‘We talk about ethics’ is something I hear a lot in photography. Spoken by photographers, editors, teachers, academics. It’s a signpost that you consider ethical considerations important. But it’s hard to resist the feeling this claim has become so expected, so de rigueur, as to be almost meaningless. That feeling really struck home recently when I was looking at an advert for mentoring sessions with a street photographer at a certain well-known agency, who has effectively made his name over the years by showing a complete indifference to his subjects. Listed amongst the things that could be covered in the mentoring sessions were, you guessed it, ethics.
For the last four years I’ve been working on a project about the history of rocketry and space exploration, looking at the way the twentieth century history of these practices was very much torn between military and civilian intentions, and at how ultimately rocketry got its head start in the fires of the second world war and the holocaust. Central to this story is Wernher von Braun, a German born rocket pioneer who developed the V-2 ballistic missile for Nazi Germany, killing tens of thousands of people in the process, and then went to work for NASA after the war developing the rockets that carried men to the moon in 1969. I’m fascinated by the two incompatible faces of his life story, one of them morally deeply compromised, one embodying apparently humanitarian aspirations.
I’ve always found the characterisations of the perpetrators of atrocities as simply aberrant sadists as unhelpful. When you’re studying a system as massive as the holocaust, the idea that every person involved in it was somehow a psychopath unhinged from reality is difficult to sustain. But we cling to this idea because it perhaps more reassuring than the alternative explanation, that many of the people who became involved in these systems were quite like us. Von Braun, while not exactly a likable figure, was certainly not aberrant one, indeed in many respects he was the stereotype of the cultured, sensitive central European, who could sometime play Bach on the cello one hour, and design indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction the next.
The Rabbi and philosopher Peter Haas offers a more helpful way of understanding an event like the holocaust, and one which provides useful lessons for thinking about morality and ethics in general. Haas makes the argument that ethics are fundamentally both a product of the culture and society they exist in, and are also highly malleable and changeable. In Germany, a series of (to most people) relatively unproblematic ideas about service, just war, and self-defence, combined with more dangerous ones like anti-Semitism and Social Darwinism to create what Haas calls a ‘Nazi ethic’. What is interesting about Haas’s argument is that in his view, many of those who perpetrated atrocities in the service of Nazi Germany, and also many of those who simply went along with them as ‘fellow travellers’ (Mitlaufer) like von Braun, probably saw their actions as broadly ethically justifiable ones according to this new ethic which had taken hold in German society.
What is useful about Haas’s argument, as well as providing a more nuanced way to think about how an event like the holocaust could happen, is to remind us that it’s actually not enough just to think or talk about ethics. ‘Having ethics’ as so many photographers and the like tend to profess, is no safeguard against bad behaviour, and those ethics may just often enable that bad behaviour, by acting a sort of shield of rationalisation for the person committing them. A common one I noticed at the start of the pandemic was that of photographers breaking lockdown rules to make work on the grounds that they were creating a record for the future. This was a sort of ethical ‘means justify ends’ argument for action that in the context of a pandemic, one could easily argue was a totally unethical act.
But what this also illustrates is that ethics are not a fixed code, there is no ‘right’ set of ethical principles however much photography professionals often seem to want there to be one, and indeed perhaps the more readily and uncritically one selects ‘off the shelf’ ethics without thinking about their form, the more danger there is of adopting a problematic ethical code. I suspect the reason that photographers want there to be one is because it saves us from the difficult conversation that Haas is proposing, the question how what we regard as ‘ethical’ comes to be so, and the fact that ‘ethics’ at the same time as being a vital scaffold for the way we live our lives, are always contingent, shifting and not inherently benign things. Rather than just imprinting a set of pre-determined ethical principles in photographic workplaces, education, and in our own practices, we need to spend more time thinking about what ethics actually are.
Photo: Wernher von Braun surrounded by Nazi functionaries following a ballistic missile test in 1937.