Before moving on to addressing the question of when it is right or wrong to get offended, let me quickly address a certain attitude that arises a lot in response to my posts on morality. I sense in the tone of a lot of comments I get in general that there is a fear of judgmentalism when I talk about what we should or should not do. This is especially the case in the last post when I talked about the rightness of sometimes blaming people for their feelings.
So, let me make a few things abundantly clear. I am not some old fashioned moralist who advocates absolutist moral standards that take no account of actual individual flourishing or happiness. As far as I understand it, adherence to morality against one’s immediate self-interest is only valuable insofar as it helps the individual adhere to certain standards that are in her own ultimate self-interest as a member of a social species in general and of specific communities in particular.
Most of our ethical life is about our own flourishing. I think that most of our own flourishing is achieved through actually aiding the flourishing of others since I think that we are at our most powerful when we are empowering other people who then replicate our power and spread it further. In this way, I think that if we tried to truly excel at being powerful, we would be people who empowered others rather than destroyed them for the sake of trinkets like material possessions. In this way, I think it is wise advice to just let people pursue their happiness, to encourage them to maximize their excellences since this is good for them, and to only worry about morality in those cases where it is a matter of turning down short term gains in ways that damage our mutual trust and cooperation with each other, which serve as the preconditions of our prosperity as individuals.
So, I am not the least bit interested in rules for the sake of rules, rules which trump human happiness, tradition for the sake of tradition, or, especially, moralists who want to impose capricious rules or arbitrary values for the sake of their own ability to feel better than others.
Also, as Christopher Hitchens is wont to point out, there is something repulsive, extremist, and false about the Thought Crime aspect of Jesus’s attack on “sinful” thoughts whereby he equates lust with adultery and anger with murder. I tried to explicitly distinguish that my view is not the same as that Christian attitude but I did not do a good enough job, so I need a few more remarks about why Jesus misses the mark and about how my own views about how to blame feelings is more nuanced and ethically constructive.
Further, I do not believe in an undetermined free will. I do think we have a will that makes genuine choices as expressive of who we are, but who we are is still ultimately determined by physical, chemical, biological, and psychological laws (and social determinants) in ways that make it ultimately impossible that we might have done otherwise than we chose to do. I just think that since we are these beings who are determined in these ways, what we do is a genuine expression of us.
Finally, I also grant (and am quite grateful for) the observation that I think Cuttlefish intended to make in his brief reply post yesterday. I took him to be saying that feelings may, like consciousness, be a response to circumstances or a mechanism for awareness by which we recognize decisions our subconscious brains are making, but may not be themselves at all causal in determining what we actually wind up doing. If I understand his point, it is a good one and one I should agree with, given my view that consciousness is more like an observation screen than something which does any causing and given the influence of William James on my understanding of emotions.
Taking all of these considerations into account. Why talk about blame at all? Isn’t that just judgmental moralism? Isn’t that incompatible with determinism?
No, it’s not. Here’s why:
First of all, responsibility is a concept that exists even without an undetermined free will. If a hurricane wind knocks down a tree and it crushes the roof of a car, we can identify the causal chain responsible for the car getting smashed up. Of course this is different than moral responsibility since it would be pure silliness to morally blame hurricanes or trees for what they do. But I do not think it is pure silliness to blame the car owner who had an empty garage and knew there was a hurricane coming sufficiently in advance for not putting the car in the garage. This is true even though ultimately the car owner can only think in terms of determinants which determine his or her actions. The reason that it still makes sense to blame the car owner is that even though the choice-making process is determined, it is in part a rational and emotional process in the car owner’s head that does that determining. When we say things to him or her, that is part of what determines what he or she thinks and what feelings he or she has. All of that is factored into the computations of his or her subconscious brain and part of the determination of future actions.
Blame, at its most benign, is simply a way of making an impression on someone that their choice algorithms need to be modified in the future lest they do things that cause disapprobation from others. Obviously we should not employ blame when someone does not do something that is genuinely worthy of our anger. We also should not express blame or enforce punishments in ways that will be counterproductive to helping the guilty to actually improve their behavior. (For more on my views on free will and morality see: The “Moral Argument” For Free Will Is A Morally Troubling, Hypocritical, Faith Position, Internecine War At Freethought Blogs: Philosopher vs. “Redneck” Edition: Free Will And The Real World Smackdown, and/or What It Means To Me To Be Free.
I have a strong Stoic streak in that I am persuaded we all mean well ultimately and either have defective sociopathic or psychopathic brains or we have normal functioning brains that are just misunderstanding the good when we do bad. I see no reason most of the time to attribute to people malignancy of will or to deeply shame people. Nonetheless, for the sake of various social goods and for the sake of another’s ability to maximize their own flourishing we should advise them about the ways their actions or their emotions contribute to their harming others or contribute to their failure to realize their own potential to flourish.
I agree with Kant’s wonderful rule of thumb that we in general should focus on making others happy and ourselves good. There are tremendous pitfalls in trying to improve other people. It is far easier to overestimate our own goodness (or at least our lack of fault) and to overestimate other people’s badness and need to change. This is precisely why I write so much about ways that people like me (atheists) need to be self-aware and self-conscious about not being unfair to religious people. It is crucial we be so introspective if we are to advocate for moral changes in our enemies. We must have their happiness in mind and we must be scrupulous about our own behavior being the best it can be, lest we be self-serving moralistic hypocrites who make the values which conduce to our own flourishing in life into the absolute standards of all goodness (even though, rationally, an honest person can realize there are other goods too that others we criticize are attaining to and which we are failing at).
I think there is a place to advise others about ethical ideals and to encourage a life aimed at maximum flourishing, as I do so often, but this is not because I am walking around judging individuals and assessing how much I think they’ve flourished or not or blaming them and calling them wretched people, etc. Judgment of particular cases requires a great deal of knowledge of particularities of circumstances. While of course not everyone is flourishing to their maximum possibility (certainly, I am not, I know that much!), judgmentalism is naive because it presumes too much about exactly what the struggles, limitations, and possibilities of a particular person are. How do I know what you are capable of or what good or bad reasons you have for your choices from where I stand?
We should not be judgmental not because there are no highest theoretical ideals for humanity in general to attain to. There are such ideals and talking about them in philosophical and empirical terms might help people figure out how to realize them in their own lives better, and that’s a great thing. We should not be judgmental, though, because we cannot know enough about the depths of the psychology of the person we are judging to know all the particulars of how they can or cannot best attain that ideal.
And when it comes to blaming, we must be constructive–we must be aimed at the other’s good and not creating a fiction of an undetermined free will which is malignant and blamable as a deliberate purveyor of evil itself. We must recognize that people are usually far more ignorant than evil. We must appreciate that people do things under psychological and social circumstances different from our own which would make them more understandable psychologically. In this way we should not paint them as evil when blaming, but just focus on what it would be constructively best for them to feel and to do, going forward, if they can.
But then why blame at all? Because we have to. And I write about blaming not because I’m a judgmental asshole but because if we are going to do it–and given the necessary dynamics of social enforcement of necessary group cooperation we inevitably will–then I want us to have an understanding and practice of blaming that is as rational, fair, humane, and conducive to actual human flourishing as possible. I want the opposite of absolutist, arbitrary, capricious, superstitious, judgmental, self-serving, hypocritical blaming and shaming.
The only way to do that is not to eschew all systematic parsing of moral rightness and wrongness as the stuff of moralists or religionists. Rather it means being even more careful and more precise in how we make such judgments so that when we inevitably slip back into everyday practices of blaming and shaming we do not unwittingly repeat their mistakes. If you want to dispense entirely with blaming and shaming instead and be consistent, then you’re going to have to explain what brand new mechanisms you will have for cultivating and maintaining social cooperation in others without those mechanisms that our psychologies have naturally bequeathed us. And you’ll have to explain how you will get creatures who are disposed psychologically and socially to such moral dispositions to so assiduously abandon them with you, even against their own natures.
Eventually whatever you come up with is going to look like a morality, i.e., a way of regulating, shaping, and changing behaviors of people. This is what I realized and why even though I hate moralism, I think the immoralist option is just untenable. Ironically, if you will, morality is a necessary evil. We will inevitably have norms and mechanisms of enforcing them. With this will always come power relations that are open to great abuse by the careless, the selfish, the authoritarians, and the masochists. The best we can do is to counter them with constructive alternative moralities that both in practice and in theory are as rational, humane, pluralistic, consistent, fair, benevolent, pleasant, and conducive to human flourishing as we can. So that’s my constructive project.
So this brings up the question of how my view of blaming feelings differs from Jesus’s. My points are two.
First, I think the act of calling attention to another’s feelings when blaming him or her, when done right, is just a way of properly identifying for him or her a major part of where it appears they are erring. If he or she wants to change because he or she wants to be as positive a member of the community as he or she can, then he or she should appreciate the advice—especially if it is given in a kind (or at least dispassionate) spirit.
Now, as Cuttlefish notes, feelings themselves are quite likely not causal. But whatever brain processes do cause actions are influenced by considerations of reasons (and we must think this, lest a great deal of human action become unintelligible). And even if a feeling is an immediate response to the environment or the accompaniment of a thought process, what we can do is help “program” into each other’s brains other thought processes—ones that cut off and replace whatever mental programs get roused in negative ways in response to those negative feelings when they occur, and activate other feelings associated with other mental programs that are more constructive and lead to greater flourishing and happiness.
The goal, through whatever processes cognitive sciences will more precisely describe, is to calibrate our emotions so that they back up and serve our best reasoning about what leads to our own flourishing and others’, rather than launch mental programs and resulting actions that thwart our ultimate best interests and those of others. Insofar as blaming activities help each other do this, they are good. Insofar as they backfire and harm people, they are bad. And people genuinely concerned with the good of others pay scrupulous attention to this key moral difference—even if many people are gunshy about the whole practice of blaming because of bad experiences with those who are careless blamers.
Now, in blaming people’s feelings, unlike Jesus, I do not think they are intrinsically wrong or bad. They are bad because of the ways they lead to actions, not just for being there. And I think that the reason to avoid them even when they don’t lead to actions has nothing to do with anti-human concepts like hell and intrinsic sinfulness, but rather because power over ourselves leads to our flourishing, which is our happiness, and rational control over what we feel is a big part of that flourishing. It is about our own self-interests that we not feel in ways that unnecessarily pain us and that would undermine our long term projects of being positive spreaders of power in the world.
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.