Thursday, August 25, 2005

What Would Bonhoeffer Do?

In Tuesday's post, or more properly, its follow-ups done on Wednesday, I mentioned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, since Pat Robertson had used Bonhoeffer's decision to join a group intending to assassinate Adolf Hitler as some form of justification for comments (that Robertson was "apologizing" for making in the very same press release) that the U.S. should "take out" Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In the spirit of "checking my facts," rather than simply typing out some stuff I remembered from an old Ethics class several years ago, I decided I should look up some more information on Bonhoeffer, who's reasoning I've already suggested is too complex to be reduced to just a simple example of a person who justified assassination.

According to the Wikipedia article on Bonhoeffer, he started out as a pacifist. But confronted with the anti-semitic purges of Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer became more and more convinced that something needed to be done. The Internet Encyclopedia on Philosophy article is more helpful. In it, we learn that Bonhoeffer sees "two guides for determining the will of God in any concrete situation: 1) the need of one's neighbor, and 2) the model of Jesus of Nazareth. There are no other guides, since Bonhoeffer denies that we can have knowledge of good and evil (Ethics, p.231)." While I might disagree with Bonhoeffer on this matter, this shows already a strong reason why it might be considered necessary to do an action that, while not "good," may be necessary to prevent even greater evil.

At this point, it is probably best just to quote a couple of revelant aspects of the IEP article:
[E]thical decisions make up a much smaller part of the social world for Bonhoeffer than they do for (say) Kant or Mill. Principally he is interested only in those decisions that deal directly with the presence of vicious behavior, and often involve questions of life and death.

....[L]ike Aristotle, Bonhoeffer sees judgments of character and not action as fundamental to moral evaluation. Evil actions should be avoided, of course, but what needs to be avoided at all costs is the disposition to do evil as part of our character. "What is worse than doing evil," Bonhoeffer notes, "is being evil" (Ethics, p.67). To lie is wrong, but what is worse than the lie is the liar, for the liar contaminates everything he says, because everything he says is meant to further a cause that is false.

...[F]or him there is no such thing as escaping your responsibility to act. When faced with evil, there is no middle path. You either oppose the persecution of the innocent or you share in it. No one can preserve his or her private virtue by turning away from the world (Ethics, p.69).
Consistent with what I suggested in my update, this allows Bonhoeffer to approve of an action, such as assassination, that might still be a "wrong" action, because it is far worse to allow evil actions to continue if it is possible to oppose them.

I honestly don't know how Bonhoeffer would respond to Robertson's comments. Neither do I pretend to know how Bonhoeffer would respond to the current Iraq war. As I said, I do not fully agree with all of Bonhoeffer's reasoning, although there is much to commend it. But Robertson would not agree with much of Bonhoeffer's reasoning either. Take this quote from the IEP article, for example:
... general principles have a tendency to reduce all behavior to ethical behavior. To act only for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, or to act only so that the maxim of an action can become a principle of legislation, become as relevant to haircuts as they do to manslaughter.... Ethics cannot be reduced to a search for general principles without reducing all of the problems of life to a bleak, pedantic, and monotonous uniformity. The "abundant fullness of life," is denied and with it "the very essence of the ethical itself" (Ethics , p.263).

Reliance on theory, in other words, is destructive to ethics, because it interferes with our ability to deal effectively with evil.
What would Robertson, who believes rather strongly in certain absolute general principles, have to say about that? Clearly, Robertson is attempting to use the name of a well-respected Christian figure (one of the few well-known "martyrs" of modern times) to support his position. I believe that this is unfair, and just a bit hypocritical. I could just as easily use Bonheoffer's arguments to go the other way, because of the added pain and suffering caused to a country by such actions against its leader. We don't know how Bonhoeffer would have responded to the situations in which we find ourselves. And it is wrong it suggest otherwise.


  1. We don't know, but, given Bonhoeffer's commitment to Christ in the community and the Sermon on the Mount as prescriptive, and his less-than-warm view of some of the establishment church authorities during the Nazi era, I do not hesitate to suggest that he would not approve of the Bush Administration's bloodthirst or aggression, or Pat Robertson's claims of temporal authority.

  2. Point taken, but it wasn't that Bonhoeffer was against the establishment per se, but that he (rightly) saw their motives as evil (since they did nothing against a regime that was evil). For all I know, he might have looked at that the particular situation of Hussein's Iraq, and determined that Hussein was so evil that he had to be stopped, and therefore might have agreed with Bush. (Please note that I am neither arguing my own perspective, nor my actual opinion of Bonhoeffer's) Bonhoeffer's insistence upon the realities of the particular situation to determine action make it impossible to predict what he would have thought with absolute certainty.



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