The situation of isolation in which we live has, as its counterpart, a reduction in moral distance towards others (1). Many signs of solidarity and generosity bear witness to this (2), including the citizens’ evening applause in honour of care-givers (3). But the idea of moral distance deserves special attention. In a literal sense, it reflects the fact that we care little about the suffering of people who are distant from us, compared to how we feel about the suffering of people who are close to us. We can find several opposites to it: moral proximity (4), solidarity and sympathy. We leave aside here the question of moral proximity, which we reserve for a future article. Instead, we look at moral distance and the two other opposites we mentioned (solidarity and sympathy), for an incidental reason: the fact that these concepts can be characterised by reference to passivity or activity, or to a certain degree of one or the other.  

Moral distance

Let’s start with moral distance. The concept refers to a fact as well as a moral problem. Wendy Hamblet describes it in the context of global justice, justice that could be applied on a global scale:

“The question of moral distance is crucial to the theme of global justice because those with the means to help the most miserable people on the planet dwell far from the places where the impoverished and disenfranchised huddle. If the needs of unfortunate others can lay claim to the consciences of those well off only in close proximity, then the hopes for a more just world are dashed from the outset.” (5)

There is no reference to passivity or activity in this problem statement. However, these concepts appear in the background if we consider that the obligation to help others, including those who are far away from us, is a natural duty, i.e. a duty based on a feeling of “natural empathy,”in the words of Michael Walzer, which is experienced by all human beings. Here is how he describes the relationship between this feeling and the obligation to help others:

“When we see human beings suffering, we feel a natural empathy with them, and we want to help. John Rawls claims that there is a natural duty to help people in trouble—a “duty of mutual aid.” He is right, I think, and this duty must have its root in fellow-feeling, in the pre-philosophical recognition of the “others” as people like us and of their troubles as troubles that might be ours. It is this natural empathy that explains the outpouring of aid after a devastating flood or earthquake. The response comes from thousands of ordinary men and women acting through voluntary associations and from political communities acting in the name of their citizens. But it starts from the feelings of individuals. How can these feelings generate a duty? It must be because one of the things we feel is that we ought to feel this way: we ought to want to help.” (6)

The natural sense of empathy has a passive character, the adjective being understood in the sense of “feeling, without acting on one’s own” (CNRTL), to be “receptive to outside impressions or influences” (Merriam Webster). But it is also at the root of activity, willingness to act, and action, as Walzer points out: “it starts from the feelings of individuals” – an observation that is followed by the remarkable assertion that “we ought to want to help.”  


Of course, the obligation to assist – as Peter Singer, for example, argues: If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it” (7) – by definition implies an intentional activity. This is how solidarity is understood. Does it not refer to a “concrete act which puts into practice the moral duty resulting from the awareness of the close social interdependence existing between men or in human groups which encourages men to unite, to help and assist one another and to cooperate with one another as members of the same social body” (8)? The phrase “as members of the same social body” can be understood in a universal sense, as Léon Bourgeois stated (1851-1925). The latter defended the “doctrine of the solidarity of beings,” which presupposes “relations of reciprocal dependence,” not only between living beings, but also “between all of these beings and the environment in which they are placed:”

“[…] Men are, among themselves, placed and held in bonds of reciprocal dependence, as are all beings and all bodies, in all points of space and time. The law of solidarity is universal.” (9)

Apparently, the natural solidarity to which Bourgeois refers does not lend itself to an analysis based on activity and passivity. Caught up in relations of mutual dependence, human beings experience a permanent interplay between activity and passivity. This excerpt gives an illustration of this:

“[Man] thinks, and each of his thoughts reflects the thoughts of his fellow men in whose brains it will be reflected and reproduced in turn; he is happy or he suffers, he hates or he loves, and all his feelings are the effects or the causes of the conforming or contrary feelings that agitate at the same time all these other men with whom he is in a perpetual exchange.”

However, the idea of a specifically active solidarity has been singled out, notably by Didier Julia. It is true that solidarity is then conceived less as a natural fact than as a virtue:

“It is this ‘active’ solidarity that makes some people happy only if others are happy too, that a man can feel truly free only if all the men of the world are free. At this level, solidarity is no longer a social fact but a moral value.” (10)



What in solidarity might be passivity would typically be sympathy, that “secret bond of social solidarity,” as Henri Marion (1846-1896) put it. He considered sympathy as an instinct:

“[…] The main bond of society is need, but before and more than need itself, sympathy. It too can be called a ‘necessity,’ because it is a real psychological necessity; but it is an irreducible instinct, prior, or at least heterogeneous to, the feeling of usefulness. Sympathy is the readiness of sentient beings, especially of beings of the same species, to share each other’s emotions.” (11)

But sympathy is also active. This can be seen in this passage from Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments:

 “[…] As we sympathize with the sorrow of our fellow creature whenever we see his distress, so we likewise enter into his abhorrence and aversion for whatever has given occasion to it. Our heart, as it adopts and beats time to his grief, so is it likewise animated with that spirit by which he endeavours to drive away or destroy the cause of it. The indolent and passive fellow-feeling, by which we accompany him in his sufferings, readily gives way to that more vigorous and active sentiment by which we go along with him in the effort he makes, either to repel them, or to gratify his aversion to what has given occasion to them.” (12)

The “indolent and passive fellow-feeling” gives way to a “more vigorous and active sentiment.” Applied to the crisis we are experiencing, this shift from passivity to activity is particularly suggestive. Alain Anquetil Article updated on 30 March 2020. (1) There are, however, counter-examples, like the following testimony, on the French 24 hour news channel LCI, of a nurse who was insulted: “Fear triggers the best and the worst in people… I am not an isolated case, I have colleagues who have words on their windshields, the front door of their house or apartment block…” (2) See Coronavirus – Cagnottes en ligne, appels à la générosité, dons de masque : la solidarité s’organise, » France Bleu, 20 mars 2020. (3) See Solidarité, soignants applaudis, musique : ces images qui mettent du baume au cœur en temps de confinement », L’Obs, 18 mars 2020. (4) The terms “distance” and “proximity” are in fact contradictory, as one cannot be both distant and close to someone or something at the same time. (5) W. C. Hamblet, Moral distance,” in D. K. Chatterjee (ed.), Encyclopedia of global justice, Springer, 2011. (6) M. Walzer, “Achieving global and local justice,” Dissent, 58(3), 2011, pp. 42-48. (7) P. Singer, Practical ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 1993. (8) Source (in French): CNRTL. (9) L. Bourgeois, Solidarité, Paris, A. Colin, 1896. (10) D. Julia, Dictionnaire de la philosophie, Paris, Larousse, 1964. (11) H. Marion, De la solidarité morale : essai de psychologie appliquée, Paris, F. Alcan, 1890. (12) A. Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759, D. D. Raphael and Alec L. Macfie (eds.), Oxford University Press, 1976. [cite]    

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