In introductory philosophy classes, it is common for students to push back against the idea that there might be absolute truths about what’s right and wrong, or about anything else. How could a truth be anything more than that, just something that someone claims to be true, simply their opinion? A standard reply to such relativism is to point to our assessment of the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany, to the wrongs of Adolf Hitler and his followers. Here we note that we’re calling attention as much to the universality of our Nazism-condemning opinions, as we are to the absolute falsehood of theirs.
An astute student might respond: If Hitler’s beliefs are false, how do we explain how they had such a grip on so many people, people who acted on them, and even died for them. How do we explain the fact that those beliefs continue to be held and promoted by individuals and groups? How can something that is so wrong seem so right to anyone? “He’s Alive” attempts to respond to this question. The “He” in question is Adolf Hitler, and what is alive is not Hitler, but his ideas.
Peter Vollmer is an angry young man in the grip of Hitler’s ideas, leading a small group of similarly angry young men who fear minorities, fear Jews, African Americans, and Catholics, who are “selling out” the Protestant white majority. Yet, when Vollmer speaks on a street corner, he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying, and those who are listening, including blacks, Jews, and Catholics, challenge Vollmer and ultimately physically overpower him and his cronies. In this opening scene, we see the instability of Vollmer’s views. Those listening to him take him to be a raving lunatic, and we sense that even Vollmer himself can’t really deliver his hateful speech with conviction.
So how can we make sense of how someone like Vollmer continues to espouse and act on propositions which appear to himself and others to be both false and repugnant? Put differently: How could someone possibly succeed to attract followers to such abhorrent views?
The answer comes to Vollmer in a dream in which Hitler provides advice. The key, Hitler notes, is to communicate with individuals who are like Vollmer, that is with people who are frustrated and angry, who already despise and distrust anyone who doesn’t look and act like them. Such individuals are likely to respond to Vollmer’s message of hate. Vollmer shares this in common with other human beings, that we seek the affirmation of others, and that we thrive on the admiration of others, which we can achieve by argument and evidence, but which we can also achieve by tapping into the beliefs and prejudices that people already hold. Laurence Thomas puts it well:
From a purely psychological point of view, nothing lends more credibility to a view that a person holds—even a quite warped view—than the person’s realization that there are others similarly situated holding essentially the very same view. Formal arguments, proof, and evidence typically pale in comparison to the significance that a human being attaches to the reality that there are others who think like her or him. (Thomas, 2012, p. 61)
Thomas cites Hume’s account of sympathy to explain the spread of credibility. Here credibility isn’t simply the adoption of a belief or set of beliefs of another. It is a kind of fellow-feeling which spreads among individuals who already share at least some beliefs. Sympathy is the psychological mechanism by which the emotions experienced by one person are felt by others, under certain conditions. Initially, those who listen to Vollmer’s rants are not sympathetic. They don’t feel the anger and outrage that Vollmer attempts to to project. Later, Vollmer attracts an audience of individuals who are already inclined to share his belief that the white Protestant majority is being marginalized at the expense of minorities. Vollmer learns how to project his anger and outrage, and it is mirrored back to him by his audience via sympathy, which further ratchets up his emotions.
The mechanism of sympathy, together with our need to affiliate with others, may explain how the sort of evil that Vollmer peddles can get a foothold, but how can we overcome it? How can good win out over evil? “He’s Alive” doesn’t answer this question. It has a much more modest goal, namely to warn us that Hitler is alive, that he is reborn as a “1963 Führer off the assembly line,” an assembly line that continues to operate today.
We began by noting that an argument against relativism is the condemnation of the behavior of a Hitler, but we wound up admitting that there are tendencies in human nature that inevitably lead to new Hitlers. So how do we defend the claim that our judgments of the wrongness of such behavior are not relative?
One approach to answering this question come from Hume. While the mechanism of sympathy, by itself, can lead to our approving of hateful acts, such of those of Vollmer, they can also lead to our approval of acts that we classify as good. The key move is to figure out what acts we would approve of independently of our special interests and circumstances, that is, from what Hume calls the general point of view. Vollmer’s audience does not have a general point of view. Their sympathetic responses stem from their particular circumstances and special interests. They take in Vollmer’s claims from the perspective of their own (skewed) sense of marginalization and mistreatment. Were they to drop such baggage, Vollmer’s claims would reveal themselves as unworthy of their support.
A different approach is due to Kant. Kant rejects the idea that morality depends on our sentiments or inclinations. The way to determine what is wrong our right is to rely on reason rather than sentiment. The question Kant thinks we should reflect on through reasoning is the question of whether the maxim or rule that Vollmer is appealing to could be universalized into a law that would apply to everyone. If reflection shows that such a law would be incoherent, then the maxim is to be rejected. This is Kant’s categorical imperative, and it is easy to appreciate how directly it addresses the question of the universality of our moral judgments. Philosophers continue to debate the Humean and Kantian approaches today, though there are other important theories as well.
Through Hume or Kant’s moral theory we may be able to recognize Vollmer’s speech as wrong. But what should we do about it? “He’s Alive” also realizes the question of whether we should tolerate hate speech. We may agree that “We can’t let it happen again.” We must not repeat the horror that Nazism brought to the world. But it’s also noted that “You can never kill an idea with a bullet.” Our dilemma is figuring out the morally correct way to deal with the inevitable recurrence of Peter Vollmers.
Heyd, David, ed., 1996 Toleration: An Elusive Virtue, Princeton University Press
Hume, David; (Norton, David Fate; Norton, Mary J., eds.), 2007, A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford University Press. Book 3, Part 3, Section 1.
Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, H. J. Paton, trans., (Harper, 1964).
Thomas, Laurence, 2012, “Self-Deception as the Handmaiden of Evil” Midwest Studies in Philosophy, 36, 2012
Waldron, J., 2012, The Harm in Hate Speech, Berlin: De Gruyter.