The LARB has published an interesting essay by Wen Stephenson that draws upon wisdom from Hannah Arendt for those living at the dawn of a new ‘era of increasing global instability, ripe for all the varieties of political and social evil’.
The essay includes reflections on subjects such as totalitarianism, human rights, making judgements, collective guilt, conscience, evil, making moral choices, nonviolence, civil disobedience, and crimes against humanity.
And on empathy:
[Em]pathy, though much celebrated, is not always a reliable impulse toward moral action – that it can cut both ways. Because our natural inclination to empathize with the victims of crime and injustice, while generally a good thing, when mixed with our tribal instincts – our biases, conscious or not, in favor of people like ourselves, members of our own communities — can lead to a dehumanization of the stranger, the other, especially if that other is the perpetrator (or perceived to be) of a crime. It’s easy to empathize with a victim, as one should; to empathize with a murderer – to see ourselves in another who violates our deepest values and taboos – is something else, something that may seem beyond our merely human capacity.
‘Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it.
I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.
And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure’.
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, ‘A World Split Apart’ (A paper presented at the Harvard Class Day Afternoon Exercises, Harvard University, Thursday, 8 June, 1978).
Human beings, says Forsyth, ‘were made with a moral nature for supremely moral issues’. To deny or disguise this with some kind of Hegelian idealism, or to seek to explore this reality within the scope of empirical science, is to fraud human nature as it truly is and to rob human persons of obligation, responsibility, and freedom of soul, which is ‘the real spring of human progress and the real condition of glory’, and to give them over to ‘the vagrancy of the moment’s appetite and the slavery of chance desires.’ To ignore this is not only to live in unreality, ‘severed from the great moral whole which gives [us our] reality’, but is to undermine the whole economy of the human soul and its created freedom, and to cheat faith, even Jesus’ faith, of its ‘one creative, authoritative, life-making, life-giving, life-shaping power.’ That is why ‘the man of mere culture is shut out from the best it is in him to be.’