Sharon R. Krause


On her book Civil Passions: Moral Sentiment and Democratic Deliberation

Cover Interview of June 19, 2009

The wide angle

As citizens, our relationship to the laws shouldn’t be one of blind obedience; it should reflect critical engagement and sound judgment.  In fact, we have a political obligation as democratic citizens to evaluate the laws and to resist (or try to reform) laws that violate liberty or obstruct justice.  How do we carry out this evaluation?  What faculties of mind and heart do we use?

Americans today are in the process of publicly deliberating about the justice of gay marriage, for instance.  In deliberating about an issue such as this one - which brings together questions of politics, morality, and law - what capacities do we employ?  In particular, what is the right combination of thinking and feeling, of reason and passion, of cognition and affect, within such deliberation?

The common response to this question is to say that there is no right combination of reason and passion, at least when it comes to deliberation about important political questions and matters of justice.  The only way to achieve good deliberation, in other words, is to excise passions from the deliberative process entirely.  The worry is that these affective modes of consciousness will cloud our reason and therefore impede the impartiality that’s needed for sound judgment and fair political deliberation.  This is the dominant view (although certainly not the only one) in the history of political thought in the West.  It’s also the dominant view in political theory today.

It’s true that passions can impede impartiality.  When they do so they cause problems for the legitimacy of democratic decision-making and for the justice of its outcomes.  But the real possibility of conflict between passion and impartiality doesn’t tell the whole story of their very complex relationship.

In articulating the affective dimensions of impartiality (the role of passions within it), this book addresses a problem that has plagued theories of justice and democratic decision making for a generation.  The rationalist models that predominate in political theory today (as represented, for instance, in the work of John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas) suffer from a motivational deficit.  The ideal of reason as a faculty that abstracts from sentiment, which undergirds impartiality on this view, disconnects the deliberating subject from the motivational sources of human action, which are found in the affective attachments and desires from which subjects are asked to abstract.  The self as deliberator comes apart from the self as agent.

The forms of judgment modeled by Rawls’s original position and Habermas’s moral standpoint display a familiar fear about affect – the fear that our passions will impugn the impartiality on which deliberation in matters of justice ought to rest.  The rationalists see affect as antithetical to impartiality.  But to insulate deliberation from affect too fully is to disconnect it from the passions that motivate action.  Action is not the only thing to suffer either: decision making itself is hindered by efforts to abstract from the influence of the passions.

In the last fifteen years a revolutionary new literature has emerged in neuroscience and neuropsychology that calls into question the human ability to conduct practical reasoning in the absence of sentiments.  These studies, which involve patients who have impairments to regions of the brain associated with feeling, suggest that decision-making depends on the affective experience of concern - specifically attachments, aversions, and desires.  Patients with affective impairments may be perfectly capable of logical analysis; often they can reason effectively about the costs and benefits of various courses of action.  What they can’t do effectively, the studies show, is decide on a course of action.

The implication of these findings is that practical reasoning – deliberation that results in decisions about what to do – necessarily incorporates sentiments.  Passions have a role in motivating decisions as well as actions.  Therefore the motivational deficit associated with rationalist models of deliberation undermines not only compliance but the very process of deliberation.  This new literature thus poses a fundamental challenge to the rationalist paradigms of deliberation and norm justification that dominate political theory today.

What’s distinctive about Civil Passions is that I take seriously the facts about who we are—but I do not see these facts as grounds for giving up on the aspiration to impartiality.  The ideal of impartiality is crucial to fair decisions in democratic politics.  It helps to insulate decisions from the vagaries of prejudice and the illegitimate influence of power.  I seek to show how democratic deliberation can be both affectively engaged and impartial enough to generate just results.