Thursday, May 28, 2009

Phenomenology of Moral Experience (First of a multi-part post)

This is most definitely a work in progress, that will appear as a series of posts, the exact number of which is known only in the dim recesses of my brain! This is a way for me to work out the ideas, and as an unintended consequence subject readers to the process as a sort of 'collateral damage.'

With apologies:

Structures of Mutual Promise:
A Phenomenology of Moral Experience

Using an example: Fred Mertz finds a wallet. He takes all the money from wallet and returns the wallet to its owner. Fred tells the owner he found the wallet as is. He is lying. Time passes. Assuming there is no possibility of being found out, what is the content of the experience he is likely having if he is a normal human being? There is a moral component. He feels guilt/shame. We examine this situation, and what makes possible the feelings of guilt and shame as moral emotions.

By “phenomenology” I mean nothing more than an attempt to describe this experience, its essential attributes, with a minimum of interference from explicit theories, assumption, or presuppositions as to the exact nature of those essential or core attributes. This is easier said than done, of course because we always come to such tasks with some set of presuppositions, implicit theories, or principles. Be that as it may, I make the attempt with apologies for what at times seems very trivial and obvious material.

Starting with what is hopefully obvious to you as to me: Fred has a belief that he should have returned the money, even though he did not. He has a sense that there was a requirement, an obligation, a duty that covered his case, and required a particular action which he in fact chose not to carry out. Guilt and shame are made possible for Fred because he holds this belief.

What else can we say about this belief? It does presume that something in some sense of the word ‘external’ to Fred requires he act in some particular way, given the set of circumstances he is in.

But, I think we can say a bit more than this without transgressing our intent to simply describe what is happening in this case: The requirement his belief presumes has an element of universality or generality to it. What he believes to be the case is not merely that this particular act of his particular person is counter to a completely singular or particular requirement, something that only holds in this one case.

Rather, Fred thinks more in this way: His act is an act of a definite sort, (we call “theft”) and as such, is counter to a requirement that holds for all agents in like circumstances. He recognizes not only that he has done something counter to this general requirement, but that anyone in the same sort of circumstance would have been acting counter to it.

It is recognition of this fact that gives rise to Fred’s guilt or shame. He is able to see that other normal human beings, if put into the same sort of circumstance, would recognize the requirement, and upon learning of Fred’s situation, would recognize that he too should have abided by it. Hence, he does not communicate his deed. He fears detection, not necessarily only because he will be punished, but because he feels the force of having violated this general requirement. He fears being seen as having violated the requirement. This is a form of humiliation or shame.

I think we can also safely say that Fred believes he was free to act against the general requirement. It is conceptualized by Fred as something that does not determine or compel his behavior in the strongest sense of those terms. It does not compel his behavior in the way that the natural law of gravitation necessitates that an unsupported object falls to the ground. Yet, Fred takes this requirement as something that compels him (or, indeed anyone in a situation like his) in the sense that it picks out certain options of his as preferable because they satisfy the requirement. It is a requirement that compels (in this sense of that word) only free beings. Fred sees himself as one. Only free beings are in a position to be compelled by these sorts of requirements, because it takes a sort of cognizance only they have, as free beings, in order for the requirement to ‘take.’

This is one of a set of similar requirements that Fred is aware of in his day to day dealings. They become activated by circumstances, but for Fred, and most other individuals, they have general significance, applying to numerically distinct agents in numerically distinct sets of circumstances, because there are common elements shared by the particular circumstances and agents.

Another feature that is obvious: In Fred’s case the action required does not coincide or line up with what he would like to do (or rather what he in fact did.) This is a common feature of moral experience. We recognize a compelling ‘oughtness’ to (x) in the face of countervailing tendencies that push us toward (~x).

Now, we can ask a question implied by the above: What has to be true about Fred for him to consider himself as one among a group of responsible beings, a moral agent in a society of such beings? His guilt shows he considers himself in this way.

It would seem that cognizance of moral requirement requires a rational being at least as advanced as a human being. It requires rationality to the degree required to recognize freedom, and to a degree that allows projection of consequences and recognition that his actions can harm or benefit other creatures.

He also needs an ability to conceptualize generalized rules, i.e., rules that cover all like creatures in like circumstances. This requires relatively sophisticated rational beings. On Earth, humans are the clearest example of such beings. We may be the only ones.

We do not consider beings as moral agents if they do not have these capacities.

There has to be another sort of ‘projective’ component, in order for Fred to conceptualize a moral requirement: It seems we must have empathetic capacities.

For, if there were no such capacities within Fred, while he might be able to cognize that certain of his potential actions could harm or benefit others, it may make no difference to him when it comes to choosing to act on those potential actions.

Think of the psychopath. He is quite capable of projecting likely consequences of his acts, including that they may harm, but that does not in any way put a ‘brake’ on his choices. Why? Lack of empathy; i.e., the lack of an ability to take the other person’s place, and conceptualize what it would be like to be on the receiving end of those actions.

So, we see Fred is aware of a requirement that functions as a sort of rule that covers his own case, (as a case of a certain sort, involving a certain set of circumstances that can be repeated) and that the rule requires that he as a free agent, act in a certain sort of way. The regular parlance is much simpler: Fred is aware of a moral rule in this scenario.

Well, what exactly is unique about moral rules? After all, there are all kinds of rules we use and live with. What sets this particular bunch apart?

What sort of rules are moral rules? We should start by first describing rules more generally. Maybe then we can find the specifying features of moral rules.

OK..End of part 1. Hopefully as the caffeine wears off I will not see this as a hopeless pile of.....stuff.... and start to substantially revise. If that is the case, then part 2 should appear in about a week.