The path to justice is lighted by the glow of civil passions

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

Civil Passions is about how we deliberate about justice, and specifically about the role the passions play in this process. The dominant views of deliberation rightly emphasize the importance of impartiality as a cornerstone of fair decision-making. But they wrongly assume that impartiality means being disengaged and passionless. This is the central puzzle of the book: How can we be passionate and impartial at the same time?

Drawing on resources ranging from 18-century theories of moral sentiment to recent findings in neuroscience, Civil Passions shows how passions, emotions, and desires can generate an impartial standpoint on questions of justice and other important political issues.

This new account of affective but impartial judgment calls for a politics of liberal rights and democratic contestation. It requires us to reconceive the meaning of public reason, the nature of sound deliberation, and the authority of law. It also demands a fundamental rethinking of who we are, both as citizens and as human beings.

“Democratic deliberation can be both affectively engaged and impartial enough to generate just results.”

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.

June 19, 2009

A close-up

People are often skeptical about the possibility of impartial deliberation. Yet while the demands of impartial deliberation are high, they are demands that we can satisfy, at least so long as we acknowledge the affective dimensions of deliberation.

To acknowledge these dimensions is not to bring more passions into politics. There are plenty of passions in politics already. Moral sentiment does involve the public communication of sentiments and a refined faculty of sympathy, and justice will require that some previously silenced sentiments find a new voice on the public stage. But the communication of sentiments is already happening all around us; deliberation is steeped in passions as it is. The challenge is to civilize the passions that we cannot avoid and that practical reason cannot fully transcend. Achieving impartiality requires effort and widespread practices of cultivation and self-cultivation, which foster an increasingly inclusive and more sensitive faculty of moral sentiment. But affective impartiality is achievable. Our mistake has been to regard impartiality as flowing from an ideal of reason that no one has ever known and that human beings are constitutionally incapable of realizing.

The primary objective of Civil Passions is to correct this mistake, to advance our basic understanding of ourselves and of the deliberative faculties of democratic citizenship. Passion and practical reason are not separate but deeply entwined. Impartial deliberation conceived in the old way is therefore a chimera.

The theory of moral sentiment gives us a new way to understand impartiality. This view is truer to who we really are even as it answers our aspiration for justice. The deep connection between norms and motives within moral sentiment links aspects of the self that rationalist approaches tend to divide. Moral sentiment makes the self-as-public-deliberator one with the self-as-political-agent, and in this way it better empowers us to bring the conclusions of our deliberation to fruition in practice. Impartial deliberation feels as well as reasons, the path to justice is lighted by the glow of civil passions.

“The challenge is to civilize the passions that we cannot avoid and that practical reason cannot fully transcend.”


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
Sharon R. Krause Civil Passions: Moral Sentiment and Democratic Deliberation Princeton University Press 274 pages, 6 x 9 inches ISBN 978 0691137254

Sharon Krause is Associate Professor of Political Science at Brown University, where she teaches courses in contemporary political theory and the history of political thought. In addition to Civil Passions, she is the author of Liberalism with Honor (Harvard, 2002) and numerous articles on topics in classical and contemporary liberalism. She is currently at work on a book about freedom.

Cover Interview of
June 19, 2009