Theory of Moral Sentiments 1:2-6

[This is part of my steady series of reading Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, one page at a time.]

What is sympathy?  The source is our ability to conceive or imagine the same emotion as someone else.   We flinch when we see someone else get hurt.  One itches, another itches.  One yawns, another yawn.  “Grief and joy affect the spectator with … painful or agreeable emotion.”  Smith also calls this “fellow-feeling.”

Even stories:  “Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us” – the bystander imagines the sentiments of the sufferer.

Smith distinguishes between pity, compassion and sympathy.  Pity and compassion are concerned with suffering, while sympathy is a more general term for all “fellow-feeling.”  “Sympathy” is Smith’s word that is Girard would say represents the mimetic nature of the human mind.

The Debt Ceiling

Admittedly, there’s a part of me that is fascinated by the debate and wants to see what happens when the insane, math averse side of the Republican Party throws its weight around.  Will its funders, or the supporters of the GOP, enjoy the US willingly reliquishing its economic authority?

The Dems don’t seem to have any counter balancing organization.  They’ve been held hostage by “realism” and are perhaps frightened by the economic and political power of the class that funds elections.

The question I’m considering is how are parties supposed to govern?  One is the politics of vindication.  One side gets complete control, or seeks complete control, and destroys the system enough to manipulate it permanently.   Politics is fundamentally about winning  and holding power.  It seems that the Republicans are fundamentally opposed to the Democrats wielding any kind of power.

But vindication can come through coercion or through mutual sympathy.   When we elect leaders, we don’t merely elect representatives, but we elect people who can make hard decision.  We do not vote for someone who always feels the way we do, but, through access to a wider variety of relationships with people representing institutions, can make better decisions than the everyday voter.  Ideology can be take a backbench to relationships based on trust.  And this is a crucial aspect of good governance.

One friend remarked, “what we need is to set term limits on everyone.”  I disagree.  Politics is a learned discipline.  It requires a soft touch, an intuitive sense of human relationships, and an ability to bring together the private and the public that take a long time to learn.  Term limits don’t diminish greed, but may exacerbate it as job seekers may be even more inclined to trade conscience for guaranteed work upon retirement.

One of the greater issues may be that our country has become more balkanized.  The extraordinarily wealthy do not engage the poor, but may be sheltered from them in a way that has never previously been possible.  Rural and urban America remains divided; the non-religious remain flummoxed by how religious values get mediated in the secular sphere.  Until we are able to occasionally diminish our need for certainty for the good, we will remain unable to make the necessary decisions to keep our government working.

However, what might be the case is that the current Republicans are ideologically opposed to a working government, and are disinterested in a functioning economy as long as Obama is president.

Norway and Christian Extremism

The man who killed at least 68 people was apprehended.  He confessed to the killing.

The headline by the New York Times called him a Christian Extremist.

Plenty of pundits are offended at this insinuation.  Some even blame Muslims for pushing him over the brink.   But while we search for some kind of motive, some sort of identity, a way to understand this act, so beyond any kind of sympathy, we’ll find any logic to his act slip away.

Some will blame conservatives and conservative thinking.  But few conservatives would do such an act.  Like others, some will be callous about he murders.  But they would not pick up a gun, search for a camp and start shooting.    It may be that the Manichean element in our political discourse contributes to the ease by which one justifies the casual ending of an enemy’s life.   This is usually not enough.  You may think of someone as wrong while not thinking of them as an enemy.

His attachment to Christian fundamentalism was thin.  He didn’t consider himself religious – it doesn’t look like he attended any church in Norway.  He mocked the liberal religion of the Church of Norway.  More likely, they were soft and pliable, too flexible for his ordered and righteous mind.  He was much more at home in the land of certainties, in right versus wrong, and assured he was on the right side.  It is only when one is so sure of one’s complete righteousness, one can demonize those who think differently.

But there are other ingredients for this lethal combination.  Was it video games? Probably not.  Was it simply white nationalism?  Not really.  He did have a rigorous sense of Norwegian identity, with the resentment of being displaced oozing from many of his comments.

But finally, none of these ideas will be satisfactory.

And our dissatisfaction with any clear answer, perhaps, is one reason we call such acts “evil.”  They seem beyond the notion of human sympathy that is a crucial part of our everyday experience.  They are inexplicable, and seem to arise from nowhere.    Did not a part of his mind react when as the children ran from him? Did not a part of his mind demand that he stop, and feel some sort of wound as the children he was murdering?  How was it possible that these would be slaughtered like farm animals?   Even a hardened conservative can find themselves weekping at the loss of a loved one.

And yet, I feel guilty that anything about my faith would have contributed.    But what was it?  Nothing recognizable to me.  Still, the easy way, perhaps, is to assume there was no connection.  There may not have been.  My feeling of murderous rage has usually been contained toward yelling at the computer screen, or the occasional bout of helplessness – rage not at any particular person, but toward institutions – banks, airline companies.  But yet we are responsible, in some way, for those who take on the same identity that we do.

But the prime minister of Norway said it well – that such an act would not diminish their commitment to and open and peaceful country.  This is, perhaps, the only response we can give.  That whatever happens to us, we will not be bound by the fear and hate that enters our lives, causes its terrible damage, and desires us to respond in kind.   We remain faithful that the world need not be like this, and that there will be a time when we will not be afraid of each other’s differences, but have the strength to relish them rather than be scandalized.