It seems obvious but leads to uncomfortable conclusions
Morality is about the choices we make. There’s been much thinking, writing, and sermonizing about morality, and one of the most common themes is that we should judge actions. It’s not about judging the things we have no control over. That means condemning bullying, not contempt; condemning adultery, not lust; condemning violence, not hatred.
Yes, even hatred, the most taboo emotion in American society, is neither good nor evil. People don’t choose hatred: it’s a feeling that automatically burbles up from the depths of their brain, the same as any other. It can motivate awful behavior, but the same is true of other emotions like hubris and greed. That’s not enough justification to condemn it as evil. Only our choices can be morally judged.
Some feelings are dangerous but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong
Many emotions are like fire: handled improperly, they can do tremendous damage. Greed, anger, ambition, hatred, lust, jealousy, etc. can motivate people to do awful things. They can also be channeled into constructive activity, though. The emotions that we think of a positive, such as love and compassion, can be channeled into harmful activity.
Some Allied soldiers fought Nazis because they hated “krauts,” an ethnic slur for Germans. They may have had anger in their hearts, but they still played a role in ending WW2 and the Holocaust. Mirror-wise, black community leaders and the Black Congressional Caucus wanted to defend their community from the epidemic of crack cocaine. That noble intention led to them passing laws that gave very harsh penalties to crack possession, which has had terribly racist consequences.
I’ve written before about how emotions don’t matter in politics, but it can be applied more broadly than just politics. Your choices and their consequences are what matter. What’s in your heart might be interesting, but it doesn’t determine whether you’re a good or bad person. Your bad feelings might tempt you to do bad things but it’s how you react to that temptation that matters.
Human hearts are all the same
We spend an awful lot of time thinking about how We have good feelings and They have bad feelings. We are filled with love and faith and tolerance, They are filled with greed and hatred and a hunger for control.
Ultimately, though, that’s unproductive. If we think of other people as having fundamentally different feelings than we do, it’s impossible for us to empathize and cooperate. Stigmatizing emotions makes us unable to recognize those feelings in ourselves and handle them appropriately.
If we use ‘desire for power’ as a label to dismiss our enemies, we won’t acknowledge that desire in ourselves and our allies. Because we’re made of the same flesh-and-blood as our opponents, though, we’re just as likely to feel that desire. We’ll just be repressing it, so we’ll be unable to think clearly about it, and we might ultimately express it in a destructive way.
Only choices are good and evil
There aren’t very many settled arguments in moral philosophy. Is the Bible the ultimate guide? Are the consequences of our actions the only thing that matters? Is morality just about following principles?
Fortunately, I don’t have to settle any of those arguments. Very few moral beliefs actually condemn emotions. Let’s run through some moral philosophies to prove the point.
Consequentialists believe that the consequences of an action determine whether it’s good or evil. The most well-known kind of consequentialism is called utilitarianism, and it says that the happiness or pain caused by an action is what matters. If you do something that creates more good feelings in humanity (and maybe animals too) than bad feelings, it’s good. It doesn’t matter what the specific action was.
Consequentialists care solely about actions. That makes it immediately clear that they can’t condemn hatred, jealousy, greed, or any other feeling. Consequentialism is about your conduct, not what’s going on in your mind.
Deontologists believe that you should follow moral principles. The philosopher Immanuel Kant created two influential moral rules. The simplified versions are: first, act in a way that everyone else could act; second, never treat people as a means to an end. It’s like when your mother asked you “what if everyone else did that?” as a way to discourage your bad habits.
The rules deontologists create are, again, about actions. It’s about what kind of choices you should make. It’s not about who you are deep in your heart-of-hearts, it’s about how you choose to interact with people and the world.
Another view of morality is that right and wrong are determined by the will of God, or multiple gods. There are many religions, so it’s not possible to cover all of them, but generally speaking they’re concerned with actions and faith. Take the Ten Commandments, for example. Of the ten of them, only one is concerned with how we feel, rather than what we do.
The commandment not to covet thy neighbor’s house etc. is a prohibition against feeling a certain way. That’s difficult to reconcile with the “emotions can’t be wrong” argument. In fact, Jesus would expand on this, saying that anger towards one brother is a sin, and that desiring adultery is committing adultery in your heart. This is like the Buddhist condemnation of desire.
When these (and other) religions condemn feelings, they aren’t necessarily doing the same thing as other kinds of moral condemnation. When we say an action is evil, we say that we should avoid doing it, and perhaps even that it should be punished. It’s impossible to avoid feeling a certain way, and it’s not feasible to punish people for their innermost feelings, though it’s certainly been tried before!
These yearnings are stigmatized as evil so that followers will try to discipline their inner voice. If they’re told it’s shameful to feel lust, or that desire leads to the cycle of suffering, then they will try focus their thoughts away from those feelings when they experience them.
The downside is that they may feel shame and inadequacy because of their longings. They will repress or sublimate those feelings and possibly express them in a bad way later. Take the common criticism of the Catholic Church: their attitude towards sexuality leads to priest repressing their desires, so some priests end up expressing those desires in an unhealthy way, as pedophilia. I don’t completely agree with that criticism of the Catholic Church (I think it’s more complicated than that) but the reasoning makes sense.
Virtue ethics is an old-fashioned view of morality that’s enjoying a popular resurgence among philosophers. The central idea of virtue ethics is that we shouldn’t be concerned about actions and consequences at all, but rather that we should be concerned about virtues: positive personal traits like courage, humility, grace, or wisdom. The right thing to do is simply what a virtuous person would do.
A straightforward reading of virtue ethics contradicts my theses: a virtue ethicist believes that feelings certainly can be right and wrong, and they’re actually the basis for judging right and wrong! If you feel courage when faced with a threat, you’re a virtuous person; if you feel cowardly, you aren’t.
That may be a valid understanding of virtue ethics, but there’s another way to look at it. If a person is filled with terror at the sight of a mouse, then we could condemn them as lacking the virtue of courage. If they’re able to overcome their terror, though, are they really less courageous than people who didn’t feel fear in the first place?
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward, it is not a compliment to say it is brave; it is merely a loose misapplication of the word. Consider the flea!-incomparably the bravest of all the creatures of God, if ignorance of fear were courage.”
If a person is inclined towards vanity, but can control their impulses and act with modesty, then are they less virtuous than someone with a natural inclination towards modesty? If someone can acknowledge their feelings of fear, hatred, or pride, and behave virtuously regardless, then perhaps virtue ethicists would recognize their goodness.
Originally published at http://simonphilosophy.home.blog on May 21, 2019.