Henry David Thoreau is now regarded as a rather benign historical figure. And Thoreau’s formula sounds, to us today, simple enough to seem banal: have the courage to follow your conscience. But in practice, Thoreau was willing (interested even) in being arrested so that he could sacrifice in opposition to what is wrong, rather unlike his reviled neighbors, who shared his opposition to slavery but would do nothing about it.
Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislation? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right — Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
Scholars remind us that we misread Thoreau if we take him to be a political philosopher. (Nancy Rosenblum tells us he was no more interested in preserving a liberal order than in any order.) Ethically, he was an absolutist. Conscience was to be our guide in the sense that we can wait for it to “inspire” us to take up a cause, and then we were to be relentless and uncompromising without concern for any external impact. (Check Nancy Rosenblum on Thoreau.)
Some concerns about his view? His trusting his conscience does nothing to direct our own. Recommending that we follow our conscience does not help us to more generally reckon with the values at stake in any political crisis. Politics certainly requires that we specify and defend general principles. It requires coordination and agreement.
But, despite these worries, is there not a role for our personal limits when it comes to what we will tolerate politically? And can’t we understand these limits as ethical, even though they concern politics? Vaclav Havel argued as much. In the face of corrupt political power, personal ethics is our recourse, he explained. He called it “living in truth.”
Those with political power will, of course, mock personal ethics. They will do so in a typical way. Havel explains that the “representatives” of this political power will “invariably come to terms with those who live within the truth by persistently ascribing utilitarian motivations to them—a lust for power or fame or wealth—and thus they try, at least, to implicate them in their own world, the world of general demoralization.
Today those attempting to demoralize others will say that people do not really care about ethical issues, everyone’s concerns are just political. Pretending to care is just “virtue signaling.”
In response to this, we might want to retain Thoreau’s reminder about what it means to be personally and “continuously inspired” by an issue (such as children being separated from parents at the border).
And perhaps we can also retain his reminder about what is in our own power, his example of waking us up to actual options. (See Thoreau on John Brown.)
Of course, some people do not even need these reminders. For example, the flight attendants refusing to work on flights with children who have been taken from their parents at the border seem to be already doing what Thoreau (and Havel) had in mind. The article was published in Psychology Today by Jennifer Baker Ph.D. and her awesome description of “Thoreau’s Ideas about Politics”
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