In the days since the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, a lot of people have said a lot of obtuse things.
GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz thinks Barack Obama "does not wish to protect this country." Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders still believes that climate change is our biggest national security threat. And the president of the United States seems to be angrier at Republicans than he is at ISIS.
And then there are those who say Americans have been expressing too much support for France.
Almost immediately after the attacks, critics began to point to evidence of American double standards. ISIS bombed Beirut a day before Paris, and yet, that event produced nowhere near the outpouring of sympathy throughout the West that the Paris attacks elicited. Millions of people on Facebook superimposed the colors of the French flag over their profile pictures, and yet no one thought to do that after recent massacres in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Somalia.
Writer Amal El-Mohtar encapsulated this view as well as anyone in a series of angry (and now protected) tweets posted in response to news of France's retaliatory strikes on ISIS's stronghold of Raqqa, Syria:
I just want you to search yourselves, the depth of horror you felt for Paris, the violation — pain — ask why you don't feel that for Syria
Ask why it seems like the natural order of things for bombs to fall on Syria but a monstrous violation for bombs to detonate in France. Ask [Amal El-Mohtar]
If El-Mohtar is from the region, if (as other now-protected tweets seemed to imply) she has friends and family there, then I understand her indignation at the double standard. But that doesn't mean it's morally justified.
There is nothing surprising or shameful about spontaneous expressions of support for France among Americans. France is part of the West, and so are we. France is also America's oldest ally. Such sentiments — attachment and loyalty to those closer to us in time, space, culture, and history — are perfectly natural. They flow from our tendency to love, first and foremost, what is our own.
I love myself, which is why my instinct toward self-preservation is so strong. Next, I love my family and friends. Then my neighbors. Then those who share my religious, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, ideological, and national background. Then, and only then, can I begin to summon up a comparatively lukewarm love for a universal "humanity."
These concentric circles of attachment define our natural moral experience. Don't buy it? Imagine how you would feel at the death of your own child and then compare that to how you feel when you read about the death of a child on the other side of the world whose family, culture, language, and background are foreign to you. The second of these deaths cannot help but be felt abstractly.
Now, this obviously isn't the end of the story. Moral traditions that descend from Christianity and Kantian liberalism often think of moral obligation exclusively in universal terms. Kant maintained that each of us has an unconditional duty to treat every human being as an end and never merely as a means, and to disregard natural inclinations when determining how to act morally in the world. The most stringent forms of Christianity likewise demand that we actively love our neighbors, our enemies, and even all human beings, regardless of their worthiness of that love. Both moral systems would seem to require that I treat each child — my own and one from a family of strangers 7,000 miles away — as morally interchangeable.
Whether or not a universal moral system is possible or desirable, we need to recognize that it cuts against the grain of human nature, and that a more "natural" form of morality — one that builds on and refines our natural loves and inclinations rather than denying their legitimacy — isn't the outrage that universalists often presume it to be.
Some of the noblest human goods — goods like loyalty, solidarity, community, belonging, and self-sacrificing love — are incubated and flourish in particularistic forms of life. That they can also curdle into tribalism, parochialism, and close-minded bigotry doesn't take away from all they can be at their best, or eliminate the need for that incubation process. We learn how to love those furthest away from us by first learning to love those closest to us.
Even if we concede that local attachments need to be tempered by moral universalism, it's crucial to recognize how contrary to our nature it is to love indiscriminately, and how deeply ingrained it is for us to love what is our own more than what is not.
In expressing friendship and unity with our wounded friend, Americans have nothing to be ashamed of.