Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Trust Your Feelings? A Poor Way to Do Morality

Why does all of this matter?

All of this discussion of "reasons", and "motivational force", and "prescriptivity". Is this just academic entertainment that has no relevance in the real world?

Can it put bread on the table?

Can it provide medical care to the sick and injured?

Can it get people to stop setting off bombs in shopping centers?

Well, actually, yes it can.

Moral and political philosophy is actually what ended the dark ages and brought us the Age of Enlightenment. It ended the despotic rule of kings who were believed to have gotten their authority because God selected them to be king, and replaced it with a world where all men - and, ultimately, all people - are created equal. Before the scientific revolution could happen, we needed a philosophical revolution that said that we could understand the universe by observation, measurement, modeling, and reason.

The topic that I have been posting on recently - on the existence of intrinsic prescriptivity - is one that leads to mistaken judgments. Those mistakes, in turn, lead to actions which result in people being harmed for no good reason.

Here is an example:

When I was young, I went out with a friend collecting signatures on a petition in front of a grocery store. We were involved in a discussion with an individual when a mixed-race couple left the store and walked to their car with their groceries, embracing and sharing a short kiss along the way.

The person with whom we were talking pointed to them and exclaimed his objections to interracial relationships.

I had no doubt that he could just "see" the wrongness interracial relationships. He looked upon that couple and had an immediate feeling of wrongness. From this, he made a judgment that such things ought not to be done. On the basis of that judgment, he was willing to take political action to help to ensure that those types of things were prevented - by law, and by threat of punishment - if necessary.

He also said that, if the state abdicated its responsibility in enforcing these moral truths, then it was up to the people to do so.

This same phenomenon drove much of the opposition to homosexual marriage. An individual sees - or simply imagines - a homosexual relationship. He "feels" the wrongness of it. He uses this to make a judgment. Based on that judgment, he engages in political actions that prevent homosexuals from marrying, from adopting children, and from enjoying a good quality of life together.

Donald Trump is preying upon the same type of mistake in his campaign to be President. There is a substantial portion of the population that has an aversion to being around those who are "different" from them. They hear somebody speaking Spanish, or they see dark skin or a head scarf, and they have an averse emotional reaction to having those people around. They feel anxious and uneasy. From this they make a judgment that those people ought not to be here. Based on that judgment, they take political action. Unjust, immoral, hurtful political action.

I think, some of the worst advice that gets propagated is the idea that you should "trust your feelings" or "let your conscience be your guide" or "do whatever feels right to you."

Some feelings are not to be trusted. They serve as a very poor guide. We are foolish to encourage the prejudiced, the selfish, and the cruel to "do what feels right to them".

Evolutionary morality, as it turns out, fits into this same program. It says that our moral feelings came about as a result of evolution and seems to imply from this that they can be trusted. Of course, those who promote this model cherry-pick their data. They only see evolved altruism and sympathy. They ignore evolved tribalism and gender dominance.

Their message that morality comes from evolution gives us no way to evaluate the results of evolution as good or bad. It gives us no way to determine which of the features evolution gave us that we should use and nurture, and which we should fight.

The only way to evaluate the effects of evolution is if there is something outside of evolution we can hold these effects up to in order to evaluate them. This means that the true measure of good and bad does not come from evolution. It comes from that thing outside of evolution that we use to make these evaluations.

Our feelings - evolved and learned - are not to be trusted. They need to be examined and evaluated. If they are, we will discover that we have some feelings motivating actions hurtful to others that we actually need to throw out. At the same time, we may discover feelings that are helpful that need to be cultivated. (In this category, I would put a "love of the truth" - which seems to be in very short supply these days.)

These dry, philosophical assessments that have made up my blog recently . . . that's what they are about. They are about the mistake of taking feelings as being a reliable indicator of moral fact. It would be in our interest to discourage people from continuing to make that mistake.

No comments: