Saturday, October 26, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Taylor on Morality

Evaluate Richard Taylor's view that morality is a matter not of rational principles but of having your heart in the right place. Explore the pros and cons of such a view.

Taylor's primary point in his discussions of morality is very similar to one of my most basic points. That is, man is not a rational animal. His secondary point is that if man were a rational animal they would be no need for any kind of morality. Without desires there is no urge to do anything that could be described as immoral.

Throughout Western philosophy there has been a powerful thread insisting that man is a rational animal. This idea so flies in the face of everyday reality that it helps explain the concept that philosophers are stuck in an ivory tower isolated from the real world. Taylor is entirely correct to point out this essential fallacy.

I think this obsession with an obviously false premise presents an interesting question. Why have even brilliant philosophers been so willing to delude themselves with this concept of man being essentially rational? The psychological foundations of this error interest me. Are they personal weaknesses of the philosophers? Is it some sort of inherent failure of Western philosophy itself? As Spock might say, "The human predilection for error is fascinating."

Back to topic. My argument on this particular issue is exactly the same as that contained in the post on moral intuition versus listening to reason. Still, I will explore the idea further.

You can't have one without the other. Our morality exists in the state of dynamic tension between these two seemingly opposing points. Think of the statement by Nietzsche that, “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman--a rope over an abyss.

A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting.

What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal..."

There are two essential elements to all of my personal philosophy. One is the absolute need for balance based largely on Aristotle's Golden Mean. The other is the sense that everything is in a state of dynamic tension and that it is the very tension which creates the reality of our spiritual and mental existence. This belief is well expressed by the above quote by Nietzsche.

Taylor believes that actions which are motivated by sympathy and compassion for others are good while behavior motivated by self-hatred or malice is evil.

His criticism of rational decisions leading to morality is valid, but we're back to the old problem of, if you only depend upon your feelings to decide what is moral, then all the prejudices you were taught as a child will misdirect your moral decisions. He does ask us to be aware that some of our emotions are negative and will lead us into bad behavior, but how are you to determine which is which?

As I pointed out in the previous post, we need to follow Ronald Reagan's lead in these moral issues and trust but verify. That is, it's good to have a basic willingness to trust in your own sense of morality, but at the same time you should verify it with objective realistic analysis.


The idea that everything is rational, even morality, might apply to computers, robots, or future cybernetic organisms but it does not apply to human beings.

Our emotions are evolution's way of making us do what is good for us and protecting ourselves. They are not always reliable, but they are essential.

Our emotional reactions to various moral situations is not only derived from our early childhood education, but is also a result of our lifelong experiences. In other words, to a large extent, they are learned. And we should trust the learning we have attained through our experiences.


We cannot entirely trust our emotions. It is good to have an alternative which we could call a reality check. Rationality provides an excellent such check.

Many of our emotions are derived from prejudices we inherited from our parents and society.

Even our experiences do not create a completely reliable method of determining morality as we may have had a limited set of experiences which may not accurately reflect reality.

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