Epic battles in practical ethics: Arendt vs Thoreau

(the author at Walden Pond, where he stayed for two hours, not two years; photo by Jennifer Sears)

In late July 1846, Henry David Thoreau ran into a tax collector, Sam Staples, in the town of Concord, Massachusetts. Staples asked Thoreau to pay six years of due poll taxes, but the American writer refused, on the grounds of his opposition to both slavery and the Mexican-American war of expansion. As a result, Thoreau spent the night in jail, being freed the following day when his aunt paid the taxes against his wishes.

Thoreau delivered lectures on the episode, under the title of “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in relation to Government,” explaining his general take on civil disobedience. Bronson Alcott wrote this about the lectures in his Journals (Little, Brown and Company, 1938):

Heard Thoreau’s lecture before the Lyceum on the relation of the individual to the State -- an admirable statement of the rights of the individual to self-government, and an attentive audience. His allusions to the Mexican War, to Mr. Hoar’s expulsion from Carolina, his own imprisonment in Concord Jail for refusal to pay his tax, Mr. Hoar’s payment of mine when taken to prison for a similar refusal, were all pertinent, well considered, and reasoned. I took great pleasure in this deed of Thoreau’s.

The lecture was eventually published as “Resistance to civil government,” part of the Aesthetic Papers, in 1849. It went on to inspire generations of political thinkers and activists, including Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

But not political theorist Hannah Arendt. A recent essay by Katie Fitzpatrick in Aeon magazine outlines Arendt’s criticism of Thoreau. Arendt wrote an essay for The New Yorker in 1970, in which she argued that Thoreau’s moral philosophy was actually anathema to the spirit of true civil disobedience, which ought to be based on collective action, not individual conscience.

Arendt put forth two major objections against Thoreau. First, conscience is too subjective a category to motivate political action. After all, Fitzpatrick explains, Kentucky conservative county clerk Kim Davis was also acting on her conscience when she denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples back in 2015.

Second, even when one’s conscience is oriented in the right direction, so to speak, it is “unpolitical,” because it shifts the focus away from the sort of collective action that can trigger actual change and toward a more or less self-indulgent conception of moral purity. Moreover, argues Arendt, an individual breaking the law is a “mere” conscientious objector, while it is only mass movements that can generate change.

Within the scope of this second critique, Fitzpatrick points out that Arendt did think that conscience is important, since she famously explained Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann's behavior as a case of failed moral introspection. But she argued that the rules of conscience “do not say what to do, they say what not to do.”

I want to argue here that both of Arendt’s criticism miss the mark, and that moreover her overall attack on Thoreau is marred by ignorance of, or convenient silence about, the latter’s full record as social activist.

i) The subjectivity of conscience

Arendt is correct that conscience is subjective, and that for every Thoreau of the world there is a Kim Davis to counterbalance him (and that’s being optimistic, in terms of balance). But the point is trivially true. It is just as true that mass movements suffer from the same problem. Yes, the movement inspired by Martin Luther King was morally righteous (in the sense of having its moral compass set properly). But did Arendt forget that Nazism was also a mass movement?

So the issue isn’t that conscience is subjective, the issue is whether one’s moral compass is working properly or not. Thoreau’s was, Kim Davis’ wasn’t. MLK’s was, Hitler’s wasn’t. The fact that from Davis’ point of view she was right and advocates of same-sex marriage wrong has no more track than pointing out that creationists are absolutely convinced that they are right when they reject the theory of evolution. They feel right, but they are wrong.

(I hasten to add that this analogy should not be taken to mean that I think that moral theories are just as objective as scientific theories, or that moral facts as as mind-independent as scientific ones. My position on this is that of a naturalist who thinks that morality is grounded in human nature, and particularly the nature of a prosocial species capable of reason. See here for more.)

ii) Individual vs collective action

Here Arendt commits something akin to the fallacy of false dichotomy: there is no sharp distinction between individual and collective action, or between individual and collective conscience. Every civil libertarian movement in the history of humanity got started with individuals thinking and acting on their own beliefs, at personal risk. Those individuals then inspired, and sometimes directly organized, collective movements.

One could fault Thoreau for not directly organizing a movement (though he did participate in more than one, see below), but his actions did directly inspire others, which very clearly shows that the sharp distinction Arendt wishes to make is entirely illusory.

Moreover, it is an ad hominem (yes, another logical fallacy!) to claim that conscientious objection is about moral purity and self-indulgence. Setting aside that arriving at such a conclusion would require intimate knowledge of people’s motivation -- which certainly Arendt did not have concerning Thoreau, an argument can be made that, ultimately, all moral acts are personal ones. I do not control what other people think or how they act on their convictions. But I am responsible for my own values and actions. So my first moral duty is toward making sure that my moral compass is working properly, and that I act according to its indications. I suggest that the world would be a far better place if everyone engaged in the sort of moral self-reflection that Thoreau embarked on. Movements, after all, are made of large number of single individuals, each following her own conscience.

iii) Eichmann and what our conscience says

Arendt has been roundly criticized for her simplistic analysis of Adolf Eichmann in her famous Eichmann in Jerusalem. She does appear to have gotten several of the details, and moreover, the overall picture, seriously wrong. (That said, I do think she got something right in her idea that people often do evil because they are mistaken in their judgment, see here.)

But what is particularly objectionable is her contention that our conscience does not say what to do, but only what not to do. To begin with, I wonder what sort of empirical data support such a sweeping generalization. It seems to me, from personal experience and the experience of others, that our conscience tells us both what to do and what not to do. When a number of people, during World War II, were moved to house Jews in their abodes at the risk of getting killed by the Nazi, I’m pretty sure they were motivated by a positive movement in their conscience.

Second, even when conscience limits itself to negative advice, this is extremely valuable. Socrates famously said that he had a personal daimon whispering in his ears and guiding his moral behavior. When asked what sort of things the daimon said, he answered “mostly, just ‘no.’” And Socrates is one of our best examples of someone acting rightly as a result of his own examination of what is important and just in life.

iv) What Arendt apparently missed about Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau was a far more complex and nuanced individual than Arendt’s criticism of his civil disobedience makes him to be. The tax episode is only one example of the tight connection between Thoreau’s principles and his actions. He was anti-slavery, supported the abolitionist movement, and actively participated in the Underground Railroad (which was a “movement”).

In fact, despite the famous episode that caught Arendt’s attention, Thoreau believed that resistance against an unjust government could be carried out both by non-violent and violent means, depending on the circumstances. While his own refusal to pay taxes falls in the first category, his passionate defense of abolitionist John Brown squarely displays his non-pacifist approach. He wrote:

Let not our Peace be proclaimed by the rust on our swords, or our inability to draw them from their scabbards; but let her at least have so much work on her hands as to keep those swords bright and sharp. (The Service, chapter III, section 19)

In 1841 he debated the subject of whether it is ever proper to offer forcible resistance, arguing in the positive, and he condemned the Mexican-American war not on pacifist grounds, but because Mexico had been “unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army” as a means to expand the slave territory.

None of this fits Arendt’s simplistic profile, nor it supports her harsh criticism of someone who, after all, had done more than she ever did to translate his thoughts into action. Fitzpatrick concludes her essay in Aeon by writing that “it is Arendt’s account of the practice [of civil disobedience] that is ultimately more promising [because] Arendt insists that we focus not on our own conscience but on the injustice committed, and the concrete means of redressing it.” But there is no understanding of injustice without a clear individual moral compass, and there are no concrete actions if not those inspired by people endowed with such compass, like Henry David Thoreau.

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