"Greece and Judea, furnish the mind and the heart by which the rest of the world is sustained"
Every hour brings us from distant quarters of the Union the expression of mortification at the late events in Massachusetts, and at the behavior of Boston. The tameness was indeed shocking. Boston, of whose fame for spirit and character we have all been so proud ; Boston, whose citizens, intelligent people in England told me they could always distinguish by their culture among Americans; the Boston of the American Revolution, which figures so proudly in John Adams's Diary, which the whole country has been reading; Boston, spoiled by prosperity, must bow its ancient honor in the dust, and make us irretrievably ashamed. In Boston, we have said with such lofty confidence, no fugitive slave can be arrested, and now, we must transfer our vaunt to the country, and say, with a little less confidence, no fugitive man can be arrested here ; at least we can brag thus until to-morrow, when the farmers also may be corrupted.--Emerson, "THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW ADDRESS TO CITIZENS OF CONCORD, 3 MAY, 1851"
The second passage above was at the core of a fantastic lecture, "A Kantian Account of Complicity," delivered by Julia Driver in Ghent yesterday (and tomorrow in Amsterdam), all the more notable because Driver tends toward a more consequentialist moral philosophy. The core of Driver's lecture, was on the relationship between complicity and a certain form of action-guiding self-respect (even integrity). For, in Emerson, the dishonor of Boston creates a collective shame that potentially leaves none untouched.
In the passage, Emerson re-actives what we may call a republican rhetoric, in which commerce, luxurious prosperity, and city-life are associated with cowardice and tameness. By contrast, the independent, self-reliant, rustic farmer all stand for heroic virtue. But Emerson also insists that even beyond the suburbs, the country is no safe haven from the shared complicity in injustice (tomorrow the farmer). As Emerson said in his lecture, "Great is the mischief of a legal crime. Every person who touches this business is contaminated." So, in his lecture, Emerson's analysis relies on a different strain of argument, one greatly indebted to Adam Smith, who as regular readers may recall, thinks we can even be polluted if we unwillingly contribute to harm of others (and connects shame to pollution).
In a land-mark article, the Chilean scholar, Maria Carrasco, called attention to the significance in Smith of a distinction between natural and moral sentiments. On my reading of Smith, there is a distinction between the uncultivated feelings humans ‘naturally’ possess (“natural” sentiments) and the cultivated feelings humans acquire from the local social institutions that acculturate them (the so-called “moral sentiments”). While Smith rarely treats of the natural sentiments, one of these (resentment/indignation) plays (as I learned, in part, from Katy Abramson and Steve Darwall) a crucial role in his criticism of Hume's account of the origin and foundation of justice (more here).
Both the natural and moral sentiments are in a non-trivial sense moral. That is to say, Emerson and Smith agree that law is fundamentally rooted in morality. As Smith writes,
"[G]eneral rules of morality...are ultimately founded upon experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve, or disapprove of. We do not originally approve or condemn particular actions; because, upon examination, they appear to be agreeable or inconsistent with a certain general rule. The general rule, on the contrary, is formed, by finding from experience, that all actions of a certain kind, or circumstanced in a certain manner, are approved or disapproved of....All general rules are commonly denominated laws," The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 3.1 and here)
Now, Smithian natural sentiments ground a thin notion of morality, one that turns on recognition of common/universal humanity. This is an ethic that gets activated in response to cruelty and unfairness. So, in Smith and Emerson we find the claim that all authentic positive law is responsive to our natural sentiments. These are incapable of supporting "wicked law"--as Emerson writes, "It is contravened by the mischiefs it operates." Immoral law becomes self-undermining and is, therefore, rare: "It is remarkable how rare in the history of tyrants is an immoral law. Some color, some indirection was always used." Emerson's historical claim relies on two features: (a) that even tyrants have to rely on the sentiment-driven opinion of people; (b) that the natural sentiments underwrite a relatively thin (and universal) common morality.
So, when Emerson is confronted by complicity in evil, he relies on our common "primal sentiment of duty" that he associates with the directives of conscience. Now, there is no doubt that Emerson thinks this sentiment risks being overwhelmed by the corruption of the moral sentiments (in the hands of lawyers, politicians, traders, and -- non-trivially, university professors, etc.) And so, in addition, to our natural sentiments Emerson relies on a conception of (manly) "rectitude" of honor and nobility that can heed the call of "the law of Nature and rectitude." That is to say, when all else fails, Emerson, (not unlike Smith), relies on the (Stoic) langauge of the perfection of human nature (see also here in TMS). Yet, Smith and Emerson suspect that in commercial, unheroic ages, mass rectitude and conscience in the face of ongoing temptations to be complicit and tame in our conformity with officially sanctioned and democratically ratified small and large injustices can only be sustained by the way Judeah nourishes the heart.
We live in times where despite the proliferation of human rights talk, we can point to no such sources that may inspire confidence in mass rectitude.