Moral Seeing and Moral Blindness: What Role Do Emotions Play?
We are all more or less acquainted with an emotionally induced form of moral blindness. One version of it is the often short-lived blindness that we experience in a fit of rage, the depth of grief, or the ravages of envy. This condition was long ago identified by Aristotle as a form of incontinence (akrasia). Such afflicted persons, though perhaps able to express proper moral precepts, “do not quite understand what they are saying” (1147a15-25). In other words, when we are in a state of overwhelming grief, anger, envy, jealousy, or fear, we cite good moral principles and rules without meaning them, and we do so because we do not see the relevant moral realities in question, due to our strong feelings. Later we may feel regret, once the emotions have subsided and the moral realities become apparent once more. A more extreme form of this same emotionally induced blindness is a kind of generic “intemperance” [akolasia]. It differs from incontinence in that, because of the habitual nature of the affective condition, the blindness has become more deeply entrenched, and the agent’s consciousness of the relevant moral realities has been virtually destroyed. He is, as a consequence, no longer able to recognize moral failure in himself, even after the emotions have subsided.
Philosophers have long been vigilant against emotionally induced moral blindness. Indeed, the dangers of unbridled emotions for clouding our judgment, causing us to forget moral norms, and blinding us to what is good, have led many thinkers to banish emotion from the realm of sound moral judgment altogether and to argue that moral action depends upon cool, dispassionate reasoning alone. Plato, for example, instructs us in the Phaedo to “keep away from all bodily passions, master them, and do not surrender …to them” (82c) on the grounds that the body “fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and much nonsense” and prevents us from “seeing the truth” (66c-d). Kant puts the matter a bit differently when, in he derides those persons “who are unable to think [and] hope to help themselves out by feeling,” the latter of which, he explains, cannot hope to supply a uniform measure of good and evil, nor act as the basis for universal judgments. For Kant, those who undertake actions through any affective inclination such as emotion are altogether precluded from the category of the moral, in as much as they fail to act from duty and principle. In short, philosophers have warned us that emotions can only confuse reason, distract us from the truth, make us inconsistent in our decisions and actions, and render us no better than animals.
Now, in contrast to these and other arguments against emotion found in our philosophical tradition, various thinkers of late (e.g., Raymond Gaita, Jonathan Bennett, Antonio Damasio) have separately brought to our attention another variety of moral blindness, one which (they argue) can create the conditions for the very worst sorts of evils that humans have perpetrated upon one another. For his part, Gaita argues that his variety of blindness is at the bottom of the genocidal behavior perpetrated against Jews in Nazi Germany, and the forced deportation of Aboriginal children in Australia, etc. What is striking about many such cases of evil, according to Gaita, is not that they were perpetrated in the midst of a blind rage, or in the haze of some other emotion; rather, more often than not they were accomplished without any apparent feeling whatsoever. Indeed, these actions appeared to have been perpetrated by ordinary people carrying on their jobs in the course of what they saw as their ordinary work-a-day lives. Eichmann, after all, was just “doing his job,” as was, no doubt, the average SS guard shepherding Jews onto a train, and the truck driver carrying away the Aboriginal children. Now we might, in accordance with the philosophical tradition, search for hidden seeds of spite and envy that may have served to beget a rotten premise, a forgotten norm, or an ill-formed categorical imperative. In this we would remain true to the view that reason alone is our source of insight, as that faculty that enables us to “see” the intelligibility in the world, including those moral significant realities that are fundamental to human goodness. However, the aforementioned thinkers suggest that preoccupation with reason and principles does nothing to stem the tide of this moral blindness, and may in fact contribute to it. Indeed, as Chesterton once claimed: “the madman is not someone who has lost his reason; he is someone who has lost everything except his reason.”
If not reason, then what discloses to us these moral realities? According to Gaita et al., the core moral realities to which to which we often become blind can only be disclosed by human feeling. Accordingly, affective states such as grief, shame, love, or pity are not (a) mere emotional responses to proper moral cognition, nor (b) mere causal conditions for such cognition. On the contrary, pathos is itself a form of understanding. For example, in the case of shame, it is not the case that I realize that I have done wrong, and then feel shame; instead, my shame is itself a recognition that I have done wrong. Indeed, we might say I “see” I have done wrong only in so far as, and because, I feel shame for what I have done. By the same token, it is also not the case that my shame is merely a condition for the possibility of a cognitive capacity to grasp the truth of what was done to another person. If this were so, then once the so-called “objective” insight was obtained, we might kick away the ladder of emotion that enabled us to reach that insight, and express the insight without, as Gaita puts it, any “essential reference to the fact that we possess such affective and moral dispositions.” For instance, grief could be dispensed with at the death of a loved one as soon as one could say to oneself—“Gee, that other person was important to me.” But this is absurd in as much as the grief is itself a recognition of something significant, without which any subsequent actions lose their character as fundamentally good and human. Emotions, accordingly, are simply a way that we humans understand morally significant realities in our world in so far as emotions disclose things otherwise invisible to reason. Just as love reveals the preciousness of another person; so too remorse reveals evil; grief reveals the value of another; compassion reveals the suffering of another, etc.
Recent work by the neurologist Antonio Damasio supports the view that emotions are essential to good moral decision-making. Damasio’s research on the human brain, as described in his works Descartes’ Error and The Feeling of What Happens, indicates that the ideal of the cool, dispassionate, rational being is flawed in as much as the brain, without emotion, is impaired in its ability to make sound moral judgments. Damasio argues that selective damage to either the prefrontal cortices, or the region of the brain known as the amygdala, impairs one’s ability to feel, which has the cascading effects of impairing one’s ability to understand personally and socially significant realities, and exercising good judgment. According to his “Somatic Marker Hypothesis,” emotions are woven into the very fabric of consciousness, inducing us to act, or refrain from acting, by highlighting objects of consciousness as worthy of pursuit of avoidance. Emotion, therefore, is not divorced from reason: love, grief, joy—their very existence is partly constitutive of the deliberative process.
This claim about the revelatory nature of emotion is accompanied by an obvious problem: namely, however true it may be that human feeling is a requirement for moral insight, or is itself a form of understanding, it is also equally true, as we have seen, that human feeling can act as a cause of moral blindness, and can itself be a form of misunderstanding. Our anger at a slight being done can disclose to us the wrong committed, and reveal to us what is to be done, but it can also obscure what is right and just and lead us to overreact. Again, our love for our friends and children can make us aware of their preciousness as persons, and can disclose to us their goodness, but it can also blind us to their flaws. So, how can we tell at any moment of moral decision whether our feelings are enhancing or disabling our moral consciousness?
Of course traditionally, we might appeal to reason as the independent arbiter that determines whether or not an emotion is appropriate to the reality of a given situation. One problem, however, with the ratiocinative solution is that even if one were to suppose that reason, on its own, can adjudicate between appropriate and inappropriate emotional responses, it turns out that it may well be that in healthy adults reason is never on its own, that it is never unaccompanied by feeling, with the result that it simply does not have independent access to the moral realities in question in order to legitimize, or de-legitimize, our emotions. Damasio impresses this fact upon us when he argues that the core consciousness of a healthy adult is always accompanied by what he calls “background feelings.” That we have such feelings at work in every waking moment is indicated by the fact that we can always answer the question “How are you feeling?” While it would make sense to say in response that I am feeling quite happy, a trite apprehensive, a bit melancholy, or even very peaceful, it would never make sense to say: “why, I am feeling nothing at all!” Heidegger made a similar point when, in Being and Time (section 29) he argues that one fundamental characteristic of Dasein, is “state-of-mind” (Befindlichkeit). He explains that we humans always find ourselves attuned to the world in some way or other, in one mood (Stimmung) or other. As Heidegger says, even “the pallid, evenly balanced lack of mood (Ungestimmtheit)…is not to be mistaken for a bad mood, [and] is far from nothing at all” (173). What Heidegger wishes to impress upon us here is that even in those “calm, peaceful, lucid” moments, ones which might be characterized by the lack of any dominant emotions, we are still attuned to the world and its realities in a certain way: we are still “in a mood.” As a result, there is never a time when, in the ordinary consciousness, we are not affected by feelings. Whether characterized as background emotions, or an ever-present mood, these feelings are inescapable by consciousness and cognition, and affect the way the world (especially its morally relevant realities) are disclosed to us.
What this means, in practice, is that we can never be sure at a given moment whether or not reason, and accordingly our view of the morally significant realities of the world, is distorted by virtue of feelings we have at any given time. Thus, at one moment we might feel a pity for someone, leading us to treat the person gently. We might even reason the matter through, working out a practical syllogism, cite principles like “willing the maxim of my action to be universal law” and “treating persons as ends in themselves, and not mere means.” Later, we might reflect on our actions and feel guilt for having given in so readily, wishing perhaps that we had acted more punitively. Here we might also reason the matter through with equal plausibility, work out another practical syllogism, and cite the same principles about universality, or persons as ends in themselves. Which reasoning, dominated by which emotive insight, is correct? In summation, the traditional response arguably fails because reason is always informed by feelings, whether in the form of acute feelings, or subtle background feelings that are always present in core consciousness.
To find a solution to this difficulty we must hearken back to the ancient Greeks, who were attentive to the aesthetic dimension of moral goodness. Indeed, Aristotle saw it as the objective reference point for human morality. As we know from his Doctrine of the Mean, Aristotle was well aware of the fact that both excess and deficiency in our affective states can cause one to act badly. He was also aware, as we saw earlier, that emotional imbalance can threatens our very ability to see what is right and wrong in a given circumstance, both temporarily (as in incontinence), and more or less permanently (as in intemperance). “Vice,” he says, “corrupts the principle.” Given this fact, Aristotle recognized the impossibility of one’s own practical reasoning standing as the ultimate measure for human action—in so far as the agent in question is unable to tell whether his reasoning has been corrupted, i.e., whether he is suffering from moral blindness. As a result, Aristotle appeals to the reasoning of an already virtuous person as the model. This person can be clearly recognized in so far as, according to Aristotle, their actions and person possess a beauty that appears to all. Aristotle repeatedly uses the term kalon to describe the good action and person. Kalon is a term that for the Greeks refers to physical beauty, an aesthetic attractiveness that includes order, symmetry and measure. Indeed, at one point in his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that when a person bears many and great misfortunes well, his beauty shines through (dialampei to kalon) (1100b30-32). The language of “shining through” suggests that moral goodness shows its objective character by means of its beauty, and thus can be visibly recognized for what it is by those who see it.
What this means is that I myself cannot act as the judge of my own clarity of moral sight, in so far as my very reasoning may have been negatively affected by my emotional habits. I must learn the right way to feel by turning to one whose emotions are oriented in the right way, whose goodness simply shines in their faces and gestures, their words and deeds. They show up the rest of us, for through their emotions is disclosed both the moral realities themselves, and the way in which we should feel about these moral realities. This suggests that so far as morality and human goodness are concerned, what is far more important than well-ordered principles is the presence of another whose emotive goodness can relieve us all of our moral blindness.