto
raise,in Plato'sEuthyphro wherehe wishesto know:"Do the
gods love pietybecause it is pious,or is it pious because they
love it?"Or to put it anotherway:Do the gods love goodness
becauseit is good, or do we call it good because the gods love
it? Socratesleaves us withthe question,and a believer,no
doubt, is bound to say: it is their divine origin that
distinguishes good principlesfromevil,theyare in accordance
witha law givenby God to natureand to man,the summitof
hiscreation.Insofaras man is God's creation,thesame things,
to be sure,whichGod "loves"mustalso appear good to him,
and in thissenseThomas once indeedremarked,as thoughin
answerto Socrates'question:God commandsthegood because
it is good (as opposed to Duns Scotus,who held the good is
good because God commands it). But even in this most
rationalizedform,theobligatory characterof thegood forman
lies in God's command.From this followsthe all important
principlethatin religion,but not in morality, sin is primarily
understoodas disobedience.Nowherein the strictly religious
traditionwill you find the unequivocaland indeed radical
answerKantgave to the Socraticquestion:"We shallnotlook
upon actionsas obligatory because theyare the commandsof
God, but shall regardthem as divinecommandsbecause we
havean inwardobligationto them"[Kant,1965,A819, p. 644,
ed.]. Onlywherethisemancipationfromreligiouscommands

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756 SOCIAL RESEARCH

has been achieved,wherein Kant'sown wordsin Lectures on


Ethics"we ourselvesare judges of the revelation. . .," hence,
where moralityis a strictly human affair,can we speak of
moral philosophy[Kant, 1963a, p. 51, ed.]. And the same
Kant,who in histheoretical philosophywas so concernedwith
keepingthe door open to religion,even afterhavingshown
thatwe can have no knowledgein thesematters,was equally
carefulto block all passages which may have led back to
religionin hispracticalor moralphilosophy. Justas "God is in
no sense the authorof the factthat the trianglehas three
angles,"so "noteven God can be the authorof [thelaws of]
morality" [Kant,1963a, p. 52, ed.]. In thisunequivocalsense,
until Kant, moral philosophyhad ceased to exist after
antiquity.Probablyyou willthinkhere of Spinoza who called
his chiefworkEthics,but then you will also rememberthat
Spinozabeginshis workwitha sectionentitled"Of God," and
fromthisfirstparteverything else is derived.Whetheror not
moral philosophyhas existedsince Kant is at least an open
question.
In anticipationof the fewquestionswhichwillconcernus
here,let me now pointout to you some of the mostobvious
conclusions:Moralconduct,fromwhatwe have heard so far,
seemsto depend primarily upon the intercourse of man with
himself.He must not contradicthimselfby making an
exceptionin his own favor,he mustnot place himselfin a
positionin whichhe would have to despise himself.Morally
speaking,thisshouldbe enoughnotonlyto enablehimto tell
rightfromwrongbutalso to do rightand avoid wrong.Kant,
withtheconsistency of thoughtwhichis themarkof thegreat
philosopher, therefore puts the duties man has to himself
ahead of the duties to others-somethingwhichcertainlyis
verysurprising, standingin curiouscontradiction to whatwe
usuallyunderstandby moral behavior.It certainlyis not a
matterof concernwiththe other but withthe self,not of
meeknessbut of humandignityand even humanpride.The

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HANNAH ARENDT 757

standardis neithertheloveof someneighbornorself-love, but


self-respect.
This comes out mostclearlyand mostbeautifullyin that
passage of Kant'sCritique ofPracticalReasonwhicheverybody
knows-and usuallyknowsin a mistakenway.I referof course
to: "Two thingsfillthe mind withever new and increasing
admirationand awe,4the oftenerand moresteadilywe reflect
on them:thestarryheavenabove me and themorallawwithin
me." Fromwhichone may concludeby not readingon that
these"twothings"are on thesame leveland affectthehuman
mind in the same way. Well, the oppositeis the case: "The
formerviewofa countlessmultitude ofworldsannihilates, as it
were,myimportanceas an animalcreature. . . The latter,on
the contrary,infinitelyraises my worth as that of an
intelligencebymypersonality, in whichthemorallawrevealsa
lifeindependentof all animality and even of thewholeworld
of sense"[Kant,1956,p. 166,ed.]. Hence,whatsavesme from
annihilation, frombeing"a merespeck"in the infinity of the
universe,is preciselythis "invisibleself" that can pit itself
againstit.I underlinethiselementof pridenotonlybecauseit
goes againstthegrainof Christianethics,but also because the
lossof a feelingforit seemsto me mostmanifest in thosewho
discussthesematterstoday,mostlywithouteven knowinghow
to appeal to theChristianvirtueof humility. This, however,is
not to denythatthereexistsa crucialproblemin thismoral
concernwiththe self. How difficult thisproblemmay be is
gauged by the fact that religiouscommandswere likewise
unableto formulatetheirgeneralmovalprescriptions without
turningto the self as the ultimate standard-Love thy
neighboras thyself, or do notdo untootherswhatyou do not
wantdone to yourself.
Secondly,moralconducthas nothingto do withobedienceto
anylaw thatis givenfromtheoutside-be itthelaw of God or
the lawsof men. In Kant'sterminology, thisis the distinction
betweenlegalityand morality.Legalityis morallyneutral:it
has itsplace in institutionalized
religionand in politicsbut not

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758 SOCIAL RESEARCH

in morality.The political order does not require moral


integrity but only law-abidingcitizens,and the Church is
alwaysa churchofsinners.These ordersofa givencommunity
mustbe distinguished fromthe moral order bindingfor all
men, even all rational beings. In Kant's own words: "The
problemof organizinga state,howeverhard it mayseem,can
be solvedeven fora race of devils,ifonlytheyare intelligent"
[Kant,1963b,p. 112, ed.]. In a similarspirit,it has been said
thatthedevilmakesa good theologian.In the politicalorder,
as in the religiousframework, obediencemayhave its place,
and just as this obedience is enforcedin institutionalized
religionbythethreatof futurepunishments, so thelegalorder
existsonlyto the extentof the existenceof sanctions.What
cannotbe punishedis permitted. If, however,I can be said at
all to obey the CategoricalImperative,it means that I am
obeyingmy own reason,and the law whichI give myselfis
validforall rationalcreatures,all intelligiblebeingsno matter
wheretheymayhave theirdwellingplace. For ifI do notwant
to contradict myself, I act in sucha mannerthatthemaximof
myact can becomea universallaw. I am the legislator, sin or
crimecan no longer be defined as disobedience to somebody
else's law, but on the contraryas refusalto act my part as
legislatorof theworld.
This as it were rebelliousaspect of Kant's teachingsis
frequently overlookedbecause he put his generalformula-
thata moralact is an act whichlaysdown a universally valid
law- intothe form of an imperative insteadof definingit in
a proposition.The chiefreason for thisself-misunderstand-
ing in Kant is the highlyequivocal meaningof the word
"law"in the Westerntraditionof thought.When Kant spoke
of the moral law, he used the word in accordance with
politicalusage in which the law of the land is considered
obligatoryfor all inhabitantsin the sense thattheyhave to
obey it. That obedienceis singledout as myattitudetoward
the law of the land is in turndue to the transformation the
termhad undergonethoughreligioususage wherethe Law

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HANNAH ARENDT 759

of God can indeed address man only in the form of a


command:Thou shalt- the obligation,as we saw, being not
the contentof the law nor the possibleconsentof man to it,
but the factthatGod had told us so. Here, nothingcounts
but obedience.
To thesetwointerconnected meaningsof thewordwe must
nowadd theveryimportant and quitedifferent usage made by
combiningtheconceptof law withnature.Laws of natureare
also, so to speak,obligatory:I followa law of naturewhen I
die,butitcannotbe said,exceptmetaphorically, thatI obeyit.
Kant,therefore, distinguished between"laws of nature"and
themoral"lawsof freedom,"whichcarryno necessity, onlyan
if
obligation.But we understandby law eithercommands
whichI mustobey or the necessityof natureto whichI am
subject anyhow, then the term "law of freedom" is a
contradiction in terms.The reason whywe are not aware of
the contradiction is that even in our usage there are still
present much older connotationsfromGreek and especially
Romanantiquity, connotations which,whateverelse theymay
signify, have nothing to do with commandments and obedi-
ence or necessity.
Kantdefinedthecategorical imperative bycontrasting itwith
thehypothetical imperative. The lattertellsus whatwe oughtto
do ifwe wishto attaina certaingoal; itindicatesa meansto an
end. It is actuallyno imperativein the moralsenseat all. The
categorical imperativetellsus whatto do withoutreferenceto
anotherend. This distinction is not at all derivedfrommoral
phenomena but taken from Kant's analysis of certain
propositionsin the Critiqueof Pure Reason,where you find
categoricaland hypothetical (as well as disjunctive)proposi-
tionsin thetableofjudgments.A categoricalproposition could
be, for example: This body is heavy; to which could
corresponda hypothetical proposition:If I supportthisbodyI
stagger under its In
weight. hisCritique ofPractical Reason,Kant
transformed thesepropositionsintoimperatives to givethem
an obligatory character.Althoughthecontentis derivedfrom

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760 SOCIAL RESEARCH

reason- and whilereasonmaycompel,itnevercompelsin the


formof an imperative (no one wouldtellanybody:Thou shall
say,twoand twomakefour)- theimperative formis feltto be
necessarybecause here the reasonablepropositionaddresses
itselfto theWill.In Kant'sownwords:"The conceptionof an
objectiveprinciple,so faras it constrainsa will,is a command
(of reason), and the formulaof this commandis called an
imperative9'[Kant,1959,p. 30, ed.].
Does reason thencommandthe Will?In thatcase the will
wouldno longerbe freebutwouldstandunderthe dictateof
reason. Reason can only tell the Will: This is good, in
accordancewithreason;ifyouwishto attainityououghtto act
accordingly. Whichin Kant'sterminology wouldbe a kindof
hypotheticalimperativeor no imperativeat all. And this
perplexity does not growless when we hear that"the willis
nothingelse thanpracticalreason"and that"reasoninfallibly
determinesthe will,"so that we must eitherconclude that
reason determinesitselfor, as withKant that"the will is a
faculty ofchoosingonlythatwhichreason. . . recognizesas ...
good" [Kant, 1959, p. 29, ed.]. It would thenfollowthatthe
willis nothingbutan executiveorganforreason,theexecution
branchof thehumanfaculties, a conclusionthatstandsin the
mostflagrantcontradiction to thefamousfirstsentenceof the
work from which I have quoted, The Foundationsof the
Metaphysics ofMorals:"Nothingin the world- indeed nothing
evenbeyondtheworld- can possiblybe conceivedwhichcould
be called good withoutqualification excepta goodwill"[Kant,
1959,p. 9, ed.].
Some of theperplexities intowhichI haveled youherearise
out of the perplexitiesinherentin the human facultyof will
itself,a facultyof whichancientphilosophyknewnothingand
whichwas not discoveredin its awesomecomplexities before
Paul and Augustine.We willhavemoreto sayaboutthisin the
following lectures.Here I merelywishto drawyourattention
to the need Kant felt to give his rational propositionan
obligatory character,for,in distinctionto the perplexitiesof

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HANNAH ARENDT 761

thewill,theproblemof makingmoralpropositions obligatory


has plagued moral philosophy since its beginning with
Socrates.WhenSocratessaid itis betterto sufferwrongthanto
do wrong,he made a statement whichaccordingto himwas a
statement of reason,and the troublewiththisstatement ever
sincehas been thatit cannotbe proved.Its validitycannotbe
demonstratedwithout stepping outside the discourse of
rationalargument.In Kant,as in all philosophy afterantiquity,
you have the additional
difficultyof how to persuadethe will
to acceptthe dictateof reason. If we leave the contradictions
aside and addressourselvesonlyto whatKant meantto say,
thenhe obviouslythoughtof the Good Will as the will that
whentoldThou Shaltwillanswer:Yes, I will.And in orderto
describethisrelationship betweentwohumanfacultieswhich
clearlyare not the same and where clearlyone does not
automatically determinetheother,he introducedthe formof
the imperativeand broughtback the conceptof obedience,
througha backdoor as it were.
There is, finally,for people with our background of
experience,the most shockingperplexitywhich I merely
indicated before: the evasion, the sidestepping,or the
explainingaway of human wickedness.If the traditionof
moral philosophy(as distinguishedfrom the traditionof
religiousthought)is agreed on one point fromSocratesto
Kantand, as we shallsee, to the present,thenthatis thatit is
impossibleforman to do wickedthingsdeliberately, to want
evilforevil'ssake.To be sure,thecatalogueof humanvicesis
old and rich,and in an enumerationwhereneithergluttony
nor sloth (minormattersafterall) are missing,sadism,the
sheer pleasure in causing and contemplatingpain and
suffering,is curiouslymissing;thatis, the one vice whichwe
havereasonto call theviceof all vicesthatforuntoldcenturies
has been known only in the pornographicliteratureand
paintingof the perverse.It may alwayshave been common
enough but was usuallyrestrictedto the bedroomand only
seldomdraggedintothecourtroom.Even theBible,whereall

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762 SOCIAL RESEARCH

otherhumanshortcomings occursomewhere,is silenton it as


I
faras know; and thismaybe thereasonwhyTertullianand
also Thomas Aquinasin all innocence,as it were,countedthe
contemplation in hellamongthepleasuresto
of thesufferings
be expectedin Paradise.The firstto be reallyscandalizedby
thiswas Nietzsche[1967, I, 15, ed.]. Thomas, incidentally,
qualifiedthe futurejoys: not the sufferings as such, but as
proofof divinejusticeare pleasingto thesaints.
But these are only vices, and religious,in contrastto
philosophic, thoughttellsaboutoriginalsinand thecorruption
of humannature.But noteventheredo we hear of deliberate
wrongdoing:Cain did notwantto becomeCain whenhe went
and slewAbel,and evenJudasIscariot,thegreatestexampleof
mortalsin,wentand hangedhimself.Religiously (notmorally)
speaking, it seems thattheymust all be forgivenbecause they
did notknowwhattheyweredoing.There is one exceptionto
thisruleand itoccursin theteachingofJesusof Nazareth,the
samewhohad preachedforgiveness forall thosesinswhichin
one wayor anothercan be explainedbyhumanweakness,that
is, dogmaticallyspeaking,by the corruptionof humannature
throughtheoriginalfall.And yetthisgreatloverof sinners,of
thosewho trespassed,once mentionsin the same contextthat
thereare otherswho cause skandala,disgracefuloffenses,for
which"it were betterthata millstonewere hanged about his
neck,and he castintothesea." It werebetterthathe had never
beenborn.ButJesusdoes nottellus whatthenatureis ofthese
scandalousoffenses:we feelthetruthof hiswordsbutcannot
pin it down.
We mightbe a bitbetteroffifwe wouldpermitourselvesto
turnto literature, to Shakespeareor Melvilleor Dostoevsky,
wherewe findthe greatvillains.They also maynotbe able to
tellus anythingspecificabout the natureof evil,but at least
theydo notdodge it.We know,and we can almostsee, how it
hauntedtheirmindsconstantly, and howwellawaretheywere
of thepossibilitiesof humanwickedness. And yet,I wonderif
it would help us much. In the depths of the greatest

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HANNAH ARENDT 763

villains-lago (not Macbeth or Richard III), Claggart in


Melville'sBillyBudd,and everywhere in Dostoevsky-thereis
alwaysdespair and the envy which goes withdespair.That all
radicalevil comes fromthe depthsof despairwe have been
told explicitlyby Kierkegaard-and we could have learnedit
from Milton'sSatan and many others. It sounds so very
convincingand plausiblebecause we have also been told and
taughtthatthe devil is not only diabolos,the slandererwho
bearsfalsetestimony, or Satan,theadversary whotemptsmen,
but thathe is also Luciferthe light-bearer, a FallenAngel. In
otherwords,we did notneed Hegel and thepowerof negation
in orderto combinethebestand the worst.There has always
been some kindof nobility about the real evildoer,thoughof
course not about the littlescoundrelwho lies and cheats at
games.The pointaboutClaggartand lago is thattheyact out
ofenvyofthosetheyknoware betterthantheythemselves; itis
thesimpleGod-givennobility oftheMoorthatis envied,or the
even simplerpurityand innocenceof a lowlyshipmatewhose
social and professionalbetterClaggartclearlyis. I do not
doubt the psychological insightof eitherKierkegaardor the
literaturewhichis on hisside. But is itnotobviousthatthereis
stillsome nobilityeven in this despair-bornenvywhichwe
knowto be utterlyabsentfromthe real thing?Accordingto
Nietzsche,the man who despiseshimselfrespectsat least the
one in him who despises!But the real evil is whatcauses us
speechlesshorror,when all we can say is: This should never
have happened.

Note
1WalterKaufmantranslates thispassageas follows:"Naivete:as if
moralitycould survivewhen the Godwhosanctionsitis missing!The
'beyond'absolutely
necessary iffaithin moralityis to be maintained"
[Nietzsche,1968,p. 147,ed.].

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764 SOCIAL RESEARCH

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