body knowledge, empathy, and the body politic.
When I was born, Franklin D. Roosevelt was head of state in the United States and Adolf Hitler was head of state in Germany. I was, of course, blissfully unaware that a country's leader was the "head of state," that I was part of a "body politic" --or that bodies are less important than their heads.
A few years later, while sitting around the dinner table (at the head of which sat my dad), my brother--nine years older than me--asked whether I knew what part of my body I think with. I remembered times when I had instantly distinguished truth from lies, times when I'd witnessed injustice, times when I had to make a decision about how to respond. In each situation I'd felt a sensation in my stomach that had guided me. Obviously, I concluded, I think with my stomach. I patted my hand against my trusty solar plexus. My brother laughed and indulgently informed me that people think with their brains, which are in their heads, not in their stomachs.
This anatomy lesson marked one of the bits of instruction that I, like most people in Euro-American cultures, have received about the primacy of the brain and head over other parts of the body. Such instruction passes down through the generations our culture's preference for the "mind"--assumed to be located in the brain--over the "body," for rationality over impulses, feelings, and emotions.
Unfortunately, this disembodiment of our thinking and decision-making process informs our assumptions about morality and has serious psychosocial consequences. We need our bodies to make responsible ethical decisions. Responsibility literally means "the ability to respond"--impossible without an alert, fully attached sensory system that can perceive the environment clearly and communicate those perceptions to the rest of the mind. The extent to which we lose access to our somatic responses--the queasy stomach, the lump in the throat, the shaky knees--is the extent to which our thinking processes become abstracted, out of touch with reality. If we can't feel our own bodies and emotions, neither can we feel what others may be experiencing, which is the essence of empathy. Without awareness of and respect for our own somatic responses, empathy--the essential ground of ethical decision making--is impossible.
morality and the disciplined body
To illustrate the body's role in informing moral choice, let's think for a moment about military training, the primary goal of which is to ensure that soldiers follow the orders of their superiors. Training of soldiers' minds is primarily effected by controlling their bodies. Soldiers are told when and how to dress, eat, talk, move, shout, stand, walk, exercise, have sex, sleep, relax, fight, and kill. They are trained to suppress their bodily urges and emotional responses until it becomes second nature to move--or not move--their bodies as they are told. Once their bodies are so disciplined, they (body and mind) are at the service of their superiors. Today's high-tech killing apparatus makes this disembodiment even easier by further distancing one's visceral responses from the killing.
Children, too, are disciplined to suppress their impulses and feelings and often are punished for following the directions of their own will. Such "discipline" can amount to child abuse, which, in its more extreme forms, leaves severe scars. As psychologists have ascertained, being beaten, raped, or shamed can be so traumatic that the child cannot tolerate the experience; instead the child represses the trauma, subconsciously storing the memory in related areas of the body. These repressed traumas result in chronically rigid muscular patterns, which in turn disturb circulation of blood and energy, further dulling awareness. In this way, child abuse functions much like military training: it damages the connection between mind and body so that the child--and later the adult--cannot rely on physical sensations, impulses, and feelings to inform moral choices.
The resultant disembodied thinking is dangerous not only for abused children but also for the society in which the child lives. Children taught to distrust their bodily responses learn to depend on external authorities instead of their own internal authority.
In the rest of this essay, I'll take a historical look at the role of pre-war German pedagogy, ethics, and religion in training people to distrust messages from their bodily feelings and emotions, thereby training them to distrust their internal sense of authority. People who can't trust their own body knowledge feel out of touch, have less tolerance for ambiguity, seek clear-cut simple rules to determine their actions, tend to consider complex situations in simplistic terms, and are thus more likely to be swayed by pronouncements made by "experts" and by naive either/or arguments. The slogan "You're either with us or against us," for example, could seem reasonable only to a populace for which reason has become severed from an intact empathic system--to people who had thus been primed to see Jews, communists, and homosexuals as "the enemy." In short, to the extent that a society venerates the ultimate authority of disembodied rationality, it fosters a citizenry that is out of touch with its psychosomatic knowledge base and is therefore vulnerable to political manipulation.
a case in point: the eichmann enigma
The consequences of disembodied thinking can be far reaching. In her reflections on the trial of Adolf Eichmann (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963), Hannah Arendt notes that, when Eichmann visited the concentration camp at Chelmno and witnessed corpses tumbling from a gassing van, he nearly fainted. His knees buckled, his stomach went queasy, and he had to look away. He experienced a similar reaction to seeing people shot and did his best to avoid the sight. But Eichmann had been trained to trust his "reason" over messages from his body and, relatedly, to trust the decisions of authority figures over his own inclinations. Instead of concluding from his visceral revulsion that there was something wrong with murdering people, he apologized for his "weakness," pulled himself together, and concluded that tidier killing methods needed to be devised. He then went on to implement the "Final Solution": the gassing of most of the Jews remaining in Germany.
During his trial, Eichmann shocked the courtroom by proclaiming he had always tried to live his life according to Kantian ethical principles. He even quoted Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, though he admitted that, once he began to carry out the Final Solution, he was no longer acting in accordance with it. Arendt sees fault only in Eichmann and not at all in Kant, but I believe Kantian ethics are part of the base problem.
kant's disembodied ethics and the good will
Arguably one of the most influential ethicists in the Western intellectual tradition, Kant heavily impacted Eichmann and, in turn, countless Holocaust victims.
Kant's first ethical principle is that the only thing in the world that is good without qualification is a good will. Other qualities--for example, courage, resolution, and judgment--are gifts of nature bestowed on some people and not on others. According to Kant, such qualities may be "desirable in many respects; but they can also be extremely bad ... when the will is not good." Secondly, a good will by Kant's definition is a will to always do one's duty regardless of one's inclinations, emotions, impulses, or feelings for others. Thus, people who act out of sympathy for others simply "find an inner pleasure in spreading happiness ... and ... delight in the contentment of others.... An action of this kind ... has ... no genuinely moral worth." Thus any action motivated by feeling for others is morally worthless in Kant's view; sympathy "stands on the same footing as other inclinations [because] its maxim lacks moral content, namely, the performance of such action, not from inclination but from duty." And what is duty? Kant's third principle: "Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law."
With this groundwork in place, Kant formulates the categorical imperative, which he sets in opposition to hypothetical imperatives. Hypothetical imperatives appear in the form of "if you want x to happen, do y." But Kant doesn't care about results. He's interested only in will, duty, and law. Results appear in the empirical realm--the realm of the body, senses, and feelings. Kant seeks an a priori moral imperative--one uncontaminated by emotions, empathy, or concern for desired results. He states his categorical imperative in a number of ways, but the most common (the way cited, for example, by Eichmann) is to act in such a way that you could will that the maxim of your actions should become universal law--that is, that the law should apply to everyone; no exceptions. With the categorical imperative, Kant believes he's achieved his aim: he's created an a priori rule that, if obeyed, will necessarily result in ethical behavior.
Therefore, for Kant, our feelings for others are morally worthless; we shouldn't attend to impulses, physical sensations, or inclinations in making moral decisions. What counts as ethical is our will to do our duty and the disinterested application of our a priori--that is, disembodied--reason in support of that will.
Where did Kant get these ideas about ethics? Aside from his own parents' pedagogical practices, a primary source of Kantian ethics is Protestantism. In fact, Kant was only formulating with philosophical rigor what he and the majority of the eighteenth-century German populace had already been taught by Protestantism: feelings and emotions are rooted in the body, which is not only disconnected from but stands in opposition to the soul. Bodily desires aren't to be trusted and can thus play no role in moral decision making. Kant simply translated the Protestant body/soul dualism into an Enlightenment body/mind dualism that would make the dichotomy palatable for later, more secular-minded generations.
pedagogical attacks on bad wills and living bodies
Eighteenth-century Germany seemed obsessed with the human will. While Kant was defining "a good will" as the only conceivable thing that "can be taken as good without qualification" and arguing that our rationality alone is capable of informing a good will, contemporary German pedagogues were prescribing strict parental control of their children's wills. As Alice Miller explains in her provocative book, For Your Own Good, the pedagogues--or child psychologists of the day--assumed that a child is prone to be "willful," that a child by nature has a "bad" will. Excessive crying, temper tantrums, refusal to obey even the most trivial parental directive all counted as evidence of a child's willfulness and should be ruthlessly eradicated in order to turn the child into a virtuous, moral adult. Prescribed means of eradication included threatening, shaming, starving, and beating the child until his or her will was broken.
Writing decades before Kant's 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, German pedagogue J. Sulzer warned parents in An Essay on the Education and Instruction of Children that willfulness must be stamped out at a very early age:
Willfulness must be driven out in a methodical manner.... Once children have learned that anger and tears will win them their own way, they will not fail to use the same methods again. They will finally become the masters of their parents ... and will have a bad, willful, and unbearable disposition.... But if the parents ... drive out willfulness from the very beginning by means of scolding and the rod, they will have obedient, docile, and good children.
According to Sulzer, parents should overpower children physically and emotionally until their wills are eradicated; then it's possible to replace the child's will with that of her or his parents. This is, of course, for the child's own good, since the child's will is by definition bad and the parents' will is good.
Sulzer lists specific steps in effecting this transfusion of a good will into a child's person:
The first and foremost matter to be attended to is implanting in children a love of order.... Food and drink, clothing, sleep ... must never be altered in the least to accommodate their willfulness or whims so that they may learn in earliest childhood to submit strictly to the rules of orderliness.... If children become accustomed to orderliness at a very early age, they will suppose thereafter that this is completely natural because they no longer realize that it has been artfully instilled in them.
Thus, well-disciplined children will forget they ever had a will of their own, will forget what it felt like to desire something, will accept their own obedience to authority as "natural." Their innate spontaneity will be supplanted by a controlled orderliness. Furthermore, Sulzer sees such orderliness as a sign of obedience, which he considers of ultimate importance:
The second major matter to which one must dedicate oneself ... is a strict obedience to parents and superiors and a trusting acceptance of all they do. These qualities ... are so essential because they impart to the mind orderliness per se and a spirit of submission to the laws. Obedience is so important that all education is actually nothing other than learning how to obey.
Sulzer thus encourages parents to squelch the child's natural urges in order to make the child obedient not only to parents but also to all "superiors" and to the law. Education in his view is learning to mistrust one's own inclinations, supplanting them with an unerring willingness to obey others.
Writing a few years later (1752), J. G. Krueger prescribes more detailed ways to break a child's will. He recommends not only beatings but also humiliation and the withdrawal of love. A parent is to be the "master" of the subservient child:
Disobedience amounts to a declaration of war against you. Your son is trying to usurp your authority, and you are justified in answering force with force.... The blows you administer should not be merely playful ones but should convince him that you are his master. Therefore you should not desist until he does what he previously refused out of wickedness to do.... If ... he has seen that he is vanquished from the first time and has been obliged to humble himself before you, this will rob him of his courage to rebel anew.... Be sure ... not to desist until the child has fulfilled his father's will and comes to beg you for forgiveness. You should not withhold your forgiveness entirely ... but should make it somewhat difficult of attainment and not show your complete approbation again until he has made good his previous transgressions by total obedience and has proven that he is determined to be a faithful subject of his parents.
Krueger notes that deprivation and humiliation can be effective even without beatings:
Sometimes, especially if [children] are of a proud nature, one can ... dispense with beatings if one makes them, for example, go barefoot and hungry and serve at table or otherwise inflicts pain upon them, where it hurts.
About fifty years later, another German pedagogue, C. G. Saltzman, wrote at length about the use of humiliation to break a child's will. He quotes the advice of his pastor, who recommends that, after a father beats a child, the father should be sure to exercise his power over the child by ordering him to complete meaningless tasks repeatedly:
Now while the lashes are still fresh in your [child's] mind, I advise you to take advantage of it. When you come home, see that you order him about a good deal. Have him fetch you your boots, your shoes, your pipe, and take them away again; have him carry the stones in the yard from one place to another. He will do it all and will become accustomed to obeying.
Such emphasis on children's strict obedience to parents and the importance of severe punishments in exacting that obedience continued into the nineteenth century and beyond. The goals of eradicating a child's will, suppressing children's desires and spontaneity, and forcing strict obedience to parents and other adults became more entrenched. New specifics and even technology to help effect those ends appeared.
In Soul Murder (1973), Morton Schatzman focuses on mid-nineteenth-century pedagogue Daniel Gottlieb Schreber, who wrote several books on childrearing and was highly esteemed by Sigmund Freud, among others. Schreber details ways to control children's feelings, desires, eating habits, sexuality, bodily movements, and, of course, their wills. For example, he writes:
One must look at the moods of the little ones that are announced by screaming without reason and crying.... If one has convinced oneself that no real need ... is present, one can be assured that the screaming is only ... the ... first appearance of self-will.
Schreber's remedy for this self-will is:
moderate, intermittent, bodily admonishments consistently repeated until the child calms down or falls asleep. ... Such a procedure is necessary only once or at most twice and--one is master of the child forever. From now on a glance, a word, a single threatening gesture, is sufficient to rule the child.
All of this was by now familiar enough in nineteenth-century pedagogy. Schreber's peculiarity consists in his construction of a barrage of restraining devices designed to control a child's bodily movements. At night, for example, one device strapped a child flat on her or his back in bed so that the child couldn't turn from side to side. For daytime use in correcting less than perfect posture, Schreber invented the kopfhalter (headholder) to prevent the child's head from falling forward or sideways. The kopfhalter was a strap clamped at one end to the child's hair and at the other to the back of his or her underwear so that it pulled the hair if the head wasn't held straight. Schreber explains: "The consciousness that the head cannot lean forward past a certain point soon becomes a habit."
Indeed. Neither the head, the body, the emotions, nor the feelings can assume the attitude that the child wills. Instead, the parents' will is infused into the child via his or her body to the point that the parents' will becomes habitual--literally, second nature.
the disembodied ethics of protestant patriarchy
In all of this parental suppression of children's natural spontaneity, feelings, and desires we hear clear echoes of Protestantism. Several centuries earlier, Martin Luther had written: "There are no better works than to obey and serve all those who are set over us as superiors. For this reason also disobedience is a greater sin than murder." As astonishing as it may seem to us today that the father of Protestantism literally preferred murder to disobedience of one's superiors, this preference didn't seem outlandish in eighteenth-century Germany.
Luther and Kant significantly influenced Johan Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), for whom both goodness and freedom meant obedience to authority. Fichte was also very keen on breaking a child's will to make her or him obedient to the father--just as adults are to be obedient to God the father. In his Address to the German Nation (which was to become a primary tract of German nationalism), Fichte warns parents: "If you want to influence [a child], you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than you wish him to will."
One reason I quote the preceding passages in such detail is to illustrate how for centuries German parents--probably the majority of whom had themselves been beaten, humiliated, or otherwise abused as children--were confronted at every turn with admonitions to train children to obey and to break their wills through disciplining their bodies and emotions. For well-educated parents, pedagogical texts gave explicit how-to instructions, while Kantian and Fichtean ethics further legitimized such pedagogical practices. For the less learned, Protestantism would have gotten the message across: children should, under all conditions, obey their parents and other "superiors." For even murder was considered less a sin than disobedience!
I don't know the specific details of Eichmann's childhood, but these passages suggest the psychosocial climate in which he, as well as his parents and grandparents, were raised. Even in the early twentieth century, German patriarchs were especially heavy-handed. Fathers laid down the law, and mothers and children obeyed. It was normal to beat, humiliate, refuse food to, and withdraw love from children in order to break their wills and teach absolute obedience to superiors and "the law."
With such philosophical, religious, and pedagogical influence in mind, perhaps we can begin to understand how Eichmann could consider his merciless actions moral. As Arendt notes, Eichmann was obsessed with doing his duty, and he followed his orders and the law to the letter. The law, like Kant's categorical imperative, allowed no exceptions; no Jews should be spared regardless of circumstances.
Though he did help to save a half-Jewish cousin and one Jewish couple for whom his uncle had intervened, Eichmann wasn't proud of that; in fact, the memories of those lapses into inconsistency left him feeling uncomfortable, and he even apologized for them during his trial. But aside from those two instances of clemency, he had routinely acted against his "inclinations," not allowing his empathy for others to interfere with his service to Hitler. To his Kantian-informed mind, which venerated the ultimate authority of disembodied rationality, this defying of his urges to be merciful justified his actions; the fact that he had defied his own inclinations in favor of obeying his superiors was precisely what proved to him that he had done his ethical duty.
the effects of disembodied ethics on children and inmates
Another reason why I quote these German pedagogical texts in detail is to point out striking parallels between ways in which German children were typically treated and ways in which Jews, homosexuals, Poles, Gypsies, communists, and other "undesirables" whose wills were not in accord with that of the Fuhrer were treated in the concentration camps. While children were routinely starved, beaten, and humiliated into blind obedience to their parents' (especially their fathers') wills, such treatment was meted out en masse and without restraint to concentration camp prisoners.
Like children whose parents followed Krueger's pedagogy, inmates were made to go barefoot and hungry. Many had no shoes, and those who were selected to work (that is, to be worked to death) were, in most camps, allowed a very meager diet. Beatings were routine; a guard or kapo could beat an inmate on the slightest provocation. Aside from the random lashes administered in the course of encouraging faster or harder work, corporal "punishment" for any infraction--including any lapse in neatness or orderliness--was common, and such punishment was typically administered in full view of the other inmates.
Inmates were degraded in countless ways, including a variety of methods of infantilization. In many camps, use of outhouses was, for example, strictly regimented. While this would be problematic even for a healthy human body, it was impossible for those in ill health, and dysentery ran rampant in the camps. An inmate who couldn't control his or her bowels suffered not only that pain and humiliation but typically the kapos saw the lack of bodily control as occasion to beat and further humiliate the inmate.
We can see here reflections of the strict treatment the guards themselves likely received as children at the hands of their own parents under the guise of pedagogy. Even the advice of Saltzman's pastor to order the beaten child about, having him or her perform meaningless tasks, was writ large in the camps, where prisoners were ordered to perform such senseless tasks as carrying pebbles from one side of the yard to the other and then, when that was completed, carrying them back again.
Such facts of concentration camp life were, of course, kept secret to the extent possible during World War II. Only when liberated inmates began to tell their stories and photographs and films were released to the public did the outside world become aware of these gruesome facts. The horror became visible.
But some of what was perpetrated en masse on concentration camp inmates was routine treatment for children isolated within the confines of the German patriarchal family. And such largely invisible abuse of children continues today. True to the indoctrination inculcated, many adults who as children were beaten, humiliated, or simply deprived of the love and trust requisite to a healthy childhood now deny the horror of their early lives, sometimes even chuckling as they recall being beaten. Many even claim that such experiences were "good" for them, while others merely claim to have "survived" such treatment.
But I would question their "survival." While I agree the survivor of child abuse is clearly not dead in the sense of the millions who perished in concentration camps, I would point out that an abused child's spirit is deadened with each beating, each instance of humiliation, each moment that she or he needs acceptance and affection and finds instead harsh judgment or withdrawal of parental love. If the abuse is sufficiently severe or prolonged, and if abused children meet no one willing to understand their feelings and advocate on their behalf, their spirits can be so destroyed that they become dangerously out of touch with their feelings, both physically and emotionally.
This deadening of sensitivity to pain and humiliation appears not only in some abused people's apparent lack of concern for their own childhood trauma but also in their response--or, rather, lack of response--to the mistreatment of others. It's revealed in their inability to experience empathy and their rationalization that they and others deserve their fate. And sometimes it is exemplified in repressed rage that erupts in antisocial ways. They may pass their abuse on to their wives, husbands, lovers, or children; they are also more prone toward racism and bigotry as they subconsciously seek scapegoats upon which to project their repressed rage.
The historical childrearing practices prevalent from eighteenth-through early twentieth-century Germany laid fertile ground for the German people's active participation in--or at least numb tolerance of--the persecution of Jews and other "undesirables." The scarcely noticeable, day-by-day murdering of children's spirits resulted in repression of pain and rage that festered as the children grew older and was, in turn, unleashed onto their children and society. In the early twentieth century, in the context of severe economic pressures, that rage exploded into violence directed against whole classes of people. Thus the torture and mass murder carried out in the concentration camps was prefigured in the spiritual deaths of those who created and operated the camps, and in the deadened sensitivity and resulting incapacity for empathy on the part of the German populace. The pervasive climate of child abuse, then acceptable pedagogy in Germany, not only fostered perverse individuals such as Hitler, Eichmann, and members of the SS who reenacted their own abuse on helpless victims, but also played a crucial role in readying a whole populace to accept fascism.
Thus we needn't be shocked by Eichmann's reference to Kant as the ethical beacon that guided his life. Kant's program for making disembodied ethical decisions lends philosophical legitimacy to the disembodied responses characteristic of those who have been so severely abused that their wills have been subsumed under the wills of those in authority and their spirits have been so deadened that their access to a sensitive, empathic response to others is severed.
I don't want to give the wrong impression. I'm not saying that rationality should play no role in making moral decisions. Far from it. We need all our mental functions, as well as our bodies, feelings, and emotions, to make responsible ethical decisions. My brother was, of course, right in saying that we humans think with our brains; he was wrong, however, in concluding that's all we think with. A brain disconnected from the stomach, intestines, throat, heart, and other parts of our body isn't only seriously impaired, it can be as deadly as the proverbial loose cannon.
Thankfully, mind/body dualism is waning in the United States. Even Western medicine now acknowledges two-way interconnectedness between the body and the mind. And we are becoming increasingly aware not only of child abuse but also of therapeutic means of helping people, who have been violated by their "superiors," to deal with the memories in safe, supportive environments. People who undergo therapy and reclaim those memories also reclaim their empathic abilities, thereby freeing themselves from the compulsion to repeat what was done to them by doing it to others. In the process, they break the chain of abuse that had been passed from generation to generation. Healing the severed connections between the many parts of our bodies and minds is therefore important not only for us as individuals but also for society as a whole. Only when we are fully embodied are we mindful and fully human.
Jude Todd holds a doctorate in the history of consciousness from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she teaches writing and interdisciplinary humanities and arts courses.