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Hannah Arendt – Can you live with yourself? More important: do you?

December 24, 2014

“What the moral argument, which I quoted in the form of the Socratic proposition [‘It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.’], actually says is the following: If I would do what is now demanded of me as the price of participation, either as mere conformism or even as the only chance of eventually successful resistance, I could no longer live with myself; my life would cease to be worthwhile for me. Hence, I much rather suffer wrong now, and even pay the price of a death penalty in case I am forced to participate, than do wrong and then have to live together with such a wrongdoer. If it is a question of killing, the argument would not be that the world would be better off without the murder being done, but the unwillingness to live with an assassin. This argument, it seems to me, is unanswerable from even the strictest political point of view, but it is clearly an argument which can be valid only in extreme, that is, in marginal situations. It is often such situations which are most apt to bring clarification into otherwise rather obscure and equivocal matters. …

Socrates, as we know, was never able to prove his proposition; and Kant’s categorical imperative, the only competitor as a strictly nonreligious and nonpolitical moral prescription, cannot be proved either. The even deeper trouble with the argument is that it is applicable only to people who are used to living explicitly with themselves, which is only another way of saying that its validity will be plausible only to men who have a conscience; and, the prejudices of jurisprudence that so often in perplexity appeal to conscience as something every sane man must have notwithstanding, the evidence is that quite a number of men have it, but by no means all, and that those who have it can be found in all walks of life and, more specifically, with all degrees of education and noneducation. No objective sign of social or educational standing can assure its presence or absence.”

(from ‘Collective Responsibility’ [1968], published in Responsibility and Judgment)

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