Monday, October 27, 2008

On translations

Sometimes I think that a translation gives me a text that has nothing in common with the original. For instance, for me Habermas in German and Habermas in English are two different philosophers. What would Habermas’s philosophy be like, if we would translate his works into Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, or Silozi? I mean into languages that have, unlike English and German, not any relation with German at all besides that they function as ways for expressing the contents of the mind? Could we in those languages still understand what it is all about?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Allowing and responsibility

The distinction between doing and allowing that I mentioned in my last blog applies also to the question of the limits of responsibility. To be more exact, doing refers to acting oneself, allowing refers to not preventing that another person performs an action or that something happens, especially if one considers the action of the other person as wrong or what happens as harmful. Here I am interested only in allowing other person’s actions, not in happenings.
Then, in what cases is it so that one is morally required not to allow what another person does, because one thinks that the other person’s action is wrong? I think, but I am not sure, that it is hardly possible to make general rules for solving this problem and that one must decide from case to case. At least two things are important, I guess. When we have been in the position that we allowed someone to perform a wrong action, although we could have prevented the action, I think that we have a certain responsibility anyway. But how much? In the end, allowing is a very wide concept. Whether we allow someone to perform a wrong action depends for example on the risks we have to take in order to prevent it, or what the social or legal rules say about such cases. Not intervening can be a matter of cowardice or not being interested but it is also possible that by intervening we risk our life. And in each case it is possible to speak of allowing, if one gives it a wide meaning. In the first examples, I would say that a person that did not intervene is also guilty in a certain sense of the wrong action, for this person had, what I would call, a “reasonable” possibility to intervene, at least in a certain degree, even though he did not do it. In the last example, I wouldn’t talk of guilt in any sense, for in most cases it is not reasonable to risk one life (or being hurt) in order to prevent a wrong action. But there is much room for interpretation and judgement here, and much depends on the concrete situation.A second factor that may have an influence on collective responsibility is whether and how much a wrong action by another person is advantageous to you. If it brings you an advantage, it increases also the need for indemnity for the victims of the wrong action if you have a certain collective responsibility for the action concerned, for example, although you were not personally involved in the action concerned.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Doing and allowing

Arendt defended, as we have seen, that a person can be guilty only of something he or she has actually done. So, a person can be held individually responsible for his or her own action. However, as Arendt also defended, we can have a collective responsibility for what we haven’t done, but what has been done by a member of our group. This difference between guilt (individual responsibility) and collective responsibility is useful, but in some ways and in practice it is often difficult to apply. On the one hand, how can we be held (collectively) responsible for something if we could have no influence at all on what other persons of our group did? It is a hot question as examples in politics show (the holocaust, Srebrenica). On the other hand, not having done an action does not automatically mean that we cannot be guilty of what happened. As far as I know, Arendt does not distinguish between doing and allowing. Most philosophers (including me) consider allowing also as an action. Then we can be guilty because of a wrong action that another person does, even if we did not take part in it. However, this guilt does not refer to the fact that the other person did something bad, but to the fact that we were in the situation that we could have prevented it: we can be guilty because we allowed what the another person did (on condition that we could do something in order to prevent it and that it was reasonable that we did; otherwise we cannot speak of allowance) and because allowing is also an action.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Power and the people

With the help of Hannah Arendt it is not difficult to see why nonviolent action can be so effective, for she wrote: “Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together” (italics mine). Nonviolent action can be effective, because it is based on the concerted action of as many people as possible. But at the end of the quotation we see already also a weak point in nonviolent action, if not the weak point. This point becomes even clearer, when we read what Arendt writes next: “The moment the group, from which the power originated to begin with …, disappears, [power] vanishes” (Hannah Arendt, On violence, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, enz., 1970; p. 44). Actually, when writing this passage, Arendt referred to the power of one man and how it is based on his supporting group. As we have seen last week, this characterization of power is fundamentally LaBoétian. Defining power this way is very exceptional among political scientists, who usually define it as something like the possibility to impose one’s will. However, it provides much insight in how power works. It makes clear, for example, that it is not enough to mobilize people in order to bring down an usurper. It is also necessary to keep the people mobilized or to keep them ready to be quickly mobilized in some way. This is one of the most difficult problems of nonviolent action, and not only of this type of action. For most people watch rather a football match on TV than step into the street for a demonstration. And every ruler knows.