“You can’t blame people for how they feel, only for what they do.”
“You have every right to be offended, but you don’t have the right to censor others just because you’re offended.”
In this post and the next one, I want to explain why I think these two common moral sentiments are quite mistaken—or, at least, are oversimple. Along the way I also want to clarify my remarks yesterday that one should not get offended at satire. In this first post, I will address only the general point that we can legitimately blame people for their feelings. In the next post, I will work out my views on when it is appropriate or inappropriate to be offended, and how we should approach satire in light of such considerations.
Let me clarify from the outset that what interests me primarily is ethics. I think there is a tendency in our culture to collapse too many ethical discussions into legal ones or to reason about ethical questions as though they were legal ones.
If we were talking about the law, then yes, you can’t blame people for having bad feelings that they do not act upon, but only blame them for what they do. Even there, of course, feelings matter since with many actions the intention helps define the action. If I completely innocently trip and knock you over and you get seriously injured, then I may have some civil liabilities to you. But it would not be the same as if I maliciously knocked you over with the intention to injure you. In which case I should be charged criminally.
And, yes, if we are talking about the law, you have (or should have) the complete and total legal right to be upset by whatever upsets you. That’s your freedom of conscience, and as long as you do not strip others of their civil rights or their rights to free expression, then as far as the law is concerned, you may let your offended feelings gnaw away at your insides until you are an empty shell.
So, legal concessions aside, let’s talk strictly about ethics. Why and when can we say someone’s feelings are bad?
Ethics, as far as I am concerned, is about how we live the best lives we can. I am self-consciously in the perfectionist tradition, which stretches back from at least the ancient Greeks through Nietzsche to moral philosophers like Thomas Hurka today. In this view, moralities and specific moral decisions are ultimately justified by the ways that they contribute to our living excellent human lives and having excellent human characters in order to live such great lives.
To me, morality is only ultimately important insofar as it leads to maximal human flourishing in power among the maximal number of people possible and with as much consideration for the flourishing of those living the worst lives as possible, consistent with overall growth. Put more simply, morality is a means to our living well, it is not an end in itself. But, nonetheless, if we develop strong virtues that morality requires of us, these can be ways of living well in themselves. This is because well-designed moral rules will be ones that conduce to our flourishing, rather than hinder it. Moral virtues are habitual character traits which make it second nature for us to make good moral decisions, which conduce to our flourishing. So it is excellent for us to have moral virtues both as a means to flourishing and as constituting our flourishing. In other words, it is good in itself for us to have truly moral virtues. Just having and expressing them is a big part of being a flourishing, happy, excellent person. And, even if it weren’t, it would be definitional of being a good person.
So, in this context, if I have ill-humored and unfair feelings of destructive jealousy, pettiness, intolerance, irascibility, selfishness, self-pity, greed, etc., then I am both ill-disposed (and therefore less likely) to do good actions rather than bad ones. This is morally problematic because even on occasions where I successfully manage in the end to restrain these feelings, they can come precariously close to making me do evil things in the first place. It is better that I just not have such inclinations than that I am frequently wrestling with them and overcoming them. I would be both more reliably excellent in my actions, and happier in my excellence, if I acted from feelings that were morally inclined towards what was truly best than if I always felt like doing what was wrong and had to struggle to do the right thing against my inclinations. A good person, interested in an excellent life, conscientiously develops feelings which will lead her to do better actions and to do them more readily, and will feel happier as a result.
And so when someone does a wrong action from a bad character, we can blame their character at least in part. The issue is not just that they did something wrong but that they did not, in advance, work on improving their feelings so that they would avoid their error. Say I go into an unjustifiable rage and physically attack you. The physical assault is not the only thing I’ve done wrong. The original, deeper wrong was not getting my rage under control. And if I never learn to get my rage under control, I will lash out repeatedly and not just in this one instance. While you can only press legal charges against the physical assaults, from an ethical perspective my out of control feelings of rage and my weakness of will to control them, are the more damnable things because they are what motivate and perpetuate the harmful outward behaviors.
We should not advise people to see their inner-life as a playground for negative feelings and attitudes, as long as they do not let them lead to negative actions. What we feel will affect what we do. And what we feel, if it is false, unfair, self-pitying, etc., will involve intrinsically putting ourselves into a negative or dishonest mental relationship to that which we are considering negatively and that is intrinsically an inappropriate attitudinal relationship, even if it ends there.
And so in light of these considerations, when we actually do wrong sometimes the only way to properly own up to our wrong is to say, “I should not have had that attitude, which led to that wrong emotional response, which led to my negative behavior.” Sometimes, in this way, we need to take responsibility for three things and for changing all three—the attitude, the emotional responses springing from it, and the actions that finally result.
And sometimes even when we do not do wrong but are strongly tempted to do so, we should look at our feelings and ask, “Why am I so strongly inclined towards something which is wrong? How can I check this before it turns into bad actions or causes me more painful struggles to resist them?” And we can say to those who wrong us that changing their actions is not enough if they do not also reexamine their emotions. And sometimes we can just observe that one of our attitudes is just plain fucked up, even if we do not see how it is having any negative consequences, and just work to see things more truly and fairly and less irrationally and less unfairly.
This view of ethics accounts for and justifies a lot of our moral judgments. An important common moral judgment to highlight is that it is wrong to be bigoted and not just to act on bigotry. We typically think there is something wrong about hating and wrong about having a prejudiced disposition that leads us only to see what is bad about a group of people to the exclusion of what is good. We also recognize that hatreds and prejudices lead to cognitive errors according to which we imagine unreal badness in those we hate or are otherwise prejudiced against. Prejudiced feelings hinder our abilities to judge properly.
Now, you may be objecting that this is unfair to people. What if you have feelings you don’t wish you had? What if you find yourself thinking homophobic, racist, or sexist things and yet wish you did not? Surely we cannot blame you for that, as long as you work your hardest to not let these things affect your actions, right?
It is certainly true that it is wrong (and often counter-productive) to moralistically pummel someone who is conscientiously working to overcome bad habits of feeling and judging which were inculcated in them through years of socialization which was out of their full control. I am not suggesting we flog ourselves or each other for every erring thought we have, clothe ourselves in sack cloth and ashes, call humanity irredeemably evil and the heart desperately sick and depraved. I am not a Christian anymore.
But, nonetheless, to the extent that we still have to struggle to be good, we can recognize that as good as our intentions are, we still have more perfecting to do and we still have to be vigilant against implicit biases coming out and affecting our judgments and actions, even without our conscious awareness. To the extent that we are not yet perfect, I am not saying that we have to be blamed but we do have to at least admit our remaining weaknesses, be scrupulous in preventing them from leading to poor behavior, and actively work on correcting our feelings.
In addition to trying to correct prejudicially negative feelings, we must coordinate all our feelings to be those which are the most rationally approvable for our circumstances. And I also agree with Nietzsche that since feelings play an ineliminable role in our thinking, we must actively attempt to not only look at many issues from a range of perspectives but to feel them from various emotional perspectives, so that we have a fuller understanding of them. I have explained that already in the posts On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints and My Perspectivist, Teleological Account Of The Relative Values Of Pleasure And Pain, and so I will recommend those interested in exploring this point to read those posts for now. I have also talked about prejudice before in my post, What is Wrong With Prejudice and is it Prejudicial to Dislike Someone over his Bad Thinking?
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.