Not many people would say, "Sure, I will be a mass murdering Nazi if it is convenient for me in the moment. However, it is not in the extremes that human evil is propagated, no matter how much the bizarrely vicious results of such extremes may lead us to believe otherwise. It is not in the extremes that we find our greatest moral difficulty. The spread of human evil most often requires the subtlety of lesser consequences in order to find its springtime.
- Thinking about Logic: Classic Essays.
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- Moral Practices Ethical Standards Right and Wrong Behavior;
It is in the smaller dimensions of wrongdoing that we most often lose our way. It is in regularly losing our way in the small things that we find ourselves unprepared to handle the extremes of life. It is much easier to believe that a small wrong, which spares us from great suffering is justifiable.
When subtlety challenges us, our personal intuition about our own well being will be prone to translate possible wrongs into sure rights. Those who are absolutely sure they are right stop questioning the possibility that they may be wrong. In ceasing to question, we cease to be capable of being moral. For, in the cessation of thoughtful questioning, ethical thinking is murdered with the result that moral action stops being a thoughtful choice and is transformed into a matter of blind repetition.
In such blindness the movement from the small wrongdoings of daily life to the extremes of human evil is a fast and compelling one. One change in circumstance, one additional danger, and the daily exercise of committing the smaller wrongdoings, which are the fruit of our ignorance, will be amplified according to the nature of our habits.
Small wrongdoings that inconvenience are quickly transformed into actions with life devastating consequences. When preexisting bad habits are the ground upon which we first meet the extremes of life, disrespect can become murder in the blink of an eye. Godwin's law says, "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1". This law describes a comparison used for the purpose of argument that is usually seen as a negative weakness in discussion. If a conversation with enough participants goes on long enough, and there is sufficient controversy, the law seems to hold.
Inevitably somebody eventually compares someone or something to Nazism or to Hitler. In a public discourse with differing perspectives, resorting to such comparisons is seen as a failure to uphold the necessary standards of an intelligent conversation. When an expression of Godwin's law is manifested in a conversation, the most persistent correlation to that manifestation is that the rational examination of ideas has collapsed. With regard to the internal conversations we have with ourselves, we can invert Godwin's law for the good. Instead of using a Nazi comparison in an attempt to win an argument against someone who thinks or behaves differently, this inversion of Godwin's Law is used to examine ourselves.
Instead of needing many people to manifest, it requires just one. Instead of the idea that, given enough time a Nazi comparison will manifest, its principle is to willfully manifest the comparison in the short term. Instead of the collapse of reasoned examination being a requirement for most instances of manifestation, the inverse of the law requires that reasoned examination be alive and well. Instead of shutting down the conversation with others, this inversion of Godwin's law opens up the conversation within ourselves. We can and should compare ourselves to the Nazis in order to think about the nature of human evil as it has life in our own hearts.
All human beings have more in common with one another by virtue of the fact that we are all human beings than we have differences between us. There is no person who is completely devoid of ignorance or the wrongdoing that rises from ignorance. Furthermore, there is no person who can even precisely define right behavior down to the smallest detail for all circumstances.
In this deficit of expressed behavior and knowledge, we must regularly think on our feet. Socrates believed that we must persistently set our hearts to the task of questioning the nature of human justice and virtue as a matter of daily practice. This habit should include the consideration of even our smallest behaviors.
In the practice of this habit, we become skillful at thinking on our feet in real time. In this daily practice, questioning ourselves becomes a matter of life affirming necessity.
Chapter 19 - Ethical Issues
In this necessity of living ethical practice, we share a common fate with the Nazis. That fate is the common human dilemma that comes from our common human character.
In our ignorance we all make mistakes and embrace wrongdoing, thinking it will be good for us. Under the influence of fear, we all circumvent and abridge our ethical thinking. Perhaps the idea that you have something morally or ethically in common with the Nazis is revolting.
Does it make sense to compare our tiny wrongdoings with the horrors of Nazi extremes? We ask you to consider what was discussed above, that "The full identity of human evil is already manifest in the smallest of events, because the smallest of discourtesies find their origin in the same grounding of ignorance and fear as the largest of holocausts. The motivation for our smallest wrongdoing is not to become a monster. The motivation is to benefit ourselves, to protect ourselves. We aspire not to be the devil, but merely to survive and thrive. We desire what we believe will be, in the light of our own idiosyncratic personal calculus, good for us.
We commit the smaller wrongdoings and all wrongdoing according to Socrates because we are motivated by our own instinctual aspiration to virtue, which is misguided by our ignorance. With regard to motivation and goals, Hitler did not begin his rise to power because he gave speeches about burning millions of people in gas ovens, which were responded to by a universal cry of "Heil Hitler!
Hitler's speeches focused instead on the goal of restoring the virtue and vitality of the German nation and people. He spoke of creating great good. Hitler talked passionately in service to the ideal of how they could make Germany great again.
Conceptual Lacunae and Confusions in the Religion and Morality Debate
When Hitler expressed his belief that he alone could bring Germany to greatness, he saw himself as a great good and not as a great evil. Hitler's basic idea that Germans should devote themselves to improving themselves and their nation were not wrong. They were an expression of the natural human aspiration to live well. Like all human beings, Hitler, and the Germans who followed him, were required by their instinctual human character to seek to better themselves. Employing the standard methods of the demagogue, Hitler scapegoated and alienated the Jews, worked to inflame the passions of the German people, and met those who disagreed with him with dismissal and violence instead of intelligent questions.
The surety of approved knowledge became more important than the critical self examination of individuals and the state. Easy lies were more important than difficult truths. Winning was more important than the intelligent discussion of issues. Consensus was created through passion and force rather than the reasoned examination of ideas.
The Nazis failed tragically not because they were inhuman monsters. They failed because they were ordinary human beings following ordinary human instincts in the lack of adequate knowledge. Confidence in our ignorance is not a virtue, and acting on the behalf of such confidence is not righteousness. Acting out with blind vigor on behalf of false confidence is the highway to hell.
If we are human, we have a great deal in common with the Nazis.
Morals, Values, and Ethics Essays
This comparison is not to measure wrong for wrong according to the scope of results. This kind of inverse Godwin's Law comparison is an acknowledgment that all human beings share common basic aspirations to survive, thrive, and attain virtue in their living. It is the recognition that we share common motivations with the Nazis that lead to common failures, because our small wrongdoings have the same fundamental nature as large wrongdoings. If we are not careful, we can find that a lack of daily thoughtfulness about our small wrongdoing will, if life pushes us in a provocative manner, allow us to commit greater evils than we previously thought possible.
The greatest of human evil has small beginnings. Be mindful each day of your capacity for wrongdoing and for good. The most important thing I learned in my study of the history of the Shoah is that great evil does not just magically appear. It does not descend upon us through alien visitors who come from another world. We humans deliver it unto ourselves. Even the greatest of evil always has small beginnings.