Monday, July 12, 2010

Reasoning and Morals

One of Montaigne's preoccupations was tidily summarized in "A Defense of Seneca and Plutarch"*:

We must not decide what is possible and what is not, as I have said elsewhere, by what is credible or incredible to our senses. It is a great fault, into which, however, most men fall ... Everyone thinks himself the master pattern of human nature; and by this, as a touchstone, he tests all others. Behavior that does not square with his is false and artificial. What brutish stupidity!
Montaigne dwelled on this form of "brutish stupidity" because he found it rife in his own thinking -- a rut of reasoning into which he fell again and again, despite knowing it took him in unhelpful directions.

I bring this out in light of Norm Geras's recent discussion of the place of rational deliberation in formulating moral conclusions. In broad agreement with Paul Bloom, Geras observes that
Referring to 'raw' emotional responses hardly ever suffices to determine our moral attitudes. Thus, seeing pain inflicted may cause an instinctive revulsion, but it makes a difference whether this is being done in order to cause suffering, as in torture, or as part of a medical procedure to save someone's life. Equally, the fact that something may be intuitively inviting to people doesn't necessarily mean we should want to encourage their pursuit of it; the temptation could be a malicious one. So reasoning about these matters is indispensable.

Interestingly, the late Richard Rorty used the example of reading stories about other people to support the view that Bloom is opposing. For Rorty saw this as a case of appealing to empathy rather than to rationalist moral principle. But I think Bloom is right against Rorty. For reading someone else's story to be effective in changing the moral attitude and conduct of a reader, she or he has to be able to see beyond the particularity of that person's story to certain general features of the situation they are in. If you had read The Grapes of Wrath and empathized with the Joad family alone, this would have done nothing for you or anyone else morally, given the unique properties, to say nothing of the fictional status, of the Joad family.
I agree that converting a story into a wider ethical conclusion requires abstracting from the story's particulars, and that this is a feat of reasoning. But per Montaigne, it can easily, indeed more easily than not, constitute poor reasoning.

I'm not sure where Rorty finally stands in all this, not having the apposite text before me, but I am inclined to salvage his claim in light of Montaigne's corrective, and with the addition that the empathy produced by a story (fictional or otherwise) is a sine qua non to making any use of it. Without empathy, the reasoning will fall into one or a few deep ruts: that is irrelevant in that it is singular, so it offers no lessons -- a lightning strike; or that only happens to people unlike me in some crucial respect and therefore, compelling as it may be, it offers lessons only to others who share that feature (race, age, creed, nationality, historical circumstance, character flaw, what have you).

Arriving at moral conclusions requires empathy and reasoning, but they are not in balance: empathy comes unbidden, needing only not to be actively resisted; while the reasoning has to be conducted cautiously, with a number of ruts firmly in mind.

* My link is to the Cotton translation, but I am quoting from J.M. Cohen's translation, which I find more succinct, contemporary, and readable. Montaigne's "elsewhere" includes, among other places, "That it is folly to measure truth and error by our own capacity" and "Of Presumption."

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