Series – Ethics / Origin of Moral Sensations

“That which the world calls virtue is usually nothing but a phantom formed by our passions to which we give an honest name as to do what we wish to do with impunity” –  Larochefocucauld


In this series we aim to share not only our thoughts on the theory of ethics and the glaring pitfalls in which scholars of ethics tend to fall because of a underestimation of the importance of the foundation of the subject, which also makes Ethics seem like a dry instructive and didactic monologue that has lost its provocative appeal.  We seek to make ethics usable and practicable in real life and to make a case for how an ethical life is eventually also the examined, meaningful and psychologically healthy life.  If the theory of Ethics is like theories in Science which have a strong aesthetic appeal, the practice in Ethics is like Engineering, where the theory is applied to real problems, for that we may have to discount on some spectacular versions of the theory, but it assures action which is founded and defensible on the ground of Ethics.

There is a tradition that lives deep within the forms and structure of the organized systems of knowledge –  of looking at the beginning of an event, the insistence on the importance of the first cause (in science) and/or first principle (in logic). To formulate a coherent and consistent system of knowledge it is clear that we need to have a factually correct and scientifically verifiable version of the inception. For those who want to dwell into matters not superfluously but substantially, the inquiry into the birth of the phenomenon becomes a preoccupation, which if left unfounded is akin to a house that has its foundation on sand, such a system of knowledge however spectacular or fantastic will fumble at the first summoning of its application to the real issues it is forged to deal with.

In order to start our inquiry into the subject of the Ethics we take the most elementary questions – ‘What is the cause of moral sensations?’ To answer this question we need a brief analysis of the historical attempts at answering this question and how those answers have lead to the prevailing ideas and theories about Ethics in those times, we consider ourselves better informed today because of the revolution instilled by the scientific nature of inquiry; at present when we have decoded the human genome, plunged deep into the brain, deconstructed every emotion and instinct to its original evolutionary function;  positioning us at a vantage point to see in retrospect the reasons for our particular orientation on ethical matters in the past, which still constitute the Ethics in various traditions at the present,  in effect to make us tolerant, empathetic and willing sever the useful from the obsolete from the Morals and Customs practiced by the members of these traditions today. The nature of our inquiry however is strictly scientific and only that which can stand the rigor of scientific investigation will qualify as the ‘cause’ of moral sensations.

The major stages in history of the sensations by virtue of which we make anyone accountable for his actions that is to say of the moral sensations are as follows. First, one calls individual actions good or bad quite irrespective of the motives but solely on account of their useful or harmful consequences.  Soon however one forgets the origins of these designations and believes that quality good and evil is inherent in the actions themselves, irrespective of their consequences. Then one consigns the being good or evil to the motives and regards the deeds in themselves as morally ambiguous. One goes further and accords the nature of man out of whom the motive grows as the plant does from the soil. Thus one successively makes men accountable for the effects they produce, then for their actions, then for their motives and then for their nature. Indeed, it can be concluded that all the orientations towards ethical matters in the past were based on some understanding of human nature and the extent of human freedom, to be accountable, responsible and be judged for his action, motives and consequences. But no human can be judged if the human nature itself is the culprit, then to judge would be the same thing as to be unjust.

Following from our brief analysis of the evolution of moral theories, we can ask the question – What do we know today in regard to the human nature which we did not know in the past and what theories of moral psychology can be supported by the newfound facts? The entities that we can pragmatically place at the centre of the ethical stage are ‘Emotions’. Indeed Emotions are the most speculated about and least understood phenomenon in the study of humans, yet very few would deny their role and function in constituting an ethical framework. So at the risk of reductionism we contend and support the propositions of modern science that all emotions are adaptive tools of the human organism, insofar as it needs to adapt to the environment it is the part of. The profound ethical entities like empathy, sympathy, justice, toleration etc are in themselves emotions or the consequences of emotions and they are the by-products of the churning of evolutionary forces, just like Language.

The essence of moral sensations is that they all have a peculiar relationship with an emotion called ‘Guilt’, which can be defined as an undesirable experience which gives an impression of a sense of accountability. The relationship of the individual with the sense of accountability, which implies accountability to some entity (a deity, a parent, a God, to oneself) is the whole subject matter of Ethics.

  • Are you accountable for your actions?
  • Is there anyone keeping an account of your actions?
  • Are you guilty because of what you did was profoundly wrong in itself or are you afraid of divine retribution?

The case can easily be made that the great moral thinkers have placed the arbiter of individual actions as an internalized agent, usually understood as the ‘Conscience’. This trick is what makes the religious systems most pronounced and successful in ethical matters, in fact that seems to be the one great merit of religious systems and why one should be cautious of dismissing their utility in the modern world.

A feeling of displeasure after an action is not obliged to be rational, in most cases it is quite the contrary, it is a document of the tendency of man to regard him as free, and in retrospect he thinks that he could have acted differently. The proposition of man’s freedom may be an error, but it is because man regards himself as free (not because he is free) he feels remorse and pangs of conscience. This feeling is moreover something one can disaccustom oneself to, and many people do not feel it all in respect of actions which evoke it in others. It is a very changeable thing tied to the evolution of morality and culture and perhaps present in only a relatively brief span of world history. The recent data presented by anthropologists have shown us that man is not rational, peace – loving animal but has a history of violence and cruelty. The beast in us wants to be lied to; morality is an official lie told so that it shall not tear us into pieces without the errors that repose in the assumption of morality man would have remained an animal. As it is, he has taken himself for something higher and imposed sterner laws upon himself.

The recent thinkers in Ethics have radically hailed Science and Rationality as the only virtue rightfully invested in deciding Ethical conduct, this however in itself against the spirit of the truth presented by science – that rationality is not our dominant predisposition and passion continues to be the master reason, at least in the majority of us. This calls for a deep reflection to the Ethical methods of the great religions of the world but with the axe of criticality to sever all that is dogmatic and superstitious.

In the wake of these facts Conscience becomes the supreme tool for regulating personal behaviour in a social order and Ethics becomes the Art and Science of using this tool rationally towards a goal which is inspired by the ideals of some higher calling, the source of which remains ever so mysterious, that David Hume called ‘the Original hand of Nature’. And to the extent we consider ourselves ethical beings, what we mean is not that we have to share an absolute and universal code of ethics to be imposed by a Sovereign, but we have the deep personal urge to inquire into ourselves for ethical principles and to the extent they are in common with most of the others determines the potential of them becoming social norms.

With this series we want to introduce an eclectic approach to the problems of ethics, taking all that is useful from all branches and phases of tradition, culture and knowledge and making them workable in a situation of possible ethical dilemma, and help individuals take decisions which are ethically responsible and accountable to the world at large, and more relevantly – to one’s own self.