In her essay “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” Hannah Arendt reveals a key assumption underlying her conception of judgment: the activity of judging generates its own principles. She writes:
For only if we assume that there exists a human faculty which enables us to judge rationally without being carried away by either emotion or self-interest, and which at the same time functions spontaneously, that is to say, is not bound by standards and rules under which particular cases are simply subsumed, but on the contrary, produces its own principles by virtue of the judging activity itself; only under this assumption can we risk ourselves on this very slippery moral ground with some hope of finding firm footing. (Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 27)
The activity of judging is not governed by emotions or self-interest, but maintains its autonomy by mastering emotions and self-interest, so that the activity isn’t hijacked by the flood of emotional attachment and personal preference. This allows the faculty of judgment to function spontaneously, without appeal to tradition, rules, categories, or concepts, in short, judging “without banisters,” an architectural metaphor that Arendt once used to describe the activity of thinking (Denken ohne Geländer). What is especially interesting in this passage is that Arendt claims that judging “produces its own principles by virtue of the judging activity itself.“ This assumption, Arendt argues, is crucial for making moral judgments and for avoiding the failure that those relying on moral systems experienced under Hitler, namely, that:
But how does the activity of judging produce it’s own principles? It seems that Arendt accepts the need for principles to guide moral judgments, but she questions their source. The word “principle” is derived from the Latin word principium, which means “beginning” or “foundation.” Arendt is suggesting that the activityof judging produces the beginning or foundation for moral judgment. But can an activity produce its own foundation? What might be an example of an activity producing its own principles?
One example might be the text of Eichmann in Jerusalem itself. If Eichmann is understood, not as journalism, but as an activity of judging, then perhaps the principle of “thoughtlessness,” or “the banality of evil,” is what Arendt’s activity of judging at the Eichmann trial produced. Perhaps the principles that are produced are preliminary and only provide the beginning or foundation for further judging, which will produce further principles and further judging, ad infinitum, akin to an endless hypothethical syllogism. This is judging without banisters.