Rebirth of Reason


Moral Introspection
by Joseph Rowlands

One of the common ways of exploring the subject of morality is to posit a scenario that has fixed available options, and asking which of the options is morally preferable. Usually the scenarios include some horrific choice. One popular one is if you could kill one person and harvest his organs to save the lives of 5 others, should you do it? Another is if a train is going to run over a group of people and the only way to save them is by pushing someone in front of the train, which would leave them dead, should you do it?

The scenarios themselves aren't very interesting to me. What is more interesting is the methodology used in these explorations of morality. Why do people believe these are reasonable approaches for studying the topic or for finding answers?

When these scenarios are presented, the reader is asked which option he feels is the morally better option. The point of the scenario is to determine which emotional reaction to the alternatives is stronger. Would you feel worse about killing the one person, or letting 5 others die? Okay, now how about if those 5 people were working on a cure for AIDS? What if the one person was a racist?

This entire method assumes that something significant is discovered about morality by asking how people emotionally respond. It assumes that these emotional responses are informative, like they are some kind of direct method of perceiving morality in the world. Or they are a manifestation of evolution-generated instincts.

We can call this approach to answering moral questions 'moral introspection'. You are not asked to analyze the scenarios and try to determine rationally what the best course of action would be. You are not asked to consider the long-term implications of a policy of killing innocent people in the name of helping some others. Instead, you are asked to look within yourself for the answer. You are asked to concentrate on your feelings and let them provide the answer.

There are a lot of problems with moral introspection as an approach.

The best you can say about it is that it doesn't tell you what is the morally appropriate answer, but is simply a survey of how people respond emotionally. It's unclear why that would be valuable.

A more useful goal would be to try to determine what values or moral premises are shared among different groups or across groups. In this sense, the moral introspection is aimed at determining through concrete scenarios what people believe is right and wrong, which could be useful in understanding what moral beliefs are widespread and how different cultures view morality differently.

While this kind of survey might be more useful, it's not clear that moral introspection with these kind of scenarios actually accomplishes the job. One reason for doubt the validity of this method is that emotional responses are not always in sync with a person's moral beliefs. A person might believe that he should donate more to charity, but not desire to. His emotions may be inconsistent with his moral beliefs. But maybe this works fine if the reader ignores his feelings and states the preferable option is the one consistent with his moral beliefs.

There's an additional problem with looking at your feelings, though. These scenarios are always some kind of moral dilemma. Both options are usually bad and your emotional responses to both will be negative. But how are you supposed to decide which option is better? By the strength of the emotional reactions? Whichever one hurts least is the best option?

This makes at least two questionable assumptions. The first is that different emotional responses can be weighed rationally. The second is that the strength of the emotional reactions is accurate and reflects the morality or immorality of the situation.

Consider the first issue. Can emotions be compared? Can you compare self-loathing with jealousy? Which is better? Which is worse? When you make a comparison, is it a meaningful and rational comparison? Perhaps you are particularly sensitive to feelings of self-loathing or guilt, and so consistently decide view those emotions as worse than jealousy or hatred or any others.

Even if you assumed that it makes sense to compare emotional responses and that somehow you can do it rationally, it still relies on your emotional reactions to be accurate reflections of the morality or immorality of the situation. There are many reasons to doubt this. We know that we respond with stronger emotions when the details of a scenario are vivid and we can self-identify. So an unrealistic option might be less emotionally potent just because it's harder to accept.

More importantly, emotions are not an accurate measure of the degree of morality or immorality. They are reactions based on our value judgments, and those may not be consistent either. Many people have moral beliefs that lead to contradictions or opposing values. Those who think morality is about helping others will also value things that benefit themselves.

Even if your moral beliefs weren't contradictory, and even if they are understood clearly enough that your emotional responses might be clearer, there's still no reason to think they will be accurate. These moral dilemmas are intentionally designed to create confusion and uncertainty. If your emotions are reacting at all to your judgments, and your judgments are confused, why would you expect your emotions to bring clarity?

So if the goal of these scenarios is to determine what people's moral beliefs are, it doesn't work. Emotional responses don't accurately reflect what a person's moral beliefs are, and this is further distorted when confusing moral dilemmas confuse their beliefs. There's no reason to believe that moral introspection provides useful information.

The last possible goal of using moral introspection is to actually seek answers about what is or isn't moral. This goal hinges on a belief that somehow emotions provide a clear and automatic form of knowledge about what is or isn't moral. The intent, then, is to ask a serious of questions about strange moral dilemmas to slowly gain data points about which options are more moral.

The idea that emotions are some kind of direct form of determining what is moral is flawed. Emotions are reflections of what we already believe. You are sad when you believe you have lost something of value. You are anger when you view someone as being destructive to your life. You feel happy when you think your life is going well.

Moral feelings are no different. You feel that one option is bad when you believe it leads to a destruction of your values. You feel other options are good when they seem to accomplish what you want. Some actions might have a tinge of guilt, as you feel like you should do one thing but you want to do another.

All of these emotional responses are a reflect, and not always an accurate one, of your values. And when your values conflict, your emotions may conflict.

Emotions do not have some direct connection to moral knowledge. Moral introspection is not a means of seeking new answer. At best, it is a poor way to learn what answers you already accept. The idea of using moral introspection as a way of determining what is right or wrong is fundamentally broken. Emotions do not provide a new, special insight into the nature of morality. They are pale reflections of what you already believe.

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