Some thoughts on reason and morality
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Author:  Robert Tulip [ Sat Aug 25, 2012 8:26 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

denisecummins wrote:
A short but excellent article written by Haidt that lays out clearly and succinctly his position can be found here: ... i=scholarr

Incidentally, I must object to the claim that Hume had no sense of moral duty. Hume introduced the notion of utility into moral theory; we approve of moral acts in part because they have utility – they are useful. But, in a section titled Why Utility Pleases (Section V of Hume, 1751), he argues that we approve of such useful actions because of our ability to sympathize with the recipients of those actions. He also believed that the highest merit a human can achieve was benevolence.

Thank you Denise, and welcome to Booktalk. I look forward to reading Haidt's article on The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology. I continue to suspect that Haidt applies an empirical method derived from Hume which neglects the deep moral insight into the role of principle seen in Plato and Kant. We can see this problem arising in Hume's account of duty:
David Hume wrote:
The end of all moral speculations is to teach us our duty; and, by proper representations of the deformity of vice and beauty of virtue, beget correspondent habits, and engage us to avoid the one, and embrace the other. But is this ever to be expected from inferences and conclusions of the understanding, which of themselves have no hold of the affections or set in motion the active powers of men? They discover truths: but where the truths which they discover are indifferent, and beget no desire or aversion, they can have no influence on conduct and behaviour. What is honourable, what is fair, what is becoming, what is noble, what is generous, takes possession of the heart, and animates us to embrace and maintain it. What is intelligible, what is evident, what is probable, what is true, procures only the cool assent of the understanding; and gratifying a speculative curiosity, puts an end to our researches.

An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, by David Hume
Hume's deprecation of thought as cold illustrates how Hume saw morals as solely practical, and rejected the idea of necessary truth that Kant was to make the foundation of idealism. Duty functions in Kantian philosophy as an abstract principle of moral law, a high ideal that forms a worldview. But Hume's emphasis on affections opened the path to his extreme skepticism, his sense that all authority of moral principle must be constantly validated by experience.

While Hume's view of moral duty as sentimental animation of the heart is a plausible and powerful theory, Kant held that it leads to a nihilistic collapse of moral vision, which has to be founded in the principle of duty to treat others as ends rather than means. So it is not that Hume had no theory of duty, but rather that his theory of duty is wrong because it lacks a sense of principle and undermines moral authority, leading to an atomistic individualism where all claims of duty are subject to constant review by personal reason. The intelligible does not 'put an end to our researches' but provides a rational foundation for the emotional assent that Hume suggests is the sole condition of morality. The heart has its reasons, but superior morality grounds such emotional reasons in the head.

Hume's attitude that morality is based on sentiment rather than intelligence is imprtant to modern liberal thought, and provides some of its power. But at the same time, Hume's theory produces a collapse of social bonds of belonging and respect for authority. Such a collapse may well be justified in some circumstances, especially where authority is wrong and irrational, but the attitude 'if I can't understand it and benefit from it then I won't support it' is contrary to communitarian ideas of duty such as sacrifice and loyalty.

Author:  denisecummins [ Sat Aug 25, 2012 10:07 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

I disagree that grounding morality in compassion doesn't lead to collapse of social bonds of belonging and respect for authority.

From my book:

"Hume also addressed the more abstract and political concept of justice. He believed the concept of justice is not natural but instead emerges from human convention and is passed on through education. Because we depend on society to survive, we want to advance society. This means acknowledging our responsibilities toward others who allow us to achieve that end. The three main rules of justice that naturally emerge from these considerations include honoring the stability of possessions, transference of possessions by consent, and performances of promises (contracts). Governments emerge in order to protect us in the agreements we enter into by enforcing them and to protect society as a whole by forcing individuals to make some agreements for the common good."

"In stark contrast to Hume’s belief in the emotional basis of morality, Kant proposed a theory of morality in which a moral judgment is the outcome of rational thought. Kant’s moral theory is called deontology – a theory of morality that is grounded in duties (rights and obligations). His moral theory can be found in The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (Kant, 1785) and The Critique of Practical Reason (Kant, 1787). The core concept of his position was the categorical imperative – moral rules that are discoverable entirely through reason alone and are absolutely binding for all rational agents. Like Hume, Kant believed than the moral worth of an action depended on the motivations behind it. But whereas Hume grounded motivation in virtuous or vicious character traits, Kant grounded them in universal principles that are discovered through reason. The concepts of autonomy and universality are critical to his moral theory."

"Kant believed evaluating rules (or actions) based on their outcomes is a non-starter because we can’t control outcomes. Even the best choices can yield unforeseen disastrous consequences. What we can control, however, is our intentions – our motives – underlying the actions. So the morality of an action is a function of the motivations underlying it. To Kant, there is only one motive that can be classified as good without qualification, and that is good will: You intend to do the right thing, and you choose your actions based on that principle. Essentially, it makes no sense to say someone did the wrong thing for the right reason. If the choice was based on right reason, it was the right thing to do. Period."

"So how do we come to know these “right principles,” these duties? Kant believed that we find these through pure reason. The first quality of a moral principle is universality: Morality must be the same for everyone – you can’t make an exception for yourself or anyone else. Thus, the test for morality (the test for duty) is whether it can be willed that everyone act in the same way. Kant believed that reason would ensure universality because the discoveries of reason would be the same for every rational agent."

"Kant gave at least two formulations of the categorical imperative.
1. “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” (Kant, 1785, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Akademie, p. 422)
2. “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” (Ibid., p. 429)"

"Kant’s focus on categorical imperatives led him to hold certain positions that most of us find, well, nutty. His response to Benjamin Constant’s dilemma of the murderer at the door is one such case. Here is the dilemma:

Suppose someone asks you to hide him or her from someone else who intends to murder him or her, and you do. Then the would-be murderer comes to the door and demands to know whether you are there. Do you tell the truth, or do you lie?

Kant wrote a response to Constant, insisting that even under these circumstances we must obey the categorical imperative that forbids us to tell lies. We must, out of duty born of reason, tell the truth and put this person’s life at risk. Remember, to Kant, consequences were irrelevant. As long as we act according to reason-based principles, we have done the right thing. The consequences are out of our hands. Most people reject this rigid application of the duty to tell the truth because we cannot ignore the consequences that our action might well have – ending a life. And the categorical imperative of preserving life (or not killing) trumps the duty to tell the truth."

Author:  DWill [ Sun Aug 26, 2012 8:19 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

denisecummins, thanks for the excerpt from your book. I might be confused: The way I read the passage, I see you agreeing that grounding morality in compassion doesn't lead to collapse, rather than disagreeing.

I think that Hume actually doesn't point the way toward total individualism and atomism, as Robert is saying. Robert sees the "affections" as unstable and transient, which in the context of our daily rounds in life may be true. But regarding the biggest matter of morality--the rightness of our actions towards others--Hume is saying that the affections provide the bedrock. In an evolutionary sense, this seems to be true, that our affective foundations preceded our rational overlay. We can also cite instances where our rational faculty attempting to override our affective intuitions turns out to be exactly the wrong way to go. Scientific socialism may be a good example. However, our intuitions often do need redirecting, so I wouldn't come down on either side.

Author:  denisecummins [ Sun Aug 26, 2012 9:19 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

Robert said " Hume's theory produces a collapse of social bonds of belonging and respect for authority". I disagree with that.

The proper role of emotion in moral judgment has been a topic of hot controversy in moral philosophy for centuries, and continues to be so in modern moral philosophy and psychology. The picture that seems to be emerging is that, contrary to Kant, the ability to empathize is fundamental to moral development, but, consistent with Kant, it must be guided by principles based on rational thought.

One example is the issue of the appeal to disgust in legal theory. Martha Nussbaum argues that the fundamental motivations of people who advocate legal restrictions against homosexuality, miscegenation, segregation, anti-semitismon and so are are rooted in an emotional response of disgust. Lord Devlin famously opposed the decriminalization of homosexuality because such acts "disgust the average man". According to Nussbaum, this emotional response should play no significant role in legal theory or in moral judgment. Yet it does, in many people's moral judgments. Morality may be rooted in emotional responses (as Hume believed), but our systems of moral and legal theory must go beyond that.

Author:  DWill [ Mon Aug 27, 2012 1:43 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

There's another philosopher who thinks we should listen to our feelings of disgust, and I'm trying to remember his name right now. The idea is that we know things at a deeper level than our conscious reasoning gives us access to. So, for example in the harmless taboo violation of Haidt's, in which the siblings have sex, our recoil should be what we go with, not our construction of a rational case about it. Still can't recall the name, but Haidt mentions him.

This might be fine, except that we can see that over the decades, our reactions of disgust change, so they are not all hardwired in us. Even people who considered themselves enlightened once were shocked at the thought of the races mixing, but now such an attitude would be considered bigoted.

Author:  denisecummins [ Mon Aug 27, 2012 2:35 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Some thoughts on reason and morality

Haidt used the idea of one-time sibling incest (while on reliable birth control) to demonstrate moral confounding--most people morally condemn the behavior, but can't say why.

I think this is a telling case, but not for the reasons given. Incest aversion has a long cultural history (almost all cultures forbid it, some even requiring that you marry outside your tribe), and some scientists argue that humans in particular have evolved incest-avoidance mechanisms, disgust being one of them. They point to the Westermarck effect )where unrelated children who are raised together develop an aversion to romantic/sexual interest in each other) as a manifestation of this adaptation. In tribe environments (where we spent about 99% of our evolutionary history), youngsters who were living closest to you were probably related to you. Hence, the "yuck" response to mating with them. Here's a link to a brief summary of this position: ... ature.html

The point of incest avoidance (from a biological standpoint) is reducing the likelihood that harmful recessive genes will spread through a population. But if the siblings are on birth control or are sterile, these factors should no longer matter. That's why our gut reaction to the incest case is not really a case of "going with your gut is best".

Here is a quote from the 2007 paper I posted: "Thalia Wheatley and I (12) recently created prosecutorial moral confabulations by giving hypnotizable subjects a post-hypnotic suggestion that they would feel a flash of disgust whenever they read a previously neutral word (“take” for half the subjects; “often” for the others). We then embedded one of those two words in six short stories about moral violations (e.g., accepting bribes or eating one’s dead pet dog) and found that stories that included the disgust-enhanced word were condemned more harshly than those that had no such flash. To test the limiting condition of this effect, we included one story with no wrongdoing, about Dan, a student council president, who organizes faculty-student discussions. The story included one of two versions of this sentence: “He [tries to take]/[often picks] topics that appeal to both professors and students in order to stimulate discussion.”

"We expected that subjects who felt a flash of disgust while reading this sentence would condemn Dan (intuitive primacy), search for a
justification (post-hoc reasoning), fail to find one, and then be forced to override their hypnotically induced gut feeling using controlled processes.
Most did. But to our surprise, one third of the subjects in the hypnotic disgust condition (and none in the other) said that Dan’s action was
wrong to some degree, and a fewcame upwith the sort of post-hoc confabulations that Gazzaniga reported in some split-brain patients, such as
“Dan is a popularity-seeking snob” or “It just seems like he’s up to something.” They invented reasons to make sense of their otherwise inexplicable
feeling of disgust."

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