Sharon R. Krause


On her book Civil Passions: Moral Sentiment and Democratic Deliberation

Cover Interview of June 19, 2009


My hope for the book is that it will speak effectively to what I consider a serious problem in American public life today.  On the common assumption of a dichotomy between reason and passion, one either deliberates from “impartial reason” or one’s deliberation is driven by personal passions.  And when passions drive deliberation, we think, the results can only be described as debased.

Yet the rationalist ideal of impartiality that pervades the public culture is not true to who we are as human beings.  It should therefore come as no surprise that public decision making in the United States today most often proceeds by means of interest-based competition, which is another name for the politics of untutored passion.  Yet even as we give in to the politics of passion in its lowest form, our elusive ideal of reason continues to engage our aspirations and to tell us that passion-driven deliberation is illegitimate and likely to generate injustice.

One result of trying and failing to live up to this impossible ideal of deliberation is cynicism about politics.  The widely discussed lack of political participation in the United States today is only partly a product of excessive individualism, the absence of civic virtue, and the lack of social capital – as so many theorists have argued in recent years.  This disengagement also reflects the disillusionment that naturally follows from our attachment to the false dichotomy between reason and passion, and from the absence of an achievable ideal of impartiality.

To make matters worse, widespread citizen disengagement undercuts the possibility of genuine impartiality in public deliberation.  The reason is that our deliberative process can only be fully impartial if it reflects the legitimate concerns of all affected.  But we can only know the concerns of others if they tell us about them, which requires precisely the kind of active engagement in public life that the rationalist ideal discourages.

American politics therefore needs a new way of understanding public deliberation, one that answers to the noble aspiration of impartiality but that does not disparage the passions that inevitably influence decisions and animate action.  We need to reject the false dichotomy between reason and passion in both political theory and American public life: this dichotomy undercuts our ability to advance the cause of justice.

In its place we need a better understanding of the holistic nature of practical reasoning as a faculty that combines both cognitive and affective states of mind, both intellect and feeling.  We need standards that inspire reflective and legitimate decision-making but that are also practically viable and motivationally compelling, hence affectively engaged.

The purpose of Civil Passions is to illuminate the nature of practical judgment in this respect, to show why this more holistic vision of ourselves and our capacities promises a more vital – and more just – democratic politics.

© 2009 Sharon Krause