I have been recently listing to a series of lectures on the psychology of human emotion, distributed as a podcast from the UC Berkeley website. In lecture 22, Professor Dacher Keltner argues that the Western/Platonic propensity to distinguish emotion and reasoning is peculiar and, to some extent, pernicious.
For example, On Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral development, children start as emotional and thus immoral. It is only once they are able to contain these emotions to the point that they can take on other people's perspectives that they are able to achieve some degree of moral clarity.
Keltner argues that emotions are central to most of our day-to-day decision making and reasoning. To illustrate this, he presents a thought experiment to the class (formulated by John Haidt, 2001) which is intended to draw out our intuitions as to how emotions fit into our moral judgments. By way of warning, the thought experiment is disturbing (by design). From the podcast:
Does this person deserve to be punished or not? A guy goes to the supermarket and he decides he is going to cook himself some chicken. He get some organic chicken that is plucked and packaged in cellophane, he takes it home, he shuts his curtains, he unwraps the chicken, he has sex with the chicken, cooks it and eats it. Do we punish that guy?
Your emotional response, much like my own and that of the class to which Keltner is lecturing, is immediate and visceral—revolting disgust (perhaps followed by the sense of relief that comes with the realization that we philosophers only have to subject our students to the relatively tame trolley examples).
But the question remains: should this person be morally punished? (community service, jail, etc.) The kaleidoscope of emotive responses followed by a set of rational deliberations concerning privacy and rights manifests, in sequence, upon the faces of Keltner's students. In spite of overt disgust exhibited by Keltner's class, not one of them thought that he should be morally reprimanded. Moreover, when the chicken example is presented to psychology undergrads across the country no more than 20%-30% of the students recommend that he be punished (it's not just Berkeley students).
Haidt presented the chicken example to a wide cross-section of the world's population. Against that contrast, the data shows that the typical American undergraduate response is extremely unusual. In many other places the visceral emotional response isn't countervailed by a belief in rights, freedom, and personal privacy; in places such as Brazil upwards of 70-80% of those surveyed thought that this individual should be punished.
Haidt takes this as evidence that our emotions figure prominently in our moral decision making.
The survey's results are interesting. But does does Haidt's conclusion follow? Has he shown a connection between emotional and moral judgment, undermining a Platonic tendency to drive a wedge between the emotional and the rational, and then locate moral judgments on side of the side of reason?
One reading of the evidence does not appear to undermine Kohlberg's theory but support it. The judgment not to punish the man is a moral judgment; and is one that is seemingly arrived at in spite of strong a emotional force to the contrary. My partner pointed out that it is the ability of reason to swim against the current of emotion that allows, for example, someone supporting equal rights for homosexuals in spite of, perhaps, being repulsed at the thought of gay sex. The fact that the considered judgment comes after the immediate emotional response, further suggests that traditional philosophers are right to distinguish reason from emotions.
Nevertheless, I think that Haidt is right to suggest a deeper connection between our emotional capacities and our moral judgments. Against the above Kohlbergian reading, it is important to see that the study only shows that American students don't think the man should be punished. The link between punishment and moral judgment is a contingent one. It seems to me perfectly coherent to think that he has done something wrong, say from the point of view of Virtue Ethics, but nevertheless also hold that he should not be punished. Perhaps what the survey shows is that American undergrads feel as though we ought to reserve the institution of punishment for the most heinous violations.
Along these lines, MacIntyre distinguishes between the Aristotelian virtues on the one hand and a "morality of law" on the other. As a first approximation, virtues are skills—qualities of mind or character—that bring about a shared end, most generally characterized as the good. The phronimos or expert has the skill to both discriminate and respond appropriately to a variety of unique situations. A morality of law, however, is primarily a set of prohibitions on injurious actions (murder, theft, etc.) that intolerably undermine the possibility of the good (After Virtue, 151-2). Perhaps we don't think of the action as violating a morality of law, but nevertheless use our emotional response as a guide to moral evaluation concerning his character. On such a distinction, our disgust is deeply connected to a moral evaluation, even if we don't think that the man's action justifies punishment.