Lessons

The lesson of the Holocaust is the facility with which most people, put into a situation that does not contain a good choice, or renders such a good choice very costly, argue themselves away from the issue of moral duty (or fail to argue themselves towards it), adopting instead the precepts of rational interest and self-preservation.  In a system where rationality and ethics point in opposite directions, humanity is the main loser.  Evil can do its dirty work, hoping that most people most of the time will refrain from doing rash, reckless things — and resisting evil is rash and reckless.  Evil needs neither enthusiastic followers nor an applauding audience — the instinct of self-preservation will do, encouraged by the comforting thought that it is not my turn yet, thank God:  by lying low, I can still escape.

The second lesson tells us that putting self-preservation above moral duty is in no way predetermined, inevitable and inescapable.  One can be pressed to do it, but one cannot be forced to do it, and thus one cannot really shift the responsibility for doing it on to those who exerted the pressure.  It does not matter how many people chose moral duty over the rationality of self-preservation — what does matter is that some did.  Evil is not all-powerful.  It can be resisted.  The testimony of the few who did resist shatters the authority of the logic of self-preservation.  It show it for what it is in the end — a choice.  One wonders how many people must defy that logic for evil to be incapacitated.  Is there a magic threshold of defiance beyond which the technology of evil grinds to a halt?

–Zygmunt Bauman

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