Monday, July 17, 2006

Emotional Engagement Vs. Philosophical Reflection

More and more, I'm finding myself inclined to think that philosophical reflection about ethical issues is, on average, morally useless. Central to my thinking about this is what I've been calling The Problem of the Ethics Professors -- the fact (I take it to be a fact) that ethics professors do not behave particularly better or worse than others of similar social background, despite (presumably!) a greater penchant for philosophical reflection about ethical issues.

Still, I want to hold onto the idea that ethical reflection is morally profitable. It would be despairing counsel indeed to say that there's no point in thinking about the ethical dimensions of one's behavior! My current thought is this: The kind of ethical reflection that leads to moral improvement is reflection that's emotionally engaged with the affected parties -- reflection that involves empathy, sympathy, trying to see things from the other's perspective, keying into one's feelings of shame, disgust, and visceral approval.

Philosophical reflection (as actually practiced by philosophers) is typically "cooler" than this, more abstract and theoretical. While it may benefit us morally in certain ways -- for example, by revealing the consistency or inconsistency of certain principles -- it may also distract us from a more profitable type of moral reflection. Worse, it may conceal and rationalize immoral desires that we might discover if we reflected with more (or more explicit) emotional engagement. It might, thus, be positively harmful as often as it is helpful.

There are problems, of course, with a simplistic approach to letting one's emotions guide one's moral reflections. For example, if you focus entirely on, say, the wrong done to a member of your group, you may work yourself up into a lather of revenge. A judge needs to avoid being overwhelmed by sympathy for the criminal. But this is merely to say that emotionally engaged reflection needs to be balanced and sophisticated in certain ways -- and perhaps some of what philosophers do can be helpful with that.


  1. This is a long quote, which I have been thinking of passing on for a while and, despite the fact that it is slightly mis-matched to this post, I just can't resist any longer:

    "Among men who say one thing and so another, professors of philosophy must rank almost as high, proportionately, as candidates for political office. If a philosopher writes a treatise on modesty, he will not neglect to sign his name to it (as an observation for which credit must be duly given to Epictetus, if I remember rightly). He may declare himself a solipsist, and appeal to his readers to agree with him; proclaim that time is unreal, and point out that he arrived at this truth only after many years of reflection; or present a closely reasoned argument to urge that the good life is one of unthinking spontaneity. The philosophy that a man professes, in short, is often quite other than the one he live by; and in our time, professional philosophy is in danger of becoming more and more only something professed."
    - Abraham Kaplan

  2. Hi Eric,

    I think it is not merely problem of the professors, but also for people who are not in contact with Ethics.
    I like to think that people who are not philosophers can be moral, and that even them being not philosophers, or not knowable of philosophical issues is not determining their morality.
    And I want to think that those people are not moral in their ignorance (something analogical to believing a truth but because of wrong reason), but they are in possession of whatever the morality is in its core. Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel it is ethical to think this way.

  3. Hi Eric,

    There should be a bunch of evidence from the literature on sociopathy (anti-social personality disorder) in support of your view here.


  4. I agree utterly with that quote -- thanks, Brad! The quote is, I think, equally appropriate to my posts What We "Believe" and How Many People *Really* Believe in God and Heaven?".

    Tanasije, I certainly agree with you that people who aren't philosophy professors can be moral. Often, I think, they are more moral than ethicists are! I'm somewhat drawn to Mencius's view that every normal person has some part of them that is pleased by morality and displeased by immorality. I think this resonates with the second part of what you said.

    I like the idea, Jennifer, of finding some connection here with the literature on sociopathy. Are you thinking that sociopaths might be good at abstract moral reasoning but emotionally disconnected (and hence prone to immorality in the same way some ethics professors are)? That's a nice thought. But I wonder if sociopaths *are* good abstract moral reasoners. As Shaun Nichols has emphasized, they have trouble making the distinction between moral rules and conventions. So maybe they aren't so good at moral reasoning after all? (But then, why not? Perhaps even abstract moral reasoning requires some emotional resonance with morality to get a foothold?...)

  5. Hi,
    I was thinking more simply that although anti-socials may know the generally accepted moral rules (they are generally clever enough to pick them up through observation), their lack of emotional motivation and empathy would make those rules sort of meaningless except where following the rules prevents them from having to endure undesirable consequences- like prison or the loss of some personally profitable relationship.
    But your suggestion about abstract moral reflection requiring emotional oomph to get off the ground is really interesting. Feminist ethics tends toward blending these two components in moral reflection.

    I think that Shaun Nichols' study is primarily done with psychopaths rather than sociopaths, though I'm not positive. Maybe some people don't want to draw a distinction between the two except merely in terms of severity of offenses? But it seems to me that there is more to the distinction than this behavioral description allows. So perhaps (and this is a big perhaps), his research applies to psychopaths but not so much to sociopaths...if so then whether sociopaths participate in abstract moral reflection is still an open issue-


  6. Thanks, Jennifer. I'll have to look more into the distinction between psychopathy and sociopathy!

  7. I think it's a contentious issue with various compelling proposals for drawing such a distinction (between psychopaths and sociopaths) as well as reasons for not doing so- and resolutions to these issues are probably contingent upon the proper way of understanding pathology in general.

    But it does seem that empathy for another is crucial for holding a behavior to be a moral violation. Perhaps this is what is(mostly)responsible for our distinguishing between moral issues and mere conventions. Lacking empathy, the psychopath can't make this distinction. Though I'm not sure that the psychopath couldn't learn about what other people find morally problematic and how those things are different from mere conventions, and then engage in abstract moral reflection on those grounds.