Moral sympathy and terror

John MuenzbergJohn Muenzberg

Column by John Muenzberg, Lecturer of philosophy

This past week the world experienced another horrific terrorist attack that killed dozens of civilians.

I am, of course, talking about the suicide bombing in Lahore, Pakistan last weekend. At least 65 people, mostly women and children, were killed.

This attack came just days after another terrorist attack that killed dozens of civilians. I am, of course, talking about the suicide bombing in Iskandariyah, Iraq, which killed 29 people.

Both of those attacks came just days after a terrorist attack in Brussels. Two attacks, at the airport and a subway station, killed at least 35 and injured 200.

I don’t need to tell you that the attack in Brussels received more news coverage here than the attacks in Baghdad and Lahore.

The Brussels attack received more breaking news coverage and more follow up stories about victims and survivors.

I may need to tell you that there were other attacks in Yeman, Iraq and Syria just before the Brussels attack.

The U.S. news outlets devote more time to Brussels because more people in the U.S. have connections to Europe than to Iraq or Pakistan. Also, at least four Americans died in Brussels, while it does not appear any Americans died in the other attacks.

Philosophers are less interested in the amount of news coverage and more interested in the possibility that we may actually care more about the people in Brussels. That may strike you as heartless, but it does provide some insight into human beings and a way to reflect on our moral beliefs.

Historically, philosophers have noted a distinction between moral systems founded in rational consideration of values and systems founded on emotion and sentiment.

Rationalist moral systems tend to focus on rules that can be justified for all persons. Notions of universal equality and human rights are generally from the rationalist tradition.

Following such moral duties we must conclude that the lives lost in Pakistan and Iraq are worth no more or less than those in Brussels. While this ideal is noble, and a foundation for international human rights, it may not align with our intuition or natural reactions.

We must confront the fact that many of us are genuinely more interested in the Brussels attack, or in the Paris attack last November. We feel more sadness at this attack. Culturally, we are closer to Europe than we are to Pakistan. Murray State offers numerous study abroad programs to Europe; I do not think there are any to Iraq or Pakistan.

Because of this, many philosophers have argued that while we intellectually may recognize that all persons are equal, we may not be motivated to help them and may not feel feelings of care or sympathy about them. These philosophers argue that an emotional connection may be required to recognize an equivalent moral wrong.

That we are more moved by events that have a connection to us is not generally disputed. But that we may not believe in the moral worth of those we do not have a connection with is troubling.

This argument is not an excuse to disregard others, but rather challenges us to transfer this natural feeling of sympathy for those we care about to those we are not familiar with. It is a challenge to not just feel moral outrage at murder, but reflect on why you feel that outrage.

It is a reminder to not ignore the plight of those that are unfamiliar, but rather become familiar, and offer sympathy for all.