Blogs > Cliopatria > Bloggers Beat Dead Horses, Don't They?

Feb 4, 2004 1:51 pm

Bloggers Beat Dead Horses, Don't They?

Admittedly from the Department of Much-Discussed Questions, but what the heck. On Sasha Volokh’s argument that the Holocaust is not morally unique, I would suggest that the main problem is with his use of the term “moral”. Volokh argues that the death of an innocent is the same violation of rights regardless of the motives or behavior of the person or institution responsible for a wrongful death, and therefore all murder has the same moral status.

I understand the point here, and it is indeed an important one. It is of course also especially pertinent to the Holocaust, where I happen to agree that an argument which represents the Holocaust as morally distinct from other 20th Century genocides is problematic.

What is the difference between manslaughter and first-degree murder? Surely that is a moral distinction that leads us to impose different penalties on the person responsible, where the moral distinction rests on the motives or reasons that the act was committed, not on the fact that an innocent person has suffered a wrongful death.

Whether I carelessly run someone over with my car in such a way that I am culpable in their death, or methodically plan to kill someone, the person is still dead. By Volokh’s argument, there is no moral difference: wrongful death is wrongful death.

There really are two separate moral questions here (and of course, as Volokh observes, an entirely different class of substantive questions about causality, consequences and so on). The first is the fundamental deprivation of the rights of an individual through wrongful death. This is flatly and evenly morally wrong regardless of the circumstances of death. Then there’s the issue of why someone killed someone else, and that is absolutely a moral problem, and a variable one.

There is, for example, a moral distinction between civilian deaths incurred by accident in warfare and acts of war which set out deliberately, programmatically to kill non-combatants. If all that mattered morally was wrongful death, that distinction would have no meaning, because the people who die by accident would not have died had the use of military force not occurred, and could not be distinguished from those whom military action was meant to kill.

This is the ground on which those who distinguish the Holocaust as a morally unique wrong stake their case, that the combination of a deliberate and bureaucratic program of mass murder with an ethnic or racial motivation is different than mass murder by Stalin’s regime or other statist authoritarians, where death was more typically the result of indifference to the consequences of confinement to prison camps or resulted from almost random executions of whole communities. Here I agree with Volokh: the moral distinction is minimal, and we learn and understand more by placing the Holocaust within a continuum of 20th Century events that include Leopold II’s regime in the Congo, the USSR under Stalin, Cambodia under Pol Pot and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. But the moral continuum in this case includes the motives, means and consequences: Volokh is wrong to insist that the only moral issue is the last of those three.

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Ophelia Benson - 2/6/2004

And surely the fact that it was all so cold-blooded. That relates to the technological and bureaucratic aspect, but it isn't quite identical, I don't think. My blood always runs cold when I read Eichmann in Jerusalem. It's all so careerist, so as it were normal (so as Arendt said banal) - Eichmann might have been selling real estate or writing ad copy. It was just all so calm and methodical and dispassionate and Ho hum, another job to do. There is something intensely disquieting about that - about the cognitive gap between what it was they were doing and the way they went about it. The normalization of it.

mark safranski - 2/6/2004

Part of it is the recoil from the fact that a civilized state like Germany, could revert to the most despotic and tribalistic of barbarisms by political choice. You might be hard pressed to equate polities like Rwanda, the Ottoman Empire or the Soviet Union (which succeeded a Tsarist Russia that had a tiny elite civilized urban veneer over a mass peasant base)with a modern, industrialized, Western European state.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/5/2004

Like you, I have found the "uniqueness" claim questionable, and I have feared that the claim "devalues" other mass inhumaities. I don't think that is the intent behind it, but it may be the effect.

I think one reason for the acceptance of the claim in the US is the technological nature of the Shoah. There had been a strong tendency to equate technological and social progress, but here advanced technology was twisted.

Churchill's comment in 1941 on the possibility of a new dark age made worse by the "light of perverted science" resonates here. The way Germany did it: the weaving together of the ghettoes, the camps, the railroads; the quest for efficiency; all these trappings of the industrial order were used to reduce people to cattle, to numbers, to ash. This brought into question the dominant idea of how progress occurs in a way that the more "standard" slaughters did not. (Why not is another interesting, and frightening question)

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 2/5/2004

I never really understood the claim that the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews was "unique," morally or otherwise. Sure, a number of things were done in the Nazis' anti-Semitic genocide that were not done by them to non-Jews but these are instrumental differences, and I don't think they're important enough to make a big deal over, because the 6 million dead are still dead no matter how they were killed. However, I think the lack of moral uniqueness has been understated so far. The Nazis wanted to exterminate or quickly and radically reduce the numbers of other groups of people as well, and made varying amounts of progress against these target groups. I recall that the Nazis killed 6 million non-Jewish Poles (the intention being to kill virtually all of them) and sought to kill 20 million Russians who they considered "excess" for German needs (they killed 13 million Soviet soldiers and 7 million Soviet civilians, I'm not sure how that breaks down ethnically and religiously, and the Nazis indeed cared about the differences, but I'd guess very roughly 10 million were ethnic Russians). And then there is the Armenian genocide which I understand was similar in intention to what the Nazis tried to do to Jews and other groups.

There are important differences between the Holocaust and other genocides, but I don't understand WHY the uniqueness claim for the Holocaust is being argued and what its arguers hope to gain.

mark safranski - 2/4/2004

The Rwandan genocide is very closely akin to the Holocaust in that Hutu society was mobilized to ensure the extinction of the Tutsi, man woman and child. Mobilized to such an frenetic extent that the velocity of annihilation far surpassed that of the Nazis; the Interhaemwe managed to slaughter 800,000 Tutsi in approximately a mere 100 days which meant that a sizable plurality of Hutu males must have participated directly in the genocide.

Pol Pot's democide was also a racial-ethnic-religious genocide as the Khmer Rouge also aimed at the destruction of the ethnic Viet Cambodians, the Muslims, the Buddhist clergy and other non-Khmer minorities. Stalin's terror, while focused under paranoid political and economic rubrics, disproportionally targeted certain ethnic groups particularly the Ukranians, Estonians, Chechen-Ingush, ethnic Koreans, Volga Germans and finally the Jews who escaped an imminent colossal purge only by the dictator's death.

Finally we need to recall that the democide favored by Communist totalitarians - political and economic categories - was excluded from the Genocide Convention definition of genocide primarily because Soviet support was required for the Convention to be ratified. This was a political concession to reality not an intentional or ideal part of Lemkin's moral argument against genocide.

Van L. Hayhow - 2/4/2004

I tend to agree. I have always felt that killing people solely because of who they were (and the percpetion that the victims were different from the perpetrators) was worse than killing a lot of people because you want to expand your geographic territory, or get access to that deep-water port. But this has always been an instinctive reaction that I am not sure I can justify it logically other than I read a book once years ago that touched on the Armenian massacre in WWI. There the author was talking with survivors who talked about the psychological impact of being hated to death. It was still with them 50 years later. This is different in one respect from being killed because you are in the way. But you are dead either way.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/4/2004

I would make a stronger distinction between mass murder and genocide, which would put the Yugoslavian and Rwandan massacres closer to the Holocaust: I believe there is a moral distinction between killing a lot of people (usually in pursuit of some other goal) and deliberately extinguishing a human community.