Justice on the Slaughter-Bench: The Problem of War Guilt In Arendt and Jaspers
New Criminal Law Review, Vol. 11, No. 2, pp. 187–231, Spring 2008
45 Pages Posted: 27 Nov 2009
Date Written: 2008
This article develops a meta-ethical inquiry into the nature and possibility of international justice. It sees the understanding of such justice as caught between two poles. On one hand, there is a naively optimistic vision of its possibility in a world of nation-states and power politics; on the other, an overly reductive and pessimistic account of justice as only that of the victor. The ethical truth lies between these two positions, in an aporetic middle ground. The article addresses its concerns by constructing a debate between Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers out of their different positions in Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and Jaspers’s The Question of German War Guilt. It begins by identifying a conflict in Arendt’s account of war guilt in the Eichmann trial, between her support for the possibility of international criminal justice and her view that an ethical community of judgment cannot be constituted for the defendant and others like him. It then seeks a way of addressing this conflict through a critical reading of Jaspers’s account of metaphysical guilt in the context of his ambivalence towards collective guilt. Thinking of the ethics of justice in Jaspers’s metaphysical terms does not, however, lead to an easy solution to Arendt’s problem of the justification of an international criminal justice. What emerges rather is an uneasy relationship between the legal and the ethical, where the latter both draws on and disturbs legal categories.
Keywords: Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers, Eichmann trial
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