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George Kateb Existential Values in Arendt’s Treatment of Evil and Morality EXISTENTIAL VALUES DOMINATE HANNAH ARENDT’S POLITICAL THEORY.* The result is that morality often ends up either subordinate in impor­ tance to existential values or sidelined by them. Morality must struggle to be heard. Most famously, her espousal of political action grows not out of moral concern, but out of her existential values, which politi­ cal action is intended to serve. But the story does not end there. The existential values present in Arendt’s writings that I consider are the two that I believe (with some encouragement from Arendt) constitute human dignity: human status and human stature. Human dignity for Arendt rests on human uniqueness, the human difference from the rest of nature. The salient element of Arendt’s concept of human status is not being animal-like, the salient element of Arendt’s concept of stature is the creative and audacious use of freedom in thought, art, and action. I do not quite mean to say that Arendt is a philosopher of exis­ tentialism, properly speaking, though she has noteworthy affinities to it, especially to some of its French variants. Although my explicit discussion of The Human Condition, which is her most extended treatment of existential values, is concentrated in the last pages of this paper, that book is always in the background of my discussion. HANNAH ARENDT’S UNDERSTANDING OF POLITICAL EVIL IS HARD TO match. The depth of her understanding, however, does not stop her social research Vol 74 : No 3 : Fall 2007 811 from condemning such evil with a force that is also hard to match. The more she perceives, the more unforgiving she grows. She has no doubt as to what evil is and why certain political phenomena should be called by that name, the worst of all names. Is there anyone more trustwor­ thy in illuminating this darkness and guiding people’s response to it? I doubt it. Yet I think that it is fair to say that thinking about morality is not congenial to her talent. One might expect that one who writes so powerfully about evil would publish a general view of all kinds and degrees of wrongdoing, and at least by implication, right conduct. Even if political evil is in some respects discontinuous with, say, either oppression or injustice, even if evil is qualitatively different and not only worse in intensity ofinflicted suffering, isn’t it a bit odd that a great theorist of evil showed such a reluctance to publish more extensively on the general subject of morality and immorality? She seems suspi­ cious of morality, as if she had an allergy to it. Perhaps evil blots out all other phenomena of wrongdoing? Are they only to be taken as inevi­ table and as posing no great philosophical mystery or even perplexity? Another possibility, which I take more seriously, is that Arendt believes that too much attention to morality would dilute adherence to existen­ tial values, which I believe to be her deepest commitment. Thanks to the splendid editorial labors ofJerome Kohn, to whom any student of Arendt’s work owes a tremendous debt, Arendt’s rela­ tionship to morality, and the connection of morality to evil, become much fuller. The volume he put together, Responsibility and Judgment (2003), with a fine introduction, helps us see Arendt’s hardest thinking about morality and immorality in themselves, and in relation to evil. The main text is “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy” (1965), but the full version of “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship” (1964) and several other items, including the hitherto unpublished presentation at the American Philosophical Association, “Collective Responsibility” (1968), also enhance our knowledge of what Arendt thought about the general subject of morality and its relation to evil. I do not say that in these texts Arendt gives us a fully worked-out view of morality; much less that the view that appears is free of difficulties. But we can now 812 social research make a better sense of Arendt’s moral thinking; and just by that, we can, I believe, make something more of Arendt’s thought as a whole. In this paper, I first sketch Arendt...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 811-854
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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