Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Feeling Moral

J. Budziszewski

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A morality informed by feelings has appeal because it avoids the language of moral law.

"Luke! Trust your feelings!" As we know, Luke does what he is told, andthe galaxy is saved. How fortunate that he did not trust his mind and skill, ashe was tempted to, because then the evil empire would have won. The StarWars movies express a view of how to live, a morality of feeling, found far beyond the perimeter of the Dreamworks studio. As Keats wrote to afriend, "O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts!"

The morality of feelings turns out to be quite ecumenical. From a RomanCatholic website advising young people how to recognize the call of God: "Listen to your feelings." From a young evangelical's letter to a college magazine: "I became convinced that this is the guy God want[s] me to marry. . .. [But] he's prayed about it and feels that she's the oneGod wants him to marry. . . . There are times that I feel that maybe he'swrong about her" (emphasis added). From a letter I received from aself-described witch, explaining why she converted to Wicca: "I enjoy it very much. I am no longer sad or lonely." From the New Age best-seller of NealeDonald Walsch, Conversations With God: "Passion is God wanting to say 'hi' ... You need no outside authority to give you direction, no highersource to supply you with answers. . . . If you look to see what you feel aboutit, the answers will be obvious to you, and you will act accordingly." Fromthe back cover of Lynn Grabhorn's popular self-help book, Excuse Me, YourLife Is Waiting: "With no effort other than paying attention to how we'refeeling, we can mold our lives exactly as we choose with relative ease andspeed."

The assumption common to all is that a monstrous idol of cold deliberationhas all of us in its thrall. We must break the shackles of rationality and burstthe doors of thought to bask in the warm, clear light of our feelings.

The morality of feelings comes in several varieties. First, there is themorality of ecstatic feelings, or Romanticism. Ecstatic feelings take us out of ourselves, out of our minds, out of control. As Shelly wrote in PrometheusUnbound:

The joy, the triumph, the delight, the madness!
The boundless, overflowing, bursting gladness,
The vaporous exultation not to be confined!
Ha! Ha! The animation of delight
Which wraps me, like an atmosphere of light,
And bears me as a cloud is borne by its own wind.

The key to this passage is the rhyming association of "madness" with "gladness."Shelley finds madness attractive; it excites him. I suppose even Shelley was notmad enough to practice it continuously in every dimension of life. But madnessdoes not easily compartmentalize, because chaos leaks through the walls from onecompartment to another. Committed Romantics understand this. You will getnowhere by warning them about the consequences of their behavior, because therisk of utter ruin merely increases that sense of the wild, the mad, and theuncontrollable that so attracts them. Most Romantics are not committed; they aremerely naive. Mere weekend Romantics, they think that they can abandonthemselves to the winds and yet somehow wind up with a good job, a stable familylife, and the man or woman of their dreams.

More radical is the morality of morbid or forbidden feelings, which we mightcall Transgressivism. As an adjective, "transgressive" is new, but theattitude that it describes is not. Consider the fascination of writers likeEdgar Allen Poe with the morbid and unnatural. The same fascination withmorbidity appears in the homosexual movement, the Goth cult, the Dungeons andDragons game, the fashions of the late Gianni Versace, and the philosophy ofFriedrich Nietzsche. In his novel That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewissaid this about the terrible attraction of the forbidden:

It is idle to point out to the perverted man the horror of his perversion:while the fierce fit is on, that horror is the very spice of his craving. It isugliness itself that becomes, in the end, the goal of his lechery; beauty haslong since grown too weak a stimulant. . . . The terrible fascination suck[s]and tug[s] and fascinate[s] . . . [it is a] movement opposite to Nature . . .[an] impulse to reverse all reluctances and to draw every circlecounterclockwise.

The inversion of values, this transgression for transgression's sake, iswhere all Romantics come if they follow the Romantic path to the end. It makesperfect sense, because if the feeling that you crave comes from crossing normalboundaries, then eventually you will have to cross the boundaries of normalfeeling.

Then there is the morality of irresistible feelings, supposedly inexorablepredispositions to feel a certain way. We usually call this Determinism.Romantics and Transgressives are usually viewed as rebels against scientificrationality, but today some scientists seem to be abandoning rationality itself.Having prostrated themselves before the idol of mechanism in general, at lastthey kneel before the mechanism they suppose to inhabit themselves. Consideringthemselves merely cat's-paws of genes, of hormones, or of neural circuitry,they declare in an unintended parody of Martin Luther, "So I feel; I can do noother." Once this attitude takes hold, it makes irresistible feelingsattractive even to people who have no Romantic leanings, just because it givesthem an excuse for whatever they want to do. When challenged about theirchoices, all they have to say is, "I can't help how I feel, and I feelI have no choice."

A good example can be found in the notorious article of evolutionarypsychologist Steven Pinker, "Why They Kill Their Newborns." Pinker is a softDeterminist, as most Determinists are. He doesn't think that the act ofinfanticide is irresistible. But he does think that the emotions that predisposea young mother to it are irresistible, so that we ought to view baby murderleniently. He writes of two young women who killed their infants, one a collegegirl, the other college-bound. With her boyfriend's help, the first left herdead child in a hotel dumpster with multiple fractures to the skull. The seconddelivered her child in a toilet stall, strangled him, then stuffed him in agarbage can before returning to the prom. Pinker says only that "the laws ofbiology were not kind" to these mothers; because of the way that the "emotionalcircuitry" of women has evolved in an "unforgiving world," mothersnaturally kill babies who are born at the wrong time. How does he describe theirstate of mind? They "feel they [have] no choice."

The morality of pleasant feelings is quite simple: seek pleasure and avoidpain. In its individualistic form, this is Hedonism; in its social form,Utilitarianism. Hedonistic themes have been enormously successful inadvertising, as in the following ad for Nike running shoes:

We are Hedonists and we want what feels good. We are all basically Hedonists.That's what makes us human. And we were made to want pretty simple things:Food. Water. Shelter. Warmth. And pleasure. We want what feels good. . . . If itfeels good then just do it.

To be sure, the philosophical versions of Hedonism and Utilitarianism aremore sophisticated than "If it feels good, just do it." They aim atmaximizing net pleasure, summed over the long term, so they forgo somepleasures because of the pains that accompany them. Epicurus, the founder ofHedonism, is said to have lived a quiet life.

But this doesn't mean that the morality of pleasant feelings is safe.Consider Peter Singer, the Ira B. DeCamp professor of bioethics at theUniversity Center for Human Values at Princeton, touted by the New Yorkeras "the most influential living philosopher" and by the president ofPrinceton as "the most influential ethicist alive." The foundation of Singer'sUtilitarianism is seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. But he notices thatanimals feel pleasure too, and some of them may even have stronger feelings thansome humans. A variety of consequences follow. Cattle should not be killed forthe pleasure of diners, because it hurts the cattle. Defective babies may,though, be killed for the pleasure of their parents, because babies don't feelmuch anyway and because defectives cost society more pleasure than they give. Ahuman being may have sex with a calf, but only so long as both enjoy it. Heshould not have sex with a chicken, because it usually kills the chicken. And soit goes.

The morality of higher feelings, or Aestheticism, received a powerfulendorsement from John Stuart Mill. Mill always considered himself a Utilitarian,but he recognized the limitations of any philosophy that was unable to tell thedifference between the pleasure of a pig, cooling off in the mud, and thepleasure of Socrates, hot on the trail of the true, the good, and the beautiful.In the end, he decided that although maximizing net social pleasure really isthe only thing that matters, some pleasures are "higher" than others. Notonly that, he decided that the difference between the higher and lower pleasuresis not merely quantitative, but qualitative. It isn't just a difference inamount, as if one viewing of Vermeer's The Lacemaker were better thantwo enjoyments of a hot fudge sundae, while three hot fudge sundaes might tipthe balance the other way. No, the higher pleasure is higher absolutely.Just one glimpse of the Vermeer is worth the sacrifice of galaxies of sundaes.

But the philosophy that Mill embraced is as problematic as the one that herejected. If he was not a monster it is only because his age took nothing to itsconclusions, whereas we live in an age that takes everything to its conclusions.While the morality of pleasant feelings ends with the likes of Peter Singer, whothinks little humans may be killed because their pleasures aren't bigenough, the morality of higher feelings ends with the likes of Hannibal Lecter,who thinks vulgar humans may be killed because their pleasures aren'trefined enough. It is all part of the same revolution.

The morality of religious feelings, or Spiritualism, has rarely been aspopular as it is today. We have seen its two main forms already. One is theexaltation of feeling as the very voice of holy God, the means by which Hespeaks. But from exalting religious feelings, to exalting feelings in themselvesas religious, is a shorter step than we realize. It was Keats who gave classicform to the latter notion: "I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of theheart's affections and the truth of imagination. . . . I have the same idea ofall our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative ofessential beauty." Plainly he attributes to "affections," that is, tofeelings, the attributes of holiness and creative power that belong to Godalone.

The pop culture version of the Keatsian ethic is epitomized in the New Agewritings of Neale Donald Walsch. Walsch quotes God as telling him "Mine isalways your Highest Thought, your Clearest Word, your Grandest Feeling." Alittle later God tells him "The Grandest Feeling is that feeling which youcall love." Still later God tells him that love is not a particular feelingbut "the summation of all feeling." The climax comes on the page where Hetells him, "My purpose for you is that you should know yourself as Me."There is a lot more of such faddle, but the meaning is clear. Whatever you feelis holy, because you are God, and God lives in what He feels.

Last but not least, there is the morality of moral feelings, or Moralism. Itis too bad that this one has had so much less cultural influence than the othermoralities of feelings, because it is head and shoulders above them. Yet it toois fatally flawed.

James Q. Wilson, its most eminent defender, identifies the four main moralfeelings as sympathy, duty, self-control, and fairness. He means by them prettymuch what the rest of us do; the only puzzle is why he insists upon viewing themas feelings. For example, he defines duty as "the disposition to honorobligations even without hope of reward or fear of punishment." Butdispositions are not feelings but virtues, and obligations are not feelings butobjective relationships between persons. He defines self-control as the abilityto defer the "immediate and tangible" for the sake of the "future anduncertain," but something is wrong here too, for surely the ability to resistone's feelings is not a feeling. In the end, the morality of moral feelingsturns out to be an attempt to represent an eyrie full of eagles as one goose.The rich palette of traditional ethics, with different colors for moral laws,moral virtues, moral feelings, and moral relationships, is stirred and blurredand mixed until but a single muddy color remains--moral feelings. Though Wilson'sbook The Moral Sense Ěs helpful for its abundant cross-cultural dataand its respect for common sense, at times it reads a bit as though it werewritten in George Orwell's Newspeak. The words that you need just aren'tthere.

Feelings are not unimportant. They give charm and energy to our lives, andeven the unpleasant and inconvenient ones provide us with information. Theproblem is that the charm is not self-evaluating, the energy is notself-directing, and the information is not self-interpreting. We should not belike the Stoics, sad men who took counsel with each other to rid their souls offeelings--but neither should we make feelings our masters.

This would seem to be an obvious point. Then what gives the morality offeelings its appeal? A clue to the appeal of the morality of feelings is that ineach of its varieties it avoids the language of moral law. Wilson isperhaps most blunt about this; he says that he writes about moral feelingsbecause there are no moral laws. Of all the varieties of the morality offeelings, the only one that does make much use of the language of laws isDeterminism, and it speaks not of moral laws, but of biological ones. Theimportance of this little difference is very great. As Determinists conceive it,biological law is impersonal--a dead regularity that applies to things thatlive. To some people, a dead regularity is rather comforting. However it maycontrol us, it cannot make demands on us; on the contrary, it exempts us fromdemands. But law in the strict sense--in the moral sense--ispersonal. Rather than exempting us from demands, it is in its nature a demand.It is an instruction, framed by reason, ordained to the common good, andaddressed to an intelligent and free agent by Someone who has authority to tellhim what to do. Only one being has that kind of authority over the whole ofhuman life: the one who designed us, who made us, and who knows what our liferequires.

Although our feelings are a part of our inbuilt design, what the moralitiesof feelings try to do is make sense of them in terms that are alien to design--interms that diminish, or dilute, or deny our dependence on the One who inbuiltand understands it. Rather than asking what place feelings have in the bigpicture, they make feelings themselves the big picture. In a word, themoralities of feelings are forms and expressions of our rebellion against ourMaker.

So long as rebellion appeals to us, all its forms and expressions will alsoappeal to us. The critic's hope is that the relationship might also run theother way--that if by God's grace we can be brought to reconsider the formsand expressions of our rebellion, we might eventually be brought to reconsiderthe rebellion itself.

This may seem a slim hope, because intellectual defense and critique so often become just another game. But the Christian faith honors hope as a virtue, and slim hope is hope nonetheless.

J. Budziszewski is Associate Professor in the Departments of Governmentand Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. His newest book, "WhatWe Can't Not Know: A Guide," is soon to be released by Spence Publishing.

Copyright (c) 2002 First Things 127 (November 2002): 9-11

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