The Janus Face of Conscience

Throughout the summer of 1938, Paul Gruninger was in charge of policing a small section of the Swiss border. A captain in the canton of St. Gallen, his job was to prevent entry from Nazi-controlled ...

Throughout the summer of 1938, Paul Gruninger was in charge of policing a small section of the Swiss border. A captain in the canton of St. Gallen, his job was to prevent entry from Nazi-controlled Austria. Germany had annexed Austria a few months previously, and thousands of Jews were by now trying to flee, but the Swiss government, claiming neutrality, had all but closed its borders to refugees. Entry visas were only being granted to those with “Aryan” ancestry. Anyone caught entering Switzerland illegally was sent back to Austria. Gruninger, however, quietly and without much fuss, was forging the papers of Jewish refugees, in order to provide them with legal status in Switzerland. It is estimated that Gruninger helped over three thousand people in this way, before he was caught, convicted of fraud, and sent to prison. He was widely accused of treachery and betrayal within Switzerland, and died in poverty nearly 35 years later. It was not until the mid 1990s that he was exonerated by the Swiss legal system, and had the local sports stadium named in his honor. On the face of it, Gruninger was an unlikely hero. A conservative and apparently risk-averse bureaucrat, with no history of making stands on principle, he had broken the law and ended his career in order to save thousands of people fleeing Nazi-controlled Europe.

We have lots of explanations for why people do bad things to one another. Prejudice, insanity, bureaucracy, and self-interest, to name but a few. However, we are less able to offer explanations for why some people do try to do good in the world, often against extraordinary odds. Academics and journalists alike seem more attracted to studying vices rather than virtues. All too often we have looked for the authentically human in suffering, if not cruelty. There are many good reasons to examine the human capacity to inflict misery on other people. Yet, we have been left rather mute in the face of the human capacity to do good, and more importantly to do good in the most difficult circumstances.

How is it, then, that surrounded by conformity and acquiescence to harm, some people can refuse to go along? This classic problem in moral philosophy has rarely been tackled head on by social science. Might we look to a sense of fellow feeling? The emotional recognition of another person as a human being just like me can overcome the most sinister ideas. Yet, there are numerous examples of the most virulent hatred between people who appear to be fundamentally the same, as neighbors turn on neighbors rather than strangers. Intimacy can produce enmity as well as kindness. Alternatively, might we look to individual acts of principled and rational reflection? But, again, history is full of examples of malevolent principles. There is also nothing in a reasoned stand that says it will be for the good. Racism, prejudice, and discrimination can all be rationalized. Reason tells us how to think, but not what to think. Yet, even if acts of both malevolence and generosity stand on the same foundations, why are some people still able to stand up in the face of wrongdoing?

Gestures of bravery may not be the product of lofty ideals, but the product of the simple fact that someone was in the position to help another person, and did. There is as much banality to the good, as there is to evil.

Eyal Press’s Beautiful Souls is a thought-provoking and lucid attempt to answer such questions. For Press, we should look in the everyday and ordinary for the capacity to stand up for what is right, rather than in grand gestures or saintly people. Just as people seldom wake up in the morning and decide they want to be bad that day, they seldom simply decide they want to do good. It is possible to find yourself in a position of opposition by accident, as the result of small-scale and mundane decisions. Furthermore, those people who stand up and refuse to be carried along by wrongdoing are seldom marked out by their moral purity. Indeed, they are highly likely to be ordinary and flawed in some way. Before and after the events of 1938 Gruninger did not stand out for his ethical commitments. It is circumstances, as much as courage, which can lead people to carry out acts that, after the event, look profoundly brave. Gestures of bravery may not be the product of lofty ideals, but the product of the simple fact that someone was in the position to help another person, and did. There is as much banality to the good, as there is to evil.

Press, an award-winning journalist, takes us through four extended and well-chosen case studies: alongside Gruninger, we hear about a Serb who saved Croats during the Balkan wars of the mid 1990s, an Israeli conscientious objector in the second intifada, and a corporate whistle-blower in Texas. We hear how Aleksander Jevtic risked his own life by claiming that his Croatian neighbors were actually Serb, in order to save them from near-certain death at the hands of paramilitaries. We hear how Avner Wishnitzer, an elite commando in the Israeli army, refused to serve in the second intifada. We hear how Leyla Wydler tried to blow the whistle on the Stanford Financial Group’s overly risky and eventually fraudulent investments of its clients’ funds.

In Press’s account, the thing that seems to single out Gruninger, Wydler, Wishnitzer, and Jevtic is their ability to empathize with the suffering of others. It is the attempt to see other people as just like yourself, as feeling pain and fear just like you, that for Press goes some way to explaining why some people refuse to acquiesce in the infliction of harm. Press, siding with Adam Smith and David Hume over Immanuel Kant, argues that it’s emotional sensibility rather than rational reflection that shapes our moral capabilities. It is therefore when we are in close proximity to others that we find it most difficult to turn a blind eye, as we are forced to confront our mutual humanity. Unlike other Swiss police officers in the offices in Geneva or Bern, Gruninger came face to face with refugees everyday. Press links Wishnitzer’s refusal to serve in the Israeli army to an encounter with a Palestinian shepherd and an Israeli patrol. Before that moment, he had never encountered Palestinians face to face, although he was serving in an elite unit. He had instead always seen them from the distance of a military operation.

The irony is that although, or maybe even because, Palestinians and Israelis live side by aside, they seldom have opportunities to interact at the most basic level. Sari Nusseibeh, a Harvard-educated philosopher, former PLO official, and progenitor of unofficial peace accords, sees the inability to recognize their mutual humanity as one of the root causes of the conflict. Like Press, he seeks to prioritize sympathy and compassion. One of the central ideas in his book What Is a Palestinian State Worth? is that Israelis and Palestinians need to be given opportunities to acknowledge the humanity in each other, rather than seeing each other in reified categories of belonging. For Nusseibeh, humane sentiments can be cultivated if we quite literally are made to see eye to eye. Once this happens, people will be able to step out of calcified and alienating notions of difference. This is an ultimately optimistic, and in many ways attractive, vision. However, one suspects that the devil may be in the details.

Empathy, sympathy, or just plain mutual recognition have their limits as a path to the good. The ability to see yourself in another person’s place, and take ethical lessons from that, can easily be overcome. Press is all too aware that proximity can be made insignificant. Bureaucracies render other people as numbers and forms, rather than living and breathing humans. Nationalism focuses on boundaries and differences across them, rather than similarities. We, therefore, have to make a conscious effort to empathize. Perhaps more importantly though, empathy can restrict how far we reach out our hand to help those in need. If we empathize with others because they are just like us, there is a danger that we first of all provide assistance to those whom we seem to most resemble. Serb to Serb, Israeli to Israeli, British to British. Superficially and momentarily perceived resemblances can limit our moral imagination. As David Hume taught us, we are more likely to sympathize with acquaintances than strangers, with our ethnic kin than foreigners. Equally importantly, merely seeing ourselves in someone else’s eyes does not necessarily lead us to do anything. We can weep at their suffering, but stay exactly as we are.

Why then, in the midst of hatred and xenophobia, do some people take our mutual humanity seriously and act upon it? Press argues that Aleksander Jevtic had been brought up by his mother not to take ethnic distinctions too seriously. She had been a prisoner in an Ustaše concentration camp, but still told her son that most Croats were good people. Press partly locates the origins of Jevtic’s expansive and active moral imagination in this upbringing. Yet, even if this is true, we are still not much closer to understanding why a Serbian high school dropout would risk his own life to help others, when all around people were calling for blood. Some of the most brutal incidents of violent conflict are between people who have been brought up side by side, and appear to be fundamentally the same. Iraq and the former Yugoslavia, for example, were marked by extremely high levels of intersectarian marriage. Before the outbreaks of fratricidal violence, people were very used to seeing similarities across what would later be sectarian divides. Indeed, it may be that these very perceived similarities help explain the ferocity of some violence. It is not that people are different that is frightening to some, but that they are almost the same.

Historically, even those who promoted conscience have often been concerned that the claims of conscience can be mistaken, corrupted, or even used to justify malignant acts. Our consciences can betray us, or send us mixed messages over the right course of action.

In the midst of ethnic hatred, militarized violence, or corporate irresponsibility, Gruninger, Wydler, Wishnitzer, and Jevtic all listened to their voices of conscience and stood up for what they believed in, without trying to make grand dramatic gestures for the crowd. Simply and without fanfare they did what they thought was right. In the early twenty-first century, conscience is widely singled out as a foundational principle of ethical action. Freedom of conscience is seen as being of paramount importance. It is conscience that pulls us back from the abyss, that cajoles us into doing the right thing when we could be tempted to do wrong. Taking on a new form under the European reformation and expanding under the aegis of international human rights, conscience is often seen as the voice inside our head that tells us the difference between good and bad. When politics, law, and family fail, conscience stands up for what is right. Whether it is an innate human capacity, a God-given quality, or a form of rational deliberation, appeals are routinely made to conscience as a source of ethical clarity in the midst of wrongdoing.

Yet, conscience has a Janus face. Historically, even those who promoted conscience have often been concerned that the claims of conscience can be mistaken, corrupted, or even used to justify malignant acts. Our consciences can betray us, or send us mixed messages over the right course of action. People who make claims of conscience are seldom happy with themselves, but wracked by guilt and uncertainty as to whether they are doing the right thing. Multiple voices can speak at once, as loyalties to friends, family, country, and personal ethics all collide.

In hindsight, acts of conscience can seem clear-cut, and self-evidently right. It is seldom like that at the time. Moral stakes are often murky, the right and wrong paths not clearly signposted. If acts of profound goodness are the product of serendipitous circumstances or banal decisions, acts of conscience can be caught up in the compromises and inconsistencies of which our lives are so full. Those who make claims of conscience are often accused of treachery. Gruninger was accused of betraying his duty to uphold the laws of Switzerland and stripped of his job. Jevtic was accused of siding with Croats. Avner Wishnitzer was accused of failing to protect the Israeli state and its citizens in its hour of need. There is seldom honor in conscience.

History is full of examples of people who made a decision that at the time appeared to be, at some level, aimed at the good, but in hindsight has turned out to be profoundly problematic. To be on the wrong side of the colonial wars of the twentieth century, for example, is surely to be on the wrong side of history. Yet, shaking off imperial masters involved violence and morally ambiguous decisions, some extreme. Perhaps no group epitomizes the tragic dimension of trying to choose between right and wrong more than the Harkis.

The term Harki, in the widest and vaguest sense, refers to the Algerian Muslims who fought for the French in the Algerian war of independence, whether in the French army or as auxiliaries and paramilitaries. At the end of the war, the French demobilized and largely abandoned these allies as they withdrew across the Mediterranean. Thousands of Harkis were killed in post-independence Algeria. Perceived similarity rather than difference was the cause of bloodshed. In the midst of competing allegiances and great variation in commitment to the Algerian nationalist cause, attempts were made to make the distinction between the loyal and treacherous. For the Algerian nationalist Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and their sympathizers, the Harkis were seen as traitors, people without principle, who betrayed their own people. As Vincent Crapanzano describes it in Harkis: The Wound That Never Heals, many of the murders were carried out by Algerians who had remained relatively neutral during the war. It was those Algerians who had not fought with the FLN against the French, who might be described as acquiescent with the colonial state themselves, who participated in the massacres of the Harkis with the most enthusiasm. The people whose loyalty to the new state was most in question turned on those who seemed to be only half a step away from them. If the Harkis made it to France, they were left stranded in impoverished camps, for decades a reminder of an ignominious defeat. Hated by the Algerians, they were unloved by the French, a source of shame for both sides.

Whilst the Harkis certainly carried out acts of brutality, it is too simplistic to dismiss them as opportunistic mercenaries with no ethical commitments. Vincent Crapanzano’s moving book makes it clear that they were neither entirely victims nor perpetrators, neither entirely heroes nor villains, neither entirely innocent nor guilty. Many Harkis did not make a straightforward decision to fight for the French, but did so out of hunger or fear. Others joined due to family or village rivalries. If a hated brother or neighbor joined the FLN, personal scores could be settled by joining the French. Most importantly, in Crapanzano’s account, many Harkis stress that their actions were a moral response to the violence of the FLN. It is almost certainly true that the FLN killed more Algerians than French. Harkis insist that until independence they had more support among the Muslim population than the FLN. Although often ambivalent, for many Harkis, fighting the FLN was a moral act. Even if not motivated by a patriotic love for France, it still involved standing up for principles in the face of violence and intimidation. Even joining in order to feed your family has a strong ethical dimension. To this day, many Harkis say they are France’s conscience, its guilty conscience.

At what point, though, does a principled stand tip over into obsession? Surely there are points when we have to compromise our conscience? Holding fast to issues of principle can stray dangerously close to recklessness. People who hold on to their principles are usually held up as examples to us all. But there is a point when dedication to a cause can turn into intransigence and bloody-mindedness. Indeed, it is important to recognize that conscience can be used to justify acts that many might see as pernicious. Press points out that both religious settlers and Israeli refuseniks justify their actions through an appeal to conscience. If we locate the power of conscience simply in the intensity with which a view is held or the sincerity of a claim, there is little to distinguish the acts of Gruninger and Jevtic from those of an anti-Semite or Serb chauvinist.

Could the relative lack of clearly articulated principles itself create the capacity for virtue? Jevtic, in particular, can be understood as carrying out extraordinary acts precisely because he did not reflect on them. He did not objectify his acts or spend time ruminating on their meanings and implications, holding them up as an example to the people. He simply put out a hand and helped those in need. Jevtic simply did as he thought he should do. Perhaps, if he had taken a moment, had stepped back and thought about the implications of what he was doing more carefully, he might have done differently, given in to fear or social pressure.

Conscience has been described as both a thought and as feeling, an “internal court” and a nagging urge. The implications of these different ways of understanding conscience are potentially important. If conscience forces us to reflect on what we are doing, it also opens up space for abstractions to enter into our calculations, for categories of loyalty and difference to emerge and overcome empathy. The point is that conscience, whether as feeling or thought (if such a distinction can really be maintained), creates both the potential to act on our shared humanity and to deny it.

For Sari Nusseibeh, both Palestinians and Israelis hold on too firmly to abstract principles. He asks provocatively whether you can be a devout Jew and drop a demand for the Temple Mount, whether you can be a devout Muslim and drop the claim to the Dome of the Rock, whether you can be a devout Christian and drop a claim to the Holy Sepulchre? For Nusseibeh, the Palestinian state should always be seen as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. It is, therefore, a principle fundamentally worth compromising. He argues that what is most important is the ending of the nightmarish situation of occupation, with the humiliation and inequalities that this produces. He also adds that, pragmatically, Palestinians need to find a way to wake Israelis to the inhumanity of the current situation. Nusseibeh’s proposal is that Palestinians should give up on the idea of a Palestinian state, and claim rights within the Israeli state, even if, for the time being, they do not become full citizens. Jews would run the country and Palestinians could enjoy living there. He recognizes that this may seem, quite rightly, repugnant to many, but argues that it could also be the only practical way to secure, in the long run, dignity for future generations of Palestinians.

Even before this book was published, Nusseibeh had been accused of betraying the Palestinian cause, due to his particular vision of Israeli-Palestinian peace. It is an open question as to whether he is a brave man, sticking his neck out for the greater good, or a man prepared to compromise too far. He could be both. Only time will tell whether history will see him, and others who argue for compromise in whatever form, in the same light as the Harkis. icon

Featured image: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (March 5th) #1, 1991. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.