The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas

3 10 2010

It is both surprising and thrilling when I happen upon a passage from some thinker that more eloquently sums up my thoughts on morality than I ever could. I have, to date, had several such experiences, inspired by the writings of David Hume, John Mackie, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ruse, Kin Binmore, Isaiah Berlin – and now, Edward Westermarck, sociologist and author of this post’s namesake, The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas, published in 1906.

Edward Westermarck

I have read references to Westermarck before, mainly concerning incest avoidance, but never a passage that so lucidly captures the spirit of my thesis on the nature of morality as this:

The emotional constitution of man does not present the same uniformity as the human intellect. Certain cognitions inspire fear in nearly every breast; but there are brave men and cowards in the world, independently of the accuracy with which they realise impending danger. Some cases of suffering can hardly fail to awaken compassion in the most pitiless heart; but the sympathetic dispositions of men vary greatly, both in regard to the being which whose sufferings they are ready to sympathise, and with reference to the intensity of the emotion. The same holds good for moral the emotions. The existing diversity of opinion as to the rights of different classes of men, and of the lower animals, which springs from emotional differences, may no doubt be modified by clearer insight into certain facts, but no perfect agreement can be expected as long as the conditions under which the emotional dispositions are formed remain unchanged. (Westermark, 1906, in Singer’s Ethics, 1994)

Here Westermarck, who had first-hand experience of moral diversity in the world, hits upon one of the key sources of that diversity: the emotions. Following a Humean telling of moral psychology – which recent research has largely vindicated (Greene, 2001; Haidt, 2001 & 2003) – he suggests that even with agreement over pertinent facts there will still be moral disagreement by virtue of the diverse emotional character of humans. This, 100 years before the recent resurgence of interest in moral emotions. Bravo, Westermarck.

All I’d add is a short tale of how evolution shaped our moral sense – including our moral emotions – to make them operate such, and a brief note on how such disagreement is not entirely a bad thing, and that’s my thesis. Oh, and a remark or two about how this view presents an alternative to an objectivist moral realist stance that hopes moral disagreement is soluble through sufficient application of fact and reason, instead replacing it with a pragmatic moral pluralism that hopes to advance human interests without recourse to absolute moral truths.

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4 responses

3 10 2010
James Gray

Oh, and a remark or two about how this view presents an alternative to an objectivist moral realist stance that hopes moral disagreement is soluble through sufficient application of fact and reason, instead replacing it with a pragmatic moral pluralism that hopes to advance human interests without recourse to absolute moral truths.

First, it’s not clear that absolute moral truths are incompatible with pluralism of the sort you discuss. (Assuming that “absolute” truth is something like correspondence.) Second, you are describing politics. I agree hat it’s a fact that we don’t all agree on all the priorities, so we make due with compromise. The moral realist can ideally hope to resolve disagreements, and that doesn’t mean that all disagreements will ever be settled.

You say that realists can “pragmatically” come to compromises rather than resolve “differences,” but there are some assumptions being made here. In particular, it is assuming that the differences are of serious concern to the realist. For example, the value of human life and disvalue of pain can both exist without necessarily being wrong or right to end one’s life to avoid further pain. (The requirements of permissible behavior could be met either way.)

Additionally, “right” and “wrong” are not something that a realist has to agree have “absolute truths.” Values can be real without rightness being real (there might be no correspondence to the word “right” without convention).

Finally, it can be worth considering what the Stoics might think about this issue. The Stoic philosophers could be interpreted as realists, but they never claimed we would find “agreement” in political matters. It might be that these issues could be simply “arbitrary” or “negligible.” There doesn’t have to be one right and one wrong given every single situation.

The Stoics would argue that much of our “emotions” are based on “evaluative judgments,” but very few judgments of that sort are warranted. (We tend to get fired up precisely when we judge the situation incorrectly. They would argue that virtue and vice are the only things worthy of serious evaluation.)

4 10 2010
Tim Dean

I agree that some formulations of realism could plausibly dissolve disputes, either by resolving them or by admitting multiple incommensurable values etc – but I think the empirical fact of moral disagreement is strong evidence in favour of anti-realism, but not conclusive evidence.

And as I’ve stated before on this blog, I just don’t think it’s helpful to think of morality as truth-seeking, and that anti-realism can provide a solid enough foundation for morality without recourse to moral facts.

Interesting point about the Stoics. I’m very sympathetic to Stoic philosophy, although I think I interpret it differently to you. Living in accord with Nature could be similar to my idea of satisfying intrinsic interests – although one needs a further ‘ought’ to suggest we should satisfy our intrinsic interests, and I don’t believe there’s any fact of the matter about that ought.

I also think the Stoic picture of psychology could do with some updating but, on the whole, self-control and not being the slave of emotion are important elements of living well.

5 10 2010
James Gray

I’m not sure that we interpret the Stoics so differently. The Stoics were not primarily concerned with “intrinsic value,” and I agree that they have various priorities that could have intrinsic value (and they are certainly something like intrinsic interests.)

The point about the Stoics is that even if things have intrinsic value or not, it’s not always clear what the implications are, and “right” and “wrong” actions are not easily determined even when we know intrinsic value. The Stoics were not even very interested in those sorts of questions. Right and wrong are not necessarily of primary interest in ethics.

I don’t know how the argument from disagreement could be taken to have any bearing on moral realism. It might help disprove some extremist version of moral realism, but it has nothing to do with modest forms of moral realism as far as I can tell — There is at least one moral fact based on elements of reality beyond human opinion. If it’s not based on human opinion, then disagreement is simply irrelevant. However, some moral opinions should be accurate or we probably have no reason to think “there is at least one moral fact.”

7 10 2010
Killer Links from Outer Space | Evolving Thoughts

[…] Sam Harris’ new book at the NYT. We told you so, says Josh… coincidentally Tim Dean rediscovers Westermarck, the source of ethical […]

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