Can our feelings be our sole guide to morality?

Lashiya asked:

Can our feelings be our sole guide to morality?

Answer by Stuart Burns

The answer to your question depends entirely on just how you choose to think about ‘morality’. In general, the answer is ‘No!’. But there is a possible ‘Yes!’ waiting in the wings.

According to many different surveys, most of the people on this planet self-describe themselves as ‘religious’ to some extent or other. What this means is that most people would self-describe themselves as adhering to a religious notion of morality – otherwise known as Authoritative Rule morality. And what that means, in turn, is that they supposedly think (or perhaps, more accurately, they want other people to think they think) that what determines whether some action is moral or immoral is the dictates of some Authority figure. For example, for those avowing adherence to the Judeo-Christian-Islamic religious faiths, that Authority figure would be God – with His dictates revealed in the sacred books of those faiths. There are lots of other religions in the world, and many quasi-religions. An example of the latter would be traditional Communism whose Authority figures include Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao (and perhaps Che Guevara).

The point of this initial focus on Authoritative Rule morality, is that most people, most of the time, think (or pretend they think) of the notion of morality in Authoritative Rule terms. And the thing is that all Authoritative Rule morality is couched in terms of absolute commandments – You must to this, you must not do that. The obvious example is the Ten Commandments – ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill!!’ – No if, ands, or buts!! No allowance for circumstances. If this is the way that you think of morality, then the answer to your question is clearly ‘No!!’ Whatever your feelings might be, they cannot be your sole guide to morality. If you are ‘brought up right’, then your feelings ought to be in sync with the dictates of your morality. But your primary guide is necessarily the received Word of the Authority figure you have chosen.

On the other hand, regardless of what people say they believe, most people do not in fact actually adhere to the strict commandments of their religious notions of morality. In other words, most people most of the time actually behave as if they believed in a much less dogmatic notion of morality. And now we get into the possibility of a consequentialist notion of morality.

There are any number of different consequentialist notions of morality to choose from, if you wish to investigate and choose one that suits you. But all of them, by their very nature, consider the benefits and harm that actions might do to people. What separates the various members of the consequentialist group of moral theories, is the kind of things that are considered benefits and harm, and the scope of people for whom consideration is morally required.

Consider Utilitarianism, as one famous example. There are a number of different flavours of Utilitarianism available to choose from, but the ‘traditional’ version, due to Bentham and Mill, determines the moral worth of actions according to the extent to which they deliver the ‘greatest happiness to the greatest number’. In any situation, therefore, the obligatory moral action is the alternative that you expect to deliver the net greatest happiness – over all time, and over all people. Different flavours of Utilitarianism modify this principle by changing ‘happiness’ to some other notion like ‘economic welfare’, or ‘flourishing’, and so forth. They also sometimes change the time and population scopes to reduce the computation to more manageable levels.

Regardless of the details, if you choose to think of ‘morality’ along consequentialist lines, then the answer to your question is also clearly ‘No!!’. Consequentialist notions of morality make the beneficial and harmful consequences of actions of paramount importance in judging their moral worth. Your feelings about the matter are irrelevant. Although, again, if you are ‘brought up right’, then your feelings ought to be in sync with the dictates of your morality. (The very definition of being ‘brought up right’.) But your primary guide is necessarily the notion of the Greatest Good that your chosen version of a consequentialist morality has deemed morally supreme.

Unfortunately, all consequentialist notions of morality put a strong moral emphasis on knowledge and thinking. You have to learn enough about the workings of the world to both be able to recognize what alternatives for action (or inaction) you have available in any circumstance, and be able to predict with reasonable accuracy the consequences of those alternatives. And, of course, you have to pay attention to your circumstances, and think (hard) about those possible consequences. A consequentialist notion of morality is not for the lazy. And feelings just get in the way of careful attention to detail. But look around you and you will see that when it comes to morality, most people are willfully lazy. They would much rather have someone else do their moral thinking for them. Or they would much rather ‘go with the flow’.

So if you don’t like the consequences-be-damned absoluteness of an Authoritative Rule morality, and you don’t like the effort demanded by a Consequentialist morality, there is an alternative. It’s called ‘Cultural Relativism’. The basic idea here is that what identifies actions as moral or immoral is the subjective opinion of a population. Morality is what a population says it is. If a population thinks that a particular act is moral or immoral, then it is. Of course, you are faced with the problem of figuring out just what the opinion is of the population of you have chosen. And you are faced with the challenge of choosing which population you are going to let set your moral standards. You can go all the way from ‘all human beings’ down to ‘myself alone’. There is no moral principle that will let you decide where on this scale you ‘should’ draw the line. It’s all subjective opinion anyway. Unless you choose to limit the population to yourself alone – what’s called ‘Subjectivist Ethics’ – then your own feelings are almost as irrelevant as with other forms of morality. You are, after all, only one opinion amongst many. Baring Subjectivist Ethics, if you think of ‘morality’ in a Cultural Relativist way, then the answer to your question is equally ‘No!!’ Your primary guide to morality (considered in a Cultural Relativist way), is the opinions (or feelings, if you wish) of your chosen population – assuming you can figure out just what those opinions actually are.

Only if you limit the relevant population of concern to yourself alone – choose to adopt Subjectivist Ethics – can you argue that your sole guide to morality is your feelings. But just remember, the problem with Subjectivist Ethics, as with all variations of Cultural Relativist Morality, is that you have no basis from which to disagree with anyone whose ‘feelings’ are different from those of your own. Morality comes down to a matter of taste. If I like pistachio ice cream and you don’t, neither opinion can be right or wrong. Any disagreement about what we are to have for dessert will necessarily be resolved on the basis of force of personality or force of arms. No reasoned debate is possible.

So there you have it. The general answer to your question is ‘No!’ Under most conceptions of morality, your feelings are not a proper guide to morality. Only if you choose to adopt Subjectivist Ethics can you argue that your feelings have any relevance.


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