One of the things that proud or “movement” skeptics like to say is “you have to be skeptical of everything.” No sacred cows!

But I don’t think even proud or “movement” skeptics really believe that, apart from a few psychopaths. I can think of lots of things I think no one should be skeptical of, and I’d be surprised to get much disagreement.

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We need educated feeling

My copies of Thinking towards humanity: themes from Norman Geras arrived a couple of hours ago. (It took me about half an hour to open the package – you’d think it was plumbing or a box of plutionium, the way it was wrapped up. It was soldered, welded, wrapped around with chains – it was hard to open.) I get copies because I’m a contributor, as are David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Michael Walzer, Damien Counsell, Shalom Lappin and other swell people.

My piece is about morality and caring, and blogging. It’s about blogging as a good and useful new genre, and how at its best (exemplified by Norm Geras, for one) it can help educate the feelings in a way that’s good for human rights. Because the piece is about morality and caring, it’s relevant to this point about basic commitments that I made earlier. I’ll share the first couple of paragraphs.

Hume famously observed that it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of his finger. He wasn’t expressing a whimsically inflated sense of his own importance, but pointing out that logic doesn’t determine how we weigh the world versus our finger. We have to love the world in order to be able to weigh it properly. Looking it up in a table of weights and measures won’t do the job – we could see the arithmetic and still shrug and say yes but it’s my finger, the world is none of mine and I don’t care. We have to care in order to make choices properly – to make them in such a way that we don’t place our own petty desires above everyone else’s deepest needs. (We have been learning lately, if we didn’t already know, that bankers and investment wizards could use some intensive training in this.) Morality is rooted in feeling, Hume told us, and researchers such as Antonio Damasio and Jonathan Haidt have been elaborating on the idea recently.

To be moral we need feeling, we need the right kind of feeling, we need educated feeling – we need to do what Martha Nussbaum called ‘cultivating humanity.’ It is arguable (and many people have argued) that the education of the feelings, and in particular sympathy, is one thing that literature and story-telling can do better than anything else. Numbers, by themselves, don’t tell us enough; ‘100,000 women raped and killed’ has less force than a pain in our own finger; but a story about one woman raped and killed can turn us inside out. In a world where ‘100,000 women raped and killed’ is no invented paradigm but a brute fact, along with row upon row of similar facts, clearly anything that can help to cultivate sympathy and empathy is of the highest value.

And skepticism is, frankly, not particularly relevant; not for this particular kind of work. Skepticism can often be the very opposite of relevant or helpful. Skepticism about someone else’s misery is often not helpful. Sometimes it is; sometimes it does help to say “you’re over-reacting” or “you misunderstood” or “let’s go out and get drunk and you’ll feel much better” or “the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” But often it’s not, and approaching the whole thing as a matter of logic or facts or evidence is about as helpful as cutting someone’s hand off to distract her from a headache.

And saying that is not a rejection of skepticism, or a crime against it. You could chalk it up as skepticism about skepticism, if you like – skepticism that skepticism is the right tool or attitude for everything. Why would it be? If you find a small child alone and crying in a shopping mall, you don’t summon up your skepticism, you do whatever you can to help.