Taking Responsibility Personally

Presentation to the Participants of the International Conference on Women Phenomenologists on Social Ontology at the University of Paderborn, Germany
February 13, 2016

There’s an anecdote about Hannah Arendt’s American students asking her in the 1960s if they ought to cooperate with labour unions in opposing the war in Vietnam. And Arendt replied, “Yes, because that way you can use their [photocopying] machines.” Such an answer shows her everyday common sense and exemplifies her persistent insistence that particular questions must receive particular answers. From this answer, we cannot copy and paste an answer to, for example, the question of whether leaders of European countries should accept more and more refugees and simply transplant her witty reasoning saying, “Yes, because that way we’ll have a lot more kebab restaurants we can frequent.” I’m glad to hear there was a student conference preceding this one on the topic of Hannah Arendt and refugees because, as a political theorist who was ever-insisting she wanted no part in the enmity between philosophy and politics, she encourages us to look directly at the political realities before us now and to think about them. The current issue of Middle Easterners coming to Europe is one in which we use and hear the word “responsibility” a lot. In “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship” Arendt, in discussing what people were doing in Germany while living under a totalitarian regime, said that it’s obviously not everybody’s business to be a saint or a hero but that personal or moral responsibility is everybody’s business. She thought responsibility matters for the dignity of human personality and for the dignity of the human status. It matters for how we are able to live with ourselves and with others.

I began studying Hannah Arendt through first studying Hans Jonas. And I chose to study Jonas because, in his life and in his works, I found an impressive correspondence between what he thought and said and how he lived his life. His philosophical works, in a sense, fit his memoirs. And I wanted to learn from someone who had this integrity between thought and action, which Arendt also admired. What strikes me as one of the reasons Arendt matters most is the fact that she helps us recover the true nature of responsibility: that responsibility is personal, that we are responsible for our thoughts and our actions, and that responsibility can be a basis for affirming our common world.

I’ve been thinking about these points as I also study the works of John Paul II and, in particular, his phenomenological work, The Acting Person, in which he says: “For it lies in the nature of responsibility that we are always responsible to somebody and thus to a person” and “Thus the structure of responsibility is the characteristic structure of, and appropriate only to, the person. A diminished responsibility is equivalent to a diminution of personality.” This sounds obvious to me, but upon reflection, I can see that such a basic insight that responsibility is always personal is contested. How often is the term ‘responsibility’ used, for example by journalists, without this awareness of its characteristic structure of and to the person? For example, journalists have used the headline: “ISIS claims responsibility…” for every attack committed by terrorists but these terrorists are anonymous and impersonal. Who exactly is taking responsibility? We don’t actually know and so this does not seem particularly meaningful.

“ISIS” cannot be put on trial. What Arendt called “the grandeur of court procedures” is that we do not speak in abstractions about collectives but about individual persons. The trial of Adolf Eichmann led her to note:

But it is equally fortunate that there still exists one institution in society in which it is well-nigh impossible to evade issues of personal responsibility, where all justifications of a nonspecific, abstract nature-from the Zeitgeist down to the Odeipus complex-break down, where not systems or trends or original sin are judged, but men of flesh and blood like you and me. […] For as the judges [in the Eichmann trial] took great pains to point out explicitly, in a courtroom there is no system on trial, no History or historical trend, no ism, anti-Semitism for instance, but a person, and if the defendant happens to be a functionary, he stands accused precisely because even a functionary is still a human being, and it is in this capacity that he stands trial.

But now, not only are we confused about the responsibility of those who commit evil but also the responsibility of those who do good. When Alfred Nobel wrote his will, he specifically designated the prizes to go to the person who made the most outstanding contribution in each category. The Peace Prize, he said, would go “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” But, in fact, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 103 times to individuals and 26 times to organizations. When the European Union was awarded the Peace Prize in 2012, the acceptance speech was made by the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission and they accordingly spoke in grandiose abstractions about the “world’s conscience” and the moral duty of the international community. Contrast this with Mother Teresa who, upon receiving the Prize was asked, “What can we do to promote world peace?” reportedly answered: “Go home and love your family.” Persons can take personal responsibility; organizations cannot. They may have a kind of responsibility that Arendt distinguished as political responsibility.

The particular events of the twentieth century inspired those who were living during it to think about the extent to which they were and are responsible. They needed to be able to make these distinctions for the sake of their own consciences or, as Arendt put it, in order to live with themselves. Thus responsibility is a very practical matter. So where does responsibility come from? Why are we responsible? Asking such fundamental questions soon leads to the recognition that a discussion of responsibility cannot be cut off from a discussion of reason, will, truth, happiness, and goodness.

Hannah Arendt thought that the crises of the twentieth century taught us that changing systems of values are inadequate. We are not responsible according to any law, duty, norm, imperative, or dogma – per se, but to that which gives merit and dignity to just laws, duties, norms—the transcendent standard that is the basis of its truthfulness, according to which we can judge our actual responsibilities. It is essential that we can judge between these competing standards to find the truth and not arbitrarily adopt some law, value, or imperative. The idea that obedience could be toward some evil or unreasonable end is a perversion of the understanding of obedience as a virtue that is only intelligible when its end is rightly ordered to a good. It becomes necessary for us to discuss our philosophical anthropology, our philosophy of the human person. Who are human persons, really? How does the reality of the nature of the human person and the structure of human experience give us insight into whether we are responsible beings, and why?

Hannah Arendt affirmed two obvious (though not wholly undisputed) experiential facts about the human person: 1) the freedom of the will, which is the basis of human plurality, i.e., the differentiation among us that happens as we develop distinct personalities through acting differently and surprisingly in the world, and 2) the natural ability of human beings to think, i.e., we are agents of truth whose very nature it is to seek the truth about things. Without free will, no one could be held responsible for anything. This is why Arendt said that “behind the unwillingness to judge lurks the suspicion that no one is a free agent, and hence the doubt that anyone is responsible or could be expected to answer for what he has done.” This is why Arendt was so interested in Augustine, “the first philosopher of the will” and why she studied rightly ordered loves.

At the beginning of The Human Condition, Arendt discusses how we are all human in such a way that nobody is like anyone who has ever lived is living or ever will live. This radical differentiation among personalities accounts for our human plurality. It is an empirical fact that we distinguish ourselves from one another by our actions and this differentiation of human personalities lies in the freedom of the will. In The Life of the Mind, Arendt mentions Augustine’s example of identical twins both “‘of a like temperament of body and soul’. How can we tell them apart? The only endowment by which they are distinguished from each other is their will-‘if both are tempted equally and one yields and consents to the temptation while the other remains unmoved… what causes this but their own wills in cases… where the temperament is identical?’” So plurality depends on the differentiation between persons that is a result of our freedom to act.

Hannah Arendt said: “Particular questions must receive particular answers; and if the series of crises in which we have lived since the beginning of the century can teach us anything at all, it is, I think, the simple fact that there are no general standards to determine our judgments unfailingly, no general rules under which to subsume the particular cases with any degree of certainty.” She also thought that doubters and skeptics would be most resistant to tyranny because of their habit of examining things and making up their own minds. But I do not think this was a matter or subjectivism or relativism. On the contrary, she had in mind that thinking – the two-in-one, the conversation with myself affirms that I am not the measure of my existence and that, in order to be able to live with myself, I have to live according not to my own will and not to my personal values, but to the truth. She very often brought up the point that the Socratic principle that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it is not self-evident and cannot be proved. It is only obvious and persuasive to some. But, she thought that the Socratic insight that it is better to be at odds with the whole world than with myself since I am one, which is also the basis of non-contradiction, is self-evident. But is this really the case? She says that a person will not be a murderer on the basis that he does not want to live a murderer. But what to make of all of those who commit terrible crimes and who do not then commit suicide? They seem able to live with themselves. Or at least, they somehow continue doing so as long as they live. How often do persons contradict themselves and become nearly unlivable with themselves and yet they continue to accommodate themselves!

Is “needing to live with ourselves” the basis of a noble, humanizing, person-centered ethics? Arendt says, “If we think these matters through, we might regain some measure of confidence and even pride, that is, regain what former times called the dignity or the honour of man: not perhaps of mankind but of the status of being human.” Reflecting on these former times, John Paul II said, “We have seen many times that ethics does not grow as a simplistic collection of imperative statements, but as an organic response to man’s eternal question about good and evil. […] For now it is certain that ethics, together with people from all ages, is searching for the answer to the question: what is morally good and what is evil – and why?” And he says, extremely simply and, I think, truthfully, “A person is an entity of the sort to which the only proper and adequate way to relate is love.”

I think about philosophical anthropology etymologically as loving the truth about the nature of the human person. It doesn’t terminate with the study of the human person. But the purpose of scientific study is to get to know causes and the cause of the human person being a particular kind of being is a human nature that is given. When we think about the nature of the human person and the structure of human experience, we affirm these fundamental dimensions of free will and reason. And we can see how responsibility is something eminently personal, which is, of course, interpersonal or relational, but not collective.

My interest in responsibility comes from my own sense of it along with readings newspapers. What does responsibility mean for the idea that you and I could somehow be responsible to non-persons, such as the environment; for past-offences such as the treatment of persons in history; and for future conditions such as the amount of national debt? Responsibility is a very practical matter. And how we understand it matters for our everyday lives. For example, are we conscientious that responsibility is personal; do we show up on time to meet a friend not because we have a relationship to the clock, but to our friend? And to take a larger issue, I always find it strange when people argue against deficit financing for the sake of future generations. Deficit financing is not wrong because it burdens future generations; it’s wrong here and now because it is imprudent to spend recklessly and to vastly exceed what we know could reasonably be paid off. Arguments concerning the past and the future seem to be metaphorical. And Arendt suggested we refrain from such metaphorical statements. She intended to distinguish “personal” from “political” responsibility but since all political acts are performed by persons, I think that responsibility is always personal and her main point is that responsibility is not collective. (She also makes a distinction between “responsibility” and “guilt” but again, the main point is: “There is no such thing as collective guilt or innocence; guilt or innocence only make sense if applied to individuals.”)

On the topic of guilt, I think a lot could be clarified simply by thinking about what could reasonably confessed by a person to a priest in a confessional and what could not. While G.K. Chesterton quipped, “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees”, there are, of course, acts where responsible persons act together, but unlike so-called “collective responsibility” each individual person’s responsibility is not subsumed. Instead, each person can be praised or blamed for their particular contributions. In this way they are persons, not nobodies.

Reading Arendt and thinking about responsibility what strikes me is the juxtaposition between maximally and minimally responsible persons. To Arendt, Karl Jaspers was a paragon of responsibility and Eichmann was the quintessence of an evader of responsibility. She reflects:

And when we look at Eichmann, he doesn’t actually have any criminal motives. Not what is usually understood by ‘criminal motives.’ He wanted to go along with the rest. He wanted to say ‘we,’ and going-along-with-the-rest and wanting-to-say-we like this were quite enough to make the greatest of crimes possible. […] And that is actually what I meant by banality. There’s nothing deep about it-nothing demonic! There’s simply the reluctance to ever imagine what the other person is experiencing, right? […] Apart from the fact that bureaucracy is essentially anonymous, any relentless activity allows responsibility to evaporate. There’s an English idiom, ‘Stop and think.’ Nobody can think unless they stop. If you force someone into remorseless activity, or they allow themselves to be forced into it, it’ll always be the same story, right? You’ll always find that an awareness of responsibility can’t develop. It can only develop the moment when a person reflects-not on himself, but on what he’s doing.

Let us juxtapose this with what she says about Karl Jaspers:

For him, responsibility is not a burden and has nothing whatsoever to do with moral imperatives. Rather, it flows naturally out of an innate pleasure in making manifest, in clarifying the obscure, in illuminating the darkness. His affirmation of the public realm is in the final analysis only the result of his loving light and clarity. He has loved light so long that it has marked his whole personality. […] One such metaphor in Jasper’s work is the word ‘clarity’. Existence is ‘clarified’ by reason […] ‘brought to light by reason; reason itself, finally, its affinity to truth, is verified by its ‘breadth and lightness.’ Whatever stands up to light and does not dissolve in vapors under its brightness, partakes of humanitas; to take it upon oneself to answer before mankind for every thought means to live in that luminosity in which oneself and everything one thinks is tested.

Our understanding of responsibility is not propositional or axiomatic. It arises out of our every day encounters with other persons and in the dialogue we carry on within ourselves. Thus, everybody responds by his or her life to “man’s eternal question about good or evil.” That’s why responsibility is everybody’s business. Responsibility, then, is the characteristic of someone who loves the world. If I am able to say ‘I am responsible’, then I am free and I am someone. To take responsibility is to affirm that the world is good. And it is for this reason that Arendt said, “Education is the moment at which we decide whether we love the world enough to take responsibility for it.”


Thanks to Crystal. “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” – T.S. Eliot 


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