We need educated feeling

My copies of Thinking towards humanity: themes from Norman Geras arrived a couple of hours ago. (It took me about half an hour to open the package – you’d think it was plumbing or a box of plutionium, the way it was wrapped up. It was soldered, welded, wrapped around with chains – it was hard to open.) I get copies because I’m a contributor, as are David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Michael Walzer, Damien Counsell, Shalom Lappin and other swell people.

My piece is about morality and caring, and blogging. It’s about blogging as a good and useful new genre, and how at its best (exemplified by Norm Geras, for one) it can help educate the feelings in a way that’s good for human rights. Because the piece is about morality and caring, it’s relevant to this point about basic commitments that I made earlier. I’ll share the first couple of paragraphs.

Hume famously observed that it is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of his finger. He wasn’t expressing a whimsically inflated sense of his own importance, but pointing out that logic doesn’t determine how we weigh the world versus our finger. We have to love the world in order to be able to weigh it properly. Looking it up in a table of weights and measures won’t do the job – we could see the arithmetic and still shrug and say yes but it’s my finger, the world is none of mine and I don’t care. We have to care in order to make choices properly – to make them in such a way that we don’t place our own petty desires above everyone else’s deepest needs. (We have been learning lately, if we didn’t already know, that bankers and investment wizards could use some intensive training in this.) Morality is rooted in feeling, Hume told us, and researchers such as Antonio Damasio and Jonathan Haidt have been elaborating on the idea recently.

To be moral we need feeling, we need the right kind of feeling, we need educated feeling – we need to do what Martha Nussbaum called ‘cultivating humanity.’ It is arguable (and many people have argued) that the education of the feelings, and in particular sympathy, is one thing that literature and story-telling can do better than anything else. Numbers, by themselves, don’t tell us enough; ‘100,000 women raped and killed’ has less force than a pain in our own finger; but a story about one woman raped and killed can turn us inside out. In a world where ‘100,000 women raped and killed’ is no invented paradigm but a brute fact, along with row upon row of similar facts, clearly anything that can help to cultivate sympathy and empathy is of the highest value.

And skepticism is, frankly, not particularly relevant; not for this particular kind of work. Skepticism can often be the very opposite of relevant or helpful. Skepticism about someone else’s misery is often not helpful. Sometimes it is; sometimes it does help to say “you’re over-reacting” or “you misunderstood” or “let’s go out and get drunk and you’ll feel much better” or “the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” But often it’s not, and approaching the whole thing as a matter of logic or facts or evidence is about as helpful as cutting someone’s hand off to distract her from a headache.

And saying that is not a rejection of skepticism, or a crime against it. You could chalk it up as skepticism about skepticism, if you like – skepticism that skepticism is the right tool or attitude for everything. Why would it be? If you find a small child alone and crying in a shopping mall, you don’t summon up your skepticism, you do whatever you can to help.


  1. Tigger_the_Wing says

    Very good reading, that. I’ll have to see if I can get the book here.

    Appeals to emotion are what keep people going back to irrational beliefs. It’s about time someone stepped up and explained that rationality doesn’t negate emotions, but informs them. Thank you.

    (P.S. I am sooo envious of your toolkit, containing the tools to get through all that! 😉 )

    (P.P.S. I hope the above made sense; I didn’t get much sleep last night)

  2. Jason Dick says

    Well, my personal perspective is that I don’t really see this as a departure from skepticism. Rather, I see it as an issue of default assumptions. Sometimes the default assumption is best chosen on logical grounds (e.g. for questions about the nature of the reality that surrounds us), sometimes the default assumption is best chosen on moral ground (e.g. a question regarding the mental stability of the person I’m speaking with).

    For example, if I am speaking with another person and not relying upon them for anything as yet, a reasonable default assumption is to assume the best in them until proven otherwise: assume they are an intelligent, rational, kind person. I should usually be skeptical of any claims or hints that this person is otherwise, because the harm is greater if I leap to the wrong conclusion regarding their intelligence, rationality, or kindness than if I continue to assume the best incorrectly.

    In another situation, one where I have to trust another person (e.g. to watch over $100), it is probably not a good idea to assume the best. The person may not be so kind, and may take the money. They may not be competent, and may misplace it. Or they may in turn trust the wrong person. Instead, it would probably be a good idea to require some sort of assurance that they can be trusted, either through evidence from previous interactions, or some sort of guarantee that makes it so that their best outcome is achieved if they are especially careful with my $100.

    So to me, it’s not that skepticism isn’t helpful sometimes, it’s just that we should be careful about which default assumptions we make.

  3. says

    Thank you, Ophelia, for such a kind, generous, thoughtful post. I think it is what I have in mind when I say that there are some things that can be learned from religion — not any and every religion at any time, but some religion — of a more liberal variety, which may not qualify as religion for many — which is, I think, at its best, about the education of the feelings, and cultivating humanity. One of the things, as you will know, that I hold to religion’s account, is that there is another type of religion, and another product, which is a forgetfulness of humanity and a blunting of the feelings. That is too common, but I sometimes feel it in the sceptical community, a hardening of the the emotions and a deliberate inhumanity too, and I find it just as uninviting in the sceptical community as I found it in the religious one. I have steered a bit clear of your posts on the misogyny in the sceptical community, because so many of the comments are so harsh and discordant. Where does this come from, I wonder, and why is it so prevalent amongst those who hold that it is possible to be good without god?

    I liked your use of Hume, and that is why I found Sam Harris’ book on morality so hard to deal with, because nowhere does he deal with the question of what it is that creates value. Value is created by people who value things, and learn what is worth loving, and what is not. It cannot simply be defined by reason or measured by science. It is (as Kitcher says in his new book) a human project, and it is cultivated — yes, in all the ways that Kitcher explores — but also in the way that Aristotle says — by discerning those things that are most to be desired and valued, and this takes an education of the feelings. Thinking towards humanity says a lot for the title of a book. I will keep it in mind, though my budget is tight at the moment.

  4. says

    Wonderful blogpost
    I think the point the “Überskeptics” are missing is that skepticism is a tool. And it’s only worth as much as it does good in this world.
    That’s why debunking Bigfoot is particularly uninteresting, something fun to do, an exercise, a training bike. Because belief in bigfoot is pretty harmless.
    If you debunk homeopathy only to feel better than those idiots who don’t understand basic maths and chemistry, you’re nothing more than a clever asshole. If you debunk homeopathy to make the world better, make children suffer less because their parents understand this, then you have a powerful weapon.

  5. says

    On sharing this post in the Nirmukta Skeptics group on Facebook, there was this question which can be thought of arising from ‘skepticism of skepticism of skepticism

    Q: What about being skeptical about the ones who use ‘misery’ / ‘victimhood’ to propagate some political agenda? What about exaggerations, hypochondria?

    Here’s an answer via which I attempt to reiterate the point of this post often missed by the ‘Überskeptics’ #5 mentions.

    The social imperative to ‘hear out’ a grievance granting for a moment that is genuine, and the diagnostic imperative to ‘make sense’ of a lament treating every incident reported as a claim to be tested, can be at odds with each other. The possibility of being a ‘compassionate skeptic’, like a psychotherapist disabusing a hypochondriac without resort to superciliousness or mockery, seems to have been all but edged out of the popular imagination by the cliched image of a skeptic as a bulldozer-riding myth-busting demolition squad member. A reminder that our decision needs to account for the social, empathic imperative too besides the science-based diagnostic imperative, is therefore quite timely and for this purpose, a phrase like ‘educated feeling’ does seem an inspired coinage


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