Qualms beget alms

Does the average person need “engagement with complex ethical theories” to be a good person? This is the type of question that keeps weirdos like me and Adam up at night. In order to reply to Adam’s query I need to call upon an expert witness, Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Question of Motive. The key excerpt is in audio form here:

Schopenhauer asks us to imagine two young men, Caius and Titus, each passionately in love, each with a different girl, each thwarted by more favored rivals. Both resolve to kill the rival that stands in their way, “but when they come to actually prepare for the murder, each of them, after an inward struggle, draws back. They are now to give us a truthful and clear account of the reasons why they abandoned their project.”

For Caius, we are given a menu of explanations from which to choose, each representing a famous “complex ethical theory” from the history of moral philosophy. Perhaps Caius says,

I reflected that the principle I was going to apply in this case would not be adapted to provide a rule universally valid for all possible rational beings; because I should have treated my rival only as a means, and not at the same time as an end.” Or, following Fichte, he may deliver himself as follows: “Every human life is a means towards realising the moral law; consequently, I cannot, without being indifferent to this realisation, destroy a being ordained to do his part in effecting it. …

For Titus, the situation is different. Indeed, it’s not even possible to tell if he’s ever been acquainted with a “complex ethical theory” of any stripe. Thus spoke Titus:

When I came to make arrangements for the work, and so, for the moment, had to occupy myself not with my own passion, but with my rival; then for the first time I saw clearly what was going to happen to him. But simultaneously I was seized with compassion and pity; sorrow for him laid hold upon me, and overmastered me: I could not strike the blow.

Now Schopenhauer:

I ask every honest and unprejudiced reader: Which of these two is the better man? To which would he prefer to entrust his own destiny? Which is restrained by the purer motive? Consequently, where does the basis of morality lie?

I know how I answer. Titus embodies an indelible moral character, motivated purely by compassion, while Caius comes off as an amoral keener who could be persuaded back to murder by a particularly convincing footnote refutation. The basis of behaving morally, then, lies not in any philosophical treatise or divine command, but by cultivating our moral sense. Qualms beget alms.

This doesn’t eliminate the value of philosophy per se, but should definitely feed into how one sets their priorities. At the very least, any person who concentrates on living a life of compassion will run ethical laps around the man of manuscript, who is just as liable to become tricked by the latest sophist as he is to discover the first and only Grand Unified Theory of not being a dick.

In addition to the comments we receive below, there is some lively conversation taking place on Reddit connected to this post that can be found here.

9 thoughts on “Qualms beget alms

  1. John W

    It’s worth considering how Titus might have been influenced towards murder as well – perhaps his moral sense or compassion would not have been as strong if the intended victim were particularly unsympathetic (aesthetically, culturally, even ethnically) – whereas Caius’ motivation would (rightfully) not be affected by various superficial considerations – his principal is universal.

  2. Caius is swayed by reason; Titus by emotion. Caius has used reason (mind) to master his original emotion (heart), whereas Titus has overcome emotion with another emotion. Who is to say Titus will not continue to be led, hither and thither, by the contradicting passions of heart unrestrained by reason? Whereas Caius, because he has allowed his mental faculties to guide his emotive faculties, has developed a higher consciousness. In him, heart and mind go together. Consequently, he, being more complete, is the better man.

    1. That is sort of the bottom line though, isn’t it? One’s answer must depend solely on what one understands the nature of both reason and emotions, and arguably character, to be. One cannot give an answer without either defending or presupposing some theory of each.

      1. Thanks. Yes, of course. The questions then arise: (a) What theories are closest to reality? (b) And how do we establish congruency of theory with reality? By faith? By consensus? By science?

        If there is no agreement on the presuppositions, then there can never be any agreement on conclusions. Where would that leave us? I am afraid it would leave us all hanging and twisting in the dark. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much the history of mankind.

        I am unwilling to accept that. So I start with this assumption: that we exist in a purposeful universe, whose purpose we may never know but are a part of, and that we are endowed with a basic goodness and certain qualities – physical and mental strengths, and emotional and spiritual consciousness – with which to inquire, appreciate, apprehend and shape our lot. To me, the final destination does not matter. To me, the journey is the destination. If this presupposition is shared in the proper spirit of gentleness we would all be enjoying our individual journeys through this darkness that is lit with a billion points of light.

        Sorry for the lengthy and preachy response.

  3. You have no need to apologize. By the standards of Internet comments, that is neither lengthy nor preachy 🙂

    Discussing those assumptions, though, is part of the fun of philosophy! In my view anyway.

    My frame does not include a purposeful universe. So where do we go from here? Alasdair MacIntyre would say that in order to proceed, one or both of us would have to get familiar with the framework of the other, so that we could justify our own frameworks in terms of the others’, or by pointing out why our framework takes us further than the other could.

    I tend to think we already have a lot more in common than that to start with; despite our differing initial assumptions, you and I have a lot of common culture between us, dialectic isn’t an impossibility.

    So let me put it to you this way: the best cognitive science and psychology that we have, which granted is far from perfect in its data, does not indicate that reason is stable in the Platonic or Stoic sense.

    By the way, I’ve carried this conversation on here: https://sweettalkconversation.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/love-of-wisdom/

    And it includes assumptions of my own about the mind, if you’re interested.

    1. Again, yes, of course: Reason is not stable. Reason is only as good as the reasoner. And we know that reasoning can be fallacious. But at the end what finer tool, combined with discourse, do we have to arrive at truth? Intuition might give us a sense of direction, but we need reason (and science) to refine our instinctive knowing.

      I have gone through the suggested conversation and, not being a philosophy major, am lost by the shortcut references. I presume your basic assumption is captured by this paragraph:

      A Humean or Smithian moral sentimentalist perspective added to a Protagorean and Oakeshottian thick traditionalist perspective is, in short, a very good first approximation of the reality on the ground.

      I would take the shortcuts to mean:
      o Humean: the measure of morality is how we feel (sentiments).
      o Smithian: builds on Humean ethics with emphasis on empathy.
      o Protagorean: truth is relative to the individual but moral education should be passed from parent to child.
      o Oakeshottian: morality is a form of activity within a social context.

      It seems to me that none of the above frameworks assumes that moral rules are deontological. And yet, if I might point out the significance of the reference to “language’s reality”, would it not be reasonable to assume that man is natively endowed with a capacity for a grammar of morality just like his capacity for a grammar of language? And that the culture a man is born into will fill – and even distort – those capacities with its own morality and language?

      Morality’s reality, its grammar, like the alleles of DNA, will carry attributes of in-built moral rules. I would posit that the senses of fair-mindedness and, yes, even of empathy, are examples of such rules. And so, too, my initial assumption of basic goodness.

      If this is the case, then the role of science would be to suss out the basic in-built templates of morality beyond the particular models set by cultural conditioning.

      Finally, I would suggest that there are moral rules – such as the prohibition against killing and stealing – that are absolute, but that we must examine and evaluate each case through reason. Killing in self-defense, for example, is acceptable. So: absolute rules but relative application.

      1. You ballpark estimate of my shortcuts is basically spot on, though Hume and Smith also had a place for institutions in their frameworks (Hume spoke of “artificial virtues” like justice).

        I’m also largely in agreement with you. I’ve long believed the line of thinking that goes “if there’s a universal grammar in language, there probably is one in morality too” and a moral instinct just like there’s a language instinct. However, I don’t think that will end up giving you much useful—that is, actionable—information, however. It merely means that there are some bounds on the variation of each, but those bounds seem quite broad, especially when our concerns are very particular and circumstantial.

      2. Thank you.

        I think uncovering the moral instincts will be very useful. We will then see the common ground of being of all religions and, if not render them unnecessary, then at least force them to acknowledge unity in plurality, oneness in diversity.

        Going back to a purposeful universe, I find it strange that you would not accept the notion of purpose. And by “purpose” I do not necessarily mean the ontological fantasies of religion nor a pragmatic function. I can entirely accept an aesthetic purpose, that the universe exist for our bedazzlement.

        To me, not to accept purpose is to deny order, and to say that there is only chaos.

        If there is no order, why pursue philosophy then? Why pursue a love of wisdom?

        Would not a basic assumption of the pursuit of philosophy be a belief in an implicit order, and that the main task of philosophy would be to make explicit that implicit order? Or at least provide us with the methodologies to do so? This would parallel the basic assumption of science that physical laws govern the physical universe, and that the role of science is to uncover those laws.

        And as to wisdom, I have always equated it to clarity of perception. And is not that clarity the ability to see connections that are not obvious – or, rather, to see the obvious where no one has seen it before? Which is to see the order in chaos?

        At any rate, thank you for the conversation… I might go back to lurking under my shell and engage in silent contemplation of the wonders around me despite the limitations that encrust me (and perhaps encrust us all).

      3. 1. Your last sentence wins the entire thread

        2. I believe in an order, yes. I misunderstood what you meant by a purposeful universe. Though the existence of order doesn’t necessarily make me think that reason is so fine or reliable a tool as you’ve said—and I don’t think that the classical understanding of “reason” is correct at all; cognition is much more complex, much more embedded in human systems.

        I very much agree with pursuing understanding of our moral psychology, though I don’t think it will “force” anyone to do anything (they have to be persuaded, and no idea, however potent, will ever persuade everyone).

        Anyway, thank YOU for adding to the conversation we’ve got going on in this little corner of the web. I hope you feel welcome to comment on a post here again. And if you are interested in writing a full post, just reach out to me and let me know what you’ve got in mind. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our discussion.

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