Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Morality, Reason, and Emotion

I have had a member of my studio audience raise issue with the fact that I seem to have spoken in defense of hate. In my accusations against Pope Benedict XVI for ‘hate-mongering’ I reported that hate can sometimes be deserved. The hate-monger is distinguished from somebody who promotes legitimate hate by his irresponsible use of false propositions and rhetorical sophistry.

From Atheist Observer:

I take issue with two of your assertions in this post. The first is that hate mongering is not a moral crime, and the second is that some people deserve hate. . . By introducing hate into the situation, you simply make it more likely that the response will be disproportionate and irrational. You make just and moral behavior less likely.

I will get back to this specific issue in a moment. In the context of discussing the issue of hate, Atheist Observer made some comments about the relationship between emotion and reason – expressing a view that I think is very common, though also very much mistaken.

Hate often blinds us from a careful examination of a situation, and a reasoned analysis of causes and solutions. Hate prevents us from empathizing with others and understanding other ways of looking at events. I think hate, like other emotional reactions, evolved before animals were capable of rational thought. To encourage this most negative of emotions rather than rational thought is a moral error.

The Roles of Emotion and Reason

As much as I have enjoyed the stories in the Star Trek universe, I believe more firmly cemented into the public mind an idea that needs to be challenged – the idea that emotions are inherently bad because emotions are inherently unreasonable (and reason is inherently good). People who rely on emotions often reach false conclusions. Since those conclusions are mistakes that need to be avoided, we should suppress our emotions and rely entirely on reason.

To do what?

Reason, I have argued, is the tool for matching means to ends. However, it is not a tool for picking out ends.

Desire utilitarian adds one level of complexity to this. There is no such thing as a pure end. Instead, every end is also, at the same time, a means – it conflicts with or contributes to the fulfillment of other ends. So, even though reason does not allow us to determine the value of an end as an end, it does allow us to determine the value of an end as a means to the fulfillment (or thwarting) of other ends. We can call an end ‘good’ to the degree that it fulfills other ends, and ‘bad’ to the degree that it thwarts other ends.

Desires (and emotions) pick out the ends of human action. A ‘desire that P’ is a mental state that identifies P as an end – a goal – of those people who have the desire. This applies as much to the desires that are wrapped up in our emotions as it does to any desire considered independent of emotions. A person with a fear of flying has an aversion to flying. Such a person has as an end of avoiding a state of affairs in which he is flying.

Consequently, emotion utilitarianism is an important corollary to desire utilitarianism. As with (other) desires, our emotions are malleable and can be shaped and molded to some extent. This means that have reason to ask, “Are some ways in which our desires could be molded better than others?” In other words, are there emotions that tend to fulfill other desires (emotions we have reason to promote), and others that thwart desires (which we have reasons to inhibit).

However, reason alone does not create emotions. Reason only informs the emotions we already have.


This is where desire utilitarianism gives a nod to another moral theory; emotivism. Emotivism holds that moral claims are nothing more than grunts of approval or disapproval – emotional outbursts such as a cheer or a boo. As such, they are far removed from reason.

One of my guidelines is that the different major moral theories that are proposed have a kernel of truth that they build on. This is how the theory gets to be popular. There is some sense to moral objectivism (moral statements have a truth value and can be proved true or false), and subjectivism (moral claims are objectively true or false claims about relationships that include mental states – there is no value without desire).

Desire utilitarianism conflicts with emotivism in that it holds that moral claims are propositions that have a truth value. However, those claims are about the emotions we should or should not have and their optimum strength. Reason can tell us the range within which a certain emotion is rational, but reason alone cannot change our desires.

Here, I typically use the example of a flat tire. Reason can be employed to tell us how to change the tire. However, reason alone cannot actually change the tire. We have some work to do to get the tire changed. Similarly, reason can be used to determine what our emotions should be – whether a particular emotion should be encouraged or discouraged. However, to actually affect change, we have to appeal to something outside of reason. We need tools such as praise and condemnation.

A Spock-like creature in a Star-Trek universe would do nothing but sit and think until he died. Why should he eat? Reason alone cannot tell him to eat. Some sort of ‘end of human action’ must be introduced. These ends do not come from reason, they come from desire (and emotion).

Hate, In Specific

The Atheist Observer suggests that hate is always a desire-thwarting emotion, so hate can never be justified.

My position is that this depends on what, exactly, the person hates. Promoting hatred of that which tends to be desire-thwarting will make it much more likely that people will stand opposed to the desire-thwarting object of hate. A culture that promotes a hatred of lies and sophistry is a society where liars and sophists are far less likely to find acceptance – where they will have less power and influence. That, in turn, would be a good thing.

I want to remind the reader that ‘hate’ does not imply a call to violence. The term ‘hate’ simply means to have a very strong aversion. I hate (the taste of) liver and onions. I hate people who speak loudly into their cell phones while on the bus. I hate it when the person sitting in front of me on the bus puts his seat back. There are a number of things that I hate – yet, in none of these cases, does this hatred inspire a call to use violence.

[D]o we benefit in the long run as a society by inciting and generating more hate, even to those we think “deserve” it? I see no evidence that the level of morality of a society can be raised by the introduction of more hate.

I would never defend the proposition that we can (always) benefit from inciting hatred of those we think deserve it. My proposition would only be that we can benefit by promoting hatred of those who deserve it as a matter of fact. When we promote hatred of those we think deserve it, and our beliefs turn out to be wrong, then we do not benefit.

Does anybody ever deserve hate as a matter of fact?

A part of the Atheist Observer’s issue with hate can be dealt with under the banner of a ‘presumption of innocence’. Just as we should assume that the accused is innocent and place a burden of proof of those who would declare him guilty, the burden of proof is never on the person who opposes hate, but the person who tries to defend it.

One could make the same argument that Atheist Observer makes and use it against violence – that violence is always bad, and no argument could ever be made in defense of violence. We clearly have reason to place the ‘burden of proof’ on those who would advocate violence, and a strong presumption that they are in error. However, it is hardly the case that this is a burden that can never be met. Our judicial system is grounded on these principles. A claim that violence is never justified would then be identical to the claim that no person shall ever be convicted of a crime and punished – punishment is inherently violent.

This fits in quite well with my original essay – that Pope Benedict XVI behaved in a morally irresponsible manner by attempting to promote hate with false assumptions and fallacious reasoning. He, too, would be under this obligation to assume that hate is not justified unless the evidence for a conviction is compelling, which itself implies an obligation to reject any argument in favor of hate unless it is compelling. The arguments Pope Benedict decided to promote were quite the opposite of ‘compelling’.

In this, Pope Benedict made himself into a champion of injustice. My point that his religion did not save him from doing wrong, or even provide him with a useful guide.

Emotion Driven Thinking

In this posting, I am not saying that Atheist Observer is at all wrong, except in matters of detail and emphasis. Emotions exist outside of reason, but there are people who do try to reason from their emotions. Effectively, these people are fond of arguing from the fact that they have a particular emotional reaction to (thoughts of) some state, to immediately assuming that something about the state warrants that emotion.

So, for example, a bigot sees an interracial couple in a grocery store. He has a feeling of disgust and revulsion. From this, he concludes that there is something wrong with that type of relationship. His question, in this case, is misplaced. Instead of asking what it is about such a relationship that justifies his reaction to it, he needs to be asking what reasons for action exist for promoting or inhibiting that particular (type of) reaction.

Atheist Observer’s warning in this area is very important.

However, it does not argue for replacing emotion with reason. It argues for using reason as a guide for molding our emotions.

We can still hate – just as I can hate the dog that barks all night long. We must simply remember to limit our hate to those things that actually deserve it, and that we owe it to others to give them the benefit of the doubt, and reluctantly accept evidence to the contrary only when it is too compelling to ignore. A less moral person, on the other hand, embraces arguments that give him reason to hate, without stopping to ask questions about whether those reasons to hate are actually good reasons.


Anonymous said...

your post makes good sense and justly defends the emotion of hate against reason-only moralities. Defending hate per se does, however, come across as rather "uncivilized". Perhaps you need to introduce some atheist/secular version of the christian "hate the sin, not the sinner" or the kantian "never use people only as a means, but always also as an end".

Perhaps i am still to christian, but "hate" doesn't seem to be the best emotion to conclude with; in your terminology, hate probably never promotes the fulfillment of your other ends inasmuch as hatred is not a desirable emotion: in my ideal life i wouldn't hate anything or anybody. But then again even the god of the christians goes around hating a lot - though id argue that's his problem.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. The most important point, I agree with: that emotions are not entirely irrational. This is partly because they are always intentional (and unlike feelings such as itchiness in this aspect). That is to say, that hatred (and love, anger, fear etc..) are always of something else. Thus we fear spiders or hate cigarette smoke. We should be able to distinguish therefore between hating the smoke and hating the smoker. Is the emotion against the smoke or the person? In the latter case, clearly there is the moral failing of confusing one aspect of a person with the whole person. Thus when you say. "I hate people who speak loudly into their cell phones while on the bus. I hate it when the person sitting in front of me on the bus puts his seat back" I think that you are not really being accurate (I hope) in the first case, but you are in the second, and this can have a deep impact on the way you choose to react.