Emotion and Ethics

Paging through last week’s Newsweek, I came across Sharon Begley’s article “Adventures in Good and Evil.” I found the article rather interesting and, shockingly enough, have some things to say about it.

Begley accepts a current popular view of ethics: it is rooted in evolution and grounded in emotions.  She briefly runs through the stock argument for the claim that morality is an evolved behavior. Roughly put, the argument is that our primate relatives show what we would consider altruistic behavior (like helping each other or enduring hardship to avoid harming others of their kind). Naturally, the primates are more altruistic with their relatives. It is assumed that our primate ancestors had this same sort of behavior and it helped them survive, thus leading to us and our ethical behavior.

Perhaps this “just so” story is true.  Let us allow that it is.

Begley then turns to the second assumption, that ethics is more a matter of “gut emotion”  than “rational, analytic thought.” Using a stock Philosophy 101 example, she writes:

“If people are asked whether they would be willing to throw a switch to redirect deadly fumes from a room with five children to a room with one, most say yes, and neuroimaging shows that their brain‘s rational, analytical regions had swung into action to make the requisite calculation. But few people say they would kill a healthy man in order to distribute his organs to five patients who will otherwise die, even though the logic—kill one, save five—is identical: a region in our emotional brain rebels at the act of directly and actively taking a man’s life, something that feels immeasurably worse than the impersonal act of throwing a switch in an air duct. We have gut feelings of what is right and what is wrong.”

Begley’s reasoning is, of course, that since the logic is identical, it follows that the different judgments in the cases must be based in emotion rather than reason. While her view is reasonable, I disagree with her on two points:  I believe that the logic is not actually identical and that her explanation of the distinction between the two cases is mistaken. Obviously enough, I need to make a case for this.

While the logic of the two cases is similar, the logic only becomes identical if the cases  are considered in a rather abstract manner.  To be specific, the logic is identical if we only consider that the agent is choosing between five deaths or one. If this fact were the only morally relevant fact about the situations, then the logic would indeed be identical (because the situations would be identical). However, there certainly seem to be morally relevant distinctions between the two cases.

One obvious distinction is the oft discussed letting die versus killing. In the first case, the agent has a role to play in who dies. However, the agent is not killing the children. Rather, s/he is deciding who the gas will kill. In the second case, if the agent does nothing, then s/he lets one person die. If she acts, then she kills a person. Since this distinction has been discussed in great length by other philosophers I will not go beyond saying that it is reasonable to take this to be a morally relevant distinction. Hence, it is reasonable to consider the possibility that the cases are not identical-and hence that the logic is not identical. If this is the case, then the distinction in the positions need not be explained in terms of a gut reaction-it could be the result of a rational assessment of the moral distinction between killing and letting die.

Another matter worth considering in regards to the logic is that of moral theories. When I teach my ethics class, I use the same sort of examples that Begley employs: I contrast a case in which the agent must chose who dies with a case in which the agent must chose between killing or letting die. Naturally enough, I use a case like Begley’s first case to illustrate how our moral intuitions match utilitarianism: if we cannot save everyone, then we are inclined to chose more over less. However, I do not use the second case to illustrate that ethics is a matter of a gut reaction. Rather, I use it to show that we also have moral intuitions that in some cases it is not the consequences that matter. Rather, we have intuitions that certain actions “just aren’t right.” Naturally, I use this sort of example in the context of discussing deontology in general and Kant‘s moral theory in particular. In the case at hand, it need not be a gut reaction that causes the agent to balk at killing an innocent person so as to scrap him for parts. On Kant’s view, reason would inform the agent that he must treat rational beings as ends and not simply as means. To murder a man for his organs, even to save five people, would be to treat him as a means and not an end. Hence, it would be an immoral action. There is, obviously enough, no appeal to the gut here and the logic of the cases would be different.

Other moral approaches would also ground the distinction without an appeal to the gut. For example, my religious students often point out that murdering someone would be an evil act because it violates God’s law. In this case. the appeal is not to the gut but to God’s law. As another example, a rule-utilitarian approach would also ground the distinction. After all, the practice of murdering people to use as parts would create more unhappiness than happiness-people would worry that they would be the next person being cut to pieces.  In both of these examples the logic of the two cases is not identical and there is no appeal to the gut.

Naturally, it is reasonable to consider the role of emotions in moral decision making. Obviously, most people feel bad about murder and this no doubt plays a role in their view of the second case. However, to simply assume that the distinction is exhausted by the emotional explanation is clearly a mistake. After all, a person can clearly regard murdering one person to save five as immoral without relying on a gut reaction. It could, in fact, be a rational assessment of the situation.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Question: Does Begley draw any conclusions from her analysis? In other words, if we agree with her that morality is behavior based on emotional responses that have evolved over time in ways that are adaptive does this tell us anything about what morality might be in the future? Does she think we therefore cannot or should not “overcome” our evolved responses? Does she derive any “oughts” from this particular “is?”

  2. She does not address what morality might be like in the future. However, that is a good question.

    If morality is an evolved behavior, then it would seem possible that we might evolve out of morality (getting beyond good and evil, perhaps) or evolve a different sort of morality. Of course, one might wonder if such behavior would still be moral behavior if it changed enough.

    She does discuss how people can be outside of the general range of behavior. For example, she considers people who are seen as moral saints and why they behave the way they do. In many ways, the explanation is just re-hashing Aristotle and Confucius: moral behavior depends largely on a person’s experience and training/conditioning. In many ways, the cutting edge scientific view of this aspect of ethics is just Aristotle’s theory jazzed up with some neuroimaging.

    As far as the “ought” aspect, she does favor being good. However, she does not argue as to why we should be good. Mostly, she just says “If scientists can fathom the roots of the differences between sinner and saint, maybe more of us can move into the latter group.” This seems to mildly endorse being a moral saint.

    Of course, science just gives us descriptions of what is. What we should do is a matter of ethics. While I’m skeptical of the “is ought” fallacy, the fact that we have evolved behavior that we call “moral” does not give us any reason to be good. In fact, if moral behavior is merely a evolutionary strategy, then from a purely pragmatic standpoint it would make sense to act immorally if that yields more of an advantage. This, obviously enough, just takes us back the the point raised by Glaucon in the tale of the Ring of Gyges. It also matches Hobbes: in nature, profit is the measure of right.

  3. Hi Mike

    I’m curious as to why you’re skeptical of the is-ought fallacy? I’d always thought the problem of going from is to ought was still with us. As it’s quite a disconcerting problem, I’d be pleased if you could point me in the right direction!

  4. I’ve always discouraged thinking about ethics from an intuitive perspective. We have so many conflicting intuitions and it is particularly subjective. Sure it may be our intuition that its wrong to kill the one patient to save the 5 others, but we need better justification than intuition…

    Additionally I always have discouraged people to think of ethics as a result of evolution, not because its false, it likely is true, but I think it really undermines the weight of the “ought”.

  5. Maybe “can” should be added to the “is-ought” question. Can I do what I ought to do? That is, does a given system of ethics dictate something which people can do, given human nature? For example, a system of ethics which dictates virginity for unmarried people ignores the fact that very few young people can abstain from sex, the sex drive being so strong. Perhaps a system of ethics which dictates love for all others is equally unrealistic.

  6. I’m mixed on intuitions. On one hand, we have to start somewhere and intuitions are a good starting point. Also, matching our general intuitions seems like a plus for a moral theory/principle. Grossly violating them seems like a minus.
    On the other hand, people do differ in their intuitions (or behave as if they do)

    Assuming that ethics is the result of evolution, one wonders what sort of reason we have to be good. I suppose that the usual pragmatic appeals can be made (punishment and reward) or perhaps an Aristotelian argument could be given: acting in accord with the evolved “stuff” will make you happy. So be good.

  7. When I teach my ethics class, I tell my students that most folks who do ethics accept that a moral theory has to be such that a typical agent can follow its requirements without undue hardship (in normal situations). Also, such requirements need to be realistic.

    Interestingly, Kant buys into this. He requires people to perfectly conform to duty but then argues that since this would require eternity it follows that we need to accept that we are immortal (life after death).

    But, many moral systems do expect unrealistic things from people-unrealistic in the sense that most people will not follow them (like the love mentioned by Amos).

    Perhaps this can be justified by saying that people could do it, if they really tried. Or perhaps it could be justified in the same way that the guidelines for health are justified: though most people will not exercise or eat properly, this is what they should still be doing. Likewise for ethics.

  8. But why should I even try to turn the other cheek, even if I could?
    There are reasons why I should try to drink less: my doctor can explain them to me, and if I want to live longer, I might try to follow them. You might be able to convince me that I should pollute less if I really love my children and grand-child; you might be able to convince me that I shouldn’t eat meat if I care about the suffering of animals, etc., but what reason do I have to turn the other cheek, an ethical rule which goes against what seems like a natural tendency to self-defense?

  9. michael reidy

    Here’s an amusing cartoon about trolley problems:

    They are useful, they generate intuitions. They are then examined for general consistency with other intuitions. If there is consistency, is there a principle at work; if not, is some principle taking precedent. They are stress tested in other ways: what would happen if everybody did this, what would Confucius say. Is there a ruling in the Dharma-sastras? Someone would pipe up – just such a thing happened to the Besht when he was lost in a wood.

    The colour me moral palette is a wide one not just the single bold colours of nothing buttery. Is it life or Hobbes wife that is nasty, brutal and short? Sorry, my gag reflex.

  10. I dig the cartoon.

  11. I’m not at all skeptical of the is-ought, or empirical-normative, or descriptive-prescriptive distinction (however you want to put it). Here’s an analogy: you’ve heard of the base rate fallacy? (It involves, roughly, neglecting the base rate of some trait within a population when inferring the probability of some individual’s possessing the trait on the basis of a positive result from a test with a known false-positive rate.) We know that even people trained to recognize the base rate fallacy fall victim to it. Human beings just systematically tend to reason this way. But we still say this is a fallacy: from the fact that human beings systematically tend to make this kind of judgment, we do not infer that this judgment is correct.

    Just so with moral reasoning: just because people systematically tend to make some judgment (like, for instance, in the trolley cases), this does not show us that this judgment is the correct one. The trick, of course, is to identify the source of justifications for moral judgments. I absolutely accept that it is due to evolution that we are beings that can engage in moral reasoning, but evolution does not stand as the source of justifications for proper moral judgments. Normativity cannot simply be read off of systematic tendencies; not in morality, but also not in any other form of reasoning. (My positive view is basically Kantian.)

  12. Ralph Sabella

    Hi Mike,
    An interesting thought about the second of the thought experiments. If a society required such action, i.e. a perfectly healthy person being sacrificed for 5 of his vital organs to save 5 otherwise fatally ill people, that society would be doomed to extinction. They would be weakening the genetic pool exponentially by their act. Surly, this would be the paramount of immorality.

  13. Ralph: Are you suggesting that there’s a genetic basis for one’s intuition that sacrificing a healthy person to save five fatally ill one is immoral? An interesting idea.

  14. True-the mere fact that most people make judgment X does not entail that X is true. Unless, of course, ethical relativism is true. In that case, we can infer what is good and evil based on determining what the culture accepts. Right after we define cultures, of course.

  15. Ralph,

    In some cases, the gene pool would be weakened. However, it seems easy to imagine plausible cases in which five “genetically fit” people were in need of organs. For example, soldiers wounded in battle or people hurt in an accident.

    But, I would agree that a society which murdered one person to save five would have serious problems. Then again, I can imagine a society in which that is accepted (after all, real societies routinely accept horrible things).

  16. Ralph Sabella

    Amos and Mike.
    Amos are you making a funny? In case not, the answer is no. If a society continuously kills off perfectly healthy people to donate organs to people with faulty ones, they’d be reducing the pool genes of people who don’t indicate any problems with their genes and increasing the pool genes of people whose genes are likelier to be flawed. If this was an on going process you’d end up with a very inferior gene pool.

  17. Ralph: I have utterly no sense of humor. In fact, it well may be that our horror at the idea of cutting up a healthy person to save the lives of sick persons has a genetic basis, in some unconscious sense of what will favor our gene pool.

  18. The question of how much of our mental content is hardwired/innate is a fascinating one.

    Back before genetics, philosophers used the notion of innate ideas. These were supposed to be various types of mental content that we had prior to experience. Naturally, many of these rationalists believed that these ideas were written in the soul by God (or in Plato’s case, acquired when we were dead and communing with the forms).

    These days, it is popular to explain what seems to be innate content with genetics. For example, we are supposed to be genetically programmed to recognize beauty and also for ethical behavior. Old idea, new foundation.

  19. Very interesting, Mike. I had never thought of that. So Plato was right after all.

  20. I think he was on to something. When discussing innate ideas I use the example of the study that seemed to show that babies had an innate sense of beauty. Plato would say that the babies are comparing the faces to the form of beauty. A person who buys the genetic theory would say that the babies are genetically “programmed” to prefer what we call beautiful. No doubt because this preference had a evolutionary advantage.

  21. The more I think about ethical relativism, the less compelling I find it. It can’t give any sort of account of normativity at all. Someone like Harman, I believe, thinks about reasons as if they were just like causes. But he can’t say anything about reasons we ought to act on. If this is right, then I don’t see that relativism is a moral theory at all – it’s rather a kind of sociological or psychological theory or something like this.

    Even Hobbes, who argues for morality largely on the basis of self-interest, still, in this argument, accepts the normativity of reason itself. It goes like this: we ought to accept his conclusions because it is rational to accept them in light of our common ends. Kant works within this same sort of framework, but with a different moral psychology that sees us as capable of being motivated by practical reason itself, and not only inclinations (where these inclinations do not come from reason but from some distinct faculty of desire).

  22. Paul,

    I think the term “ethical relativism” is fairly misleading. I think a much better oppositoin is moral realism vs moral irrealism. Or moral cognitivists vs moral non-cognitivists.

    I guess in this respect I do agree that moral relativism pushes one towards some sociological, pyschological, or anthropological framework, as once one rejects the possiblity of a “master theory” of ethics, one is going to simply be examining the contexts under which various forms of non-commeasurable moralities arise.

  23. Pojman presents a rather effective argument that relativism collapses into subjectivism which in turn collapses into nihilism. If this argument works, then relativism (as a moral theory) would be untenable.

    Relativism as a descriptive theory seems to be quite correct: different cultures have different norms. So too for subjectivism: different people have different moral views. But these facts are fully consistent with objectivism and relativism. After all, the objectivity of physical facts is consistent with some (or most) people being wrong about them.

    But, as has been pointed out, relativism (assuming it doesn’t collapse into nihilism) doesn’t seem to give us any reason to be moral. Getting “I should do X” from “my culture accepts X” seems problematic-unless we just appeal to pragmatism. For example: My culture will hurt me if I do X. I want to avoid being hurt. So, so avoid being hurt, then I won’t do X. Or, I’ll do X and do my best to hide it. Or I’ll get enough power so I can do X and get away with it. 🙂

  24. But, as has been pointed out, relativism (assuming it doesn’t collapse into nihilism) doesn’t seem to give us any reason to be moral.

    In my experience most people aren’t moral for “reasons” and most of the reasons people give for doing or not doing this or that thing are pretty post facto.

    In any case I think I generally agree that relatavism is not a basis for moral theory due to eventual collapse. That’s why I prefer moral realist vs moral irrealist. To my mind someone who is a moral relatavist who thinks they are also a moral realist is probably just confused. The real opposition is between those who think there are ultimate determinable moral “facts of the matter” and those like say…Mackie, who don’t.

    I do think that Pojman is quite right that the confusion (if it is confusion) about moral relatavism stems from a conflation of moral relatavism with cultural relatavism. It is obvious that there are many cultural valuations that are simply hugely variable: values about food, and music and art and manners, and behaviors. It’s very tempting (and some would argue quite correct) to jump from all this to a moral relatavism, but to me that’s ultimately an assertion that there are no moral facts of the matter.

    Now if that leads to nihilism…so what? American culture is pretty nihilistic imo.

  25. Why call murder an evil act (even if it is)? Create laws in a civilized society based on majority rule (voting). Does anyone think more than 50% of the population will vote for a law making murder legal? It is important what the law is. It is not important to debate why people vote that way (e.g. it is an academic debate when it comes to the topic of murder).

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