by Daniel A. Kaufman
1. An unpopular, overweight teen – call her “V” – is in her high school cafeteria, eating alone. Several other girls taunt and humiliate her, to the point that she bursts into tears and begs them to cease their torments, crying, “You’re hurting my feelings, please stop!”
2. What would be different if she [or someone else] had told them, instead, that they ought to stop what they are doing, because it is morally wrong? Why might one say this, rather than what V actually said?
3. One might think that statements and requests like those made by V are not enough; that the language of joy and sorrow, love and hatred, sympathy and callousness is inadequate for the purpose of addressing the dramas that characterize so much of human life; and that we need the language of morality in order to do so.
4. But why isn’t it enough to say that something is horrible and that one hates it and wants it to stop? Or that something is wonderful and that one loves it and wants it to continue? What does the moral language add that is missing from the language of emotion and sensibility?
5. One place we might look for an answer is Kant’s philosophy: I make a moral appeal rather than an emotional one, because in the absence of a moral reason, what I say or do will fail to be moral [in the sense that I will fail to adhere to the Categorical Imperative].  But, while this explains why we will make moral appeals, if we want to be moral, it doesn’t say anything about why we would want to be moral, a question for which, notoriously, Kant has no compelling answer. For Kant — as for Locke before him — moral agency is constitutive of being a person, so to fail to be moral means suffering a kind of diminished personhood, but this simply begs the question of why anyone should care about that.
6. By “Why do you want to be moral?” I do not mean “Why would you want to be moral, rather than immoral?” which is the way that philosophers typically frame the question.  My question is “Why would you want to be moral, as opposed to simply [merely] being nice, generous, sympathetic, etc.?”
7. A Utilitarian might say: “Being moral just is being nice, generous, sympathetic, etc. It is not some extra quality.” But while I can imagine a Utilitarian saying this — and I don’t need to imagine it; one self-described Utilitarian has said something very much like this to me — I wonder whether she can really mean it.
8. Certainly, what she says is true to some extent. When we act under the impetus of positive feelings, we sometimes do things that the Utilitarian would deem good, and when we act under the pressure of negative feelings, we sometimes do things that the Utilitarian would deem bad. In short, acting out of sympathy sometimes serves the cause of utility, while acting on the basis of antipathy sometimes undermines it.
9. Remember what ‘utility’ means, though. For an action to be the sort of which the Utilitarian approves, it must not only give pleasure to one’s immediate object, it must serve the cause of pleasure generally.  This means that there will be any number of cases in which intention and outcome come apart and the nice, sympathetic, sensitive thing won’t be the moral thing, as the Utilitarian understands it. Thus, my initial question regarding moral vs emotive language remains.
10. Another reason for using moral language rather than the language of positive and negative sentiment might be that we don’t believe people care enough about what others want or don’t want to be moved by the mere voicing of a desire. By characterizing what we want as a moral obligation, we imbue it with an air of urgency that may make it more likely that the person will comply with our wishes. After all, if the bullies don’t care about the feelings of the girl whom they are making miserable, then why would they care that she wants them to stop? The moral imperative, on the other hand, its authority bolstered by a near-universal, almost racial memory of divine punishment and consequence, may carry a force that a plea for sympathy or mercy lacks.
11. I can imagine someone protesting that there is no need to be so suspicious about morality; that our use of the moral vocabulary is simply a matter of being truthful. One might point to the common admonition that we should not “trivialize” the things that have happened to others, as in, “How dare you trivialize what those bullies did to that poor girl in the cafeteria!” and suggest that the offense of trivialization is an offense against the truth; the misdeed of having failed to adequately characterize a situation or event; specifically, of having underestimated its significance. The thought, then, is that engaging with the moral framework of concepts is necessary, if we are to sufficiently respect the truth, in the sense of honoring the full significance of something that has happened to someone.
12. But why we are so offended by what we perceive as a failure to adequately represent this particular reality? Certainly, it seems odd, at least as described thus far. The mere fact of misrepresentation — of getting something wrong — taken separately from its tangible effects, is a purely aesthetic offense, and while there undoubtedly are those who are gripped with the idea of truthfulness for truthfulness’s sake, they are a rare and obsessive breed.
13. I would suggest that the offense of trivialization is not an offense against the truth but is rather one of insufficient sympathy. When I am upset by what I perceive as your trivializing description of something that has happened to me, the reason isn’t because this particular misrepresentation offends the truth, but because it offends me, for it suggests that you don’t care about me enough.
Lest we think that this brand of offense is egoistic, people can get angry over what they perceive as trivializations, even if they don’t know the trivializer or if the thing that is allegedly being trivialized happened to someone else, even if it is someone they don’t know. A common refrain that one hears when someone tries to compare the Holocaust to some other mass murder or genocide, is that such comparisons trivialize it, and the people saying this need not have survived the Holocaust themselves or even know anyone personally who did. They are saying, in effect, “How can you care so little about those people to make such comparisons?!”
14. The point, then, is that we care about people caring about each other, and when we invoke morality and employ the moral conceptual framework, it is because we think that the people we are dealing with don’t care about each other enough. That we invoke it so frequently and in so many different contexts and have done so for such a long time suggests that this perception of a failure of human sympathy is both general and longstanding.
15. Two final thoughts on the matter:
First, all of this suggests that we would be better served by attending to the cultivation of human sympathy than by the seemingly endless proliferation of moral philosophies and moral discourse in which we are currently engaged. With respect to the formal curriculum, this might suggest a diminished place for philosophy, in comparison with subjects like literature and the fine arts, which directly engage us at the level of the affective sensibility, or like cultural anthropology, which confronts us with the actual practices and sensibilities of those who belong to civilizations other than our own.
Second, as philosophers, we must face the fact that the “moral image” that we have embraced since antiquity, is based in a fundamental misconception or, if you read the history of ideas a bit more cynically, a fundamental dishonesty. Philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Kant, and others have all taken our moral frameworks and practices as indicative of our essential nobility; as something that speaks highly of us. They take it as constitutive of our personhood; as that which distinguishes us from beasts; as the thing about us wherein our dignity lies. But if the points raised here are correct, exactly the opposite is the case. Our moral framework and language, rather than demonstrate our elevation, point towards our debasement, for we invoke and engage in them, not because of belief in our fellow men and women, but because of a profound lack of belief in them; specifically, a lack of belief that they are sufficiently sympathetic and charitable.
 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 4: 397-8.
 Callicles poses it this way to Socrates in the Gorgias (Plato, Gorgias 481b-527e), and Thrasymachus and Glaucon put it to him in the same way, in the Republic (Plato, Republic 336b-354c; 357a-367e).
 Mill refers to the principle of utility as the “greatest happiness principle,” in Utilitarianism, and Jeremy Bentham maintains that an action satisfies the utilitarian standard when “the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it,“ in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.