Select Page

Courtney S. Campbell (Oregon State University) responds to Divinity School Professor Richard B. Miller‘s fifth chapter, “Indignation, Empathy, and Solidarity,” in Friends and Other Strangers: Studies in Religion, Ethics, and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2016). Campbell taught this chapter in his class at Oregon State and invited Professor Miller to interact with his students. In this response, he shares what he (and his students) learned.

The May issue of the Forum features Friends and Other Strangers, Miller’s most recent book, which argues for expanding the field of religious ethics to address the normative dimensions of culture, interpersonal desires, friendships and family, and institutional and political relationships. Professor Miller urges religious ethicists to turn to cultural studies to broaden the range of the issues they address and to examine matters of cultural practice and cultural difference in critical and self-reflexive ways.

Friends and Other Strangers critically discusses the ethics of ethnography; ethnocentrism, relativism, and moral criticism; empathy and the ethics of self-other attunement; indignation, empathy, and solidarity; the meaning of moral responsibility in relation to children and friends; civic virtue, war, and alterity; the normative and psychological dimensions of memory; and religion and democratic public life. Miller challenges distinctions between psyche and culture, self and other, and uses the concepts of intimacy and alterity as dialectical touchstones for examining the normative dimensions of self-other relationships. A wholly contemporary, global, and interdisciplinary work, Friends and Other Strangers illuminates aspects of moral life ethicists have otherwise overlooked.

The first post in the May issue includes the introduction to Friends and Other Strangers, “Alterity and Intimacy.” In the coming weeks, scholars will offer responses to different chapters of the book. At the end of the month, Professor Miller will close out the series with a final response. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.


“Indignation, Empathy, and Solidarity”: How does it play in Corvallis?

by Courtney S. Campbell


I had not appreciated the explanatory power of Richard Miller’s chapter (5) on “Indignation, Empathy, and Solidarity,” until witnessing his teaching approach to my undergraduate class in religious ethics at Oregon State University this past March. If anything marked the learning environment of that classroom, it was student indignation coupled with a sense of despair and helplessness. We had in previous weeks devoted considerable attention to some of the polarizing policies of the new Trump Administration, including executive orders restricting travel and immigration from specified predominantly Muslim countries, discussed our university identity as a self-proclaimed “sanctuary campus” that potentially placed federally-sponsored programs at risk, listened to Muslim women compellingly describe the fear they experienced and the harassment they encountered from wearing a hijab, and pondered our responsibilities towards environmental sustainability articulated movingly by Pope Francis in Laudato si.

Within this moral maelstrom, anger and indignation at policies that seemed to disrupt lives and shatter dreams were palpable in most every class session, but it was unclear just how these emotions and passions could become catalysts for empowering actions. Professor Miller’s presentation to the class offered just such an approach, but my students, socialized through ideologies of inclusiveness, diversity, and the common good for all persons, were appreciably reticent about the kind of “political solidarity” Miller articulates, which requires “self-consciously drawing lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’” (139), assuming a “combative” and “polemical” posture, and the mindful expression of preferentialism that leads to what Miller portrays as the organizing question of solidarity: “which side are you on?” (136).

After all, my students skeptically inquired, wasn’t it just this politics of grievance, “taking sides,” and polemical divisiveness that had helped “energize” (to use a common metaphor of Miller) the voting constituency that galvanized behind Trump’s presidential aspirations? Why emulate that, why sink to such Machiavellian muck? There remains, fortunately, in the millennial generation a commitment to what Miller portrays as the “cosmopolitan humanistic vision” and a “universalist and utopian picture of solidarity” (138, 139) that can initially resist what seems like the inescapable moral compromises of making sharp distinctions between “sides.”

As our class conversation evolved, two notable features emerged that shifted the tenor of discussion from skepticism to acknowledgement, and at least for some students, a sense of empowerment. The initial illustration of an appeal to solidarity that Miller uses, that of a union-organized strike in the Midwest, didn’t resonate, but with some probing, it was not too difficult to find other historical and on-campus examples that did. We anchored our discussion through reference to a previous analysis of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” including King’s personal expression of both resentment and indignation towards the injury and assault of segregationist policies on the dignity of his young children, as well as King’s calling out of “the white moderate” for their failure to stand with King and his colleagues against the evils of racism and segregation. The concerted effort of the white moderate to avoid political and economic disruption, and to encourage patient waiting and aspirations for long-term changes among blacks in Birmingham, were revealed in all their inglorious hypocrisy. The “teachable moment” had transpired: sometimes the failure to decide “which side you are on” is the path of compromising integrity and of moral corruption.

The second meaningful shift occurred when Miller stressed to my students that his account of political solidarity is a “form of moral agency,” which aims at “establishing a kind of moral sovereignty . . . ruled by substantive egalitarian principles” (140, 141). That is, solidarity must be connected to a robust conception of justice such that the grievance against injustice that is the catalyst for either resentment or indignation is intelligible. Miller’s interpretation of solidarity thus enabled for my students a moral (and not merely political partisan) differentiation between their indignation at injustice witnessed in the society (and experienced by some in the class even on our campus) from the grievances that united the Trump electoral constituency. As Miller puts it, “we can distinguish between good and bad solidarity—solidarity among white supremacists or cultural warriors and solidarity among those working for a society of political and social equality” (141). A moral space was made for a biblical story we had discussed in previous classes on issues of non-violence for a kind of “righteous indignation” (Miller prefers the category of “empathic indignation” [147] and no doubt would resist the assumptions embedded in the language of “righteous”).

Miller’s analysis of political solidarity and its backing passions did provide a resource for students knocked off-balance by the political tumult of the first 100 days of the new administration to do something morally with their anger and indignation. The moral rehabilitation of resentment and indignation is not an easy lesson: Miller observes that the politics of solidarity can bring together “strange bedfellows,” and while these are in part the actors in the “imagined community” of solidarity, there is also a “strangeness” to seeing “resentment” situated in the same line of text between common esteemed virtues of gratitude, forgiveness, and love as illustrations of our reactive attitudes to how we are regarded by others (141). Indeed, C.S. Lewis refers to “hell” as a social condition on earth where “everyone has a grievance and where everyone lives with the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance and resentment” (The Screwtape Letters).

There are clearly dangers to morally rehabilitating the discourse of grievance and resentment when it is uncoupled from concepts of fairness and equality and becomes a mode for promotion of self-interest and an egoist ethic. The challenge in a pluralistic society is cultivating the skills of discernment, philosophic charity, intellectual humility, and civility so that we can differentiate between what Miller calls “moral grievance” (144) that is connected to the desirable solidarity from grievance that issues in incivility, polarization, and the chasm of political divide. That is, at some point, Miller’s appeal to the concept of “moral sovereignty” on the part of those who undertake a movement of solidarity requires fuller exposition.

This issue is likewise embedded in the use to which Miller employs the concept of empathy in the chapter. Empathy involves the extension of the moral imagination from the perspective of the witness of injustice to the experience of the victim of injustice and thereby gives rise to the “robust imaginary community” (145) of political solidarity. It makes meaningful King’s claim that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That requires the coupling of empathy, the bonding of victims and witnesses, and the empathic indignation of prophetic critique that King himself embodied. This presumes, as Miller recognizes, a connection with a substantive conception of justice (146). We are far more familiar with instantiations of injustice than we are with a just society. Our challenge now, in solidarity with the future generations of our students, is to use the experience and witnessing of injustice to bear witness to the ideals of justice and equality that form the moral conscience of national identity. Richard Miller’s elegant discussion of these rich moral and political concepts has shown us a way forward that is empowering.

Courtney S. Campbell is the Hundere Professor in Religion and Culture at Oregon State University and previously served as Chair of the Philosophy Department and as Director of the Program for Ethics, Science, and the Environment. Prior to coming to OSU, Courtney was a research associate at The Hastings Center, a “think tank” for medical ethics. Much of his scholarship treats Oregon as a social laboratory for many of the difficult ethical issues in medicine. He has authored numerous articles on the controversial Oregon Death with Dignity Act and on the Oregon Health Plan. He also authored papers for the National Bioethics Advisory Commission on the ethical questions of human cloning and of research on human tissue ( Courtney seeks to develop an engaged classroom where teacher and student become partners in learning.

 * Photo image: “Touching Strangers” by Richard Renaldi. Since 2007, photographer Richard Renaldi has worked on a series of photographs for which he asks complete strangers to physically interact while posing together for a portrait.