- Moral Responsibility in the Holocaust: A Study in the Ethics of Character
In his book Moral Responsibility in the Holocaust: A Study in the Ethics of Character David H. Jones has provided students and teachers of the Holocaust with a clearly written, well organized exploration of the basic moral issues surrounding the murder of six million Jews. Written without the assumption of any background on the part of the reader—either in ethics or in Holocaust studies—the book is a good introduction to the topic.
Part One of the book’s two parts introduces the primary ethical concepts and questions to be considered and explains the author’s concern with individual moral responsibility. Jones maintains that the perpetrators’ actions were morally wrong because they violated the prima facie moral duty to refrain from harming others. He also explains what constitutes good moral character: the virtues of benevolence, conscientiousness, courage, self-control, self-knowledge, and practical wisdom. In Part [End Page 153] Two Jones takes the ethical principles outlined in Part One and carefully applies them to an analysis of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders in the Holocaust.
The accent of this cogent study falls quite properly on responsibility. In Part One, for example, Jones presents very good arguments against cultural determinism and psychological egoism. He shows that a perpetrator cannot invoke his or her cultural environment or upbringing as an excuse for immoral actions such as mass murder; he also demonstrates the nonsense of the view that there are no unselfish acts by examining several cases of people who risked their lives to save the lives of others. A major strength of this study, then, is its ability to eliminate a variety of excuses and self- deceptions that would mitigate moral responsibility.
Applying his moral theory to the case at hand, Jones examines five main topics in Part Two: political culture, principal perpetrators, secondary perpetrators, victims, and rescuers. He presents a very good analysis of Hitler and—if it should be necessary—a good argument for the blameworthiness of Hitler. Turning from Hitler to the men in the police battalions, Jones explains why neither the situational nor the dispositional excuses adequately explain their actions. While they “were all subjected to varying levels of socialization into German political culture” (p. 155), he maintains, that situation was not enough to justify murder; and while they may all have been disposed toward antisemitism, that disposition also fails to provide them with an excuse. Jones offers a good discussion of Daniel Goldhagen in this connection, pointing out both his strengths and weaknesses.
In his treatment of the victims Jones takes Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt to task for their tendency to blame Jews for their complicity with the Nazis, particularly members of the Jewish councils; he also exposes the inadequacy, if not the immorality, of trying to make most Jews into accomplices to their own murder in that they went passively to their deaths, like sheep to the slaughter. At the end of Part Two he makes the blameworthiness of the perpetrators even more clear by examining the praise worthiness of people who helped the Jews. In his conclusion Jones outlines three lessons that may be learned from his investigation and that may prevent future genocides: (1) There is a need for a greater level of benevolence and conscientiousness in the world. (2) There is a need for more institutions that embrace political liberalism. (3) There is a need for good political culture, that is, a culture founded upon human rights.
The strongest feature of Jones’s study is its principle that there is an ultimate and absolute Good that rational thought may invoke in order to make moral judgements. The dictum forbidding us to do harm to another is not culturally determined; rather, it determines the value of any culture. Thus Jones avoids the dangers of moral relativism and blind tolerance that rob us of any real grounds for objecting to murder. The weakness of his book, however, is a weakness of...