The workings of the ethical environment

The workings of the ethical environment can be strangely invisible.
I was once defending the practice of philosophy on a radio
programme where one of the other guests was a professional
1
1. Paul Klee, ‘Two Men Meet, Each Believing the Other To Be in a Higher Position’. A comment on the servility
often involved in the ambition for respect.
survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. He asked me, fairly
aggressively, what use philosophy would have been on a death
march? The answer, of course, was not much – no more than
literature, art, music, mathematics, or science would be useful at
such a time. But consider the ethical environment that made such
events possible. Hitler said, ‘How lucky it is for rulers that men
cannot think.’ But in saying this he sounded as if he, too, was blind
to the ethical climate that enabled his own ideas, and hence his
power, to flourish. This climate included images of the primordial
purity of a particular race and people. It was permeated by fear for
the fragile nature of this purity. Like America in the post-war
McCarthy era, it feared pollution from ‘degenerates’ outside or
within. It included visions of national and racial destiny. It included
ideas of apocalyptic transformation through national solidarity and
military dedication to a cause. It was hospitable to the idea of the
leader whose godlike vision is authoritative and unchallengeable. In
turn, those ideas had roots in misapplications of Darwinism, in
German Romanticism, and indeed in some aspects of Judaism and
Christianity. In short, Hitler could come to power only because
people did think – but their thinking was poisoned by an enveloping
climate of ideas, many of which may not even have been conscious.
For we may not be aware of our ideas. An idea in this sense is a
tendency to accept routes of thought and feeling that we may not
recognize in ourselves, or even be able to articulate. Yet such
dispositions rule the social and political world.

 

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