Saturday, November 20, 2004

Albert Speer and Moral Extinction

I finished Vernon God Little (what a bizarre book!) last night and, looking to bide my time before collecting a book from the office today, I flicking through the introduction to Gita Sereny's Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. Even reading the first fifteen pages, I'm struck by what a beautiful, humane account this book is, all the more striking given that Sereny has chosen as her subject one of the most complex characters to come out of the Nazi regime.

One element of the introduction is devoted to the idea of decent people being involved with the Nazis. Sereny tells of being a young nurse in France under the German occupation. Like many young people, she fiercly wished to resist the occupation, but having no power to do so, she settled for venting her frustrations on two German officers who were seeking to help the children that were in Sereny's care. Eventually both men were re-assigned, one to the Russian front, where he died within weeks, and the other, who turned out to be half-Jewish, to a concentration camp. "They had both been devout Christians and opponents of the regime," Sereny writes,
    "We had never known. They didn't tell us, only tried to express it by showing affection to the children and helping us to care for them, which was strictly against Nazi rules. Indulging our emotions, we had abused their kindness. We had never sensed their pain and their dilemma, and that they despairingly wanted to be - and indeed were - our friends."
This sort of righteous self-indulgence, clouding a recognition of the other as a person, rather than solely a representative of injustice, is something I think I'll come back to.

One other passage in the introduction struck me especially, however. On page 10, Sereny suggests that Speer did not work at the heart of the Nazi regime for personal gain or mere vanity. She concludes (so far at least), that a large motive for him was his genuine (and reciprocated) affection for Hitler. She writes:
    Speer, I was already convince, had never killed, stolen, personally benefited from the misery of others or betrayed a friend. And yet, what I feel neither the Nuremberg trials nor his books had really told us was how a man of such quality could become not immoral, not amoral, but somehow infinitly worse, morally extinguished."
This strikes me as a perfect articulation of the self within various sort of regime - amorality and immorality are not the worst that can happen to the individual. They do not suggest the possibility of moral death. The passage also raises the question of whether, on top of wondering at Speer's moral extinction, we should think about whether working in institutional environments is bound to leads to some form of moral extinction.

I'm not suggesting, as sometimes happens, that the nasty things happening in bureaucracies is a little bit like Nazism or the holocaust - I'm sort of a fan of the 'the Nazis are a special case of awfulness' rule, but I also think that some of the mundane behaviours that sustained the regime - careerism, for example, or a non-thinking implementation of instructions, where the individual insulates themselves from the consequences of their actions - are just that: mundane, every day behaviours of people working in environments that encourage a disengagement of moral agency.

For example, and although there are certainly other moral problems here, there is something admirable about the actions of Katherine Gun in the run up to the second Iraq War, or those of Daniel Ellsberg in leaking the Pentagon Papers. But at the same time, it's a wonder that there are so few political whistleblowers. The imperatives of loyalty, of doing the right thing towards the boss, or of doing the right thing towards your sense of bureaucratic ethics, I guess, leaves you morally lobotomised. This is especially so, as seems to have been the case with Speer's relationship with Hitler, if you have genuine and heartfelt affection for the boss. So, doing the right thing gets caught up with your affections.

That's not necessarily a bad thing - liberal democracies are, at least in theory, run on a strict division of labour between elected actors who make decisions and unelected functionaries who translate those decisions into actions.
But at what point does obedience to the ethical dimensions of this regime tend towards the self being 'morally extinguished?' I think that it's too easy to say that, so long as your bosses are elected you should do what you're told. Neither do I think that you can intervene in line with your conscience every time the boss steps beyond the bounds of your conscience.

I suspect that some roughly Rawlsian concept of public reason - that (I'm being a little definitionally flexible here) your actions should be justified based on reasons that you expect other reasonable people would be able to accept - should be at play in the sorts of calculations that bureaucrats make. Rawls really thought public reason should be exercised only at pretty high levels, but I'm with Jonathan Quong (link to abstract: the full text requires a subscription) in thinking that public reason should be applied in a wider sense (I'm not suggesting that Quong would agree with this line of argument, though!). Still, some formulation of public reason might help turn moral agency outwards, towards the polity that one works for, but without abandoning the idea of the individual's responsibility.

What this sort of idea doesn't deal with is the genuine affection that one can feel for those in power. Ellsberg talks about this aspect of the cult of the presidency in the States, and it's not impossible that John Scarlett felt some loyalty towards his bosses in Downing Street during the events that led to the war, as covered by the Hutton Inquiry and the Butler Review. Loyalty and affection are powerful and morally valuable motivators. We don't tend to enjoy the idea of people shopping friends or family members to the police, although we do tend to qualify our attachment to loyalty by thinking that doing wrong can trump it pretty quickly. Still, perhaps loyalty and affection are simply the price we have to pay for the humanity of bureaucrats. We'd hate it if they couldn't or didn't feel these attachments but we have to live with the fact that the things that make us human can switch our humanity off.

No comments: