Friday, March 27, 2015

William James on the psychological question in morality: it is a matter of taste!

I have long thought that aesthetics is short-changed by philosophy in its relation to ethics.  This is almost always the case, but sometimes a philosopher will begin to grant its importance.  Instructive in this regard is a passage in William James’ classic work “The Moral Philosophy and the Moral Life.”  There, he divides moral philosophy into three questions, of which he notes that the psychological is, for most, the only question.  The main point of the essay has to do with the other two questions, the metaphysical and the casuistical  (he deals with each in sequence). But I think sometimes the revealing stuff comes at the beginning.  Here (on the psychological question) he notes that the usual debate is between the doctor of divinity and the popular science enthusiast, for whom the question of ethics is really one of whether there is a unique faculty of conscience or whether such a faculty is superstition in the face of environmental determinism.  He calls it the debate between the intuitionist and the evolutionist.  It still goes on today.   James seems to associate the second school with the utilitarians (Bentham, Mill, Bain).  Utilitarians, he argues, hold that ideals must have arisen from association with simple bodily pleasures and pains.  (He must not be thinking seriously about Mill’s modification of Bentham’s utilitarianism where quality gains over quantity.)  But, James argues, we cannot explain all our sentiments and judgments in this way.  There are “secondary affections” that relate our impressions in a different way than by association.  He lists a number of these, from “the love of drunkenness” to “the passion of poetry.” These cannot be wholly explained by association or utility, even though they might go with other things that can be so explained.  He sees these things as originating not in environmental conditions but in brain structure, and he thinks that a vast number of our moral perceptions are of this kind.  The passion for music figures as highly here as a “sense for abstract justice” and a love of “higher philosophical consistencies.”  He speaks further of “the feeling of the inward dignity of certain spiritual attitudes, as peace, serenity, simplicity, veracity” which he finds “quite inexplicable except by an innate preference….for its own sake.”  I would argue that these “spiritual attitudes” can be seen, at least in the cases of peace, serenity and simplicity, as aesthetic qualities.  (Why not veracity too?)  James then makes the aesthetic theme explicit when he says “The nobler thing tastes better.”  Moreover, he argues, although consequences may “teach us what things are wicked,” they do not explain what we consider “mean and vulgar.”  We are disgusted, for example, when the husband who shoots his wife’s lover and then makes up with her, and with a utopia based on one person’s lonely torture.  He is particularly impressed by recent condemnations by Tolstoy, Ballamy and Guyau of punitive forms of retributive justice.  Such “subtleties of the moral sensibility” go “beyond the law of association” as much as “the delicacies of sentiment” (note the use of this term so closely associated with Hume's theory of taste) as between a pair of lovers that goes beyond mere norms of etiquette in the courting process.   In short, his claim seems to be at least in part that the higher moral considerations, at least the ones that go beyond "commonplace moral maxims" are basically aesthetic.

James assumes that these judgments are based on “subtle brain-born feelings,” insisting that “inward forces are certainly at work” in all of these secondary cases.  But then he follows this with the claim that “all the higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary.”  I wonder why the higher, more penetrating ideals would necessarily be attached to subtle brain-born phenomena as opposed to environmental based phenomena or a combination of both.  But let us set this issue aside and continue with his argument.  James goes on:  “They [such ideals] present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experiences than in that of probable causes of future experience.”  This point seems to veer off from talk of subtle events in the brain, the point being simply that the environment can also be forced to bend to our own needs as well.  He concludes that our ideals have many sources and are not explicable simply in terms of “corporeal pleasures” and pains: the intuitionists at least saw that much.

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