Beware of Awe

Over the holiday weekend, I spent some time with my family watching the series Planet Earth on a high definition television. It was moving and informative, a sublime challenge to our capacities in its global sweep and the depiction of interconnections between the planet’s various ecosystems. I found myself thinking that this was the perfect propaganda for environmentalism, insofar as it inspires a deep loyalty to the natural world that many city-dwellers would find it difficult to muster on their own.

But what, exactly, ought we be inspired to do on the basis on this awe-inspiring video? How can the natural environment it depicts be saved, and at what price? And how should we weigh the potency of this visual rhetoric against other kinds of arguments?

One very common kind of deference in the US is deference to faith and religious conviction. Environmental activists frequently traffic in a naturalized version of this kind of conviction, and earn deference in much the same way as the faithful. Like other kinds of deference, we ought to beware of revelation, whether it comes in the form of religious inspiration or natural awe.

Yet awe cannot simply be discounted. “Philosophy begins with thaumazein” which is the Greek word for wonder, amazement, and awe. Wariness is not skepticism, any more than doubt is solipsism. So we must also decide what to do about revelation and inspiration; passion and conviction cannot be ignored or denied. At base, this is question about the power of revelation versus the demands of reason: we recognize that many things that motivate action do not necessarily justify action. So how ought we to relate to experiences that are strongly motivational where there remains significant conflict over the appropriate justification?

Let’s say that I have a moment of ecstatic religious inspiration that persuades me to become an activist against torture and political exclusion. In a moment of clarity I see that God’s plan for my life is to oppose the evil that men do. Few would question my reasons or demand that I justify my positions, and many would be impressed by the depth of my faith. Though my quest would almost certainly fail, it is unlikely that anyone would call me crazy.

Now instead, imagine that I have a moment of ecstatic religious inspiration that persuades me to become an activist against the debauchery depicted on cable television. In this moment of clarity, I see that God’s plan for my life is to oppose the evil that men pretend to do. Many people would question my reasons for choosing this subject, and demand that I justify my position. Few would be impressed by the depth of my faith, and I would likely fail and be called crazy.

Clearly, many people have had both kinds of revelations, and clearly we react to the first sort of revelation much more sympathetically than to the second sort. Given this incongruity, my question is: why is the revelatory character of the motivation important at all? It seems that the method by which I have arrived at my convictions, whether it be reason or revelation, matters not at all: what matters is the substance and content of those convictions, and the acts that follow.

If we accept revelation as a source for moral justifications, then we have to ask how anyone can be expected to distinguish true from false revelations. If, on the other hand, we recognize revelation as a source of motivation but reject it as a source of justification, then we have to ask what work justification does: in what way are reasons — disconnected from my faith and fundamental concerns — reasons to act? The recipient of divine revelation is satisfied that God has spoken; political liberty seems to demand that we allow her to act on the basis of that revelation. Why not allow the “marketplace of ideas” to judge whether this revelation has merit? What right do we have to demand further (non-revelatory) reasons?

John Rawls famously argued that reference to purely private experiences for public justification fails the test of public reason. Since those who have not shared your revelatory experience cannot evaluate the claims that emerge from it, we ought to pursue thin, pluralist-friendly justifications instead. This places a very large obligation on the recipients of revelation to translate their convictions into the terms of those who don’t share that conviction. The burden of translation will often even suffice to silence or marginalize the convictions of those who receive some kinds of revelations. The fact that the quest for pluralistic justifications may ultimately undermine the substance of my revelation, as they would with anti-gay marriage or anti-abortion activists, is supposedly a feature rather than a bug in public reason.

Rawls himself was forced to revisit this conception of public reason when it became clear that his rejection of thick “comprehensive doctrines” that are incompatible with pluralism would also have squelched the religious rhetoric offered by Martin Luther King against segregation, or Lincoln against slavery! But his revision was only a weakened restatement: he concluded that activists like King must stand ready to supply “public” justifications to supplement their Christian rhetoric. Again, this is easy for Dr. King and difficult for Fred Phelps, which is a feature, not a bug.

Chris Eberle offered a defense of revelation in his excellent book Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics. There, he describes a Christian mystic who has a justice-oriented revelation that provokes activism on the part of the global poor. Try as she might, however, this hypothetical Christian mystic cannot find pluralist rhetoric capable of persuading non-mystics of the rightness of her cause. As a result, she switches to the more effective religious rhetoric, and seems to have failed Rawls’ test.

Now, the obvious response is that this is a contrived example: there are plenty of pluralist-friendly defenses of activism on behalf of the global poor. So the mystic’s failure to find rhetorically effective language is simply a personal failure, not a systematic failure of secular or liberal language as such. The unrecognizable comprehensive doctrines mostly fall on the other side of the debate, among those who argue that we need not attend to the needs of strangers beyond our borders. Those are the people who argue from a special feeling of solidarity to their fellow Americans or an exclusive set of indefeasible obligations to their own family that trumps all other possible demands.

Yet the disconnect between public justification and revelatory motivation remains a problem. In particular, it seems to me to be a problem whenever we must evaluate our own commitments, or discover that we feel strongly about something that others do not. It’s also a problem for Experimental Philosophy and its quest to substitute Hume’s theory of moral sentiments for anything approaching an externalist theory of moral justification.

3 thoughts on “Beware of Awe”

  1. Hey Josh,

    I really like this piece. You do a great job teasing apart the distinction between explaining motivation and the work of justification. Seems to me that these are often confused in contemporary discourse, and I'm not sure why. Any thoughts?



    1. At base, I think the issue is that we recognize norms of justification that are significantly in excess of the ways that motivations are formed. The conflict arises when we disagree over whether to revise our justificatory norms or our motivational ones.

      Following Bernard Williams, the tendency is to revise justificatory norms in favor of reasons tied to our practical identities, in other words, that "an agent has a reason only if she satisfies a certain condition, and hence that her reason depends on what she is like." I don't agree, except in Korsgaard-style cases where we also argue that there are some features generic to all agents that therefore guarantee that all agents qua agents share certain reasons because, qua agents, they satisfy those conditions. For instance, we might say that all agents have reasons to forgo genocide, and that it's only a failure of motivation that allows people to perpetuate genocide.

      In general I think we don't care about motivations, and we perhaps ought to care even less about motivations than we do. It's the consequences that justify or fail to justify a deed, not the motivations. I'm willing to bite some bullets on that position, and I think I can demonstrate that it conforms to our own first-person accounts of responsibility, a la first-person/third-person accounts of moral luck.

  2. The last paragraph to my last comment is pretty confused, so let me try again: I don't think we care about motivations when judging the actions of others. Instead, I think we care about results/consequences and tend to project intentions on that basis. (See the Knobe effect, for instance.)

    I also think that this kind of Arendtian theory of actions better conforms to our own internal sense of first-person responsibility in moments of moral luck. In retrospect, we care less about our own motivations than we do about the results, which is why we blame ourselves for things that were beyond our control. This goes to the example of the truck driver who accidentally kills a pedestrian through no fault of his own, but still feels guilt or culpability for the death that a spectator would not experience.

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