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Moral Sentiment and Moral Judgment after the Paris Attacks

On the problem of selective solidarity

Ever since the dust began to clear after what President Hollande rightfully called “the horror” of Friday night, my media consumption — yes, especially my Facebook feed (constantly refreshed with reflections from Public Seminar) — has mostly consisted of two things: (1) people, in various ways and with differing degrees of what could be called “reflective awareness,” offering expressions of solidarity with the victims of the terror attacks in Paris; and (2) people condemning the fact that this outpouring of sympathy (I emphasize this word for reasons disclosed below) is heinously selective. Specifically, the accusation is that while many “Westerners” have seemingly limitless reserves of concern for Europeans, they are not the least bit disturbed by the loss of life in Africa or the Middle East.

In stating this accusation, against which (to be clear) I hope to push back — and push back hard — in one important respect, let me expressly state that I don’t disagree with the basic judgment involved. I also abjure this phenomenon, which I do not deny is both real and painfully apparent in recent days. I merely think — and believe this is of no small importance — that the insistence of the rightness of this judgment is completely out place, even, to speak frankly, insane and inhumane at this particular moment. Why? Because moral judgment, in the Kantian mode I wholly endorse, is a conviction based on the application of pure reason to the empirical world of the morally relevant facts of the world as it is. The time for judgment of this sort is in your study (office?), your parlor (living room?), or your classroom (if you are privileged enough to sit in one most days), as you reflect quietly, perhaps with a friend or loved one, perhaps with students or colleagues, and try to determine the way in which the moral principles to which you hold fast (say: “All human beings are equal and of absolutely equal moral value”) hold in the instant case. But while I absolutely agree that the basic judgment is right — since this principle holds, we ought to hold each victim in absolutely equal regard — I insist that it is wrong to shout about it (and shouting is what I’ve been hearing) right now.

How can both be true? How can it be right to make this judgment and wrong to express it in this way at this time? I offer this answer: the judgment is right in terms of the application of “pure practical reason,” but we — on Facebook, in blogs, on the commentary circuit — are not in the “pure practical reason” business. We are involved in public discourse that we hope will influence our fellow citizens to help us make a better world, or at least make a world that is a bit less shitty (as my mother would say). As such, we would do well to recall that, as Robin Wagner-Pacifici has argued, moral sentiments, not rational judgments, form the basis of the kind of civic engagement that can actually bring about that better (or somewhat less-bad) world.

In short, my recommendation to my well-meaning and not incorrect friends and colleagues is that we join Wagner-Pacifici in returning to the Scots, but in this case that we listen again not to Smith on the “moral spectator” but to Hume’s famous dictum: “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” (Treatise of Human Nature, Part II, Ch. 2, Sect. 3). This does not mean that our passions (as “good Westerners”) as they exist now are absolutely right and that if they tell us that Paris matters more than Beirut, or that French lives (or European lives or Western lives or white people’s lives) matter more than Lebanese lives (or African and Middle Eastern lives or brown people’s lives), then we should tell reason to shut up and get in line with them. Far from it. It means that reason can only ever help us — on the one hand — to understand why our moral sentiments are aroused by this or that “instant case” or — on the other hand — to persuade another as to why their moral sentiments ought to be so aroused. We might well regret what Hume calls “the present disposition of the human heart” (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 3.7), and we might rush to remind to remind ourselves that Hume himself carried a lot of cultural assumptions, including a superiority of Europeans to Indians similar to the prejudice that those who lament Paris more are accused of holding (id. , 3.19). These are fair points. But why are we having this conversation at all, and especially this week? Because we want to bring about a world in which the human heart is enlarged to the greatest possible extent. And I just cannot see how castigating those whose heart is at least enlarged enough to identify with an Eiffel Tower blended with a peace sign is the way to help that heart get larger.

The first thing to note in this light about “our pattern of discourse” over the past four days is that, according to the most recent count I can find, the victims were of 19 nationalities and hailed from Mexico, Chile, Algeria, and Morocco, among other nations. That is to say, before we instantly judge ourselves or others for feeling more tied to the victims of the Paris attacks because they are Parisian, French, European, “white,” or whatever, we should at least pause to consider that, maybe, for some or many of us, we feel more tied to the victims of the Paris attacks because they represent something: they represent intuitively, sentimentally, our attachment to pluralist, multi-ethnic, and open societies. They are brown and black as well as white. They are, in a distinctive way, us. They are not merely human beings whose lives matter just as much as every other human being; they are human beings living in the condition of pluralist democracy, and in grieving their loss we are grieving something that does touch us in a special way. We should not be ashamed of this, nor should we be called racists for it. Quite the contrary: we should be grateful that in cities like Paris, London, and New York — cities that terrorists target for reasons — the great experiment of the modern, pluralist, multiethnic, and multicultural democracy is pursued with passion. And we should lament, even especially lament, when that kind of life is attacked, irrespective of how many people are killed or their race, religion, nationality, or ethnicity.

The second thing I wish to call attention to is why exactly our sympathy is more profoundly engaged when an attack singles out the loss of this kind of life as well as the loss of biological life as such. Two remarks are pertinent here: one on sympathy and one the connection between Paris and this kind of life.

Sympathy. For students of the history of philosophy such as myself, this word will instantly trigger an association with the great 18th century Scottish Enlightenment and maybe most of all the moral philosophy of David Hume. These thinkers and actors, who were the great leaders of this philosophical movement, were all “men of action” who fought bravely for causes we can easily identify with “social justice,” even if when assessed from the political movements of the present they might be seen as conservatives (or at least center/center-right Liberals-with-a-capital-L). In their spirit, I want, with great humility and the greatest sympathy, to encourage us all to embrace one another and the ideals of sympathetic moral education, rather than to argue about whose principles are purer.

Paris. At the same time, I want to note that Paris is more than a place on the globe; more than the capital of France; more than a target for extremist hate. In those regards (and others like), it is “nothing special” and ought not to hold any special place in our heart. I agree. However, it is also a metonym for the old republican cry of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Let’s focus on the third of these. My sense is simply that leveling the charge of “selective sympathy” against those who have been so moved by the events in Paris but less so by those in Beirut and elsewhere has an especially bitter irony in that it accuses those moved by these distinctive French values that they fail to embrace these values. Specifically, the claim is made that we should all hold to the value of solidarity (to use the modern sense of fraternité) by not granting any more of our personal affection or the energy that makes up our sphere of moral concern to those to whom we feel indebted for even being able to articulate the norm in the first place. To say this does not mean to say that the French are, in fact, more deserving of this concern, but rather acknowledges that there are reasons for our sensibilities to be so motivated.

A closing note

I wrote the first third of these words while riding the U9 metro from my son’s school in the (upper middle class, very white) Wilmersdorf section of Berlin to (working class, ethnically diverse) Wedding, while on my way to teach in the former East. Along the way, I passed through the former main station of divided West Berlin (Zoologischer Garten) and then the “migrant neighborhood” of Moabit. Today, an extended family of about 20 Arabic speakers rode with me from Zoo to Turmstrasse (the heart of Moabit, and one center where the city of Berlin is trying desperately to get refugees officially registered as such and into temporary housing). I smiled at the children among them (three babies on their parents’ arms; a pair of girls, cousins likely, exactly my daughter’s age; a boy perhaps two years old; and an older boy, perhaps 8 or 9, sitting alone in the corner of the train), who alone made eye contact with me. As the girls smiled back, their parents (aunts, uncles, grandparents) had a heated conversation. I looked at the other commuters to gauge their attitudes. In their eyes and expressions, I read a variety of responses — a wide range of degrees of sympathy, from disinterest to care, from friendliness to disgust. The future of Europe and, in my estimation, the prospects of a less shitty world in general, hinge on all of us on that train feeling the solidarity that was so horrifically disrupted in so many ways these last days. And I wonder: does the outpouring of sympathy for the multi-ethnic, multi-racial victims of the Paris attacks help or hinder “the struggle for Europe’s soul”?

Why am I sharing this detail? To illustrate (and I use the verb advisedly) my conviction that Hume and Wagner-Pacifici (following Smith, Hume’s friend and fellow traveler) are right in insisting that an infinite extension of moral sentiments would actually deprive us of our capacity to act on our duty. This is what my friends who place their rhetorical and logical emphasis on the problem of “selective solidarity” are missing out on in their quest to bring moral sentiment into accord with pure impartial reason. Instead, we say, in using occasions like the horrors of the past week in Beirut, Iraq, Syria, Paris, and elsewhere as “teaching moments,” we need to use practical reason impurely, as “the slave of our passions” that it “is and ought to be,” in order to help us manifest our will to engage with the world in the partial way of which we are capable.

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Michael Weinman

  • David Kretz

    Thanks for this, Michael! I’m not sure if publicseminar is too public, and too little seminar, for classroom-style questions, but in the spirit of common inquiry into what’s true and right, I’d just like to ask a few questions:

    1) One is about being a Humean in public and Kantian in private (or in the classroom). I’m a little worried about yielding the public sphere all too easily to the passions, even if reason ends up no more than a corrective ideal. You’d agree, against Hume’s dictum, reason and passion *ought* to be partners in guiding our actions, even if they rarely *are*?

    On other hand, I wonder: if we’re really Humeans in public, ought we not also to be so in private? I’m skeptical of all pretensions to purism, but honesty, consistency, authenticity are important virtues, too.

    2) The accusations that are your main target here come in many forms and shades, I feel. I have not seen a single post, I think, about “selective attention” that did not also express great sympathy and empathy with the victims of the Paris attacks. Often they seemed to attempt to build solidarity precisely by drawing attention to shared suffering. Where the tone was more accusatory the target was usually the corporate sector (media, Facebook especially) rather than individuals.

    To offer a concrete example: I’m all in favor of people spontaneously organizing to express sympathy, e.g. by changing their profile pictures. But I found the fact that Facebook nudged us into doing so intrusive. Orchestrated by Facebook, I felt that if I’d now change the picture, the act would be less mine.

    In light of such considerations: would you not think it possible and fair that one does point out the “selective attention” problem, in public, provided (a) that the focus on shared suffering is itself a way of creating solidarity, and (b) the accusation part, where there is one, is addressed not against individuals, with hearts and sentiments, but against corporations with interests and power (as I feel, more often than not, it has been)?

    • Thanks for the questions, David!

      In response to (1), I guess that my main thought is that–by Kant’s own lights (in the “What is Enlightenment?” piece)–we cannot be Kantians in what I am calling public, because the “public use of reason” in his sense is exactly the private use thereof in the normal acceptation of the term, to speak somewhat in the idiom of that time. Reason, Kant would say as much as Hume, must know its limits–and those limits include the impossibility of pure practical reason operating in the empirical world as such. Now, you might ask, oughtn’t we, with Kant, stand up of “common human reason” against sentimentalism within this public realm? And I think not–for the reasons that have emerged this week.

      On (2), I guess I could plead oversensitivity, if in fact you are right? Maybe we should revisit this in another week, once we can all read more measured responses and get our bearings. But I suspect that there are sadly many on the left who are so caught up in being right about everything, that they miss the opportunity to develop exactly the kind of solidarity we all claim to wish for with people who disagree with them about many (other) things.

      • David Kretz

        Thanks, Michael!

        (1) Should read Kant again. I guess a lot hinges on who “we” are. Still feel that especially if we are some kind of “public intellectuals”, then there’s a special obligation on our part to stand up for reason in the public sphere, usually and generally. But I do agree that reason needs to know its limits, that sentiments do have their place in the public sphere, and I much share your worries about sanctimonious purism.

        Hence, (2) point taken!

  • Michael Quirk

    Great article, in deep agreement with it. I would want to add, that there is a figure in the background waving his arms trying to be recognized. Namely, Aristotle.

    Now there is a lot in Aristotle that needs to be forthrightly rejected: in particular what MacIntyre called his “metaphysical biology”, the idea that there is a single table of virtues to be read of a “human nature” that has no history, is common to all people in all places in all times, and which fixes human excellence once and for all as roughly congruent with a 4th century male Athenian citizen. But Aristotle’s emphasis upon virtues of character and intellect enable one to get around the “Public Humeanism and Private Kantianism” conundrum that Weinman deftly and ingeniously devises
    to deal with the complexity of the murderous violence in Paris and elsewhere.

    For a pragmatic “reform Aristotelian” such as myself, theterrorist violence committed by ISIL in Paris offends against the virtue of justice no more, and no less, than similar such acts in Beirut and Kenya. To this extent, Aristotle is on board with Kant: murder is no less murder if the
    victim is not a friend, or a fellow citizen, or an ally. But here is where the
    virtue of phronesis, badly translated as “prudence”, better translated as “practical wisdom” or “sound practical judgment”, kicks in. Some matters are closer to hand, some injustices more
    immediate and pressing: there are neither algorithmic rules for determining
    these particular cases, nor any single right answers or right responses to them.
    They admit, to use Kant’s jargon, of “subjective variation”, although that is
    not quite right, because Aristotle would quibble about the “subjective” part: there are objectively different and indeterminate ways to respond virtuously to situations, and ultimately, the
    criterion for judging whether the response was good or bad or better or worse
    is, “is this the sort of thing a person of practical wisdom would do”?

    A person of practical wisdom might focus on Paris because, as Weinman intimates, it is the historical locus of “liberté, egalité,fraternité”, and that the attacks were directly aimed at the heart of these
    values. Or the reasons might be more pedestrian: family or friends might live there. Or provincial: one may remember similar Humean sympathies directed at New Yorkers after 9/11. But the thing about phronesis is that it does not dictate a singular correct response: If Paris matters, so does Beirut. All the more so if you have friends and family there as well.

    Moreover, Aristotelian practical wisdom, combining as it does the best of Kantian universality and Humean sympathy, gives one ample reason both to understand and to criticize those who are quick to judge others of either Eurocentrism or zealous heartlessness. If one’s reflexive Humean sympathies
    veer naturally towards Paris, maybe one ought to consider that, without downplaying the horrors committed at the Bataclan and elsewhere, other horrors are deserving of our sympathies and judgments. And if one’s reflexive Kantian judgments towards supposed “Eurocentrists” are harsh, it might do one well to remember that while practical reason strives toward universality, it always starts from somewhere particular and local, and that, as Kant himself might put it, murder
    is murder no matter where it happens or who commits it.

    What Aristotle, properly revised and reformed, gives you is a form of moral insight that allows you to not bifurcate yourself between public empathy and private practical rationality. It allows you to expand your sense of empathy by way of an expansive practical rationality. A good recipe for making the world a less shitty place, I think. And hope…..

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