Schultz's Blanket Solution?

Tuesday, February 05, 2019


Over at Jewish World Review appears a short editorial by none other than former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who is testing the waters for an independent presidential candidacy. Within, Schultz engagingly tells of an encounter with a frail-looking rabbi who puts a whole room of businessmen (Schultz included) on the spot by asking them about the meaning of the Holocaust. After dismissing a couple of answers from his unprepared guests, the rabbi lays the groundwork for his answer as follows:

Image via Wikipedia.
"After hours and hours in this inhumane corral with no light, no bathroom, cold, they arrived at the camps. The doors were swung wide open, and they were blinded by the light. Men were separated from women, mothers from daughters, fathers from sons. They went off to the bunkers to sleep.

"As they went into the area to sleep, only one person was given a blanket for every six. The person who received the blanket, when he went to bed, had to decide, 'Am I going to push the blanket to the five other people who did not get one, or am I going to pull it toward myself to stay warm?'"

And Rabbi [Noson Tzvi] Finkel says, "It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit, because we pushed the blanket to five others."
I have no idea what I would do in that situation (and hope I never do). But giving the blanket away seems like the only way left one could have defied one's captors or affirmed a love of life. That said, I can't accept the rabbi's lesson:
[W]ith that, he stood up and said, "Take your blanket. Take it back to America and push it to five other people."
At best, this is an admonition to remember the best within oneself, but couched in altruism, the ethical code of every religion and our cultural default. So this might sound good to most people, but where is the actual guidance? At worst, it is an attempt to make the dangerous idea of self-sacrifice seem like an ideal.

The businessmen who answered before the rabbi were actually closer to the truth: Never forget this atrocity, and do what one can to ensure that nothing like it ever happens again.

Why do I say this? Because the holocaust was not a normal situation, and it is a grave (but extremely common) error to treat emergency situations like a normal framework for thinking about ethics.

Novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, known for upholding egoism, considers the error in part as follows:
By "normal" conditions I mean metaphysically normal, normal in the nature of things, and appropriate to human existence. Men can live on land, but not in water or in a raging fire. Since men are not omnipotent, it is metaphysically possible for unforeseeable disasters to strike them, in which case their only task is to return to those conditions under which their lives can continue. By its nature, an emergency situation is temporary; if it were to last, men would perish.

It is only in emergency situations that one should volunteer to help strangers, if it is in one's power. For instance, a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck, should help to save his fellow passengers (though not at the expense of his own life). But this does not mean that after they all reach shore, he should devote his efforts to saving his fellow passengers from poverty, ignorance, neurosis or whatever other troubles they might have. Nor does it mean that he should spend his life sailing the seven seas in search of shipwreck victims to save...

The principle that one should help men in an emergency cannot be extended to regard all human suffering as an emergency and to turn the misfortune of some into a first mortgage on the lives of others. ("The Ethics of Emergencies," in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 47)
To be clear, I am hardly equating the atrocity that was the Holocaust with a natural emergency. It was, for its victims, a man-made emergency. This means that we can, unlike an for earthquake, do something to prevent another. But this requires careful thinking. While we can admire or even find inspiration in the actions of its victims, this makes understanding how its perpetrators came to power of vital importance. Indeed, as Leonard Peikoff comprehensively demonstrates in The Ominous Parallels, the Nazis came to power via popular vote motivated by the ideas of altruism and collectivism. This rabbi, as well as Howard Schultz, however laudable their intent might be, are giving altruism an undeserved respectability. They might plead that self-sacrifice is somehow better than sacrificing others, but I disagree. There is a real alternative to human sacrifice of every kind, but it lies in another quotation, also from Ayn Rand: "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

-- CAV

No comments: