DRMacIver's Notebook

Morality and Emotion

Morality and Emotion

From Voices: The Educational Formation of Conscience, page 18:

“What is my duty?” is made, by many accounts, the entry question into philosophical ethics. For a philosophy of moral education, however, entry is gained more fully through the Socratic question, “How ought one to live?”

The distinction that Green is drawing in this book is between philosophy of ethics, which develops ethical theories of what it is like to behave ethically, and philosophy of moral education, which asks how people learn to behave ethically.

This is intimately tied to my point in How to become a better person that as well as a theory of ethics we need a practice of ethics. A philosophy of moral education is not necessarily that practice, but it is at least less far removed from it: If you ask “What is my duty?”, an answer can assume that part of your duty is that you are responsible for figuring out how to uphold your other duties. If you ask “How should I live?”, you might quite reasonably object if the answer is a little light on practical details about how, exactly, you are supposed to be able to live in the manner described.

There’s something about the question “How ought one to live?” that feels hopelessly naive and/or oppressive these days. Who are you to tell me what to do?

The ought in particular feels dangerous. It feels like a question that can only be asked in the presence of a certain amount of coercive power - as if whatever answer you give to the question, that’s the answer you’re going to impose on others.

On top of that, there can be no single ought, because are all different people with different desires and constraints. The idea of a one sized fits all “best life” seems both impossible and undesirable.

And yet, I still think there’s something there. Perhaps not “How ought one to live?” but “How can one figure out how to live?” or “What tools are there to figure out how to live?” or “How can we help people live their best lives?”.

I think we underestimate the interplay between morality and emotional health. Many of our strongest emotions and feelings have a moral component. Guilt and shame, certainly, but also love and empathy. Emotions and morality interplay strongly as we act in the world, especially with regards to other people.

I suggested in “How to be a better person” that improving your emotional skills would probably automatically make you a better person, but I think the converse might be true too: Becoming a better person will improve your emotional health (as long as it’s paired with good skills for working with emotions - I still think those are the foundations).

Part of this is acedia. I think one of the causes of acedia is living out of line with our values - sometimes because our values are bad, sometimes because we are forced to, and sometimes because it is easier to ignore that dissonance than deal with them. We learn not to care as a defence mechanism, and bringing ourselves more in line with our values allows us to repair some of that.

Another part is the desire / safety model. Emotional skills are what provide you with safety to become better, but others are often the spur for that. Certainly much of my current growth came from having people who I wanted to be better for.

In my first read of Green I was pretty negative about some of this themes. I still think that’s right - a great deal of his work is about how we adopt a community’s norms, and my experience is that most communities’ norms are very unsafe to internalise. My current read is more sympathetic: I still think moral norms are dangerous tools that are often misused, but I think they also might be a key part of finding our way to better lives as long as we can find the right people to develop them with.