…get a lot of bad press in modern times. In political and academic venues, writers and speakers are chastised for abstracting concrete events or conditions. An example or two may be in order: A political science teacher, or perhaps a history teacher, abstracts an event like war; a student may object to the teacher’s non-mention of the concrete murdered bodies. To the student, the teacher’s abstraction of war is something of an intellectual evil committed in the blithe ignorance of those who live in “ivory towers” of one kind or another, divorced from the concrete realities of human experience.

That’s a valid point. The significance of the Holocaust was lost in the sheer vastness of the abstract numbers. We can all point to instances when the hard reality of suffering and loss disappears in abstract references.

But if subjective emotional meaning is lost in abstractions, objective meaning is found. For many years, I worked in animal rescue. I will not go into some of the horrors I saw or heard of except one, just to clarify the value of abstracting. A man tied his dog to the back of his truck and dragged him to death. He was convicted of a misdemeanor. If memory serves, he paid a small fine. The judge who handed down the sentence said the victim was “just a dog” so it wasn’t “all that bad.” But the concrete object of cruelty does not change its definition. The psychological profile of those who go on killing sprees in schools, churches, and shopping malls is not merely similar but identical to the profile of those who torture and kill animals. Indeed, they usually begin their killing careers by killing animals, for which they receive little or no punishment. Cruelty is not altered by its object. It’s only by abstracting it that we can understand that it’s cruelty itself that’s evil. If it’s wrong here, it’s also wrong there.

A young woman I once knew dated a man who boasted about cheating on his taxes. She told me she didn’t know why she was bothered both by the cheating and the fact that he seemed to feel so clever about it. I advised her to leave the relationship immediately. Someone who cheats on his taxes will also cheat on his wife, and worse, he’ll think he’s clever to get away with it. It’s not the object of cheating that makes it wrong.  (I used to tell my students this anecdote before they took an exam. “I will not police you, but just know that if you cheat here, you’ll cheat anywhere—because you are a cheat.”)

Despite criticism of their use, abstractions don’t always obscure concrete realities. In fact, their purpose is quite the opposite. The last example is a conversation I had with a neighbor, a retired professor of statistics who I suspect takes a measure of pride in what he sees as northern moral superiority to local south Georgians. It was during the riots that followed the unjust death of a black man at the hands of a police officer. My neighbor referred to the locally infamous lynching of a black man that occurred back in the 1920s. A statue has been erected to the victim and frequent reference is made to the incident at the university where my neighbor and I both taught. I told him about a young woman, a share-cropper’s wife, during that same era who was walking home from church when she was accosted by three black men, robbed, raped, and left to bleed to death in a ditch. The men were caught as they fled through the woods, still carrying the woman’s pocketbook. Two escaped; one was convicted and sent to prison where he died a few years later.  “Yes,” said my neighbor, “but she was white.”

“So?” I queried. “What’s your point?”

“The man was black.”

“And that makes that incident more unjust?”

“Oh, yes,” he smiled condescendingly. “The woman was white. She was privileged. What happened to her is understandable.” I thought to myself at the time that I had just heard something I rarely ever hear: pure unmitigated racism, not the kind that merely offends, but the kind that’s deadly. He was the same as those who lynched the local black man in the 1920s. There was no difference. But I know he would never be able to see it.

Abstractions can give us insight as well as perspective, rather like the simile of trees and forest. They are necessary for rational thought, but they’re necessary for moral thought as well.