Writing a few short months before his arrest by the Gestapo in April of 1943, the German scholar, theologian, and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrestled with the challenges of living in a context of evil. Bonhoeffer had opposed the Nazi regime from its inception, delivering a critical radio address just two days after Hitler’s rise to power ten years earlier. Deeply at odds with Lutheran leaders who acceded to, and even cooperated with, Nazi influence on the German churches, he helped to found the breakaway Confessing Church movement set against such influence. In 1935 he participated in organizing an underground seminary to train pastors for these new churches, serving as the leader of that residential community until it was disbanded by Hitler’s government in 1937.
After his time at the seminary, an invitation to join an assassination plot against Hitler forced him to confront anew the demands of living responsibly in the face of injustice. Already he had taken many risks to oppose and undermine Nazi power. Joining the plot presented new risks but also raised new moral questions. He was drawn to pacifism as a matter of moral conviction and now struggled with whether the truth that he found there ruled out participation in the plot, or whether such collaboration was, in fact, the only responsible option.
Eventually, Bonhoeffer threw in his lot with the would-be assassins, but he never regarded this choice—or any choice about how to deal with evil—as easy or obvious. His essay “After Ten Years” contains his reflections on the special difficulty of thinking and acting well in the fog of moral confusion that systemic corruption and injustice create. He composed the piece as a Christmas gift to those who had, at the seminary and elsewhere, tried to navigate these challenges together with him. Fully expecting that his arrest was imminent, he hid a copy in the rafters of his home, where it escaped attention and survived. Bonhoeffer himself was executed in the Flossenbürg concentration camp in April of 1945, after the plot failed and his participation came to light.
His essay is at once an intimate address to a circle of friends and a source of strikingly contemporary moral insight. Bonhoeffer writes that he cannot think about the terrible events of the previous decade without “a constant sense of gratitude for the fellowship of spirit and community of life that have been proved and preserved throughout these years” (2). He claims to be saying nothing new and disavows any attempt at systematicity. Yet he offers help not only to his own community but to anyone living in morally confusing times.
Wrongdoing by others can make acting with integrity more difficult in some straightforward and familiar ways: it is hard to oppose prevailing social norms and easier to follow the crowd. Doing what is right can require painful sacrifices even under the best of circumstances. Such sacrifices seem more onerous when others fail to do their share, and more still when they are necessary only because others are doing what they should not.
Bonhoeffer acknowledges such burdens of acting well on the first page of his essay: the losses that he and his friends have sustained in the struggle against evil, he writes, have been “great and immeasurable” (1). Near the end he returns to this theme of loss and writes poignantly of how the death of those they love has become common enough to be unsurprising. He speaks too of how they await their own deaths with both equanimity and grief.
Losing Our Moral Concepts
But neither loss and sacrifice, nor the need for good people to steel their wills in the face of moral chaos, are what centrally occupy him. He finds that the moral difficulty of confronting evil is not just a matter of summoning virtues of courage and resolve to do what clearly needs to be done or willingly absorbing the high costs of moral action. There is a deeper problem for those trying to act well. It is the problem that “[t]he great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts” (2). Evil that is widespread, systematic, and powerful can undermine not just our strength of will but also our moral understanding. It can appropriate the concepts that we need to think our moral thoughts, and thus hamper our ability to think well about what to do—even to frame the question aright.
The philosopher Cora Diamond (1988) speaks of the threat of losing our moral concepts. She shares with others a conviction that the important categories in which we think our morally significant thoughts are rooted in certain social practices or ways of life. If these practices break down, if they are usurped or corrupted by those who do not share the values they embody, the significance of our moral concepts can go with them. What we are talking about when we talk about justice or virtue or freedom can shift under our feet and can even become opaque to us. Having lost the concepts that would provide the means of escape, we may not be able to think our way out of the confusion that results.
Bernard Williams recognized a related possibility when he wrote that “there are certain situations so monstrous that the idea that the processes of moral rationality could yield an answer in them is insane” (Williams, p. 92). The calculative rationality of utilitarianism is the immediate target of Williams’s declaration, but he does not suppose that some alternative approach to moral reasoning will make us more able to think our way through such monstrous situations. The only morally decent option, he thinks, is to preserve a category of the morally unthinkable.
Williams is warning against a certain method in moral philosophy, one that relies on eliciting intuitions about hypothetical cases. Too often, he thinks, the cases in question are cases of tragedy, emergencies in which lives are at stake and we are asked to choose among them. If one encountered such a case in reality, it would be indecent to meet it with the philosopher’s emotionally detached exercise of weighing intuitions. We should worry about what a philosophical method that encourages, and even relies on, exactly this indecency might say about us, and how it might shape us. And we should doubt that it provides a promising path to moral insight. In the face of such cases, Williams suggests, philosophy should instead fall into silence. But Bonhoeffer faces in situ the sort of tragedy that Williams regards as unthinkable. It is not, for him, a philosopher’s counterfactual game but the context in which he and his community must act. Silent or not, they must decide what to do. Yet he agrees with Williams and others about the fragility of moral concepts and the possible limits of moral thought.
The Types of Good-Willed People
Bonhoeffer’s essay is retrospective. He is not so much working out how to approach the problem of moral confusion as reflecting on how he and others have managed or failed to do so. He diagnoses the failures more confidently than he describes the successes. He conveys the threat of moral confusion by canvassing several types of good-willed people and the moral concepts that each employs in the attempt to bring some order to a time of moral crisis. There is something right in each way of thinking, and in better circumstances each might provide reliable direction. But none, he thinks, is adequate to the moment, a time in which evil appears “disguised as light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice,” a time he describes as “quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts” (2). Moral theories, convictions, and principles that might suffice in a more just society here only add to the confusion. They obscure rather than illuminate the moral challenges.
Bonhoeffer begins with those he identifies as the reasonable people. Reasonableness of the relevant sort is not so much a theory as a methodological presumption, or perhaps a kind of personality trait. Like others Bonhoeffer will discuss, the reasonable people are readily identifiable in our own context: “[T]hey think that with a little reason they can bend back into position the framework that has got out of joint. In their lack of vision they want to do justice to all sides” (2).
Of course, willingness to learn from a wide range of views, including especially views with which you disagree, is a recognizable moral and intellectual virtue. Curious and charitable consideration of others’ positions will steer you right in situations in which the disagreements themselves are reasonable and the parties to these disagreements are good-willed and arguing in good faith.
But this sort of reasonableness is not well suited to confront evil. Bonhoeffer says of the reasonable people that “disappointed by the world’s unreasonableness, they step aside in resignation or collapse before the stronger party” (2-3). Though they may agree that some views should not be endorsed, the reasonable people fail to appreciate that some should not even be taken seriously as contenders for endorsement. In Bonhoeffer’s time widely accepted views were not merely mistaken or misguided but beyond the pale—deserving no consideration or presumption of moral insight. To seek to “do justice” to such positions is already to go off the rails in one’s moral thinking.
Such positions can become socially salient and politically powerful to the point where they are impossible to ignore. We then need discernment, not only about first-order questions of what it is best to do and value, but also about second-order matters of which possible answers we should entertain and accommodate. Bonhoeffer’s reasonable people do not recognize their responsibility for this second-order task but treat all going views as if they were on a moral par. They conflate the popularity or influence of ways of thinking with their moral seriousness. The virtue of charitable interpretation becomes the moral error of false equivalence.
Reasonableness is especially impotent when met with what Bonhoeffer calls folly or foolishness. In one of the most contemporary stretches of the essay he writes:
Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. … Against folly we have no defence. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved—indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. … A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.Bonhoeffer, p. 7
In their attempts at objectivity or fair-mindedness, the reasonable people open themselves to exploitation by those who, with no reasonable basis, push dangerous agendas masquerading as worthy of careful consideration.
People of private virtuousness
Bonhoeffer’s person of private virtuousness shares something in common with the reasonable person. Like him, she declines to judge among the going views. But while the reasonable person sets himself up as a sort of dispassionate commentator, concerned about the societal ills of polarization while free of the extremism supposedly manifest at each pole, the people of private virtue “flee from public altercation into the sanctuary of private virtuousness” (4), and attempt to ignore these disagreements altogether. They try to keep their heads down and their hands clean. The person of private virtuousness “must shut his mouth and his eyes to the injustice around him,” limiting his public activities and focusing his energies on his circle of family and friends—raising his children and tending his own garden—and professing a lack of interest in what he will no doubt call “politics.”
Again, there can be something admirable in this, and there are circumstances in which a life of private virtue is a paradigmatic life well lived. In the sufficiently just society each person can pursue her own private aims and projects, and limit her public engagement, without failing to meet her moral obligations. We might even think that making this kind of life possible is a signature achievement of the just society. But in other circumstances the temptation to an inordinate self-protection masquerades as the virtue of minding one’s own business. One cannot always ignore injustice without fault, or credibly claim that one has no responsibility to intervene. So Bonhoeffer says of the person of private virtue that “in spite of all that he does, what he leaves undone will rob him of peace of mind” (4).
People of duty
The person of duty sidesteps responsibility to resist evil in another way. A kind of Hegelian, or at least the sort of person who figures in Hegel’s theorizing, he gives himself over to his social role and sets himself to carry it out as best he can. “Here, what is commanded is accepted as what is most certain, and the responsibility for it rests on the commander, not on the person commanded” (3). The dutiful person is the one who, in a subsequent reckoning, will say that he was just following orders. Like the person of private virtue, he regards it as no business of his to pass judgment on competing social ideals and political programs, and takes refuge in limiting the scope of his activities and claimed competence. He might differ from the person of private virtue only to the extent that he happens to find himself in a public role. But for just this reason, his moral dependence on sufficiently just social conditions is even greater.
The Nuremberg trials, among other prosecutions, raised a red flag over this position, so that few would now explicitly endorse it. But playing our assigned social roles unreflectively remains a common temptation. Bonhoeffer suggests that some of the best aspects of the German tradition left the German people especially vulnerable to this error: “But the German has kept his freedom—and what nation has talked more passionately of freedom than the Germans, from Luther to the idealist philosophers?—by seeking deliverance from self-will through service to the community. Calling and freedom were to him two sides of the same thing” (5). But the attraction of seeking freedom and meaning in one’s given tasks is familiar: whatever injustices are being committed in one’s society, students’ papers must be graded, patients’ exams performed, legal briefs filed, sermons written, and shelves restocked. We all have our orders, and following them keeps most of us busy enough that it is hard to so much as consider what the alternative might look like.
The person of duty is determined to make his small contribution by playing his social role well. “But in this he misjudged the world; he did not realize that his submissiveness and self-sacrifice could be exploited for evil ends” (5). What serves those who live in a decent society perfectly well can lead to tragic error in an uncooperative world. Setting aside one’s self-will and self-interest in order to contribute to society can amount to virtue only if the social order itself is relatively benign and sufficiently just. Where it instead advances injustice, evil masquerades as social obligation, and acceding to prevailing norms renders us complicit. “The man of duty will in the end have to do his duty by the devil too” (3). Here evil masquerades in the guise of humble conscientiousness.
On the opposite end of the moral spectrum is Bonhoeffer’s moral fanatic. While those we have considered so far, each in their own way, duck responsibility for taking a moral stand, the fanatic is wholly and uncompromisingly convinced of the truth of her own position. The reasonable person errs in taking seriously each view on offer, no matter what its content; the fanatic errs in taking seriously no view that departs from her own. Though in many ways the mirror image of the reasonable person, she thus shares with him a failure to appreciate the need for, and the difficulty of, moral discernment about second-order questions concerning which positions call for engagement, toleration, or accommodation. She demands a stringent moral orthodoxy, and refuses to compromise, work with, or learn from anyone who departs from what she is convinced is right.
While the dutiful person is familiar from Hegel’s work, Bonhoeffer may here have in mind a view that some associate with Kant. On this view the content of the moral law is clear—available, as Kant says, to the most common reason—and includes a series of absolute prohibitions: one may not lie or steal or use violence against others. The risks of such a rigid moral code are apparent to many, and even most contemporary Kantians would reject it. Christine Korsgaard (1986) suggests that Kant intended his moral theory for the ordinary course of moral life, mundane temptations to make exceptions for ourselves in the midst of basically decent human interactions and relationships. She cautions that the view is not meant for dealing with evil.
Even so, moral fanaticism has important attractions: someone who holds fast to stringent principles can be understood as a person of great integrity. Bonhoeffer’s evolving attitude towards pacifism provides a case study in both the appeal and the dangers of this sort of stance, and perhaps he sees his earlier self in the moral fanatic. There is certainly something morally admirable in forswearing violence, and pacifism brings along with it an attractive interpersonal ideal. Non-violent protest may also be the most effective counter to an evil regime. But it would be unduly optimistic to count on the effectiveness of non-violence, and a principled pacifist must forgo violence no matter what the expected result. In Bonhoeffer’s own situation it had become clear that, without violent resistance, the hijacking of legal and social institutions to perpetrate widespread oppression, suffering, and death would almost certainly continue. In such extremity, one must ask whether there is any difference between principled refusal to use violence and capitulation to evil.
Tamar Schapiro (2003) characterizes the sort of dilemma posed by Bonhoeffer’s pacifism as turning on our proper relationship to moral principles. On the one hand, we admire principled people and want to understand ourselves as acting in principled ways. And we recognize that if we abandon or modify our principles whenever following them becomes difficult or costly, we cannot claim to act with integrity at all. On the other hand, we do not want to be naïve idealists who can be exploited by those with bad intentions or—as Korsgaard more evocatively puts it—made into a tool for evil. Hobbes says that if we insist on adhering to moral requirements for which those around us have no respect, we make ourselves prey for them. We also leave them free to prey on vulnerable others, who might be thought to have a claim on our protection.
Schapiro recognizes that the need to avoid naïve idealism puts the rule-bound position of the moral fanatic under consequentialist pressure. According to consequentialists, the right thing to do is whatever will lead to the best outcome. While the moral fanatic adheres unyieldingly to a set of moral rules, the consequentialist thinks that in principle any means can be justified, so long as the outcomes of our actions are better than the alternatives. In a surprising terminological choice, Bonhoeffer characterizes this position as an embrace of freedom. His point is that the consequentialist regards herself as free to use all possible tools to secure a good result. Against the reasonable person, she will abandon “the barren wisdom of a middle course for a fruitful radicalism”; against the moral fanatic, she sacrifices “a barren principle for a fruitful compromise” (3-4).
While he does not endorse this consequentialist radicalism, Bonhoeffer takes seriously the challenge that it poses, especially against the principled moral fanatic. He elaborates this challenge when he reflects on the proper place of “success” in responsible moral thinking. “As long as goodness is successful, we can afford the luxury of regarding [success] as having no ethical significance; it is when success is achieved by evil means that the problem arises” (6). So long as our principled action succeeds in making the world better, or at least steers us clear of catastrophe, it is easy to suppose that our commitment to these principles is not conditioned on this success. But when following these principles seems likely to lead to disaster—as Bonhoeffer had become convinced that an unyielding adherence to pacifism would—we must face squarely the question whether the outcomes of our action have a moral significance of their own.
He reframes the practical question that faces those living through moral crises as one that concerns “how the coming generation is to live” (6). By invoking those who will have to live with the consequences of what we do, Bonhoeffer makes clear that consequentialist considerations can also have an interpersonal character: we must think of ourselves as answerable to those who will inherit the results of our actions, “for it is their own future that is at stake” (7). But though we cannot set aside this question about the coming generation, neither does he think that reflection on it will yield a moral principle by which we can guide ourselves with confidence.
Nor can we meet our moral challenge by following the consequentialist directive to maximize the value of the outcomes of our actions. Especially when we are fighting ruthless wrongdoers, a single-minded focus on the outcomes may direct us to commit truly atrocious acts against our fellow human beings. To be willing to do anything at all to improve the world is to lose sight of others’ claims against being made the victims of our actions, however well-intended these may be. While we think only of results, evil masquerades as necessary means.
So Bonhoeffer recognizes—and urges his readers to recognize—both the moral appeal and the moral dangers of the views he calls fanaticism and freedom. There are moral reasons both to forgo certain means and to realize certain ends, and there is no guarantee that these reasons will not be fundamentally at odds. “In the face of such a situation we find that it cannot be adequately dealt with, either by theoretical dogmatic arm-chair criticism, which means a refusal to face the facts, or by opportunism, which means giving up the struggle and surrendering to success” (6). Neither the rules of the moral fanatic nor the so-called freedom of the consequentialist provide an adequate resolution.
People of conscience
The person of conscience recognizes the moral complexity of this predicament. She sees that no principle can eliminate uncertainty or the need to exercise her own judgement in the face of the confusion that results. No method of ethical thinking or mechanical application of moral concepts is guaranteed to land her in the moral clear. She can only do her best to consider the particularities of her circumstances and then direct herself by the best conclusion she can reach.
In fact, there is an important sense in which no one has any choice but to act on their own best judgement in the face of the great masquerade of evil. As Korsgaard says, it is our plight to be forced to resolve the question of how to act, one way or another, for ourselves. What sets the person of conscience apart is that she understands and accepts this responsibility in a clear-eyed way. The supposedly contrasting strategies of action discussed above might thus be understood as bad-faith exercises of conscience rather than genuine alternatives to it. Rather than own up to confusion, and face the full extent of their responsibility to exercise judgment, these others attempt to locate some shortcut, a straightforward way to settle the question of action once and for all. They try to yield their responsibility to someone in charge, or discharge it by adhering to some clear and inflexible principles, or by single-mindedly maximizing the value of the results. Only the person of conscience is able to admit that the decision about how to act lies with her alone.
God’s Promise of Grace
Of all the approaches to confronting evil that he rejects as inadequate, that of the person of conscience is closest to Bonhoeffer’s own. Yet he believes that, in the end, the confusion that evil generates will overwhelm this person. “[T]he scale of the conflicts in which he has to choose—with no advice or support except from his own conscience—tears him to pieces. Evil approaches in so many respectable and seductive disguises that his conscience becomes nervous and vacillating” (3). Bonhoeffer describes the alternative posture that he embraces for himself and commends to his friends as “obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God.” The truly responsible person, he claims, “tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God” (4).
But what is the difference between the person of conscience and the person who seeks to live responsibly before God? What problem does Bonhoeffer suppose that reliance on God can address? It is not what one might expect. In many years of teaching this essay, I have found that readers new to it, regardless of their own religious beliefs and commitments, overwhelmingly suppose that Bonhoeffer thinks that God will cut through the moral confusion and tell the faithful what to do. But he gives no indication that he has experienced or expects this sort of direction. Nowhere in his reflections does he moderate his position that no account can reliably dispel the moral confusion brought on by evil and give us confidence about how to act. He does not think that God will tell him what to do, but rather that God’s promise of grace makes it possible to act without knowing.
To understand the nature of the assurance that Bonhoeffer finds in his faith in God, it helps to consider in more depth the predicament of the person of conscience. All of the others he has considered face a common problem: their moral concepts are unsuited to their circumstances and so direct them wrongly. The reasonable person culpably accommodates evil; the person of private virtue avoids political engagement when he ought not to; the dutiful person carries out orders to do wrong; the moral fanatic guards her own moral purity too zealously while leaving others to suffer; the person of freedom commits moral atrocities in the service of the good. But Bonhoeffer does not suggest that the person of conscience is subject to any characteristic form of wrongdoing. Indeed, he says nothing about the content of what she will decide to do. Since she acts on her own best judgement in each case, rather than on some general principle or rule, this is just what we would expect. In fact, as far as I can see, Bonhoeffer thinks that the person of conscience and the person who makes his life a response to God’s call may perfectly well act in the same way.
The problem for the person of conscience is of a different sort. While she does not evade responsibility for deciding what to do, her problem is that she cannot bear this responsibility. She does her best to judge well but her judgement is far from infallible, and—as she recognizes—she is called upon to exercise it in circumstances that undermine the possibility of clear moral vision and thought. In such circumstances, even the wise and careful person may go very far wrong. That there was, for example, no morally safe choice between pacifism and violent resistance, that each could well come to seem, in retrospect, a disastrous moral error, must have been clear to Bonhoeffer and the friends to whom he writes.
So any responsible person faces, in addition to the problems of figuring out what to do and overcoming any temptation not to do it, the further problem of how to live with the fact that she risks serious error in a high-stakes moral situation. The latter problem itself has two aspects, one prospective and the other retrospective. If we are honest about both the stakes of our actions and the extent of our confusion, we may be paralyzed at the very real prospect of going tragically wrong. This is what Bonhoeffer has in view when he identifies the moment of the “vacillating” conscience. If we overcome this paralysis and act—or if we do not overcome it and fail to act—we may need to reckon with the realization that we have gone very far wrong.
The person of conscience attempts to face these problems alone, with nothing but the authority of her own judgment either to guide or to comfort her. While he recognizes that we must all guide ourselves, Bonhoeffer does not think that we can provide ourselves with comfort about the possibility, much less the reality, of our own moral failure. The person of conscience then has only two options: he will either “salve” his conscience, denying the fact, extent, or import of his error and indulging the comforting self-deception that he has, after all, chosen and acted well enough. Or, accepting the truth, he may regard his terrible error as irredeemable and fall into despair.
Bonhoeffer believes that “a bad conscience may be stronger and more wholesome than a deluded one,” but that only divine grace makes it possible to live with the bad conscience and avoid the delusion. The availability of God’s forgiveness allows him to accept a verdict that he has acted wrongly—in a way that he cannot possibly justify to those affected, a way that destroys the prospect for realizing even minimally morally decent relationships with them—without succumbing to the despair that this recognition would otherwise warrant. It thus also solves the prospective problem, freeing him from a justified anxiety that might otherwise paralyze action, allowing him to, as Luther says, “sin boldly,” or more perspicuously, to run boldly the risk of sinning.
Those who do not share Bonhoeffer’s faith may wonder if there is some substitute for the divine grace on which he relies. The problem for the person of conscience is that she acts alone, on her individual authority. I have suggested that there is, in an important sense, no alternative to so acting, but it does not follow that we must do everything alone. Perhaps the moral community, or some moral community, can offer grace or consolation in the face of our tragic moral errors. But there are dangers in this solution. Among them are the dangers posed, again, by the great masquerade of evil, which may—sometimes in ways opaque to us—be at work in the very communities on which we would rely.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “After Ten Years,” in Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1953)
Cora Diamond. “Losing Your Concepts,” Ethics 98:2 (1988), pp. 255-77
Bernard Williams. “A Critique of Utilitarianism,” in J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 75-150
Christine Korsgaard. “The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing With Evil,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 15:4 (1986), pp. 325-49
Tamar Schapiro. “Compliance, Complicity, and the Nature of Nonideal Conditions,” The Journal of Philosophy 100:7 (2003), pp. 329-55