A slave of passion

For 2,500 years, moral philosophy in the West has placed a truly religious faith on reason.  It has become synonymous with good and true:  we swallow blindly our own eccentric habits, call them rational, then move on, satisfied with ourselves.  For the eccentricities embedded in the moral habits of others, however, our eyes are wide open:  these we call irrational, then move on, more satisfied still.

Life is good for the rationalist.  If you are Plato, you see yourself as part of a magical circle, able to peer into the true essence of things.  If you are Descartes, you hide inside a Dutch stove and exult “I think!” which of course must mean “I am.”  If you are Hegel, you play games with threes, call it dialectic, and imagine you have mastered the very forces making the future.  If you are Bertrand Russell, you attempt to create, God-like, closed world of pure mathematics.

Unlike God, Russell failed in his act of creation — but he learned nothing from that, and remained an zealous rationalist to the end of his long life.  His book, A History of Western Philosophy, is really an excellent read but for those bits when he must deal with more skeptical minds:  Hume and William James, for example.

Russell admits that he can’t refute Hume’s logic, which in turn rejects any link between experience and causation.  Yet he adds, “I cannot but hope that something less skeptical than Hume’s system may be discoverable.”  There is at least a certain honesty in that admission:  the rationalist must live on hope and faith.

The pragmatism of William James was a way to categorize information:  if a proposition is useful and not demonstrably false, then it should be employed.  Our ideas about the world, on this view, are instrumental rather than mirrors of reality.  To say an idea works means to say that it is true, at least for now.  Russell objects to pragmatism on various grounds, but his distaste for the doctrine follows from its possible justification of God and religion.  Russell the rationalist would have none of that.

Hume demonstrated that rationalism, logically, was a dead end.  Morally it is a complete nonstarter.  Rationalists in the Russell mold are really thorough-going materialists.  They believe in matter, movement, and causation — all acting blindly (but, in theory, predictably and thus rationally) on bodies, from the first day of creation until the end of time.  A person, on this account, is nothing more than a body in space being acted on by external forces.

Rationalists often believe that they have discovered the great motive forces that drive human action, but that can only be a fallacy, since rationalists too are only bodies being acted on, and their discoveries are a mere effect of impersonal forces.

What can one do with this?  John Searle laughs off the whole line of inquiry, which is self-refuting.  Even if you say to the waiter, “I’m a determinist — I’ll just wait here to see what I order,” that refusal to act, Searle observes, “is only intelligible to you as one of your actions if you take it to be an exercise of your free will.”  We must act as if we are free.  The greatest determinists, Muhammad and Marx, were also the most demanding of change in individual and community behavior.

I believe on the evidence that individuals have some objective freedom of action.  In Jamesian, pragmatic terms, however, we are undoubtedly free.

Morality arises from powerful feelings, not reason.  Anyone who has seen an adult abuse a child, or even an animal — think of the horse-beating scene in Crime and Punishment — knows this.  Moral judgments are reflexive, yet valid for all that.

In any case, the problem is empirical rather than theoretical.  The human race has evolved one way or the other:  to respond either to reason or to feelings when making moral judgments.

Research continues to add evidence suggesting that morality is grounded in our emotional life.  For example, Jonathan Haidt has investigated the roots of disgust, an acute physical reaction to certain features of the objective world, but also a moral revulsion against certain kinds of actions.  Here natural selection appears to have turned the same strong feeling to different physical and social purposes.

An article in Scientific American by Sarah and Matthew Blakeslee, “Where Mind and Body Meet” (pay to see), draws together recent findings in brain science that push the argument in an interesting direction.  As James always maintained, emotions are in fact body states:  fast heartbeat, churning stomach, perspiration, sexual stimulation, etc.  The human brain contains “body maps” that, like the emotion of disgust, serve both a physical and an abstract function:  these maps monitor body states, but are also the foundation of self-awareness.  In a very real sense, our bodies are our emotions, and our emotions are us.

According to the Blakeslees, emotions are deeply matrixed into all human “motivations, ideas, and intentions.”  All are “combined to a unique degree, and that is a key element of our humanity.”  “Even a mathematician pursuing the trail of a new proof,” the Blakeslees continue, “is driven by a blend of personal ambition, curiosity and the sometimes spine-tingling Platonic beauty of the math itself.”

Consider Bertrand Russell, the rationalist, driven to make a perfect universe of mathematical formulas.  His reason, Hume would have said, was a slave to his passion — and passion in all men is a mysterious compound of physical sensation and symbolic abstraction, out of which arises morality among much else.


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