Who lies within our moral community?

Opinion by Adrian Liu
March 14, 2019, 6:45 a.m.

“We should think of the many different kinds of relationship which we can have with other people — as sharers of a common interest; as members of the same family; as colleagues; as friends; as lovers; as chance parties to an enormous range of transactions and encounters. Then we should think, in each of these connections in turn, and in others, of the kind of importance we attach to the attitudes and intentions towards us of those who stand in these relationships to us, and of the kinds of reactive attitudes and feelings to which we ourselves are prone.”  — PF Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment”

I write to you as one member to another of a moral community. What does this mean? To take Peter Strawson’s example, it means that if you tread on my hand accidentally, I will not hold it against you, but if you tread on my hand “in contemptuous disregard of my existence or with a malevolent wish to injure me,” I will feel resentment toward you. It means that I have an expectation and demand that you will have a certain degree of goodwill and regard toward me and toward others.

One of Strawson’s great recognitions in “Freedom and Resentment” was that in holding attitudes like resentment, indignation and condemnation toward a person — what Strawson calls “reactive attitudes” — we view someone as part of a moral community. That is, we see them as someone who can understand the nature of the goodwill and regard that the community expects of her, and who can understand our reactions to her as reasonable or justified.

I do not feel resentment if an animal treads on my hand. I don’t see the animal as part of a moral community: I have no demands of goodwill and regard from it, and punishment seems inappropriate, as the animal would not understand its meaning. If the animal is a danger we may cage it, but we would not describe it as a punishment. When imprisonment is a punishment, it requires that the person understands what they have done wrong and why the punishment is justified. This is, for instance, why an insanity plea leads to a sentence at a mental institution rather than a prison.

My attitude toward the animal is what Strawson calls the objective attitude. Some attitudes are compatible with the objective attitude: I may feel fear, pity or love, for example. But I will not feel certain other attitudes, like resentment, indignation or gratitude, that I can feel toward people. I do not resent the animal who hurts me, because I can have no demand that the animal not hurt me — at least no demand that the animal could understand, and that I could reasonably expect it to understand and respect. These basic demands are ones I make on humans around me, and it is in virtue of such demands on each other that we participate in a moral community.

Strawson’s interest lies in cases where I partly or completely suspend my normal reactive attitudes toward a person if they are psychologically abnormal or morally undeveloped. A young child, for instance, is morally undeveloped, and we thus are less inclined to feel resentment toward him when he injures us. People suffering from prolonged neurosis might also dampen our reactive attitudes: If they act aggressively or unkindly toward us but we interpret it as a behavior compelled by the neurosis, we are less apt to feel indignant or resentful or angry towards them. In adopting the objective attitude toward the child and the neurotic person, we see them as outside the moral community, not as subjects from whom we can expect and demand goodwill and regard, and not as subjects we should try to punish or reason with, but rather care for and help in other ways.

Some want to extend the realm of the objective attitude much further than the special cases that Strawson brings up. Consider first the challenges to responsibility from biology and psychology. If someone suffering from a neurotic compulsion acts unkindly toward me, I may still be resentful — especially if I don’t really understand neurosis. But someone with expertise in abnormal psychology and who thus understands the biological underpinnings of neurosis might be less inclined to feel resentment toward this person. They might instead see such a person as someone who deserves help, not censure. Taking this further, a biologist might see most human actions as derivative of biological processes and thus not an appropriate object of reactive attitudes.

Or consider, second, religious ideals wherein one lacks the reactive attitudes — where you feel nothing but love for one who has harmed you, no inclination to punish them, but perhaps a wish to save or help them. We have from Matthew: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” We have from Zen the story of Ryokan, who notices a thief has stolen everything in his house but his cushion. He grabs the cushion and runs after the thief, to give it to him, and then laments that he cannot give the thief the moon. In the most advanced religious forms, the reactive attitudes seem never to arise at all in the mind.

Consider third the Confucian philosopher Mengzi, who asks: How does the superior person respond to one who has been harsh to her? The answer: She examines herself for faults, assuming that she must have erred to get herself into this situation. And if she finds no faults, she concludes that the person who has been harsh to her is simply lost. Then, she takes the objective attitude: “What is the difference between such a person and an animal? And what is the point in rebuking an animal?”

Mengzi’s take clarifies the stakes of the objective attitude. It is not simply a perspective of greater understanding that leads us not to punish people or feel resentment and indignation toward them. It’s potentially a perspective that leads us to see them as lacking in some way. We might judge that they cannot understand our expectations of goodwill and regard, or are unable to meet them, and so cannot partake in our moral community. They are not worth our moral attention, so to speak. In this sense, we see them as animals.

The transition from reactive to objective attitudes seems quite desirable from the standpoints of biology and psychology, or from the standpoints of compassion for others. What is there not to like about a transition that emphasizes the contingency of human action and the biological circumstances that we often cannot escape? A transition that leads us to care for people rather than punish them, to see them as in need of help and love rather than deserving our resentment and gratitude?

But Mengzi’s characterization should give us pause. Do we really want to see others not as suitable objects of resentment and gratitude, of indignation and forgiveness, and not as agents with whom we can reason? Judging that someone is incapable of being part of the moral community is not a judgment to be made lightly. And if we truly see everyone else in this way, then the moral community simply dissolves. So we must ask to what extent we are willing to part ways with the moral community, or if there is some way to preserve it.

I raise this issue with little idea of how to answer it. Mengzi has some ideas, involving some seemingly extreme forms of personal responsibility: Hold yourself to the standard, but as you can do nothing about others, you should not try to change them nor hold reactive attitudes toward them. This is a pessimistic response, in my view, but I don’t know if we can do better than it. At any rate, an attempt at a solution will have to wait for another day.

Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Adrian Liu '20 was Editor of Opinions in Volumes 257 and 259.

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