We’re adept at masking inconsistencies from ourselves

In pleasanter news than most of what I’ve shared today, Rebecca Goldstein talks to The Humanist about Plato at the Googleplex.

The Humanist: Can you say more about how philosophy benefits humanity?

Goldstein: We’re adept at masking inconsistencies from ourselves, most especially moral inconsistencies, since they make it easier for us to act in ways that we want to. At its best, philosophy exposes presumptions that we’re not aware we harbor—presumptions that nonetheless influence our judgments and actions. It examines whether these presumptions are justifiable and consistent with other beliefs and attitudes we’ve committed ourselves to.

The Humanist: Unmasking moral inconsistencies: this is where your notion of “mattering” comes in, correct?

Goldstein: Yes. At the heart of our moral inconsistencies lie attitudes and judgments about mattering: about what matters and, even more importantly, about who matters. We are unthinkingly committed to our own lives mattering, as well as the lives of those we care about. But the egoistic privileging of “me” and the tribal privileging of “us” both lead to moral incoherence. The very notion of a person entails certain facts about mattering. Philosophy, in insisting that attitudes and beliefs be grounded, forces the recognition that any reason I can give for why I must be treated as mattering is also a reason others can give for why they must be treated as mattering. The facts about mattering apply not just to me but also to you, not just to us but also to them, not just to affluent, straight, white, adult males but also to women, children, the poor, the enslaved, the colonized, the imprisoned, the LGBT community, and so on.

I love that.

And then they get to that thing I’ve been harping on lately – the fact that we need feeling as well as reason to discuss issues in moral philosophy properly. It’s not just logic; it’s not just facts. You need both feeling and reason; both reason and feeling.

The Humanist: So philosophy imparts a kind of impartiality. But reasoning, identifying inconsistencies, revising our judgments—how does any of this touch our moral sensibilities? Aren’t our attitudes and behaviors driven by feeling rather than thinking? Both the Scottish philosopher David Hume and the contemporary psychologist Jonathan Haidt have argued that reason does little to moralize us.

Goldstein: What Hume said is that reason in itself is perfectly inert; and he was right. Without such moral emotions as empathy, sympathy, indignation, and outrage, reason couldn’t gain any purchase on us. But that doesn’t mean reason is irrelevant. This isn’t an either/or situation. Here’s an analogy: Kant famously said that concepts without percepts [the object of perception] are empty, and percepts without concepts are blind. Adapting the adage, I’d say moral reasoning without moral emotions are empty, and moral emotions without moral reasoning are blind. Moral emotions can’t make progress on their own. They aren’t self-correcting. The mere fact of moral progress reveals the hidden hand of reason. A view like Haidt’s denies the possibility of progress; it collapses into a relativism inconsistent with humanism.

Indeed, which is what I’ve always objected to about Haidt. He feels sympathy with the men in the front room eating with him, and he forgets about the women in the back.


  1. quixote says

    (Why is Haidt still a thing? Every time I hear about an idea he propounds, he’s 180° wrong.)

    Speaking of feeling and morality, have you read Alduous Huxley’s “Ape and Essence”? The gist is that in a post-apocalyptic world, there’s been a mutation that’s made most women experience heat and be otherwise uninterested in sex. The result is reduce the emotions of the groups, and therefore the moral feeling, and therefore everything. In some remaining enclaves that missed the mutation, sex still informs all of life, and therefore feeling, and therefore civilization.

    That bald summary doesn’t do it justice (obviously). And I think his main point was that sex, far from being the root of all evil, is the root of feeling and that from that springs love and kindness. But it seems related to your point about feeling being necessary for moral philosophy.

  2. John Morales says

    [meta + OT]

    quixote, your opinion equivocates coitus and sex. It’s very sloppy.

    (Two sexes, one coitus)

    PS I dunno if Ophelia has read that, but I haven’t. Further, I doubt I ever shall.

    (You’re writing to a readership, not just the blogger)

  3. Ed says

    Haidt is often accurate in describing how people tend to think and feel, but he gives legitimacy to in-group vs. out-group thinking , preoccupation with “purity” and other such mental habits which, whether or not they come naturally, are destructive. All kinds of nonsense occurs to the human mind easily. That’s what critical thinking is for.

    He seems to want to give at least some legitimacy to every familiar moral impulse and find some grand synthesis. But what if some of them are the equivalent of superstition? One could just as easily come up with an elaborate paradigm where evidence-based inquiry, accepting traditional answers, making up whatever you wish was true, and practicing divination are all supported by “epistemological intuitions”.

    Haidt-style epistemology would have to find a balance–be a “moderate rationalist” just as he is a “moderate liberal”. Try to be reasonable, but not at the cost of disrespecting your neighbor’s tarot card readings or grandiose fantasies.

  4. Stacy says

    And I think his main point was that sex, far from being the root of all evil, is the root of feeling and that from that springs love and kindness.

    It’s an interesting inversion of Biblical morality. In reality, though, I think involved parenthood is closer to the root of feeling: maternal (and paternal) impulses toward offspring that need care, and the infants’ bonding with the caregiver(s).

  5. Brony says

    percepts [the object of perception]

    That word. Percept and its related concepts have been invaluable to me in getting an understanding of how brains and minds unify with respect to human behavior. When I consider that word a whirlwind of brain anatomy, journal articles, psychology and sociology stream through my thoughts. It’s so relevant to unifying how emotion, reason, logic, what is in perception, and resulting system one and two responses operate in a functional, real-world sense. The picture is not complete but so many useful pieces are already there.

    The precept is the world that exists in your perception. Sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, position of your parts relative to each other and objects, direction of motion and gravity. All of those break down into a fascinating array of sensors that are combined in a hierarchical assembly of what you experience.

    I wish could easily, and conveniently describe how all of that functionally assembles reality here, but the resulting picture and how it works functionally is another matter. In this picture once you assemble an image and identify components, you start classifying and ordering pieces based on emotional tags attached to previous percepts due to past experience. Think about the emotional resonance of a swastika, a recognized logical fallacy, a “dog whistle” like the word feminism that means totally different things to different people, or a kitten.

    Once you have assigned meaning to what you perceive, you prioritize what should do based on the content (in positive/negative, or good/bad terms. sometimes neutral terms). What you interact with first or interact with at all, how you choose to implicitly and explicitly portray what you see to yourself and others, what perspective you choose to apply, whether how or what you choose to attack defend or obfuscate about, or if you choose to neutrally understand and reason.

    Reason and logic are like “apps” here. They are learned analysis tools that are compatible with the learning machinery that are applied by implicit or explicit choices and those choices are driven by emotional signatures like the puffs of gas from a spaceship’s maneuvering thrusters. They are targeting systems (I wish I remember who made that analogy). The emotion drives you down paths of actions and the amount self-awareness that you have about the whole process is a learned thing as well. We do not tend to choose to use logical fallacies (I leave room for people that do for dishonest usefulness), we are driven to use them because they work in a social sense based on past experience and like a martial artist learning a form, one has to gain an awareness of the forms of “primate chess” that drive social interaction like we see in sociopolitical conflicts.

    Here is where our routines create the inconsistencies that blind us to how we treat others differently for social convenience. It’s unconscious strategy on a group level. We don’t do it on purpose, but neither do we just “do it” in a way that removes personal responsibility. One reasons many are resistant to accepting knowledge is because it ALWAYS comes with a price. One you know what you are doing you are responsible in a way that can be stark and unpleasant. Catharsis sucks, but driving another to one has it’s uses.

    The logic of the system is a reality that can be used for wonderful or terrible purposes. But make no mistake we are all using it or letting it use us. However greater understanding of it can make a person an angel or a demon, so don’t think that the moral and ethical worries will all disappear with self-awareness. There are many paths to psychopathy, and empathy.

  6. says

    Sex as the root of feeling…hmm…well it’s probably a root, because it’s an instinct, but other things are too. Danger for instance; fear is probably our strongest feeling of all (for obvious reasons). There’s an argument that emotions are to do with homeostasis: you feel bad in some bodily way, so you fix it. That evolves into emotions.

    But sex can be a root of some horrible feelings as easily as good ones.

    (I have read Ape and Essence but it was decades ago. Huxley isn’t the best novelist in the world, and I have a hard time re-reading him.)


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