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O. Makridis, Reason and Sentiment in Moral Judgment

In class, we discussed Jonathan Bennett’s “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn.” This is a controversial essay. We are interested in what Bennett has to say because it addresses one of the cardinal meta-ethical questions: what are the roles of Reason and Sentiment in moral judgment? Obviously, we apprehend moral principles with reason or mind. Recall here our reading from Henry Sidgwick, entitled “Axioms of Ethics.” He purported to show that there are certain self-evident moral principles, whose validity is as indubitable as that of necessary truths – for instance, the truths expressed by geometrical propositions. Sidgwick even attempted to demonstrate how such evident moral principles as ‘treat cases that are not different in morally significant ways similarly’ are analogous, or even reducible, to the necessarily true statement ‘the whole is greater than any one of its parts.’ Clearly, we apply our mind or reason when we think of necessary propositions like this.

So, does this mean that there is no space for sentiment in moral judgment – in deciding what is the right thing to do under given circumstances? But this cannot be plausible. We consider people who have sentiments of pity and are capable of natural kindness to be morally good people. To be sure, such people have to act on their natural sentiments to qualify as moral agents who have done the right thing. But, especially when it comes to action, it seems even more appropriate to speak of something other than reason – we can think of the moral appropriateness of an action until we drop, but, unless we act on the conclusions of our moral decision making process, we cannot be considered morally good. So, certain sentiments like benevolence and sympathy seem to be important – perhaps, indispensable – in moral judgment.

Not everyone would agree, of course. We will see when we study Kantian ethics that an ethical theory called deontology finds moral value in acts that are performed by agents who are not particularly nice or sympathetic toward other human beings but ‘do the right thing’ simply because they decide – by thinking logically – that this is the right thing to do. The critics of this position are quick to point out that there is something in this that is not quite human – the point being that divorcing oneself from moral sentiments does not seem appropriate in the context of moral judgment. Who knows? Maybe, the very source of morality is moral sentiment. Be careful, though: It is not as clear why someone who acts on impulse – even an impulse from pity or sympathy – should be praised and congratulated on moral grounds: if the act did not cost anything and the agent also felt good about himself or herself – because nice people feel good indeed when they do the right thing – then what’s the big deal? If the moral deed requires exertion, sacrifice, etc., then the person must be acting on the basis of more than sentiment – because sentiment alone cannot discriminate between cases that equally appeal to a person’s sympathies. For instance, should a mother pity her child who is kicking and screaming at the doctor’s office? Or should she take into account the long run – her child’s health – and make the child submit to an examination, inoculation injection, etc.? The mother pities the child either way – it is short-term versus long-term pitying, so to speak – but the difference between the two kinds of sympathy is not supplied by sentiment but by reason: the mother reasons – she takes into account the long-term consequences of action and inaction.

Bennett draws our attention to the interesting case of Huckleberry Finn, in chapter 16 of Mark Twain’s popular story. Huck has received a bad education: growing up in rural Missouri, he has been made to imbibe the notion that slaves are animate property; helping a slave to escape is tantamount to stealing the slave from the slave’s owner. This is an education in morality – except that it is bad morality. There are moral injunctions in this education – one is expected to do or not do certain things as a matter of performing one’s duty. Although Huck is intelligent, he apparently cannot figure out that the morality in which he has been educated is bad morality. Perhaps, Twain is ironic in ways that do not concern the student of ethics here. But, it sounds plausible that intelligent people will continue to abide by a bad morality they have imbibed in childhood. Besides, moral principles – which are grasped by reason – may conflict; if both principles are sound, how is reason to decide which one to follow in a case of conflict of principles? From this it does not follow, though, that it is sentiment that ought to decide in case of conflict. Ethical dilemmas constitute one of the most difficult subjects of ethics – many theories are broken on this steep reef. In Huck’s case, there is no real dilemma – though it looks that way: Don’t steal is a sound moral principle, but the catch is that a human being cannot be justifiably considered as property. Of course, Huck’s assistance to the runaway slave will cause pain and inconvenience to Miss Watson, who brought him up. To be grateful – as Huck ought to be toward Miss Watson – is certainly a sound principle, but one does not assist, out of gratitude, in committing a crime, for instance, or in any other morally bad act.

Because he follows his natural sentiment of pity, Huck does the right thing; in this way, he extricates himself from the bad morality he had imbibed since tender childhood. He sees the moral light not with the eye of his mind – which has been rendered defective by bad morality – but by following his instinctive sympathy toward Jim. The message seems to be this: How could we possibly go wrong – morally – if we follow what is decent and good in human nature – if we follow natural sentiments of kindness, pity, sympathy, benevolence, interest for others, and so on? What about those who lack such sentiments? Well, our intuitions tell us that such people are not morally good people to begin with. And, if moral education is to mean anything, why can’t education mean helping people cultivate and acquire the right emotional reactions – such as sympathy and pity?

There are problems with this argument: We know that people often have strong sentimental attachments that are independent of a moral assessment. ‘My country right or wrong,’ is a frequent rhetorical exclamation. People are attached to those who are closer to them too: their sentiments of benevolence, pity, and so on, could be triggered more easily and reliably toward those close to them. But what is the moral significance of this proximity? Remember Sidgwick’s “Axioms of Ethics.” Perhaps we can show that there is indeed a moral significance attaching to kinship, friendship, proximity. But this is not uncontroversial. And, yet, according to the sentiment-based theory of moral judgment, the morality that pays closer attention to those we are more attached to is always a good morality.

Or suppose that someone is a morally bad person. This person might still have sentiments such as pity and benevolence toward certain persons – for instance, toward his partners in crime. Do you see how, in this case, one is not helped to find a good morality by following his natural sentiments of sympathy?

Bennett draws certain stunning conclusions from his thesis: Heinrich Himmler was the mastermind behind the Nazi program for the extermination of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, socialists, homosexuals and other ‘enemies of the Third Reich.’ But he was capable of pity. He developed incapacitating psychosomatic disorders and was racked with anxiety and remorse; but he reminded himself that he ought to resist the pull of emotion and proceed with ‘what ought to be done.’ Still, since he was capable of natural emotions of sympathy, he was morally superior to preacher and Revivalist Jonathan Edwards who never hurt anyone physically but held humanity to be loathsome and deserving of eternal damnation. Edwards did not appear to have any sympathy toward human beings – in fact, he was undeniably misanthropic. So, is Edwards a worse person than Himmler? [Notice: the question is not whether Edwards’ actions were morally worse than Himmler’s – there is no question whose actions were worse – indeed, evil – if this word means anything.]