DRMacIver's Notebook

Feeling Good About Being Good

Feeling Good About Being Good

I'm currently working through a (more or less) full reread of Voices: The Educational Formation of Conscience, so you're going to get treated to a lot of extracts from it. Today's extract comes from page 41:

[...] normation just is this structuring of the emotions of self-assessment -shame, guilt, embarassment, pride, and the like-both in our self-assessment and in our judgements of others. It follows, of course, that it structures also the positive emotions companion to these that I have called the emotions of self-assessment. That is to say normation structures also the appearance of elation, pride, self-assurance, and the joy and hope that accompany these. By saying that normation structures these emotions, I mean to refer not to the logic of their composition, whether they presuppose some propositional content, as in one or another version of a cognitive theory of the emotions. I mean to refer rather to their focus or object. Normation gives content to these emotions inasmuch as it provides their object. It tells us what things are going to provoke such emotions. In short, normation makes these emotions specific. Structuring them in this way is precisely what mere compliance is powerless to accomplish. Again, absent these emotions and the norms themselves will vanish. Observance will deconstruct into mere compliance, governance into mere behavior.

This continues to explore the theme of the connection between morality and emotional health that I highlighted before.

To unpack what Green is saying in this:

So the general point of the quote is that this process of internalising moral norms is about structuring how we feel about action: When we do something we feel is morally good, we feel good, when we do something we feel is morally bad, we feel bad. Observance to moral norms is defined by part of the structure of our emotional responses.

One of the interesting things to me about this passage is its emphasis on both the negative and positive emotional responses to observing a norms (it also amuses me that he lists "pride" under both). I don't know about you, but I think of morality as primarily experienced through negative emotions - especially guilt and shame - but there are of course positive emotions associated with it.

Part of why I've been interested in Virtue Ethics recently is that it feels that this is the only one of the currently extant ethical frameworks that get this right (and, interestingly, although Green doesn't make this explicit, his voices of conscience sure sound a lot like virtues to me). If you are striving for excellence, there is a sort of joy in that. If morality is nothing more than a series of duties, or a number you are seeking to make constantly go up, then morality is purely a burden, a stick to beat ourselves with.

I previously wrote about the use of fine-grained ethical distinctions - in particularly the distinction between it being virtuous to do something and being a duty to do something - and I think these track pretty well with emotional reactions. If you fail in your moral duties, it's proper to feel guilty over that. If you have a pattern of failing in your moral duties, it's proper to feel shame over that. But if you exemplify your moral virtues, it's also proper to feel joy in that.

This brings the safety / desire model into the question of how to be a better person - if we can take joy in our moral successes, then we will want to be better people, and this will drive us to become such.