Abstract: A new Categorical Imperative?
- A philosophical investigation of the “Never again!” refrain
Master’s thesis by Ditte Marie Munch-Hansen
In Negative Dialektik, Theodor W. Adorno claimed that after the Second World War a new categorical imperative was imposed on mankind: namely, to prevent Auschwitz – or something similar – from happening again.
Today – 60 years after the United Nations Genocide Convention came into effect – it is difficult to remain optimistic about the preventive character of Adorno’s “Never Again!” imperative. In spite of its existence, the second half of the 20th Century was filled with ethnic violence and genocide.
This thesis undertakes a philosophical analysis of the “Never Again!” refrain and questions whether this new imperative is as preventive as we assume. I argue that the philosophical analysis of the imperative cannot be separated from the de facto examples of attempts to live up to the obligations of the imperative. Because of this, part of the analysis looks at two concrete examples in which “Never Again!” resulted not in moral, but in immoral, action. Due to the somewhat unconventional inclusion of historical examples in a philosophical analysis, this master’s thesis begins with a chapter that outlines and discusses its methodology. A comparative study of how the new categorical imperative relates to the “old” categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant will then follow. I argue that even though the new imperative is based on a bodily impulse of abhorrence (‘abscheu’), Adorno does not exactly break with the rational Kantian moral philosophy, rather he builds his own moral concepts upon it. The two historical examples of “Never again!” reactions to atrocities show that the moral impulse of abhorrence does not necessarily lead to preventing atrocity, but can actually be an incitement to initiate new ones. The thesis does not seek to prove that the new imperative will always lead to such a perversion of its own initial purpose. Rather it suggests that it is a task for moral philosophy to reflect on how an intuitively sound moral impulse like “Never again!” encapsulates a destructive, as well as progressive, potential. The thesis concludes that, even though this ambiguity of “Never Again!” is a fundamental condition of morality, we are still obligated by its moral demands.