Ethics from the Heart

Ethics from the Heart

I believe in the life of reason, and my commitment to reason, in great measure, is what makes me a humanist. While honoring reason does not, in itself, a humanist make, it is certainly an essential component of the modern humanist worldview.
It was Aristotle’s assumption long ago that the capacity for reason is what distinguishes human beings from all other living things. We share growth, reproduction and decay with the plants and animals. But the ability to reason is alone a human possession. Over time, the conviction that reason is what distinguishes human beings from the rest of animate nature became the collective assumption of Western civilization. (Although the primacy of reason has been chastened in the past few decades by the insights of feminism and postmodernism).

The career of reason, so to speak, has been nothing short of extraordinary. All of philosophy, mathematics, and law have as their foundations a commitment to reason. In the 17th century, far-sighted individuals, who were first known as “natural philosophers” organized reason in a specific and controlled way and applied it to empirical fact, developed a method to test those facts, and by so doing, created modern science. This was an amazing and heady discovery. For the medievals, the universe and everything in it was ultimately consigned to divine mystery. With the creation of science in the 17th century, nature became scrutable to the human mind. But these advances were not merely intellectual. Not only did ignorance steadily retreat when banished by the floodlights of reason and science. Experimenters soon found that they were able to apply the illuminations of science and reason to the world of nature in order to transform it for the sake of human betterment. Out of science grew applied technology, engineering, agronomy and medicine, and the profusion of instrumentalities which created the modern world as we know it. If we can look beyond a life of mere subsistence and drudgery, if we have achieved an average lifespan which would have been unimaginable to our ancestors of just two centuries ago, if we can aspire to an even better life and a more bountiful future, it is because of the extraordinary powers which the organized use of reason have brought to humankind. Indeed, the more progressive elements of the modern world are almost indistinguishable from the life of reason.

It is in great measure because of the vaunting public success of reason, that we may conclude that a life lived by the lights of reason also bestows on human beings a quality we know as “dignity.” To possess dignity is to in some sense “rise above” our mere animal natures. It is the manifest ability to feel free from enslavement or excessive constraint. One way we do this is to exercise our intellects in the quest of knowledge and truth and in striving to live a truthful life. Here reason plays an important role, by ensuring that our thoughts fit together coherently and are primarily consistent with each other.

Though, as Emerson says, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” not all consistencies are foolish. What Emerson probably was referring to is a pedantic, petty and obsessive commitment to consistency in ways that stifle the life and breath of experience. But far from being foolish, being consistent, or as we might more technically say, striving to avoid contradictions, can be ennobling. It is reason that provides the backbone and clarity to our thinking, and it is the commitment to be rational or reasonable that impels us to iron out contradictions in the service of thinking and speaking truthfully. To sum this up in the simplest way, there is simply no dignity in professing beliefs that are benighted, contradict basic facts, contradict each other, or are irrational. All of us attempt to justify our beliefs and actions through rational explanations and arguments, even those that are themselves irrational.

In this regard, I recall reading years ago a book entitled “The Tragic Sense of Life” by the Spanish philosopher Unamuno. Unamuno was a representative of what is called the “fideistic” tradition, which contends that commitment to reason stifles life’s energy, and we are better served by believing in those things which only faith, which is contrary to reason, can provide. But in order to make his case for the superiority of faith over reason, Unamuno still has to present the reader with 300 pages of reasoned argument. Reason is the common denominator of human communication. And by so being, it is our best hope in domesticating the wild passions of human beings that too often explode in paroxysms of violence, war and destruction. The appeal to reason, therefore, is also an appeal to civility and peace among people who are otherwise tempted to resolve their differences through brute power struggles.

In similar regard, a capacity for reason is not only necessary for the maintenance of a scientific culture, and as an underpinning of dignity in life. It is also necessary for the maintenance of a democratic political order, which, in turn, is the basis for peace and freedom. Without a well-honed ability to reason, citizens of a democracy cannot discern between truth and lies dispensed by their political leaders. They cannot make prudent assessments as to which policies serve their interests and the interests of the common good. Without the ability to assess political facts with the critical tools of reason, they cannot support a culture of freedom and hold back the dark night of authoritarianism and fascism. The artist Francisco Goya, who was a late disciple of the Enlightenment, had once remarked “the sleep of reason gives rise to monsters.” It is a pithy insight we would do well to recall in these times when freedom is being severely challenged.

Science, freedom, dignity and democracy, all are either based on, or have a family resemblance to, reason. And for many thinkers, so does ethics. There is a venerable tradition in Western philosophy that sees reason as the source of ethics and of moral behavior. There was no greater exponent of this tradition than the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Ethics can be defined in different ways, but for Kant ethics has primarily to to do with rules and laws. From the Ten Commandments to the admonitions of parents to their young children, ethics takes the form of rules. “Do this. Don’t do that.” “Thou shalt not steal” “Thou shalt not kill.” etc.

Kant, as a supreme rationalist, held to the common sense notion that any rule or proposition that contradicts itself could not be true. He went on to analyze the way reason behaves, that is, to overcome contradictions. When applied to ethical conduct, Kant concluded that reason distills certain moral laws or rules. He further assumed, therefore, that for an action to be moral it had to avoid contradictions, especially when put to the test of universalizability. This sounds very complex, but it is an assumption that many parents employ when they strive to raise moral children, even if these parents are not professional philosophers. What Kant meant in simplest terms is that before you engage in any action, ask yourself the question “What if everybody did it?” So Kant poses the question, “What if I broke a promise I made every time it became inconvenient to keep it?” “And what if everyone did it?” Kant concludes that in short order the very idea or concept of promise-keeping would be undermined and contradicted. The concept of “promise” would lose all its meaning. Hence, Kant concludes that if we wish to be moral, we must, therefore, never break a promise. We may at times find ourselves breaking a promise for what we may consider compelling reasons. But in those cases, Kant concludes that, though we may be acting prudently, we are not, in a strict sense, acting ethically. We are only ethical when we obey certain absolute supreme imperatives, what Kant calls the “Moral Law.” And the source of the moral law, as Kant understood it, is Reason and the kinds of truths that Reason reveals to us.

Although Kant is a very difficult thinker, there is again something intuitively familiar about his philosophy. Most ethically sensitive people recognize that there is something about ethics that demands something of us that transcends our advantage or self-interest. When the parent says to the child “Johnny, I want you to tell the truth if you have done something wrong, even if you know you will be punished for it,” or, the parent says “Jane, you are to tell the truth, not because you come out ahead if you do. But you are to tell the truth because you are to do the right thing,” or, “you are to tell the truth for the sake of telling the truth” – whenever parents speak this way, the ghost of Immanuel Kant is looking over their shoulder. In other words, ethics is about doing the right thing, and whether by doing so we turn out happier, wealthier, or come out on top is simply beside the point. It is about obeying an absolute moral command. Period. What Kant did in his moral philosophy was to take these intuitions about ethics and analyze them, elaborate them, and demonstrate to his satisfaction how they flowed from the processes of reason.

All this is very insightful and powerful stuff. And there has long been, both before and after Immanuel Kant, a rational tradition in ethics. This tradition has a lot to say for itself. But it is not the only way to understand ethics.

As much as I consider myself a rationalist, I do not think that the very source of ethics is to be found in reason. Rather I hold to the belief that the source of ethics lies in our emotions and our feelings. This belief parallels what I conclude is the role of reason in our lives overall. As essential as reason is in sustaining our dignity, our progress, our civil peace, justice, indeed our entire civilization, I also believe it is not the alpha and omega of life. Ask yourself the question “what is it that you most value in life?” And then ask yourself why it is you value it. No doubt you will give a series of reasons to explain your preferences. But then, like peeling away the layers of an onion, you will reach the core of your wishes and wants, for which no more rational explanations are possible. You will reach rock bottom, and when you peer into the nether reaches you will come to sheer desire which can no longer be explained nor justified through logical rationales. You will reach the core of pure wish and want; the realm of pure emotion.

In concrete terms, let’s assume you answer the question of what you value most, or what you live for, by saying, “I live to work and make money.” When asked “why”, the answer might be “because I need money to purchase a comfortable home and buy the accoutrements of a middle class life.” When probed further as to “why” you will reach a point where you will say simply “because it satisfies,” “because it makes me happy,” or some such response which has nothing to do with reason at all; just mere desire, wish, emotion and feelings. Deep down something in our animal natures will find gratification, either crude or sublime.

Reason is essential to our lives but it is not equitable to life. Reason does not generate love, compassion, fulfillment, celebration, forgiveness or joy. In the final analysis, reason is necessary but cold. The fuel of life is not reason, but emotion, feeling and sentiment. Reason provides a process and method by which to fulfill our needs which themselves are not made of rational stuff. Reason is scaffolding, an instrument, a pointer, a mediator, a guide and a governor. But it is ultimately the husk within which the kernel of our emotions, desires, and wishes are kindled and serve as the energy which is the fuel of life.

There are even those thinkers that hold that rationality itself is based on the ability of reason to generate emotional satisfaction. In other words, we seek truth because it is ultimately emotionally satisfying. In a famous essay entitled “The Sentiment of Rationality,” the philosopher William James speculates that we hold the most rational of truths, such as 2 + 2 = 4, because 2+2=4, in some sense, works for us, in the way in which, let’s say 2+2=3 does not work. And what he means by “works” is that it is emotionally satisfying. So, for example, if we walk around believing that 2+2=3 we continually bump up against frustration. We walk around confused, bewildered, frustrated and agitated. But as soon as we conclude that 2+2=4, we say “ah.” Something in us is satisfied. Our world comes together like a tight-fitting jigsaw puzzle, confusion and frustration are banished from our minds, and we are at peace. How will a person know that he has a rational conception of things? James says “The only answer can be that he will recognize its rationality as he recognizes everything else, by certain subjective, personal marks with which it affects him… What then are the marks? A strong feeling of ease, peace, rest, is one of them. The transition from a state of puzzle and perplexity to rational comprehension is full of lively relief and pleasure.” The conclusion is that we deem even the most abstract of rational phenomena true based ultimately on whether they bring emotional satisfaction, albeit of a very sublime kind. My point, again, is that deep down at the core of our beings, we are feeling, emotional and willful beings before we are thinking and rational beings. Our emotions and impulses that fuel our desires are closer to our basic biological natures than our cognitive and rational capacities.

What is true about human nature generally, I believe is true about ethics as well. I believe that the source of our ethics is lodged in our emotions, not our reason. I believe that we are inherently social beings, who, shaped by natural selection, have an indwelling capacity for empathy; that is to feel the suffering and joys of others as if they were our own; though the feelings of two separate people can never be identical, or if they were, we could not with perfect confidence know that they are.

Observations of the behavior of toddlers have demonstrated that when a toddler witnesses the distress of a peer, he or she will very often attempt to comfort, soothe, or at least be moved by the suffering of the other youngster. This capacity, I believe, is inborn, and is manifest before the capacity to formulate ethical principles or to cognitively reflect on one’s behavior or motivation. This capacity for empathy is the germ, I believe, on which much of ethical behavior and theorizing is rationally constructed. Ethics starts with this emotional ability to sense and be moved by the feelings of others. One does not need to be an intellectual in order to be compassionate, kind, or empathetic.

I spend much time these days in the world of human rights. Like other academic endeavors, human rights in the past several decades has become the subject of a great deal of academic theorizing. Human rights, in its simplest terms, is the protection from violation, of other human beings and their freedoms. Much of human rights discussion has to do with weighty rational disciplines relating to political theory, international law, etc. An intriguing question of debate in the human rights field is “where do human rights come from?” Does one need a belief in God to provide them, or will secular philosophy be able to do that? Can human rights be found in so-called natural law, or do they derive from a social contract? These questions, which all partake of a high level of rationality, I find very intriguing ones. But I think the answer is actually much simpler than the tons of academic treatises devoted to the subject. I think the source of human rights, that is, the need to protect human beings from violation, emerges ultimately from the very basic capacity of people to feel the pain of the other person, and through the powers of what I like to call “projective imagination” sense that the other person who is suffering could readily be oneself.

In a practical sense, perhaps the best way to educate people to a respect for the basic rights of others is not to feed them hours of rational lectures on Kantian principles or other high-minded ideas, but rather to place the person in the presence of the victim and allow her to tell her story. These kinds or narratives of personal suffering, coming from people who have been the objects of injustice, persecution, oppression, in some dramatic cases, torture, I believe, are worth a thousand hours of rational argument, however true those arguments may be. It is the ability to hear and to sense, and maybe even in part to identify with the pain of others, that does the most basic work of ethical education.

If Kant was the great Enlightenment defender of the rational basis for ethics, no less a philosophical luminary was the Scotsman, David Hume. It was Hume who was the great champion of an emotional basis for our morals. It was Hume who argued that we call one person’s action a virtue, and another person’s actions a vice, because the former arouses in us warm feelings, while the latter’s behavior arouses feelings of disgust. And Hume concludes “Extinguish all the warm feelings and possessions in favor of virtue, and all disgust and aversion to vice: Render men totally indifferent towards these distinctions, and morality is no longer a practical study nor has any tendency to regulate our lives and actions.” Likewise. I think you can construct the most rational principles of right and wrong, but if what is said to be right or wrong does not arouse us emotionally those principles are sterile and inert, and really a matter of indifference.

What I like about Hume as well is that he sees human beings as socially linked through their emotions and feelings. He says, “There seems a necessity for confessing that the happiness and misery of others are not spectacles entirely indifferent to us; but that the view of the former, whether in its causes or its effects, like sunshine or the prospect of well cultivated plants communicates a secret joy and satisfaction; the appearance of the latter, like a lowering cloud, throws a melancholy damp over the imagination.” What Hume is simply saying is that we are inwardly happy when we see other people happy, just as we gain some inward pleasure from being in the sunshine or beholding a plant that seems to be flourishing. In short, this kind of overlap in our emotional lives with others is simply part of our social nature. And, as mentioned, it is, at least in my belief, the wellspring or our ethics.

But, what about reason? Is it left out of the picture? Not at all; reason is essential. We need reason to give order and shape to our emotions, and to set our priorities. Unbridled emotion is a very dangerous thing. If human beings have a capacity for empathy, then as we know only too well, they have the capacity for aggression, contempt, disgust, and the violence, cruelty, sadism and bloodletting that are fueled by those emotions. I have never been deluded by the belief that man is essentially good, only that he has the capacity to be good. And whether he falls one way or another has a great deal to do with how he or she is socialized and educated, and in this, reason has an essential role to play.

Since the time of the Greeks, it has been noted that human beings have elements that are both Apollonian and Dionysian. The Apollonian in us seeks after reason, restraint, balance and harmony. The Dionysian impulse, identified with will and emotion, wildly and blindly seeks to destroy all limits and constraints. It seeks the unbridled will to power, which sees reason as nothing but an inhibiting and constraining element that puts a damper on life. Without the Dionysian in us, our lives are nothing but sterile, inert, sexless and uncreative. But without the Apollonian, we are little more than beasts.

The romantics have been enchanted with the Dionysian and have rebelled against the sterility and constriction implicit in rationality and the reason-based life. But I think we become so enchanted at our peril. We should not romanticize the benignity of emotions too much. The feelings associated with tribalism, with excessive nationalism and patriotism, with excessive communalism, partake of the romantic impulse, and can be ferociously destructive of others who are not members of the in-group. We live in an era of genocide, when the feelings of ethnic bonds have been matched only by feelings of contempt for those outside the group. There is romanticism in the cult of the group, and we should not forget that Nazism was in many ways a romantic movement.

We need emotions to fuel our lives and our ethics, too. But we need our reason to chasten our emotions, smooth them out, give them shape, explain and justify them, and guide them in the direction of promoting benevolent ends for others and ourselves. In the best sense, we should seek an integration of our reason and our emotions

All this is another way of suggesting that our emotions are corrigible, so to speak. The fact that we naturally have an innate emotional capacity for empathy does not guarantee that all individuals will act this way. This capacity for empathy is not necessarily very strong, and can readily be overwhelmed by other forces which are not so benign. It can be overwhelmed by bad socialization, by bad education, by nefarious group ideologies and by wicked influential authorities.

In closing, let me say that all this defines a role for Ethical Culture to play. In fact, it is its most important role – for its members, the community at large, and perhaps, most of all, for our children. It is what I like to call “empathy education.” Our mission, as our name suggests, is to cultivate our ethical sensitivities with a view toward ultimately enabling us to grow in our dispositions and our behavior toward others. Its role is to make us more effective ethical agents in all our relationships of life, and in society as large.

For this we need to expose ourselves to reasoned arguments. We need to rationally reflect on and think through our ethics. But we need to share the experiences of others as well. We need to engage one another on the level of our personal lives. We need to hear one another’s stories. In the very final analysis, we need to open ourselves up to the suffering of others, and to their joys as well. We need to hone and make more sensitive our capacities for compassion, caring and benevolence toward other people. We need to open our hearts and broaden our capacities for compassion, caring and love. For if we do not possess a good heart, all the theorizing and rational calculations alone will not get us to where we want to go.

Can we do this? Can we expand the reach of our emotions? I think we can. Is it easy? No, it is not easy. But if we are to keep this project of civilization going, and especially if we are humanists, there can be few commitments and few aspirations that are more compelling or important.

Dr. Joseph Chuman

8 January 2006

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