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.
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.