Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-2xdlg Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-14T06:58:55.699Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Who Is My Neighbour? Understanding Indifference as a Vice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2014


Indifference is often described as a vice. Yet who is indifferent; to what; and in what way is poorly understood, and frequently subject to controversy and confusion. This paper proposes a framework for the interpretation and analysis of ethically problematic forms of indifference in terms of how different states of indifference can be either more or less dynamic, or more or less sensitive to the nature and state of their object.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2014 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Malm, H. M., ‘Bad samaritan law, and legal paternalism’, Ethics, vol. 106 (1995), 431CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McIntyre, A., ‘Guilty bystanders? On the legitimacy of duty to rescue statutes’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 23 (1994), 157–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Feldbrugge, F. J. M., ‘Good and bad Samaritans: a comparative study of criminal law provisions concerning failure to rescue’, The American Journal of Comparative Law, vol. 14 (1965), 652CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 This definition is subject to a number of qualifications that I pass over here. I discuss these further in my ‘Who Cares? Understanding the Ethics of Indifference’ (forthcoming).

3 C.f. Aquinas, T., Summa Theologiae (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1989), 365Google Scholar; Smith, A., A Theory of Moral Sentiments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 19; 42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Waltzer, M., Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 65Google Scholar; Golding, M. P., ‘On the idea of moral pathology’, in Rosenberg, A. and Myers, G. E. (eds), Echoes from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections on a Dark Time (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 137Google Scholar; Wiesel, E., Night (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006), 98Google Scholar; Solzhenitsyn, A., The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), 396Google Scholar; Camus, A., The Plague (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2002)Google ScholarPubMed.

5 Johnson, R., Death Work: A Study of the Modern Execution Process (Belmont: Wadsworth, 1990)Google Scholar; Baumann, Z., Modernity and the Holocaust (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000)Google Scholar; Zizek, S., Violence (London: Profile Books, 2008), 11Google Scholar; R. C. Baum, ‘Holocaust: moral indifference as the form of modern evil’, in Rosenberg and Myers op. cit., 57; Arendt, H., Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the banality of Evil (London: Faber and Faber, 1963Google Scholar); Solzhenitsyn op. cit., 395; Vetlesen, A. J., Perception, Empathy and Judgement: An Inquiry into the Preconditions of Moral Performance (University Park: Penn State Press, 1994), 211–12; 271–9Google Scholar.

6 Milgram, S., Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (London: Tavistock, 1974Google Scholar); Doris, J., Lack of Character (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Arendt op. cit., 212CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 C.f. Bauman op. cit.

8 C.f. du Gay, P., In Defence of Bureaucracy: Weber, Organization, Ethics (London: Sage, 2000)Google Scholar. I discuss this further in my ‘Understanding Indifference as a Virtue’ (forthcoming).

9 C.f. Arendt, op. cit. 212; Laidlaw, J., The Subject of Virtue: An Anthropology of Ethics and Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Goffman, E., The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959), 209 passimGoogle Scholar.

11 Hertzfeld, M., The Social Production of Indifference: Exploring the Symbolic Roots of Western Bureaucracy (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992), 13, 32–3Google Scholar, 75, 159ff; Baumann op. cit., 206; Goldhagen, D. J., Hitler's Willing Executioners (London: Abacus, 1997), 385, 439–41; 493Google Scholar; Kershaw, I., Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933–1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 359, 372Google Scholar.

12 Hertzfeld, op. cit. 177.

13 C.f. Bauman, Z. and Donskis, L., Moral Blindness: the Loss of Sensitivity in Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013)Google Scholar.

14 Koonz, C., The Nazi Conscience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003Google Scholar); Levi, P., The Drowned and the Saved (London: Abacus, 1989Google Scholar), 99. Cf. Johnson, E. A. and Reuband, K-H. (eds), What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder, and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 135Google Scholar; c.f., 17–18, 91; Milgram op. cit., 9; Hertzfeld op. cit., 1; Solzhenitsyn op. cit., 384.

15 C.f. Vetlesen, op. cit., 211–12.

16 C.f. Thomas, L., ‘Forgiving the unforgiveable?’, in Gerrard, E. and Scarre, G. (eds), Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust (Farnham: Ashgate, 2003), 205Google Scholar.

17 Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Eighth Edition, (ed.) Allen, R. E. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 233Google Scholar.

18 C.f. Barnett, V. J., Bystanders: Conscience and Complicity During the Holocaust (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999), 123Google Scholar.

19 C.f. Johnson and Reuband op. cit., 118; 150.

20 C.f. Jaspers, K., Basic Philosophical Writings, (eds) Ehrlich, E., Ehrlich, L. H., and Pepper, G. B. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1986), 399 passimGoogle Scholar.

21 C.f. Laidlaw op. cit.

22 C.f. Singer, Peter, ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1 (1972), 229–43Google Scholar.

23 C.f. Frank, R. H., Passions within Reason: the Strategic Role of the Emotions, London: W. W. Norton & Co., 1988Google Scholar.

24 I am grateful to Harry Adamson, Maike Albertzart, Matt Candea, Mark Hanin, Jane Heal, Caroline Humphrey, James Laidlaw, Michael Hertzfeld, Jonathan Mair, Adam Morton, Lubomira Radoilska and the Editor of Philosophy for comments and discussion of issues addressed in this paper. I also thank audiences at the Cambridge University Social Anthropology Society and at the University of Hertfordshire. Finally, I thank Churchill College, Cambridge, for the Senior Research Fellowship during the tenure of which much of this paper was written.