Social production of moral invisibility

“So far we have tried to reconstruct the social mechanism of ‘overcoming the animal pity’; a social production of conduct contrary to innate moral inhibitions, capable of transforming individuals who are not ‘moral degenerates’ in any of the ‘normal’ senses, into murderers or conscious collaborators in the murdering process. The experience of the Holocaust brings into relief, however, another social mechanism; one with a much more sinister potential of involving in the perpetration of the genocide a much wider number of people who never in the process face consciously either difficult moral choices or the need to stifle inner resistance of conscience. The struggle over moral issues never takes place, as the moral aspects of actions are not immediately obvious or are deliberately prevented from discovery and discussion. In other words, the moral character of action is either invisible or purposefully concealed.

To quote Hilberg again, ‘It must be kept in mind that most of the participants [of genocide] did not fire rifles at Jewish children or pour gas into gas chambers … Most bureaucrats composed memoranda, drew up blueprints, talked on the telephone, and participated in conferences. They could destroy a whole people by sitting at their desk.’(Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, p. 1024.) Were they aware of the ultimate product of their ostensibly innocuous bustle – such knowledge would stay, at best, in the remote recesses of their minds. Causal connections between their actions and the mass murder were difficult to spot. Little moral opprobrium was attached to the natural human proclivity to avoid worrying more than necessity required – and thus to abstain from examining the whole length of the causal chain up to its furthest links. To understand how that astounding moral blindness was possible, it is helpful to think […] how it is possible that the ‘fall in commodity prices’ may be universally welcomed as good news while ‘starvation of African children’ is equally universally, and sincerely, lamented.

A few years ago John Lachs singled out the mediation of action (the phenomenon of one’s action being performed for one by someone else, by an intermediate person, who ‘stands between me and my action, making it impossible for me to experience it directly’) as one of the most salient and seminal features of modern society. There is a great distance between intentions and practical accomplishments, with the space between the two packed with a multitude of minute acts and inconsequential actors. The ‘middle man’ shields off the outcomes of action from the actors’ sight.

The result is that there are many acts no one consciously appropriates. For the person on whose behalf they are done, they exist only verbally or in the imagination; he will not claim them as his own since he never lived through them. The man who has actually done them, on the other hand, will always view them as someone else’s and himself as but the blameless instrument of an alien will …

Without first hand acquaintance with his actions, even the best of humans moves in a moral vacuum: the abstract recognition of evil is neither a reliable guide nor an adequate motive … [W]e shall not be surprised at the immense and largely unintentional cruelty of men of good will …

The remarkable thing is that we are not unable to recognize wrong acts or gross injustices when we see them. What amazes us is how they could have come about when each of us did none but harmless acts … It is difficult to accept that often there is no person and no group that planned or caused it all. It is even more difficult to see how our own actions, through their remote effects, contributed to causing misery.(John Lachs, Responsibility of the Individual in Modern Society (Brighton: Harvester, 1981), pp. 12-13, 58.)

The increase in the physical and/or psychic distance between the act and its consequences achieves more than the suspension of moral inhibition; it quashes the moral significance of the act and thereby pre-empts [sic] all conflict between personal standard of moral decency and immorality of the social consequences of the act.[sic] With most of the socially significant actions mediated by a long chain of complex causal and functional dependencies, moral dilemmas recede from sight, while the occasions for more scrutiny and conscious moral choice become increasingly rare.

A similar effect (on a still more impressive scale) is achieved by rendering the victims themselves psychologically invisible. This has been certainly one of the most decisive among the factors responsible for the escalation of human costs in modern warfare. As Philip Caputo observed, war ethos ‘seems to be a matter of distance and technology. You could never go wrong if you killed people at long range with sophisticated weapons.’(Philip Caputo, A Rumour of War (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1977), p. 229.) With killing ‘at a distance’, the link between the carnage and totally innocent acts – like pulling a trigger, or switching on the electric current, or pressing a button on a computer keyboard – is likely to remain a purely theoretical notion (the tendency enormously helped by the mere discrepancy of scale between the result and its immediate cause – an incommensurability that easily defies comprehension grounded in commonsensical experience). It is therefore possible to be, a pilot delivering the bomb to Hiroshima or to Dresden, to excel in the duties assigned at a guided missile base, to design ever more devastating specimens of nuclear warheads – and all this without detracting from one’s moral integrity and coming anywhere near moral collapse (invisibility of victims was, arguably, an important factor also in Milgram’s infamous experiments). With this effect of the invisibility of victims in mind, it is perhaps easier to understand the successive improvements in the technology of the Holocaust. At the Einsatzgruppen stage, the rounded-up victims were brought in front of machine guns and killed at point-blank range. Though efforts were made to keep the weapons at the longest possible distance from the ditches into which the murdered were to fall, it was exceedingly difficult for the shooters to overlook the connection between shooting and killing. This is why the administrators of genocide found the method primitive and inefficient, as well as dangerous to the morale of the perpetrators. Other murder techniques were therefore sought – such as would optically separate the killers from their victims. The search was successful, and led to the invention of first the mobile, then the stationary gas chambers; the latter – the most perfect the Nazis had time to invent – reduced the role of the killer to that of the ‘sanitation officer’ asked to empty a sackful of ‘disinfecting chemicals’ through an aperture in the roof of a building the interior of which he was not prompted to visit.

The technical-administrative success of the Holocaust was due in part to the skillful utilization of ‘moral sleeping pills’ made available by modern bureaucracy and modern technology. The natural invisibility of causal connections in a complex system of interaction, and the ‘distancing’ of the unsightly or morally repelling outcomes of action to the point of rendering them invisible to the actor, were most prominent among them. Yet the Nazis particularly excelled in a third method, which they did not invent either, but perfected to an unprecedented degree. This was the method of making invisible the very humanity of the victims. Helen Fein’s concept of the universe of obligation (‘the circle of people with reciprocal obligations to protect each other whose bonds arise from their relation to a deity or sacred source of authority’)(Fein, Accounting for Genocide, p. 4.) goes a long way towards illuminating the socio-psychological factors that stand behind the awesome effectiveness of this method. The ‘universe of obligation’ designates the outer limits of the social territory inside which moral questions may be asked at all with any sense. On the other side of the boundary, moral precepts do not bind, and moral evaluations are meaningless. To render the humanity of victims invisible, one needs merely to evict them from the universe of obligation.

Within the Nazi vision of the world, as measured by one superior and uncontested value of the rights of Germanhood, to exclude the Jews from the universe of obligation it was only necessary to deprive them of the membership in the German nation and state community. In another of Hilberg’s poignant phrases, ‘When in the early days of 1933 the first civil servant wrote the first definition of “non-Aryan” into a civil service ordinance, the fate of European Jewry was sealed.’(Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, p. 1044.) To induce the co-operation (or just inaction or indifference) of non-German Europeans, more was needed. Stripping the Jews of their Germanhood, sufficient for the German SS, was evidently not enough for nations which, even if they liked the ideas promoted by the new rulers of Europe, had reasons to fear and resent their claims to the monopoly of human virtue. Once the objective of judenfrei Germany turned into the goal of judenfrei Europe, the eviction of the Jews from the German nation had to be supplanted by their total dehumanization. Hence Frank’s favourite conjunction of ‘Jews and lice’, the change in rhetoric expressed in the transplanting of the ‘Jewish question’ form the context of racial self-defence into the linguistic universe of ‘self-cleansing’ and ‘political hygiene’, the typhus-warning posters on the walls of the ghettos, and finally the commissioning of the chemicals for the last act from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Schädlingsbekämpfung – the German Fumigation Company.”


Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Modernity and the Holocaust. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. [Bauman pictured below. Bold not in original. From the sub-section, social production of moral invisibility,” pp. 24-27 in chapter 1, Introduction: Sociology after the Holocaust, pp. 1-30.

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