Ethics, first and foremost, is about behavioural choice. It is not primarily the consideration or evaluation of what choices are right or what it is to lead a good life. Initially, behaviours must be chosen and it is only then, through the contemplative process, that one is drawn to question the nature of what it is best to do. In this secondary endeavour one tries to determine what particular behaviour is of benefit, and to whom and to what in particular. Such considerations lead to judgments about, or to the apportioning of value to, behavioural positions. Their purpose is to grant us an equitable or stable behavioural and contemplative stance i.e. to secure a moral identity. The structure of our moral identity comes to determine our moralised ideological foundations.
This notion that ethics is about behavioural choice presents a problem of efficacy, for what then, is it to be ethical. To be ethical normally means to be consistent with agreed principles of correct moral conduct i.e. ethics is about behavioural evaluation and judgement. However, I am arguing that this definition is incorrect. The argument that I present here is that to be ethical, is to apply due consideration and most definitely not to place value.
The importance of this clarification can be appreciated when one considers the historical background to the contemplation of ethics.
An Historical Perspective
There have been many attempts to identify suitable criteria to enhance the evaluation of behavioural choice. In doing so, philosophers have theorized about the relevant benefits of particular moral and behavioural stances. Characteristically, these attempts have tried to decipher the nature and substantive values that link the apparent, trichotomous nature of the human psyche, variously articulated in terms of human reasoning, feeling, and desiring. Of the three, most of the emphasis in philosophy has focused on the unique human characteristic of reasoned behavioural choice, rather than dwell on the value of the impulsive emotions and even less so on the core bodily needs and innate functions of the human physiology. However, one might argue that the romanticism in art and literature from the 18th century onwards, thankfully, countered the emphasis of this philosophical rationale. One could cite many examples where literature has provided a more interesting dialogue that expresses the antagonism and conflict between the interwoven choices of human reasoning and human sensibilities. Nevertheless, reason alone has instituted the means of formal moral enquiry and been central to philosophical thought:
In ‘The Republic’, Plato suggests that through the main social classes there correspond three parts of the soul, those being, reason, spirit, and desire. Desire corresponds with the basic appetites of, for example, hunger, thirst, and sex. The spirit of emotion or the ‘act of being spirited’ includes such things as anger, conscience, and shame. Reason is that cognitive process that rules spirit through self-control and strength of will, and inhibits desire to its basic physical requirements. In Plato’s account, a good individual is one that promotes the harmonious relation between these three aspects of the human soul, with reason ruling over spirit and self-control inhibiting desire to its essential physical requirements.
However, central to Aristotle’s ‘Doctrine of the Mean’ (The Nicomachean Ethics) is the thesis that explores the mean between excess and deficiency (commonly misappropriated as meaning that ‘moderation in all things’ is best) through an attempt to determine a more inclusive relation between reason and feeling. Whilst the ‘Platonic’ position emphasizes the inhibition of feelings through reason, presenting an antagonism of the two, Aristotle gives weight to feeling when its expression is reasonably more or less appropriate to the situation.
The focus on the relational status between reason and feeling continues with Hume and Kant in the 18th century.
In ‘Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals’ Hume presents a relational stance between reason and feeling. Through reason, humans have the capacity to relate their feeling experiences with other individuals. This relation imbues them with a unique sense of ‘sympathy’ and sense of humanity. It is this sense of sympathy that enables humans to formulate the concept of what constitutes virtuous behaviour and consequently, to prescribe moral judgements. My understanding, however, is that Hume’s account indirectly usurps the role of feeling in morality, because in his account, sympathy is a construct of reasoned assertions about feeling. This enables Hume to conceive of the notion of fixed general moral standards founded on objective utilitarian qualities, which effectively subjugate the operation of one’s sympathy. In this view, as sympathy is a recognitional construct or some form of emotional empathy, the acknowledgement of its sentiments are merely a respectful nod in the direction of human desires and passions.
In ‘Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals’, Kant goes further by excluding all considerations regarding the individual human’s inclinations and feelings in favour of the concept of duty bound actions, which for him are a formal requirement in respect of moral law and pure reason. Kant may emphasise respect for the individual in society, but in so doing makes it requisite for the denial of the needs of the individual self to in respect to the benefit of others and of society as a whole.
In contrast, Mill, in ‘Utilitarianism’, commits to the view that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote unhappiness, where happiness constitutes pleasures in absence of pain and vice versa. Whilst this may seem to be the antithesis of Kant’s perspective regarding the needs of the individual, Mill delineates between higher and lower pleasures in order to counter arguments that such a view of life would propose that there is no higher end, than pleasure. He draws a distinction between the qualities or hierarchies of pleasures: “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.” (II.4). Although Mill acknowledges the spirits and desires of man, he demonstrates in this statement that he regards them much like Plato, as subservient to the pleasures of creative, literary, artistic, and intellectual enquiry.
Both Freud and Nietzsche view morality as a mechanism of repression. For Nietzsche, this repression is societal, in that morality serves to rationalize and legitimate the institutions of the social classes. For Freud, morality is a compensatory response to the frustrations of desire. In both these views, the symptom of morality is a negative constraint on the needs and desires of the individual. These stances represent an antagonism between the reasoning behind our moral ideals and the emotive needs of our individual desires. In Nietzsche’s view, our choice of moralised action is an attempt to impose our will on the world. In Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, the moral conscience or ’super-ego’, is an internalisation of external authority. The ‘id’ is our impulsive desires and wants. The rational ‘ego’, is that which attempts to exact a balance between the impractical hedonism of the id and the equally impractical morals of the super-ego.
In the 20th century, Russell espouses the idea that when it comes to judgements about whether one or other moral stance is good, the lack of rational evidence either way calls for any given stance to appeal to the emotions and to employ the kind of rhetoric that will arouse similar emotions in others. For Russell, the question of ‘values’ lies outside the domain of reasoned knowledge so that when we assert that something has ‘value’, we are giving expression to our own emotions, not to a fact which would still be true if our personal feelings were different. Consequently, an ethical stance in Russell’s view is not one whose primary function is to convey knowledge. Rather, his emotivist stance epitomised in the works of Ayer and Stevenson, presents ethical discourse as an essentially non-rational activity whose language tends toward the expression and evocation of feelings and emotions. Hare concludes in ‘The Language of Morals’, that any given moral reasoning must ultimately commit to a moral premise than cannot be empirically verified. This requires the commitment to a ‘decision of principle’ that is not founded on a statement of truth or fact, but rather requires our sentiments and passions to motivate us to action.
Philippa Foot adds weight to the importance of basic human needs by suggesting that purely innate universal desires and physical requirements demand of humans to seek those conditions that maintain ‘good’ physical health and functioning – There is a call to satisfy ones basic needs, for example, to avoid physical injury. Similarly, and at the other end of the scale, there are other human needs, like the need for a sense of meaning in ones life, or for the need to care for family and the wider social group, or to feel that one is making a valuable contribution or providing a good service to others. These aspirations come to define our concepts of virtuous behaviour and endeavour, both to the cause of self-interest and to the functioning of a healthy body and society.
Having reviewed these historical perspectives, it is unclear that there is a viable ‘dialectical’ Hegelian reduction of possible alternatives, which enables us to achieve a new and higher position in our understanding of how to prioritise behaviour when there is conflict of reason, emotion, and desire. Assessing reason in the absence of feeling is a form of applied logic and is devoid of moral ‘sensitivity’, whilst feeling without reason is devoid of any ‘civilized’ conclusion and explanation. We seem no closer to identifying any principles that clarify the nature of our behavioural evaluations.
An overview regarding the foundations of choice
On occasion, when I walk into my living room, I find my dog ‘Impy’, on the sofa. Before I have made any utterance, he looks at me sheepishly with head lowered, sagging eyes glancing up at mine, tail between legs and back curving downward. I might conclude that he displays in this manner because he has been found guilty of sitting where he is not allowed. However, his behaviour cannot be attributed to his own ‘sense of duty’ or to his evaluation of right and wrong. Whilst he is undoubtedly experiencing something, it is I that am attributing what he is experiencing to the emotion humans call ‘guilt’. Nevertheless, one can reason that he is experiencing the feelings that we attribute to ‘guilt’ for having done something ‘bad’. Of course, words like guilt and bad are emotive terms. Such terms are our human way of conceptualizing and then verbalizing about the phenomenon of feelings, which we experience, relate, and interpret. Humans attribute many emotions to the human phenomenon of feeling. These attributions entail reasoning.
Guilt is a conceptualized description of a feeling. Such description gives definition to just one of many feelings that service animals, including joy, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, wonder, disappointment, remorse, and jealousy. It is difficult to argue with any conviction that these ‘labelled’ experiences and feelings are the preserve of humans alone. Nevertheless, to interpret such feelings as ‘emotions’, is to apply human conceptions that apportion descriptive terms of value and relation to feeling phenomena and their specific behavioural responses.
A nonhuman animal does not place terms of value and relation to feelings. Nevertheless, a problem arises when one tries to determine at what point an animal does or does not experience a feeling that one might attribute to any given emotion. Similarly, it is not apparent how one might determine the strength and depth of presence of a feeling as one considers ever increasingly ‘simpler’ animals and organisms. Of course, a reductive explanation of phenomenal experience would by necessity, theorise answers to these questions, thereby allowing empirical verification.
Whilst feeling and behaviour has factual function for all animals, the tendency of every human individual’s creative reasoning capability is to play a game that entails describing terms of reference to those feelings and from that, formulating the individual’s evaluative moral identity. The nature of this game is apparently confusing because the dynamics of the mechanism of our feelings remain outside of our conceptual analysis – conceptual analysis is confided to relational interpretations or inferences between what is felt and what is objectively experienced. This point is at the heart of Freud’s flawed analytical theory. I say flawed, because whilst he explicitly identifies the juxtaposition of conceptual and emotional content, his explanation has no scientifically reductive grounding.
The feeling that humans attribute to the emotion of guilt relates to the enforced appeasement of self-interest. Its roots lie in the dynamics of a social hierarchy where dominance affects social status and with it, mating, feeding, preening, and sheltering opportunities. One can argue that societal dynamics that lead to feelings of guilt have an objective purpose. Animals have to make decisions that, one can reason, effectively amount to the assessment of self-interest. My dog’s interest is to sit on a comfortable sofa. This is in conflict with his understanding that I am dominant in our ‘group’ and I demand his appeasement through the rule of ‘not sitting on the sofa’. He will attempt to get away with any behaviours that service his self-interests, and will display regret for violating individual and group authority. Interestingly, Impy does not think, ‘sitting on the sofa will disrupt the dynamics of my family group’. He thinks only of servicing his own desires, which are a matter of weighing up the need for comfort with the desire not to be chastised. The dominant animal’s self-interests are frequently serviced simply by the minor’s appeasement display. This apparent ‘remorseful’ appeasement is usually justice enough for the dominant because it reaffirms the demands implicit in the nature of the social hierarchy and which re-enforce the benefits of dominance. However, such appeasement is not really indicative of the recognition of ‘remorse’. It is not indicative of the presence of ‘the concept’ of emotional ‘regret’, which the appeasing animal experiences and is communicating. Rather, it is simply an expression of a feeling, which humans recognise to be characteristics of remorse and whose associated behaviours tend to mitigate the harm that could be inflicted by the dominant one. The recognition of remorse in the rehabilitation of criminals into society requires interpreting the distinction between feels of regret as opposed to making connections with emotions derived from concepts of what it really means to have such feelings.
There is a distinction between the feelings of animals, and those of humans. For nonhuman animals in this example, the pursuit of self-interest is mitigated by what transpires to be, the benefits of group interaction. Effectively, animals make decisions, which, if they were human, could be interpreted as moral or ethical – in this example; the denial of self-interests for the benefit of the group. Whilst humans obey the same principles of self-interest and social dynamics, they are unique in having the capability of analytical creativity. They are able to question, evaluate, and apply reasoned concepts to emotive responses: Is it fair to get off the sofa because someone senior to me tells me to? What are the reasons? What are the arguments that I might pursue to maintain my self-interests over the group, and would this be the right thing to do? There is a complex misappropriation of the core instincts that drive the behaviours of humans. We mitigate our feelings and their associated emotions with our reasoning capability. We can re-evaluate our self-interests, our sense of duty, and manipulate the facts. Our choice is determined by weighing up our various juxtaposed feelings about the matter, thereby coming to interpret our emotions with our complex conceptions of individual, social, and environmental consideration. In this manner, we assess the nature of value and lend credence to our sense of judgment and course of action.
Dogs have a highly adapted social and individual behavioural dynamic. However, there are animals for which a significant degree of their behaviour is determined exclusively by innate responses to environmental conditions. Instinctive responses are not the preserve of simple organisms but are found in all organisms including humans. Evolution has been the guiding force that has led to physiological adaptations whose behavioural responses represent evolution’s chosen response to a given situation to enhance survival potential. These complex responses are present at all levels of adaptation and, like the processes that give rise to the phenomenon of feeling, are not subject to conceptual analysis in themselves. It is only through inference that we are able to identify the call to innate response and sometimes isolated the resultant behaviours and formulate thoughts as to their cause, significance, and relevance.
As humans, we have a call to action through the very nature of our physiological being. We have innate requirements corresponding with the basic needs of our body and its constituents. We have the need to service raw desires.
In determining behavioural choice there are three primary causes of equal consideration. These are innate, learnt, and conceived.
The Evolution of Morality and the Principle of Relational Ethics
We have a broad articulation of the trichotomous nature of the human psyche, which is involved in behavioural choice. Humans possess desires, feelings, and reasoning: The physiologically innate needs, the emotions that we conceive to understand through their association with our feelings, and finally the concepts that we develop through reasoning. Humans can conceive of the value of feelings, of the lesser passions, and can try to reason how they should influence ethical principles, but which of these should humans seek to service? It is self-evident that neither category is submissive by default. The premise must be that they are of equal importance in their cause to human action.
The reason why I introduced my dog was to indicate a relationship between human notions of morality and non-articulated nonhuman feelings and behaviours. From the simple organisms to the most complex, there is an evolving, if not understood directive, behind the justification for behaviour. One might argue, quite reasonably, that there is justification for the behaviour of systems that are not even alive; for do not those that pursue the laws of physics seek to justify the nature of all systems’ behaviours in that their laws identify with some certainty what is physically and empirically viable and what is not? This is why our logic tells us that laws of physics, are principles, and that they are ‘right’ and must be justifiably so. Similarly, our moralising is a function of an evolved process of justifiable behavioural choice. Morality is a reductive phenomenon. The question is not, what behaviour is right, but what is anything, that makes it right? In other words, what is it of all things and the way that they are, that is right?
In our behavioural stance, humans must make judgments. We seek and compare the value and benefits of our desires, our spirit, and our reason. Whilst humans yearn for a stable or fixed concept of reality in order to institute reason behind their cause to action, it is important to recognise that there will always be circumstances that call for the violation of any given moral ideology. There is no absolute or fixed fundamental theory of morality, hence the notion of the general principle of relational ethics. The ultimate ideological position is metaphysical – the belief in a pervasively and pure moral identity perhaps outside of physical existence. How should we value one behavioural decision against another? How can we make judgments with any degree of certainty? It is not a matter of value. It is a matter of what future path we seek to choose for ourselves and for all things.
Before explaining my conviction in the notion of the evolution of ethics and the foundations of behavioural choice in part 3, I will introduce the concept of the Special Theory of Relational Aesthetics in Part 2.