Category Archives: Philosophical

act vs. agent

What was wrong with the Holocaust?

You might think this is a thuddingly rhetorical question; that
to ask it in earnest is offensive because the answer is obvious;
that to ask is it to imply that there could be some disagreement.
But I’m not sure the answer _is_ obvious, or that there is
_not_ disagreement, so I ask it in earnest nonetheless.

Other than a few cranks on the far right, no one denies that it
happened, and no one denies that it was a moral horror unrivaled
in our time, perhaps in history.

But what _kind_ of moral horror?

I would like to distinguish two basic answers, or families of
answers. This, like any broad division of things into twos, will
do some violence to the nuance and range of responses, but still,
it gets at something that has been nagging at me lately.

went to the Holocaust
in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago. As anyone who’s been
there can testify, it is extraordinarily unsettling, and it should
be. After I left, as I was walking across the Mall, I was struck
with an intense melancholy. It began with that question: What was
wrong with the Holocaust? What is the nature of the wrongness, the

One kind of person locates the evil in the act of killing. This
person–call him Act–believes that any killing is morally horrific,
and that cold-blooded killing on a massive, industrial scale is
what gives the Holocaust its unique status in the history of evil.

Another kind of person locates the evil in a man: Hitler. This
person–call him Agent–will concede that the killing was reprehensible,
that the behavior of the German people was unforgivable, and that
the circle of people Hitler brought to power with him was a pack
of dogs, but they will ultimately trace the evil back to Hitler.
He was the source, the historical locus; he was an evil man.

Perhaps you won’t see any difference in the case of the Holocaust,
but I think one’s inclinations in this case are echoed in many less
extreme cases.

The melancholy that struck me outside the museum sprang from this
thought: even something of this horror, this violence, this _size_…
even this cannot tell us which answer is the right one. No episode,
no act, no man, no horror has the power to transcend interpretation,
to say _this_ is my truth, _this_ is my meaning. I
suppose we academics are supposed to glorify in this sort of indeterminacy,
but I find it depressing.

Now, what’s the difference between the answers?

Agent will be inclined to see the course of history as the conflict
between evil men, who would oppress and enslave and destroy others,
and men of strength and virtue who stand up to them. Agent will
say that killing, as such, is not good or evil, though it may always
be lamentable. It is one’s motivations, one’s goals, one’s intent
that make it so. Hitler killed to conquer and enslave; he killed
out of hate. We killed–in WWI, in Hiroshima, in wars and ‘police
actions’ since–not to attack but to defend, not to conquer but
to liberate, not to take lives but to save them.

Our killings are justified; they are or were a regrettable but
unavoidable part of good turning back evil. If we lie on occasion
in our propaganda; if we are zealous in weeding out the evil in
our own citizenry; if we deny some citizens their rights for a time;
if we offend other countries or peoples… these are the price we
must sometimes pay. These are the necessary evils that attend a
just war. They are, in the favored formulation, in no way morally
"equivalent" to the evils committed by evil men. To imply
that they are is a kind of moral blindness, an inability to distinguish
those on the side of right from those on the side of might.

Act will be inclined to see the course of history as the repeated
succumbing of human nature to the temptations of hatred and greed,
the manipulation of resentment and dissatisfaction by those adept
at playing to those emotions. Act might concede that, if you take
a snapshot of a situation (either personal or geopolitical), there
might be cases where yes, this killing must be done to stop that
killing, this evil to stop that one. The killing is no longer avoidable.
But he would not conclude from this that killing is ever anything
but evil. He would ask that we step back from the snapshot, take
in the history, and see how every situation where killing seems
"necessary" is the result of a series of concessions to
the worst in human nature. Act will claim that part of the reason
acts of hate and violence are evil is that they inevitably carry
others in their wake. To counter hate and violence, when it has
spun out of control, requires more hate, more lies and violence
and oppression. It is the nature of evil acts to feed on themselves.

Agent will divide people into good and evil, and will tend to view
his opponents (rather than their arguments or their actions) as
evil, and thus beyond the pale of moral suasion. Act will find good
and evil enmeshed in human nature, and will contend that every person
is capable of both, depending on the situation. His arguments, unsettling
and inconclusive and inward-looking as they are, will never have
the rousing, trumpet-sounding resonance of Agent’s, and will lose
in the theater of public opinion, as they have lost throughout history,
except in rare cases.

Let’s update the question I began with.

What is wrong with the regime of Saddam Hussein?

Act, having followed events over the past year, will have been
somewhat confused. First the regime was a direct danger to us. Then
the danger was weapons of mass destruction falling into terrorist
hands–another 9/11. Then the issue was violation of UN sanctions.
Then it was the nature of the regime: a repressive tyranny. The
arguments and justifications for invasion have been fluid, morphing
based on circumstance or convenience. Many have been convinced by
some hybrid of the reasons, but they still aren’t quite sure how
they got from A to B, or what exactly the take-home principle is.

Act is confused because Bush is not Act, and he does not comfortably
mimic Act’s language, although he tries. He is Agent. Bush is foursquare
a part of a particular brand of evangelical Protestantism that believes
that the world is a stage upon which agents of God battle agents
of Satan–not metaphorically, but literally. Bush believes that
God chose him to lead the country at this moment in history, to
protect it from future terrorist attacks, and more broadly, to advance
American values–that is to say, God’s values–aggressively, by
force if necessary. The mission is to confront and destroy evil

To Bush, Saddam is evil, and that is reason enough to destroy him.

Arguments and claims about international law, about whether this
terrorist did or did not contact the regime, about whether this
or that weapon may or may not exist, are mere expedients, means
to an end. They are concessions to fickle public opinion. Quibbles
about civil liberties, or constitutional protections, or international
alliances, or rule of law, are to him the buzzing of mosquitoes.
His cause is right, and he is good. He will battle evil, no matter
the nattering of those who choose to accommodate or tolerate it.
History will celebrate him, as it celebrates all good men who identify
and battle evil.

It is probably obvious by now that I am Act. Those inclined to
identify with Agent will probably think I have caricatured their
view, or some such, and perhaps I have.

I cannot help but deride Agent, because I cannot help thinking
that Agent–who sees the world in terms of good and evil men–is
himself the source of virtually all the world’s pain and strife.
Of course, I want to shout, _every_ man who directs hate
and violence towards others thinks of himself as right, as good,
as battling evil! They all think they have been chosen by God. Osama
believes he was chosen by God.

But God himself told us, did he not, that judging men is _His_
job. For us, our job is to behave with kindness and compassion.
All of us are sinners; the best we can do is strive to _act_
like saints. It is our acts alone, not our natures, that can save

If Osama is wrong and the forces of Western liberalism are right
it is because our way of life produces more good acts than the one
he proposes. Our cultures, our constitutions, our economies, produce
contexts in which men’s violence is diverted by rule of law, in
which their intrinsic desire for safety and comfort and family finds
expression, in which power is distributed and never concentrated
in the hands of a few men.

We can point to evidence; we can make a rational case. Osama can
only point to a god to which he claims direct access.

It is not _we_ who are good and them evil; it is our rules,
our values, our _acts_ that are good. If we fight by their
rules, if we contravene our values and commit evil acts, we lose
that which distinguishes us from them. Good is not intrinsic to
us, not inherent; it is contingent upon our acts. It is fragile
and easily lost.

We lose it quickly when we are fooled by men who presume to judge
and act as gods. That is the lesson of the Holocaust, but it is,
tragically, not a lesson it forces upon us.

public spaces

It is difficult for me not to generalize. My mind works that way: it tends towards the abstract. Details interest me through what they indicate about larger patterns. The danger of this is making too much out of too little. The smaller the data sample, as any statistician will tell you, the less reliable the conclusions.

This by way of caveat, since I’m getting ready to generalize wildly about Europe, where I’ve been only once, and only to three cities therein, and only for two weeks. My data sample is small. Luckily, I have a theory that justifies this kind of wild generalizing, which you can read about here. If there’s one truth I hold close to my heart, it’s that anything is ok if you’ve got a theory behind it!

There were many things about Europe I found interesting, but the one that struck me most has to do with public spaces. To wit: there are some.

I recently read an essay by Jonathan Franzen about the alleged “disappearance of privacy” in the U.S. — your credit card company tracks your purchases, evil ISP’s track your internet surfing, etc. etc. His take on this, which I more or less agree with, is: bullsnot. Individuals of middle class means or higher in the U.S. have more privacy than anyone else in the history of the world, more, perhaps, than is healthy. We no longer live primarily in small towns, where everyone knows everyone’s business and extended families live in close proximity, but in suburbs, where everyone is isolated in their home-castles, intimate mostly with their televisions/computers and their immediate families (often in that order). We move in auto-bubbles from these castles to work, and back again. If we see each other in public at all, it is while we are shopping, and we shop at mega-stores and malls staffed by and populated with people we don’t know. Those public spaces not devoted to shopping — say, sports stadiums — are increasingly polluted with advertising persuading you to shop.

It is entirely possible in this day and age to live your whole life without anyone _ever_ taking note of you, and if the nightly news, with its regular stories of deranged loners coming out of the woodwork with kooky theories and chips on their shoulders, is any indication, such a state of affairs is not rare.

We are more and more accustomed to being in private bubbles, and more and more conveniences surround us there. If you watch commercials these days (perhaps the truest barometer of the zeitgeist), they portray forays into public as hectic and stressful, your kids running off, car horns honking, trying to juggle keys and credit cards, loud fat guys yelling at you for something or other… a world full of the annoyances posed by the presence of other people. Calgon take me away. The latest commercials for are particularly explicit in this regard: who can handle the enormous hassle of going out into public to buy things for people?

This has consequences. As Franzen argues, what’s disappearing is not privacy but _publicity_, public spaces (and modes of behavior) that are distinct from private. We no longer have public selves. We want to bring our private bubbles into public with us — we pollute all the world with our second hand cell phone chatter, but god forbid someone penetrate our bubble with their second hand smoke. A public self involves a certain tolerance and a certain reserve. We see and are seen by other people, so it also involves a certain self-consciousness; when you know you will be in public frequently, it’s more difficult to “let yourself go.” You make certain sacrifices and live up to certain implicit standards when you are in public. It is precisely this notion — this behavior — that Franzen finds rare, and getting rarer.

All this is preamble to saying: I was utterly charmed by the public spaces in Europe. European cities are full of squares and _pleins_ and _places_, surrounded by pubs and shops and cafes. Two things struck me as unusual about them, from my American perspective. For one thing, there was no advertising. No billboards, no scrolling stock tickers, nothing flashing or blaring or demanding your attention. And secondly, there were _people_ in them: talking, watching street performers, eating picnics, playing chess, just hanging out. They were together, and not shopping, and they seemed perfectly happy.

In restaurants, people talked animatedly and stayed for hours (and I know… it takes me a long time to eat), and no one ever asked anyone else to stop smoking. People did not seem in a hurry to eat and get out (three courses was the norm… I know, I ate them every meal).

As far as driving, there seemed to be far fewer explicit rules (lanes, if they existed at all, were frequently unmarked). People drove like maniacs, jostling and swerving and coming really, really close to each other, but as far as I could tell, there was no road rage. I never saw anyone pounding their wheel or getting red in the face or shouting. There was honking, plenty of it, but it always seemed sort of a clinical kind of honking — communicative honking, you might say — rather than the enraged kind.

These are some specifics among a large body of largely inchoate impressions, the sum of which was the following conclusion: Europeans — at least the ones in major cities — are more comfortable in public spaces. They are more _mature_ as urbanites, in that they are less guilty about indulging in the pleasures afforded by urban life, more tolerant of the consequences of others enjoying them, and less jealous of the personal space, and personal comforts, they have to sacrifice to make it run all run smoothly.

This is why, I think, American tourists have a bad name abroad: we think of travel as a personal experience, as though we travel in a bubble and watch out the window as sights (and people) drift past; Europeans in particular are offended by our seeming unawareness of the public spaces we inhabit.

Americans, ever worshipful of individualism, fret about the loss of privacy when they are fairly addled by it. Europeans, clinging to socialism (cultural as well as economic), fret about the loss of public benefits and public manners. The world seems to be heading our direction; it’s nice to get a glimpse of what we’re leaving behind.


Before writing about Europe (which I do here), let me introduce a pet theory of mine that justifies (or so I like to think) making generalizations about people or cities based on relatively little exposure: the 80/20 Theory.

It goes like this: you can learn 80% of what there is to know about a person (city, etc.) in the first few hours or days you know them/it; learning the other 20% can take a lifetime.

Some people object strongly to this idea, particularly in our culture, where we are told constantly that “what’s important is what’s on the inside.” We are told not to judge people by their “appearance,” not to stereotype. More than that, many people object to the idea that _they personally_ are so transparent to others. So let me begin with hedges:

1. The 20% almost always contains the most interesting bits, so it’s not like you can sum someone up and forget them in a matter of hours. There’s always more to know about _any_ person.

2. There are stereotypes and there are stereotypes. The ones that do harm tend to be based on characteristics that people are born with: skin color, gender, sexual orientation. I wouldn’t begin to claim that you can conclude much from these — not so much because it would be morally wrong to do so (though it may be), but because you will almost always be _incorrect_.

3. You can be wrong about the 80%. People surprise you, and sometimes you find out that someone is _totally_ different than your first impression (this is different than finding out there is _more_ to them than you thought). But these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

4. I do not consider this a cynical or deflationary theory — it’s not meant to deny the many mysteries of human nature, to imply that people are shallow, or boring, or predictable. I think it’s just common sense, common experience, so common it’s easy to overlook.

We aren’t supposed to judge people based on their appearance. Well, yes and no. The word “appearance” is not particularly perspicacious. In one sense, basic characteristics obviously tell you almost nothing (see caveat #2). But in another sense, of _course_ we judge people based on their appearance, every day, all the time; it’s a basic human faculty, evolutionarily necessary to a social organism. Thank god we _are_ able to make relatively accurate judgments quickly; otherwise we wouldn’t have made it very far.

We all know from our everyday experience that there is a great deal you can tell from someone’s appearance. The important distinction to make is this: certain characteristics reflect accidents of birth (e.g., skin color), but many others are behavioral, and these reflect personality and temperament. When it comes to behavior, what’s on the outside reflects what’s on the inside.

Another important distinction to make is the difference between understanding and judging. In evolutionary terms, of course, they are intimately intertwined. For a proto-human on the savannah, face to face with a strange creature, understanding the creature and discerning whether it is helpful or harmful were one and the same. But out of immediate danger, it is possible to separate these faculties. Though it may sound paradoxical, in many ways understanding is impaired by judgment.”Good” and “bad” (or in terms more favored today, good and evil) are extremely broad, course-grained categorizations, and the tendency of those who are eager to use them is to categorize someone/thing and think no more of it. To more fully understand someone, one has to remain almost passive, to observe, to let the person _show_ their nature, and this requires a (temporary) suspension of judgment. Once you’ve judged, you stop seeing.

People reveal themselves every second, in a thousand ways: do they make eye contact? What’s their posture like? Do they initiate subjects of conversation or react to others’? What are their typical gestures? Do they flutter their hands? Play with their hair? Smile frequently? What kind of smile? Do they touch other people frequently? How do they react to being touched?

And of course, people make a set of choices that are on obvious display: they dress themselves. Despite the protestations of disgruntled teens in baggy jeans or long black overcoats, it is perfectly legitimate, nay, inevitable, to draw conclusions based on what someone has chosen to wear and how they have chosen to wear it.

Verbal queues are also revealing, but to discern the most from them, one has to heed not only the content, what is said, but _how_ it is said, and what _isn’t_ said. For instance: pay attention to what bugs someone — not what they say bugs them, but what they actually notice and comment on. It is almost a truism that what we hate in the outer world reflects what we dislike about ourselves.

For instance: I despise hypocrisy. I am perpetually noticing the differences between what people say and what they actually do. My hatred of hypocrisy probably reflects my own internal struggle. I hate that what I claim to believe comes across so little in my actions; I hate that I frequently act in a way that reflects choices and characteristics I disavow; I hate that I am so eager to formulate advice I am unable to follow. I hate hypocrisy in myself, and that makes me acutely aware of it in other people.

The inverse is true as well: what people admire and love tends to be what they seek for themselves.

While many people are loathe to accept this theory when it is stated baldly, their actions demonstrate that they accept it on an intuitive level. More than anything, people want to _make_ an impression, that is, they want to design or control the impressions other people receive. In some people, this translates to being extremely reserved in new social situations, careful in what and how much they say; they do not want to be revealed, or rather, they want to carefully and deliberately reveal themselves. Others, extroverts, try to take over impression-making quickly and actively assert themselves as they want to be known. Both understand that they are all but naked, that their every word and gesture speaks volumes.

People say when you meet the right person, “you just know.” Love at first sight. That’s the 80%, right up in your face. Take my wife (no, don’t!): as anyone who knows her will tell you, once you’ve known her for a short while you can tell that she is a fundamentally kind, decent, generous person. She’s incapable of deceit, grounded and sensible. As we were together longer, I started uncovering the 20%: her girlishness, her wit, her healthy sense of the absurd, her iron -stubbornness- strength. And this is what happens when you propose to marry someone: you say, in effect, “I so love what I know of you that I promise to stay with you no matter what I uncover of the remaining 20%.” Not everybody finds math talk romantic, but…

Incredibly, this entire pile of poo has been written just to justify me making wild generalizations about Europe, which I do in my next post.