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Fellow-Feeling and the Moral LifeReview - Fellow-Feeling and the Moral Life
by Joseph Duke Filonowicz
Cambridge University Press, 2008
Review by Ralph D. Ellis, Ph.D.
Sep 1st 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 36)

This book is a very timely contribution to the recently resurgent idea of basing the motivation to be moral on natural emotions such as empathy, sympathy, or fellow feeling. Many of those who have been proposing such approaches because of recent psychological work would do well to read this book, because there has been a marked lack of appreciation for the rich history of philosophical work in this tradition, which dates to the early 1700s. Hume is the most famous proponent of it, but as Filonowicz shows in detail, there was an entire tradition of such theory that had been developed with a good bit of sophistication. It included not only Hume, but other philosophers such as Shaftsbury and Hutcheson, whose influence extends into the twentieth century with theorists like C.D. Broad. Filonowicz' careful discussion of this history should be considered by anyone taking seriously the problem of moral motivation in light of contemporary psychology.

Filonowicz presents the arguments for the importance of fellow feeling as the motivation (or at least one essential motivation) for moral behavior by providing both a detailed history of the philosophical discussion leading up especially to the work of Hume and then carried forward in some contemporary philosophical work (e.g., C.D. Broad), although largely neglected except in the negative sense that it is used as a whipping boy by philosophers like G.E. Moore. Moore and others are fond of pointing out that such thoroughly naturalistic approaches commit the naturalistic fallacy. I.e., they argue essentially that, because we are motivated to behave in certain ways (e.g., as driven by fellow feeling), then we ought to behave in those ways. In other words, we ought to behave the ways we are motivated to behave – hardly an enlightening moral claim. Filonowicz' account goes a long way toward dispelling this criticism. People who act immorally are suppressing their natural fellow feeling, and it is not vacuous or a waste of time to tell them that it is imprudent for them to do so.

My dissatisfaction with Filonowicz' account begins when he unnecessarily bases it on a false dichotomy of "types" of conceptions of morality. On the one hand, there is the "reasons" account, according to which moral action is motivated by a desire to obey certain rules that prescribe duties and obligations to do things and refrain from doing others. On the other hand is the natural-altruistic-sentiment account, in which people engage in helping behavior because their natural sympathy and empathy motivate them to do so.  The reason I say this is a false dichotomy is that it leaves out numerous very prevalent ethical theories, including utilitarianism. Utilitarians do not believe that morality is a matter of mandatory rules of conduct, but neither do they think the reason one should maximize utility is simply or only because of an emotional desire to do so. They also believe that it is a true statement, supportable with rational arguments, that one ought to do good. So instead of believing that there are rigid rules of conduct (Mill is very dismissive of "those a priori moralists"), the utilitarians believe that it is a demonstrable truth is that one should promote as much happiness as possible -- not because we enjoy doing it or are driven by natural sympathy, but because we perceive that it is objectively true that happiness is a good thing. So Mill does not fit into Filonowics' caricature of the "reasons" account, which he presents as being a matter of duties and obligations. For Mill, we should do as much good as possible, and there is no particular limit on the amount of good one should do.

So on the one hand, utilitarians do not reduce "ought" to "is" (as fellow feeling theorists tend to do, although I will say more in their defense in a moment). But on the other hand, it is not as if following certain rules of conduct is all there is for a utilitarian. There is no rule that I "must" give 5 or 10 percent of my money to charity. But if I do give some percentage, that is a good thing in utilitarian terms. There may not be a rule that governments "must" provide health insurance to all their citizens, but one can certainly argue that they ought to, because doing so would produce a great deal of good and avoid much suffering. A huge amount of social and political theory makes use of the distinction between "goods" and "rights," and even if one rejects the distinction, as many utilitarians do (Bentham regarded rights talk as "nonsense on stilts") – it is not in order to jettison the idea of objective truth, but rather to insist that the objective truth is not confined to simple rules. A famous recent example is the man who carried a loaded gun to a Presidential speech, defending the action by insisting that he had a "right" to carry the gun. The real issue, however, was not whether he had a "right" to carry it (i.e., whether there was a rule forbidding it), but rather whether he ought to carry it.

For that reason, I think Filonowics does not do as much justice to the sentimentalist account as he could have done. Hume in Book II of his Treatise of Human Nature discusses another natural sentiment besides fellow feeling that he thinks motivates moral behavior. He calls it the "love of truth." In the final analysis, if someone pressed Hume on whether his theory committed what we would now call the "naturalistic fallacy" (since he seems to be basing ethics on specific feelings of natural fellow feeling that we might have toward a specific recipient of ethic behavior at the given moment) – Hume's answer was that we humans tend to generalize and universalize moral judgments by realizing that the same principles that we follow with regard to our near relatives and friends are similarly applicable to others. I.e., the intrinsic value that we feel we perceive in those close to us is also present in starving children on the other side of the world.

The motivation for taking this step from particular to generalized moral judgments is not merely fellow feeling for Hume. This is a widely shared misunderstanding based on centuries of oversimplified secondary accounts of Hume's view. True, morality  per se could not exist without fellow feeling for Hume – but it is not fellow feeling alone that motivates the next step from particular to universalized fellow feeling. What motivates taking that additional step is the "love of truth." I have argued in several places that this "love of truth" is a non-controversial part of human and even lower-mammalian emotional systems. It is grounded in the "exploratory drive," which many neuropsychologists have known for the past five decades (at least) is independent of other motivational systems. For example, Jaak Panksepp in Affective Neuroscience (among other places) presents massive evidence for the independence of his "SEEKING system" (which includes the traditional "exploratory drive") in the emotional brain. Animals want to explore their environment (i.e., to find out the truth about it) whether an immediate consummatory reward results from the exploratory discoveries or not. They are naturally hardwired to want to learn about their environment. In the case of humans, we have this same drive, but are better equipped to discover truths about aspects of reality that are not perceptually staring us in the face at the moment.

What motivates us to try to learn the truth is the same as for lower mammals – neither a selfish desire for consummatory pleasure, nor an altruistic feeling toward others, but (aside from those two motives, which we also have) an endogenous and relatively independent exploratory drive. For that reason, it is not necessary, in my view, to insist that fellow feeling is the essential motivation for morality. It is a necessary but not sufficient part of the motivation that must be there if we are to have any non-trivial account of ethics. By non-trivial, I mean an account in which we are told more than simply "you should do whatever you are motivated to do." What the love of truth adds is a requirement that we think rationally, and be prepared to have the results of the inquiry determined by the rational process, as opposed to allowing our initial feelings to dictate the outcome of the inquiry. The love of truth says, in essence, "find out whether it is better to do X or Y and, whichever it is, do it." A purely fellow-feeling-driven account, as I take it, says "if you are more strongly motivated to do X than Y, then X is what you ought to do."

 

© 2009 Ralph D. Ellis

 

Ralph D. Ellis, Ph.D., Department of Religion and Philosophy, Clark Atlanta University.


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