The Moral Mind




The Moral Mind



What goes on in a person’s mind when he or she makes a moral judgment and acts on it? It is an interesting fact that this question is hard to answer. If we ask what goes on in a person’s mind when she makes a judgment about the weather, we have no great difficulty answering: she has a belief to the effect (say) that it’s raining. Similarly for choosing to eat a banana or having a pain in one’s toe: the relevant mental state is a desire or a sensation, respectively. We know where to look in the mind to find the kind of mental occurrence that is involved. But in the case of moral judgment philosophers have offered very different accounts of what goes on in the mind: some say it’s a belief, others say a desire, others an emotion, others a prescription, others an intuition, others a remembered parental prohibition. Thus we have the debate between cognitivism and non-cognitivism in moral psychology, with subdivisions of these two categories. What is perhaps surprising is that the question can’t be resolved by introspection (or folk psychology—or experimental psychology). It is not obvious what goes on in the mind when it is morally engaged: hence the plethora of theories.

            There is also the question of whether a single thing goes on in everyone’s mind. Is it true that in all cultures, in all ages both historical and personal, the same mental state characterizes the moral standpoint? Do atheists and theists have the same thing going on in their minds when they reason morally? What about children and adults, or African tribes and New York intellectuals? What about humans and Neanderthals? Might some people have emotions and others cognitive states like belief? The content of their mental states might vary (consider the utilitarian and the deontologist). What about moral objectivists and moral subjectivists? And why should we suppose that it is a single thing in a single mind? Maybe moral subjects undergo several types of mental state when they act morally: beliefs and desires and emotions and intuitions and… Are both cognitivism and non-cognitivism true? None of these questions has an easy answer—moral psychology is a difficult subject. It is obscure what constitutes moral consciousness.

            It might be said that the answer lies in the distinction between fact and value: what happens in moral judgment (if we are permitting ourselves this tendentious word) is that a norm is accepted or acted upon, as opposed to a fact being registered. So what goes on in the morally engaged mind is that norms take control—we recognize that we ought to act in a certain way. That is certainly not wrong, but it doesn’t supply what we need, since norms are not distinctive of morality; other areas also involve the recognition of norms. Consider prudence and etiquette: here too we judge what we ought to do in the light of what is good for us and what counts as good manners, but the judgment is not moral in nature. Is anyone an emotivist about prudence and etiquette? When I judge that eating too much cake is not good for me am I expressing my emotions about eating? Emotivism is meant to apply to specifically moral judgment. And here we sense a general problem: a theory of moral psychology needs to specify what is common and peculiar to moral states of mind, but the materials invoked tend to be general and not restricted to morality. We are told that moral attitudes are beliefs or desires or emotions, but lots of things are beliefs or desires or emotions—what is distinctive of the moral attitude? What is it that specifically goes on in the mind when morality is its concern? Not the general type of attitude apparently, since that is widespread—so is it the content of the attitude? Is it that the (general) attitude has a (specific) moral content—for example, the belief that doing x would be morally wrong? Or desiring to do what is morally good or feeling an emotion of moral approval or intuiting the Good? Is what is going on something whose intentional object is morality itself? Is it that moral norms qua moral norms enter the psychological arena, running through, or coming before, our minds? Is the concept of morality part of what makes our moral reactions what they are? That sounds implausible—too intellectualist, too explicit, too reflective. When I act to help someone in an emergency, am I thinking about morality itself—am I consciously thinking I should do what is morally right? Also, this answer is uninformative, because we wanted to know what makes an attitude moral, and putting morality in its content doesn’t answer that. Is there really no distinctive state of mind implicated in morality except in respect of content? Is it just belief in a different thing that distinguishes the moral attitude from ordinary belief about the physical world, and similarly for varieties of non-cognitivism? Isn’t there some sort of architectural distinction—some specific way the mind is configured or organized? Isn’t the moral mind sui generis?

            Some moralists have supposed so and expressed the matter poetically. Plato spoke glowingly of apprehending the Form of the Good, pictured as a kind of revelation or enlightenment achieved after prolonged education. Kant compared the moral law within to the starry heavens above, invoking a special kind of awe. For these thinkers, it is not that we merely have beliefs or emotions of a standard sort about a moral subject matter; rather, the mind’s engagement with morality puts it into a unique state—something like a mystical perception of the sublime. Following this path, we could say that what goes in the mind when morality is involved is that the mind feels itself to be in the presence of the sublime—rather as people have conceived an awareness of the reality of God in this way. Prudence and etiquette don’t strike us that way—they are humdrum and immanent, not sublime and transcendent. A certain kind of joy is held to pervade the moral mind. Freudians by contrast have contended that what characterizes the moral attitude is dread and oppression—the overbearing and punitive parent thwarting the child’s natural impulses. What goes on in the superego is suppression of the natural instincts, so that morality is experienced as distinctively restrictive—not joy but fear characterizes the moral point of view. At the extreme the moral agent acts under the threat of divine banishment to hell—that’s what goes through the moral agent’s mind (see James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man). This also is distinctive, since we don’t experience prudence and etiquette that way. These views may seem extreme and antiquated to us but they point to an important intuition, namely that the moral mind is in a special kind of state, unusual and unique. It may not be a sense of guilt and shame and fear of punishment, or an uplifting glimpse of the divine order, but something special happens in us that is characteristic of moral immersion.

            We edge closer to an answer by noting the importance and binding necessity of morality as we engage with it. Kant’s categorical imperative provides the model: we are unconditionally obliged to do what is right, no matter what we may wish or feel. We are governed by an absolute necessity: the moral must is diamond hard. This sounds highfalutin, but it is rooted in a common sense observation, namely that when morality beckons we must drop everything and obey its dictates. Suppose I am driving to the mall to enjoy an evening of dinner and a movie—my desires are propelling me in this direction. I turn a corner and see that an accident has happened and someone needs help immediately: but there is no one around to help, so it’s up to me to stop and do what I can. Do I weigh up the situation and determine whether my desire to help is stronger than my desire to have dinner and see a movie? No, I simply ignore my personal desires and hurry to help; I don’t judge that everything considered I’d rather help than not—as I might judge that it would be sensible for me to stop to buy some milk on the way. What I do is bracket my desires, suspend them, setting them to one side, decoupling them from my will. I may not likedoing this (I’m hungry and I really want to see the movie), but I feel that I have no choice, that I am subject to an unconditional necessity—I must stop and help this injured person, whether I like it or not. So what happens to me mentally is that my desires are put offline; they are no longer driving my will. Instead my judgment of right and wrong drives my will. This is a peculiar state of mind (in both senses of “peculiar”): I switch from being a desire-driven being to being a morality-driven being. That is, the desires that were operative before no longer shape what I do—they have been demoted, shelved. This is not true for prudence and etiquette, in which we weigh our desires one against the other (I may not act on a present desire because I know that in the future I will have other desires). But in the case of morality my desires are rendered nugatory, or at least not calling the shots. And this is a standing feature of morality: I am always ready to suspend my desires in this way qua moral being (this is the burden of morality). My mind thus undergoes reorganization when morality asserts itself: from desire propulsion to desire suspension. In a sense I become alienated from my desires for the nonce—that is, I renounce them as the sole determinants of my actions. This provides the answer to our question: what happens in the mind when a person judges and acts morally is that his or her desires are bracketed in this way—and this is an architectural, functional, and causal alteration. It isn’t merely that your beliefs or desires or emotions have taken on a specifically moral content; rather, your mind has shifted into a special gear in which personal egoistic desires have lost their usual authority, having ceded it to the moral faculty. You are no longer a slave to your passions but a slave to your sense of right and wrong, if I may put it so. Morality is unique in bringing this mental reorganization about. It specializes in desire deactivation.

            This is why there is always something disagreeable about acting morally: no one wants his desires put on hold, discounted and disregarded. We want to do what we want to do! Moral judgment upends this natural order; it makes things happen in our mind that go against the grain (Freud was right about this at least). Perhaps we can feel some joy at the self-abnegation involved, but self-abnegation is still the operative principle (Kant was right about this at least). To be sure, we can cultivate our desire to be good, but that desire will always conflict with other desires of an egoistic nature. In any case, this is a theory that does what a theory of moral psychology needs to do, viz. find something distinctive about the moral state of mind. It’s that sinking feeling you get when you know you have to do your moral duty, irrespective of what you personally desire. It’s when your own desires lose their importance in the light of other people’s desires. It’s when you know yourself to belong to a kingdom of ends—a moral community of respect-worthy beings. It’s acknowledging the reality of others. So the moral mind is a thing unto itself.  [1]

Colin McGinn

  [1] I observed my cat in the back yard with its paw on a reptile chewing its tail off. The reptile was still alive (in fact I saved it from further damage) and the cat obviously had no idea that this wasn’t a nice thing to do. There was nothing going through its mind of a moral nature. So my question in this essay can be put thus: What is it that my cat did not have in its mind that a moral agent would have in a similar situation? A conjecture: there is no desire suspension in animals (though I don’t say that such suspension never happens in certain social animals).

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