Fundamentals: Where Morality Comes From

I’m a firm believer that the key to understanding some aspect of human behavior is to understand the motivations behind it. If you know why people do what they do, then understanding what becomes trivial.

Further, I firmly believe that you cannot prescribe until you first describe–that until you have done your best to understand what something is, you have no business arguing about what it should be. So it follows that, if I am going to talk about morality and ethics–and given that I regard morality, politics, and aesthetics as inextricably intertwined, I have talked and will continue to talk about them–it behooves me to first try to understand what motivates them.

So why do people want to be moral? The glib answer, of course, is the same reason anyone ever wants anything: they think it will feel better than the alternative. But what feelings, specifically, are at work with morality? I think it comes down, ultimately, to four emotions:

  • Shame: Being seen by others as immoral feels bad, being intimately associated with rejection and negative judgment.
  • Guilt: Seeing oneself as immoral likewise feels bad, being associated with failure and self-doubt.
  • Pride: Seeing oneself as moral (and being seen by others as moral) feels good, because it’s associated with acceptance, positive judgment, achievement, and self-esteem. (Note: Tentatively I place the sense of fairness here–that is, we wish to be treated fairly and to treat others fairly because of its impact on our sense of pride. It’s possible, however, to regard fairness as a separate, fifth emotion underlying morality.)
  • Empathy: Not exactly an emotion, but definitely emotional in nature and a strong motivator behind altruism.

Ultimately, moral behavior is a matter of avoiding shame and guilt, pursuing pride, and acting with empathy. Moral crises come about when it’s not possible to do all of these at once–for example, when avoiding social disapproval means failing one’s own standards and vice versa.

Of course, looked at this way, it becomes immediately obvious why no logically consistent moral code–regardless of the metaethics behind it–can really work: emotional states aren’t logically consistent. And we can’t actually reject this emotional basis, because without it there’s no reason to be moral. Nor can any one of these emotions be ignored: Shame is necessary because it’s how we learn to be guilty. Guilt is necessary because it’s the moral equivalent of burning one’s hand on a hot stove. Pride is necessary because without it the only advantage to being moral over being amoral is that you might get caught. And empathy is necessary because without it morality becomes an irrelevant abstraction, unconnected with the material wellbeing of real people in the real world. Together, shame and empathy prevent morality from becoming solipsistic or narcissistic; guilt and pride prevent it from becoming conformist.

So why bother with thinking about morality at all? Why not just go with kneejerk emotional responses to every situation? I think Daniel Dennett has a good answer here, and I recommend the relevant chapters in his Freedom Evolves on the topic. (And all the rest of it, for that matter.) But basically, thinking about moral questions and coming up with rules of thumb serves a few purposes.

The first reason is what Dennett describes by analogy to the story of Odysseus and the Sirens: Having principles is a way of metaphorically tying ourselves to the mast, so that when we face a situation “in the moment” we are better prepared to resist temptation. In other words, principles are about recognizing that we are imperfect actors and sometimes make decisions in the moment that, once we have time to think about them, we regret. Thinking about moral questions and adopting rules of thumb or broad principles is a kind of self-programming, training ourselves to feel extra guilt when we break them and extra pride when we follow them, thus increasing the likelihood of resisting temptation in the moment.

Another reason is communication. Part of morality is accepting responsibility for one’s community, and shame is a critical tool for policing that community. Shared principles are a key way for a community to define for itself how it will police its members by clarifying what kinds of behaviors are appropriate for other members of the community to shame. Of course members of the community may disagree, resulting in conflict, but conflict is an inevitable (and frequently desirable) part of being in a community.

Be clear, however: principles, lists of rules, and all other attempts to codify morality are models, which is to say they are necessarily not the thing modeled. Morality is not adherence to a set of principles, but rather a complex and irreducible social and emotional state, which is why excessive adherence to principles leads always to advocating obviously immoral behavior. Ethics, in other words, is rightly a descriptive, not prescriptive, branch of philosophy: journalistic ethics is a description of how good journalists behave, not a set of commandments handed down by the journalism gods from on high. Studying such models is obviously very useful in becoming a good journalist, but is not in itself sufficient–like any rule set, the point is to understand them well enough to know when to break them. Journalistic ethics are, of course, just an example–the same goes for any other kind of ethics.

Of course, if morality is emotional in nature, it follows that just as there is no “correct” way to feel about something, there is no “correct” morality. That said, just because there’s no correct way to feel doesn’t mean there are no incorrect ways; it’s simply factually untrue to say that there isn’t a broad consensus about certain behaviors in certain scenarios. Baby-eating, for example, is almost universally regarded as repulsive, and so we can fairly safely say that a model of morality which prescribes eating babies as a normal practice has failed to accurately depict its subject.

More to the point, it doesn’t actually matter that there’s no correct model: if my morality–which here includes both the ways in which I model morality through principles and reason and the underlying emotional reality–demands that I oppose someone else’s actions or attempts to make their model of morality dominant within the community, then it demands it. Which of course is why people give logically inconsistent answers to ethical dilemmas: the curious responses to the trolley problem are of course completely understandable once you recognize that while passive and active choices aren’t logically different, they feel different.

In the end, as with aesthetics, any prescriptive model will necessarily be imperfect. But that’s the human condition, isn’t it? Making do with imperfect materials, striving ever to replace our old mistakes with new ones.

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