Friday, October 25, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Emotional Morality or Rational Morality?

Should we trust our moral intuition, or should we listen to our voice of reason? Explain your position with concrete scenarios.

I'll set the tone by starting with a quote from one of my least favorite presidents, "Trust but verify." Ronald Reagan. I'm not against trusting your emotional reactions, but you should always verify them with rational thought.

I'm going to talk about these two issues separately because I think they are different sides of the coin. I don't believe it's possible to be fully moral by being coldly rational. On the other hand, I don't think that our emotional reactions are always correct. We need to blend the two together, or perhaps more accurately, we need to create a state of dynamic tension between the two. If we look at each one of these as one of the anchors on different sides of the shore, holding up a bridge we see a better picture of the way I see it.

Moral intuition. What is our moral intuition? Part of it is evolutionary. We do have reactions that have been built into us over millions of years of evolution. Remember the Westermark Effect that makes people who lived together either as adults or children in the first three years of life automatically feel disgusted at the idea of a romantic or sexual relationship? That feeling is based on evolutionary reality. People raised together, or in the case of one of the individuals being an adult, the person raising a child and that child are usually closely related. A relationship between them would lead to genetic deformities in their offspring.

However, it cannot be denied that a lot of what we find disgusting is what we've been taught is disgusting. To step away from the hot topic of morality, let's consider food. When Westerners first had regular contact with the East, many Orientals were disgusted at the idea eating rotten milk, which the Westerners called cheese. Westerners were equally disgusted at the idea of 1000 year eggs, seeing this as a delicacy of rotted food.

The AP reported: "U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia compared homosexuality and murder on Monday as he argued at a Princeton seminar that elected bodies should be allowed to regulate actions they see as immoral. "If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?" Scalia said, according to The Associated Press."

Obviously, one's simple moral feelings should not be a guide to justice. By comparing homosexuality, an inborn condition affected by both genetics and the number of older brothers you have among other factors, with deliberate murder, Scalia shows that feelings alone are a very poor guide to what is right or wrong. Almost identical complaints about interracial marriage and integration were made in the days when I was a youngster and those matters were being debated.

If our sole judgment of what is or is not moral is whether or not we are disgusted by it, then we should conclude that if a group of pure homosexuals are disgusted by the idea of heterosexual relationships, we should ban heterosexual marriage. I refer to pure homosexuals because most people fall in between a range of extremes. That is, there are those who are truly pure heterosexuals who have zero possible interest in the same sex, and those there are those who are pure homosexuals with absolutely no interest in the opposite sex. Most people fall in between these two extremes.

The racists down South were so full of hatred and disgust at the very thought of blacks being treated as equals that they literally screamed with rage right on television and radio. This is what they have been taught, this is how they have been raised. Does that mean it is a justifiable moral position? The answer is no.

On the other hand, it was the deep sense of moral outrage that drove so many in both the White and Black communities to struggle for civil rights. People risked imprisonment, bodily harm, and even death in order to advance this cause because it meant so much to them emotionally.

Now let me move on to rational thought. Rational thought is certainly a very important contributor to the concept of what is or is not moral. Even without the Westermark Effect, rational thought makes it clear that brothers and sisters should not marry, parents and children should not marry, and it is questionable as to whether first cousins should marry, although some states do allow that.

Rational thought would also indicate that it is easy to test whether Blacks and Whites are in fact truly separate races or simply slightly different versions of the same basic human race. Especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, science was often distorted in order to make it appear that they were not. However, it is clear that the "scientific" data were not collected objectively but were prejudiced before the so-called studies even began.

So let me conclude by suggesting that we take these two separate sides of the coin, our emotional and irrational responses, as to moral issues and blend them together.

If you feel a profound sense of moral disgust at a particular issue, then you should take the time to look at it rationally and see if your feelings are based on some actual potential problem or just the way you were raised.

It is very hard to overcome these personal issues of disgust, but it is possible if you truly and sincerely make the effort to think things through and decide before hand that you really will follow along the path laid out by the facts.

Let's call your emotional reaction your base reaction, your base morality. Your rational morality should then be used as a sort of check and balance. Test out those instinctive or carefully taught emotional reactions. Are they correct? Or are they exaggerated? Rationality will help you decide.

And since you suggested some examples from my life, here are a few issues where I had to overcome my disgust and change my beliefs based on the facts.

I commented before that I am an unusually stable personality, as indicated by psychological tests, not just my own opinion (he said smugly). But what does that mean? It does not mean that I never change my opinion or beliefs. On the contrary, I change them when I must.

This is not a contradiction, it is a confirmation. I have believed since I was very young that you need to face facts and where the facts lead you, there you must go. This is strange because I am also by nature a deep and true believer. The contradiction between these two aspects of my personality have made my life rather complicated but I have learned to be at peace with myself.

Like so many of us, I really loved the idea, especially popular in the 50s, that humanity was something particularly special. There was no other animal even vaguely like us. Even as I believed in evolution, I nevertheless believed that humanity was different. There was a vast gap between us and other animals which could not be bridged. Yes, we were animals, but we were the special animals, superior to all others in every way.

When I first learned about animals such as otters using tools, I was very troubled. I convinced myself that that wasn't really tool using. They weren't modifying the tools in any way and they didn't keep them for future use. A sea otter just picks up a rock, uses it to bash open a seashell and then throws the rock away.

Then there were Darwin finches that do modify twigs in order to pick bugs out of hollows in trees. But they didn't modify them much, and once again, they used a tool and then threw it away.

Then came the discoveries that chimps not only selected rocks to use for cracking nuts, they would select a rock and then carry it a long distance to where the nuts were waiting. In other words, they were planning ahead. Worse, different groups of chimps use different methods. Some used rocks, others used hard branches as clubs. This behavior was not varied between individuals, but between different troops. In other words, it was a kind of culture. Worse yet, young chimps learned how to do this from watching their parents, no instinct involved.

More and more examples exist. I was forced to conclude that we were not as different from our animal ancestors as I had believed. Frankly, the idea that we were merely bright animals was disgusting. Special animals? That's tolerable, but only animals?

In retrospect, I find this new belief more comforting. The horrible things we humans continue to do to each other, and the unbelievably horrible things we used to do to each other in the past are utterly inexplicable to me if we are actually this special animal above all other animals. On the other hand, if we are just glorified apes, that is to say apes plus a wonderful brain, then you know what? We're doing pretty well for apes!

We have a long way to go, but at least we're making progress.

That's my rational side. My emotional religious side is convinced that the purpose of religious belief, and the action which God takes in trying to assist us, is in the area of guidance. There is a science fiction series in which ancient, fully civilized beings find animals with potential and uplift them, that is raise them up to intelligence. They guide them and direct them, helping them to become intelligent, and civilized. I think God is trying to uplift us.

Since you seem interested in this area of personal experience, I will add one more brief story.

When I was a child we all knew that there were certain bad words. It was a different time, and even adults were careful about what they said in front of women and children. I know that's hard to believe, but it's true. I don't mean that women weren't as likely to curse on occasion as a man, but they were very careful about it because it was considered extremely unladylike. A woman heard cursing even if she had stubbed her toe or injured herself might be labeled brassy. There's not much worse than that in suburbia.

One of the worst terms was the word, "fag". None of us knew what it meant. We just knew it was bad, more than just bad, we knew it was something horrible and, yes, utterly disgusting. Sex was not supposed to be on children's minds. Boys were expected to be repelled at the very idea of kissing. Declaring that girls have cooties was actually encouraged, since it was natural for boys and girls to stay away from each other.

As I grew up, I learned what the words meant. To this day, as supportive of I am a gay rights, I still find the idea of men kissing is a very unpleasant feeling of revulsion. I can't help it. It's the way I was raised. It has been drilled into me so deeply that I cannot simply make it go away.

(This does not include male relatives kissing. My uncles would've been insulted if I had failed to give them a big hug and kiss. But that is obviously nonsexual.)

And, yet, in the past I have had gay friends. I know a few gay people now. I don't happen to be close to any of them, but that is not a barrier. I even recall sitting in a room with my arm around my wife's shoulders while a male couple sat in the same position across the way. That didn't upset me. They were nice people, although I as I said, I was not particularly close to them. But I could have been. On the other hand, they weren't kissing. That would have upset me.

If I did have gay friends who were close, I hope they would be able to laugh about the whole situation. That would make me more comfortable. A good dose of friendly teasing among friends is very beneficial. For example, I always expect my atheist friend to ask if I'm still talking to invisible people who aren't there. He doesn't. I think he thinks it would be disrespectful. But as long as he said it with a smile, I would laugh along with him.

I suppose I should mention that I have deeply loved three atheists in my life. One of them is still my best friend. Another is one of my best friends. And the last one was one of my wives.

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