By Peg O'Connor, Ph.D.
We think these words don't matter,
but they're a sign of a larger issue.
“I don’t care,” has become a common non-answer to almost any sort of question—where or what to eat, what to watch on television, or where to go on vacation. In many cases, “I don’t care,” really means “I don’t have an opinion,” and implies, "You decide.”
“I don’t care” can also mean, “I don't have an interest or investment in your question or your situation.” Truly, there's a whole host of situations where I genuinely do not care, and where that attitude is neutral. I truly do not care, for example, whether the local baseball team makes the playoffs.
However, I'm starting to worry that the statement, “I don’t care” is expanding into more areas of life, especially where we should have a concern or interest. When individuals and institutions genuinely do not care, the results can be moral apathy, moral callousness, and finally moral indifference. Apathy and callousness are stages on the way to indifference, which is one of the world's most dangerous and devastating orientations.
1. Moral apathy is generally considered to be a lack of motivation or oomph to realize certain goals. Someone who demonstrates apathy may be taken as lazy or disengaged, but a person can be apathetic about one set of goals or circumstances while quite dedicated to others. Apathy tends to be localized and confined but it can seep into other areas of life. Acting apathetically can become a habit. Aristotle would say that one can progress from acting apathetically to being apathetic.
Addiction, for example, can be both a cause and consequence of apathy. Many whose addictions become more severe tend to lose their motivations in other parts of their lives, including any motivation to stop using.
2. Moral callousness is a kind of insensitivity to the care, concern, needs, or wellbeing of others. Callousness often has a strong undertone of selfishness; one puts her self-interest ahead of the interests of others. Here, too, there may be a progression. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) argued that all people have a duty to help some others at some times. When one's own definition of “some others” and “some times” shrinks, a person becomes more callous, more unwilling to act in ways that meet the needs of others, despite recognizingthose needs. In a more extreme form, a morally callous person will blame others for having needs or being in circumstances that require help.
Some people can become morally callous to their own selves. These are cases in which a person so undervalues her own concerns and interests that she does not see herself as having moral standing. She might think to herself that her interests do not matters because they are hers. Or she may think herself weak or dependent, or some other harsh judgment, for having these needs and requiring the help of others. This is a special kind of moral callousness.
An institution can be morally callous. Universities, for example, have long recognized the ubiquity of sexual assaults on campuses. Allocating few resources for prevention education programs and survivor services; pressuring students not to go to the police; and operating with student conduct systems woefully ill-equipped to address sexual assault cases all demonstrate institutional callousness. A school may be more concerned with avoiding bad publicity than with the rights of the victim, or for that matter, the accused perpetrator. Some individuals within a college may be caring and compassionate, but the callousness of the institution dominates.
The bad news is that people can become increasingly apathetic and callous. The good news is that people can also become less apathetic and callous. For a variety of reasons, one can become motivated to make positive changes; we see this all the time when someone stops using alcohol and drugs, or has any experience that pierces the hardened shell that callousness creates. And one experience may create a crack that leads to more cracks. Compassion can replace callousness, which may motivate people to act in ways that tend to the care of others—or themselves.
3. Moral indifference, the potent and devastating combination of the worst forms of moral apathy and moral callousness, belongs in its own category, because unlike the others, it does not admit of degrees. This is what makes it so dangerous.
Moral indifference is the complete absence or silencing of moral emotions. Without these moral sentiments or emotions, our moral systems cannot exist. David Hume (1724-1776) claims that reason alone cannot be the basis for our moral systems. It isn’t contrary to reason, Hume points out, to prefer the destruction of the entire world to scratching my finger. He also admits that choosing his own total ruin is not contrary to reason. So what makes it morally troubling? Our moral emotions and sentiments. Hume claims that reason ought to be the slave of the sentiments, but I believe the influence is mutual. We need our moral emotions to be shaped by our reason, and our reason needs to be tempered by our moral emotions.
But as I wrote in an earlier post, our palate of moral emotions seems to be shrinking—and we pay scant attention to moral development. The emotions that are more other-regardingare being supplanted by narrower and more self-interested emotions. When more and more people tend to understand themselves not to have an investment or stake in the well-being of others, it becomes easier, and more convenient, to willfully ignore entire categories of others—people, animals, the environment—with needs and legitimate expectations.
Where a person becomes incapable of cultivating moral emotions and recognizing the needs of others, she becomes morally indifferent. There is no motivation to helps others (apathy) and there is an utter disregard of the interests and concerns of others (callousness).
Moral indifference can also exist on the levels of organizations and broader social bodies. For example, the National Football League arguably demonstrates moral indifference. It seems quite obvious that the league has known for years the long-term effects of head injuries and concussions. And yet, like the tobacco industry, it refused to admit any culpability or to assume any proactive responsibility. Only in the face of multiple lawsuits has it made any attempt to provide appropriate support for its retired players.
There seems more than a whiff of indifference in the attitude of, "The players knew the risks and they freely chose to participate.” In some sense, this is true. But when team physicians seem to have been complicit in clearing players who were still exhibiting symptoms, the bargain seems fixed in advance—and on some level, the players are not seen as persons but rather broken pieces of a board game.
It isn’t contrary to reason to prefer billions of dollars of profit to the prevention and treatment of severe head injuries. But it is contrary to many moral values.
Nobel Prize Winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel famously said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”
Moral indifference is the evacuation of moral emotions, which makes the most devastating acts possible.
Peg O’Connor, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Her training is in moral philosophy, feminist philosophy, and the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. She is the author of Morality and Our Complicated Form of Life: Feminist Wittgensteinian Metaethics (Penn State 2008) and Oppression and Responsibility: A Wittgensteinian Approach to Social Practices and Moral Theory (Penn State 2002). She has co-edited Feminist Interpretations of Ludwig Wittgenstein with Naomi Scheman (Penn State 2002) andOppression, Privilege, and Resistance with Lisa Heldke (McGraw Hill 2004).
She is the Chair of the Program Committee for the Nobel Conference "The Meaning of Addiction," to be held at Gustavus Adolphus College in October 2015.
More importantly, Peg O’Connor is a recovering alcoholic who maintains that philosophy got and helps her to stay sober. For the last seven years, she has shifted the focus of her work to using some of the great canonical thinkers in western philosophy to illuminate dimensions of addiction. She understands addiction as a meaning of life problem and no discipline is as well suited as philosophy to address meaning of life questions. Some might argue that has been the subject of philosophy for millennia. Thus for her, work on addiction stirs philosophy in good ways by bringing it out of the ivory tower and back to the public realm. But philosophy will never be shaken. Her new book, Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recovery, is forthcoming with Central Recovery Press in fall 2015.