Decent people, indecent choices

The Contract of Mutual Indifference

June 18, 1999

Did everything change after Auschwitz? Has the enormity of the Nazi campaign to murder the entire Jewish population of Europe irrevocably altered the way we must look at politics and at ourselves? For the generations that lived through the second world war and for the postwar generation that grew up under the dark shadow of what had occurred in the 1940s, the answer clearly seems to be "yes". After such monstrous crimes, it has been difficult to believe that humanity could regard itself in the same way as it did before.

According to Norman Geras, this profound shift has not yet been reflected in how we theorise about politics. It is this observation - of "the near silence there has been about the Shoah within mainstream political philosophy, by contrast with the attention it has received in other areas of intellectual enquiry" - that provided the impetus for his sketches of "political philosophy after the Holocaust". In this slim volume, Geras offers an engaging if sometimes repetitive exploration of models of human behaviour in the wake of the most barbarous politics the world has seen. His concerns are those of the enlightened, post-Marxist Left, claiming that "today, after the unparalleled calamity of the Holocaust, political theories which do not pay the most direct regard to the primary human duty to bring aid are wanting".

Geras's "core idea" is what he calls "the contract of mutual indifference":

"If you do not come to the aid of others who are under grave assault, in acute danger or crying need, you cannot reasonably expect others to come to your aid in similar emergency; you cannot consider them so obligated to you." Morally, you are then on your own. This is a bleak observation. As Geras observes, a liberal culture "underwrites moral indifference"; by leaving space for empathy, benevolence and charity, our culture also leaves space for indifference.

This seems a fair description of how people tend to get along in a world in which they have little influence over their circumstances. But that may be too simple. In the real world, people operate at many levels. They may be indifferent to the fate of an acquaintance or a neighbour while being deeply concerned about the fate of a spouse or a child. They may be motivated by conflicting emotions: fear, anger, hatred, love, concern, indifference. To privilege one - indifference - may be to simplify the picture to a point where it represents only itself. That may make for a straightforward argument, but human nature is seldom straightforward.

Early in his discussion, Geras cites George Kren's assertion that moral indifference, as exemplified by the indifference that most Europeans under Nazi occupation "showed to the fate of the Jew", is "the form of modern evil". But when seeking to formulate general philosophical arguments we should not lose sight of specific human dilemmas. It is necessary to ask how it was that most people looked away as their Jewish neighbours were rounded up for slaughter - that, as Ian Kershaw noted years ago, the road to Auschwitz was "built by hate, but paved with indifference". Yet it should be remembered that in the first instance that assessment addressed a specific historical problem: the nature of German popular opinion under the Nazis and its contribution to the extermination of the Jews.

To be sure, it involves a general ethical and philosophical problem as well, and barbarism neither began in 1941 nor did it end in 1945 - as the surviving populations of Cambodia and Rwanda can testify. We are all caught in an imperfect world, in which there are few clear-cut options and where decent people sometimes are faced with the most indecent of choices. It is not a straightforward affair to judge someone who kept silent as his neighbours were taken away (to be tortured in Dachau or hacked to death in Kigali) but whose motives may have been a mixture of fear for his or her own life and family, willingness perhaps to profit from misfortune, and indifference about others.

Decency has - or at least should - come relatively easily to those of us born into a peaceful, prosperous postwar world. That happy circumstance should make it all the more incumbent upon us to practice what Geras posits as the alternative to "mutual indifference": "The pervasive activity of mutual aid." We are fortunate, even if we have grown up in a world where the optimistic assumptions of the Enlightenment have been shaken by the depravity of which human beings have proved themselves capable. Geras has not abandoned the Enlightenment project; the left must still cling to some hope. In one of the shorter essays that make up the second half of his volume, in a fine discussion of "socialist hope in the shadow of catastrophe", he writes: after Auschwitz "faith in human progress is not appropriate", but "the hope in human progress... is tenable and necessary nevertheless".

Richard Bessel is professor of 20th-century history, University of York.

The Contract of Mutual Indifference: Political Philosophy after the Holocaust

Author - Norman Geras
ISBN - 1 85984 864 0
Publisher - Verso
Price - £15.00
Pages - 181

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