Friday, March 25, 2011

I feel your pain

In The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes that it is a duty to seek out the places where the poor are to be found, and perhaps also sickrooms and debtors' prisons. This is in order to cultivate sympathy.

It seems to me that this is a noble goal, but that the means are questionable. The last thing you might want if you were down on your luck would be some virtue tourist out to improve himself by being saddened at the sight of you. Kant does not rule out helping these people, of course, but he is talking about a duty to improve oneself in this way (in order that one will be more likely to help others in future), not others. Maybe it's best to focus on Kant's talk of not shunning such places rather than the bit about seeking them out. Unless you seek them out for some other reason, such as wanting to help. Then you might not need to cultivate your sympathy, of course, but I'm sure it's possible to be sympathetic enough to want to help yet not so sympathetic that one isn't put off by the pitiable sight of those in need.


  1. It's strange that the relevant line shifts from "it is therefore a duty not to avoid" those place to one's having a duty to seek them out, since there seems to be an in-between point of not shunning and not seeking out. I wonder about the translation. But it also seems that not shunning might not be enough. I can imagine the sort of situation where it's important, though (e.g. one routinely takes a long way home in order to avoid passing a homeless shelter, or something like that). I wonder whether perhaps doing something, too, is supposed to be implicit in the advice to seek out such places.

    By the way, "virtue tourist" is a great phrase, (and does seem like a bad thing to be in this context--which is why perhaps some positive action is implicit?).

  2. Thanks, Matt. Yes, it might be the translation--I haven't tried to check it yet.

    Kant does think we have a duty to help others, so it might be implicit, just for that reason, that he would expect people to help and not just gawk (and be improved). One way to get the effect Kant wants without the tourism problem might be to watch movies or go to museums. Staring is OK in such contexts, and there are people who avoid sad films and places like the Holocaust Museum just because they expect them to be depressing. Not that this is a substitute for actively helping people, but it might be part of a moral education that Kant and others would approve of.