May 5, 2010
Bobby, the last Kantian in Nazi Germany
Ethics is about others, is it not? It is about how we see the other and feel a responsibility for the other? Curiously, the answer is “no”–or rather, “no” in two great ethical-philosophical traditions, the Indian and the Greek. At the center of these two great traditions is personal salvation. Of course, to attain personal salvation one must satisfy certain conditions. To Indians, it is right action, each of which, however small, is a step up the karmic path; and though the action is done ultimately for oneself, it does have the effect of benefitting others. As for the Greeks, salvation begins with self-knowledge. With true self-knowledge, how can a man do wrong? And how can he not benefit others if only as virtue personified? Think of Socrates, a good man, and I would love to be in his company. But compassion is not in his vocabulary and history does not say that he ever fed orphans or consoled widows.
In contrast to the self-focus of Indians and Greeks, Jews focus on the other–on responsibility for the other. There are no less than 36 references to the stranger in the Jewish bible. Can any other holy book match this? Maybe the Christian, but then Christian ethics is an extension of Jewish ethics. Note that the other in the Judeo-Christian tradition is a stranger, not a kinsman or a neighbor with whom one can so easily bond through familiarity and the promise of mutual assistance. Immanuel Kant universalized Judeo-Christian maxims to include all peoples. Yet how feebly this principal has taken hold even in Kant’s native country, Germany, and even among philosophers in his native country, of whom the most notable is Martin Heidegger.
What do these potted stories lead up to? They lead up to the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995). His early works show that he was steeped in the Western philosophical tradition, and that among his heroes were Kant and Heidegger. In a Nazi concentration camp, he had time to reflect on Kant’s universalist ethics and Germany’s total disregard of it, and the irony that his own much admired hero, Heidegger, had joined the Nazi party. Levinas came up with two conclusions. One is that words, however persuasive at an intellectual level, have little or no impact on action, and a reason for this ineffectiveness might be that, at a subconscious level, Western philosophy (remember the Greeks), like Indian philosophy, is centered on the individual–on developing personal virtue rather than on working for the good of the other. The second conclusion is that when the other does swim into focus he is a kinsman or a neighbor, and not a stranger. Heidegger’s sympathy for Nazism lies in the appeal of this primitive tribalism, and his achievement, the draping of a sophisticated veil of words over it.
Levinas reflected on his camp experience in a two-page essay. “Halfway through our long captivity, for a few short weeks, a wandering dog entered our lives. We called him Bobby, as one does with a cherished dog. He would appear at morning assembly and was waiting for us as we returned from work under guard. He jumped up and down and barked in delight. For him there was no doubt that we were men.” “This dog,” Levinas added, “was the last Kantian in Nazi Germany.” He did so without the brain to universalize, and he did so because his instinct was such as to favor a species other than his own (Stephen Stern, "How Judaism redeems Western Philosophy" Tikkun, May/June 2010).