Reading Moses Mendelssohn, it occurred to me that “sympathy” is the cardinal liberal virtue. Reading Michael Walzer only confirms this suspicion. Sympathy is what, I think, distinguishes Mendelssohn, who was sympathetic, from Spinoza, who was not, especially in relation to Judaism. This includes Walzer as well.
By sympathy I would want to include gross forms of teary sentimentality along with a more clear-eyed, basic, and critical care for and interest in people, warts and all, as they are —as opposed to how more jaundiced critic thinks they “ought to be.” Sympathy has to do with the formation of binding and associational ties that are affective, moral, political, and sometimes spiritual.
Instead of seeking to remold the human condition, liberal sentimentalists look to improve or to “perfect” the common good by extending and expanding it. They seek to do so not on the basis of “tolerance,” but on the basis of pluralism and on what Walzer calls “complex equality.”
Sympathy lends itself to the form of “solidarity” championed by the soft social democrats of the old socialist left, as opposed to the more intense and hard forms of militancy. Invested solely in systems and structures, scientific Marxists, Bolsheviks, Maoists, and critical theorists tend not to be too terribly sympathetic.
Sympathy is never good enough. It always requires criticism, perhaps a kind of sympathetic toughness, and, yes, the will to make decisions and get things done.