Sunday, August 15, 2010

Moral Reason vs. Moral Emotion

Here is an article in today's Boston Globe concerning "the surprising moral force of disgust." The article starts in this manner:


“Two things fill my mind with ever renewed wonder and awe the more often and deeper I dwell on them,” wrote Immanuel Kant, “the starry skies above me, and the moral law within me.”
Where does moral law come from? What lies behind our sense of right and wrong? For millennia, there have been two available answers. To the devoutly religious, morality is the word of God, handed down to holy men in groves or on mountaintops. To moral philosophers like Kant, it is a set of rules to be worked out by reason, chin on fist like Rodin’s thinker.
But what if neither is correct? What if our moral judgments are driven instead by more visceral human considerations? And what if one of those is not divine commandment or inductive reasoning, but simply whether a situation, in some small way, makes us feel like throwing up?
This is the argument that some behavioral scientists have begun to make: That a significant slice of morality can be explained by our innate feelings of disgust.


We have here the usual modern confusion between moral reason and moral behavior. Moral reason pertains to the distinction between right and wrong behavior, and the possible rational foundation of moral decision. Moral behavior pertains to the actual causes that lead people to do what they do. This was a distinction well known to ancient philosophers (and modern philosophers like Kant as well.) For Aristotle, what distinguishes the truly virtuous man is the pleasure he takes in doing good; the vicious man finds acting well to be painful. These pains and pleasures are the "efficient causes" that (in large part) explain everyday behavior.

The point of moral education, Aristotle thought, was to train the emotions to reflect moral truth. The student must learn to take pleasure in the truly good and to feel pain at the truly evil. In the terms of the Boston Globe article, the student must learn to feel disgust at the truly disgusting, and to not feel disgust at that which truly is not. Then the causes of his everyday moral decision-making will be rightly ordered and he will tend to act well.

Of course, this moral education is only possible if there is a knowledge of good and evil that is not itself simply a refection of emotions. That there is such knowledge was acknowledged by Aristotle, and Kant as well (although they disagree on its foundation.) Modern science has done nothing to undermine the reasons for recognizing it. The evolutionary explanation offered by the Globe, for instance, doesn't even begin to do the job. Such an explanation may possibly explain how feelings of disgust arose; but even if they do, they haven't started to explain the origin of our notions of good and evil, or the virtuous and the base. Good and evil are much broader concepts than the disgusting; it follows that any association between disgusting and evil could occur only in light of an already existing concept of evil. 

I wonder how much time and money has been wasted by scientists catching up to where Aristotle was 2500  years ago?

1 comment:

Matthew said...

Uncle Dave,

I really enjoyed this post. I used some of your points in a similar argument I just had with a friend. I hope all is well with the family!

Matt