Much of my recent writings have seemed to focus on promoting the value of reason and denigrating the value of feelings in moral judgments. I want to take some time to clarify the relationship between reason and ‘feelings’ here.
I hold to a theory of value that says that reason alone can never tell us what is good and what is bad. Value exists as a real-world property. However, value exists as a relationship between states of affairs and desires such that, if no desires existed, then no value would exist either.
In saying this, the most common conclusion that readers will jump to is to think that I have just said, “Relationships between states of affairs and desires have intrinsic value.” They will then challenge me to prove this proposition and boast that I have been defeated if I do not do so.
So, I will quickly add, “The proposition, ‘Relationships between states of affairs and desires have intrinsic value’ is false.” I do not intend to defend it. In fact, I would challenge anybody to defend it. It is not what I said. I said that value consists of relationships between states of affairs and desires in that, if an A has a desire that P, and P is true in S, then A has a ‘reason for action’ to bring about or preserve S. That is to say, one of A’s goals or ends is any state of affairs in which P is true.
This means that desires cannot be evaluated, right? “If it feels good, do it.” If I desire to slaughter all of the Jews, then a state of affairs in which Jews are being slaughtered is one that has value to me, and nobody can criticize it on the basis of its being ‘intrinsically wrong’, right? Or, as some philosophers have maintained, we cannot reason about ends because reason alone cannot tell us which ends are ‘appropriate’ or ‘inappropriate’. We can only reason about means. Anybody who stands up and criticizes certain ends is guilty of arguing from false assumptions.
Well, yes and no. We cannot reason about ends as ends. If a person has a desire that P, we cannot apply reason to P alone and determine whether it is something that, because of its intrinsic qualities, deserves to be desired.
However, every end is also, at the same time, a means to the fulfillment of other ends. I have a desire for chocolate. A state of affairs in which I am eating chocolate is something I value as an end. However, my desire to eat chocolate is also, at the same time, a means that thwarts other ends – my end of living a long and healthy life, of maintaining my weight, of living without a constant struggle to thwart my desire for chocolate so that I can obtain these other ends. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with eating chocolate that reason alone can discover. However, reason is perfectly able to discover that the desire for chocolate thwarts other desires, and that I would be better off to be rid of it.
This, then, ties in to my criticism of ‘feelings’ as a form of moral argument. Feelings tell us what we like and do not like. Feelings do not tell us what we should like or should not like. In order to determine what we should or should not like we need to apply reason to those feelings and determine their value. This does not mean determining whether the object of our feelings has some type of intrinsic merit where they inherently ‘deserve’ certain attitudes towards them. This means determining whether the feeling we are talking about tends to thwart or to fulfill other desires – whether it is a good or bad means towards the fulfillment of those desires.
So, whenever somebody says that they get their morality from their ‘feelings’ I cough, sputter, and generally warn all who can hear to run away in fear. It should be quite obvious that a large majority of suicide bombers, crusaders, jihadists, inquisitors, Nazi guards, slave owner, child abuser, and the like trusted their feelings. When it comes to the quest for a reliable source of moral truth, ‘feelings’ are no more reliable than ‘scripture’, and people who decide to trust their feelings are just as dangerous as those who would trust scripture.
In order to get to morality, the right question to ask is not, “How do I feel about X?” The question we should be asking is, “How should people generally feel about X?” In answering that question, it would be a mistake to think that we can somehow divine or derive the intrinsic merit of X – whether X ‘deserves’ certain feelings entirely because of its own independent nature. The only option we have – because the only value that exists in the real world is in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires – is to ask whether a particular ‘feeling’ will tend to fulfill or thwart other desires.
Recall, if A has a desire that P, and P is true in S, then A has a ‘reason for action’ to bring about S. It is also the case that if R will bring about or preserve S that A also has reason to bring about or promote R, in order to obtain S. This ‘reason to bring about R’ has to do with instrumental value, or the value that R can have as a means to bring about S.
One possible member in the set R can well be that ‘people have a desire that Q’, for some Q. The most obvious example of this is a ‘desire to help others’. I have a desire that P. If you have a desire to help others then you have a desire to bring about a state of affairs in which the proposition, ‘I am helping others’ is true. That proposition would be true in any state of affairs in which you are helping me realize a state of affairs in which P is true.
Of course, if P itself is something that is helpful to others, your desire to help others will pay extra dividends if you choose to help me. Whereas if my desire does harm to others, your desire to help others might even lead you to conclude that you can do more to help others by actually hindering me.
This is a rather clear case. Other cases are not so clear. A desire to tell the truth is generally something that people have reason to promote. However, there are exceptions – such as telling the truth to Nazi SS soldiers about Jews hiding in the attic, or telling the truth to your sister about her surprise birthday party, or simply telling an entertaining story which is, essentially, a bunch of claims about things that did not happen.
The crux of the matter is that no person can tell what is right from what is wrong by measuring how he feels about things. His feelings will tell him what he likes and does not like, but not what he should like or should not like. The practice of determining moral value by searching one’s own feelings is as flaws as attempting to discover whether some claim is true or false by measuring whether or not one believes it. The inference, “I feel good about X; therefore, X must be moral,” is as flawed as, “I believe X; therefore, X must be true.” A person can feel good about something (the way a jihadist can feel good about killing infidels or a Christian in America can feel good about coercing children into praying to her God in public schools), without these being things that a person should feel good about. The person who uses his or her own feelings as a judge of right and wrong is, in essence making a fundamentally arrogant and presumptuous claim that, “In matters of ethics, I cannot be wrong; and if anybody disagrees with me, they must necessarily be wrong.”
The real question to be asking is not, “Do I feel good about doing X?” but “Should I feel good about doing X?” To answer this question, you have to ask, “What would our society be like if everybody felt good about doing X?” You cannot answer this question by searching your own feelings.
You can only answer this question by looking out at the world – at the real world relationships that exist quite independent of how you perceive them, and ask, “What are the effects of everybody feeling good about doing X?” If the effects are not so great, then it is quite possible that one is feeling good about something that one should not feel good about. Or you might not feel good about something that, if you were smart, you would realize that you have reason to cause everybody to feel good about.
So, then, this is the relationship between ‘feelings’, reason, and value. Desires determine what has value. Whether or not something has value requires an exercise of reason, but reason itself can answer this question only by discovering how an object of evaluation relates to certain desires.
However, this same capacity to use reason to answer questions about value can be used to answer questions about the value of having certain feelings. These questions – about whether it is a good or bad idea to be promoting certain feelings – are at heart of morality. People who use their own feelings to answer moral questions are making a mistake, just like those who use their own beliefs to determine what is true. Determining the effects of states in which certain feelings are more or less common and more or less powerful is not something that we can learn from merely thinking about a problem. It requires making empirical observations of the world around us. It requires the same techniques used in science, applied to real-world relationships between desires and other desires.
So, the morals of this story are: Feelings (desires) are essential for value. Desires determine the ends (goals) of our actions. We have no way to evaluate ends as ends. However, each and every end is also a means, and we do have ways of evaluating the rationality of ends as means. Morality is concerned primarily with evaluating ends as means and distinguishing good ends from bad ends. This requires reason. This also allows that how a person feels about something, and how he should feel about it, are not necessarily the same thing.