Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Brief note on the Holocaust to which Godwin's Law does not apply

A recent Facebook post by Cognitive Therapist, Author and Stoic Donald Robertson generated the following response from me.

Donald: Would the Stoics say that the Holocaust was "indifferent"? Martha Nussbaum basically wrestled with a similar question in The Therapy of Desire, and concluded it was problematic for Stoicism, although I think she overlooked some key issues in her discussion. What do you guys think? ... The central question is whether Stoics would class it as an "indifferent". I think the answer has to be "yes", which sounds odd to a modern reader. However, I think the Stoics would also say that although the external event was intrinsically bad/evil, the actions (or rather the judgements) of the perpetrators were thoroughly evil, for them, and harmed their own souls, making them the most wretched of men. (Although they also say all vices are equal, which doesn't sit comfortably with this example.)

Michel:  I think we need to clarify the question a little. First off, by the term 'indifferent' the Stoics meant morally neutral. Guns are indifferent, being neither good nor evil in themselves. Chambers, gas, and ovens are in themselves neither good nor evil. It is in how they are used that we can speak of good or evil. Epictetus stated it clearly "The materials of action are indifferent; but the use of them is not indifferent."

Using a noun like "The Holocaust" makes it seem like a 'thing' or an 'external'. This is another term we need to be careful of. The Holocaust, and other programs like it through history, are not merely 'things' able to be captured by a noun. They are not mere events either, like the inevitable eruption of Vesuvius. If the Holocaust is to be classed as an event, it is of a special nature. It is the collective noun we use to describe the cumulative choices that individuals made resulting in the mass slaughter of a population. By giving it the name Holocaust, we deliberately emphasize the utter devastation of the choices that were made then, and brand them as evil in the clearest possible way.

So, in my opinion, and given the restricted nature of Facebook posts, the Holocaust was not a morally neutral collection of choices at all. If there were Stoics (who called themselves that or not) at the time, they would not see the policies and actions of those promoting and implementing the 'Final Solution' as being indifferent at all. They would be cause for action, and the demands of virtue would have rung loudly in their ears. Where was justice? Where was the cosmopolitan core of Stoic practice and belief? The Stoic would have, and still should, respond with whatever virtuous means were available. To echo Donald's thoughts above, if all vice is equal, then inaction in the face of such rampant injustice would make one as vicious as the perpetrators. However, we must separate those things over which we have no control (external events) and those over which we do have control (choice). It may be argued that 'other people's choices' are indifferent (the fact of the Holocaust doesn't make me a bad person), our reactions to that fact clearly are in our control, and they can make us good or evil.

The question of external or internal does not preclude the fact that we can judge other people's action as being virtuous or vicious in their context as well. (I don't want to start a relativistic morals debate. I think we need to be more honest than that.) We can look at someone's actions and declare that they are virtuous or vicious, good or evil, and either participate in the one or restrain the other. And more importantly, in my view, we can learn from history which actions, choices and policies can create a remarkably strong support structure to permit the execution of the most heinous acts with apparent impunity. This is what we can do now, and in truth, what we should do. We know more, so we should be that much more diligent to prevent its recurrence.

In short (and this response has been anything but short) seen properly, the Holocaust was not, and indeed IS not, an 'indifferent' at all. ActuallyI no longer use the term indifferent. It is an English word with huge emotional overtones. I prefer to use morally neutral in my classes. We aren't reconstructionists, however. We are attempting to continue the conversation the Stoics started, bringing in modern science, including the medical sciences, (to enhance the conversation around Stoic Physics), modern psychology (inc. Donald's own book) and global politics (to enhance the conversation around Stoic Ethics) and informal logic (to enhance the conversation around Stoic Logic). We don't hold any writings as scripture, though the ancients did have a talent for a turn of phrase, and at times strongly disagree with some of their stances (i.e. Musonius on homosexuality). We call ourselves Stoics, not because we are trying to recreate the ancient Stoic Schools, nor slavishly follow every dictate, but because we are participating in their evolving explorations into what it means to be a flourishing human being.

Events which have scarred the modern psyche need to be treated especially sensitively, though honestly. Even Epictetus warned his students against using specialized Stoic language around those who have yet to be trained in the philosophy to prevent making them worse than before.

There is a disturbing trend amongst many modern commenters on Stoic thought to continue to emphasize detachment and apathy (in the modern sense). This merely serves to perpetuate the misunderstanding around terms such as indifference and apatheia. Becker's book was an interesting contribution to this conversation.

To return to the topic, stating that The Holocaust is an indifferent external missed the point of discussing the Holocaust entirely. Of course it is history, unchangeable in the factual nature of its occurrence and as such much be accepted as a fixed point, completely out of our control. But the discussion should center around, how did it come to be in the first place, how did those who were observers and participants come to believe that this was ever a good idea, and how can WE learn from this 'event' so as to prevent it occurring again. The last point is the important one, in my mind, and hardly a morally neutral choice at all.