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Do the right thing

Manus Charleton

In interviews and speeches, President Michael D Higgins has spoken about the need for debate about ethics as part of his initiative to develop its influence in the economy and society. Addressing the universities, he has spoken of “the intellectual crisis facing society – as it is far more serious than the economic one” which has come from “unrestrained market dominance” and “the commodification of ever more aspects of social life”. And he has presented the response to the crisis in terms of “a moral choice”, which is “to drift into, be part of, a consensus that accepts a failed paradigm of life and economy or to offer, or seek to recover, the possibility of alternative futures” (The Irish Times 26/01/12). Also, he has warned about “a moral crisis” in the European Union from austerity economic programmes which are alienating millions of citizens who are suffering their consequences (Financial Times 1/05/13). And more recently, in an address to the “Ethics for All” series of public lectures in Dublin City University, he spoke about developing “an ethical economy” aimed at “reducing poverty and economic inequality”.

However, when ethical understanding is advanced in support of economic and social aims it raises the question of “Whose ethics should it be?” For example, Dan O’Brien, writing in The Irish Times, while supporting the president’s purpose in his DCU speech “to explore the contemporary possibilities for developing ethical arts of economic government”, nevertheless criticised him for going on to advocate an ideologically partisan, left-wing ethical perspective (The Irish Times, Business This Week 20/09/2013). The criticism led to some controversy in the letters page of the paper between supporters and opponents of the speech.

The episode highlighted the question of whether or not there is a source for a non-partisan ethics capable of achieving broad consensus among those on the political left and right and those in between, and which supports the aims of reducing poverty and economic inequality. A consensus around such a public ethics would seem unlikely given the longstanding and entrenched positions of opposing political parties. Also, the break with an acknowledged common moral authority in the modern period has led ethical uncertainty and diversity, which makes a broad consensus even more unlikely. And ever since the critiques of Christian morality by Nietzsche and Marx, moral antennae have been attuned to suspect partisan ulterior motives behind ethical enjoinments of one kind or another. Yet the ethics of neglected Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson has the potential to provide a source for a broad consensus.

From the Scottish immigrant community in Ulster, Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) was born in Co Down, where his father was a Presbyterian minister. He lived in Dublin for ten years, where he taught in an academy before taking up a post in Glasgow University, where he would become a leading figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. Adam Smith was one of his students, and Hutcheson’s influence can be seen in Smith’s recognition of a natural feeling of sympathy for others which he incorporated into his economic philosophy, along with the role of satisfying mutual self-interest through the freedom to trade. It was while living in Dublin that Hutcheson wrote two works on ethics (one of which is also related to art) in which he based his system on natural feelings of care and concern for others as well as ourselves. These works are An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue and An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense (available from The Online Library of Liberty).

Based on simple, natural feelings which he maintains each person can identify with from his or her own sensibility, ethics for him is ostensibly non-ideological, as well as being open to accommodating a range of moral and political persuasions. (Even though he was a Christian and believed in God as “the Author of Nature”, his ethics is not dependent on this belief). Also, because he locates ethics in a natural feeling we have as part of everyday experience, his ethics has the potential to provide a more caring basis for managing the economy and society in the interests of everybody than, say, one based on human rights. For, however necessary and justified it is to regard people as having rights, in practice rights give rise to an impersonal reckoning of entitlements and obligations and often to conflict between opposing claims.

For Hutcheson we distinguish a good act from a bad one through how we feel about it. A good act gives us an immediate feeling of pleasure, which makes the act attractive and arouses admiration. A bad act, on the other hand, pains us with upset, anger or distress, which gives us an aversion towards it. These immediate feelings come through what Hutcheson calls our “moral sense”. The moral sense is similar to our five external senses in providing access to our experience of the world. But it is an “internal” sense which registers information about right and wrong. In the first instance we become aware of right and wrong immediately and directly by the way we are emotionally moved or affected, independently of our will or our reasoning. We are passive in the sense of being acted upon, as when we are moved by the suffering of famine victims to see their condition as morally wrong without needing to work out a judgement. He calls our internal moral sense through which we are moved a “passive power”. As to what it is about behaviours and conditions which make us feel they are good or right, Hutcheson’s answer is that they contain an element of kindness or helpfulness towards other people. “Kind affections” and “kind intentions”, he maintains, can be discovered as the mark of goodness from the examination of any action or intention which is recognised as good. “Benevolence” is the word he uses most frequently. Benevolent actions have to do with the good of at least one other person and, by extension, with the good of people in general. They are acts which “tend towards the good of the whole” or towards “doing good to mankind”.

Also, since there is a natural unity among people by virtue of their status as human beings, when we act benevolently for the good of others we are also being benevolent towards ourselves. From being part of the whole of humankind “every moral agent justly considers himself … an object of his own benevolence”. In this way, our individual moral sense reveals an experience of ethics that is inherently related to the interests of others and, in general, the public interest. It is connected to providing for the common good.

Hutcheson’s account of ethics arising from natural feelings for the good of others may seem naive, for it is clearly at variance with much actual behaviour. But he was well aware that throughout history people have engaged in practices such as incest and slavery without it seeming to offend their moral sense, at least not enough for them to feel straightaway they should desist from such practices and to have done so. And in the past, practices such as these have been found acceptable in some cultures. Also, after a nineteenth and twentieth century which have included forces in the “civilised” west exploiting labour and resources in other parts of the globe, two world wars and the Holocaust, anyone could be forgiven for deep pessimism about the human capacity for altruism. Hutcheson’s explanation for why people inflict harm on others includes recognition that we can be conditioned into finding acceptable what is offensive to the moral sense. He also points out that we are prone to being overcome by selfish and violent passions, and that those who have been excluded from the benefits of society can come to have a deluded sense of right and wrong. As a result, while the origin of ethics lies in an impulse independent of reason, he sees a need to think out the effect our actions will have on others in order to be able to recognise the harm they cause, recognition which will bring out a natural feeling of aversion towards such acts. Reason can enable us to see whether or not practices accord with natural human feeling. It is nature which provides the bedrock on which ethical feeling is founded, and we can experience our moral human nature more clearly by reflecting on the effects on others and ourselves of certain behaviours and practices.

In his day, as in ours, people have argued that morals are determined by culture and not endowed in us by nature through a moral sense which can be clarified by reason. Against this view he points out that in all cultures children before they are educated identify with kindness and recoil from cruelty and acts of hate. By aligning his ethics with human nature, he also provides his theory with a mainstay against the objection that an ethical source centred on feeling is a recipe for making right and wrong relative to whatever individuals happen to feel or want to feel. He is, in other words, positing an objective source, a human nature common to all, in which moral feeling is grounded, albeit a moral nature which is flawed and can be obscured.  

There is still the practical difficulty of the many issues with complex and competing needs and interests which make it hard to know through our moral sense alone what the right response should be. There are the respective claims made for the individual and common good on issues such as determining fair taxes or pay, or providing legal permission for voluntary assisted suicide for people suffering from a terminal illness. But our reasoning capacity has a role here too. Hutcheson’s method is to calculate the pros and cons of different responses to the issues for the different levels of happiness which they offer and for the levels of misery they contain, to decide on the one which will provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, or the least misery. In his words, “that action is highest, which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest number; and that, worst which, in like manner, occasions misery.” By introducing this formula Hutcheson was a forerunner of the influential nineteenth century utilitarian ethical principle of providing for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. This principle, which was developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stewart Mill, contributed to the thinking which led to Britain becoming a welfare state in the twentieth century.  

Hutcheson’s ethics has also been questioned on the grounds of inconsistency in having to rely on reason and calculation for determining moral goodness, while at the same time claiming a source in feeling. However, from an evolutionary perspective, it’s easier for us now to understand an organic development whereby thought emerged through feeling to become more distinct while still remaining bound up with feeling, rather than requiring each to be a separate and distinct faculty.

While the moral sense basis Hutcheson gives for ethics is simple, it is not simplistic. He is far from criticising self-interest as something that is necessarily bad and to be avoided. He accepts that desires for wealth and power are as natural to us as feeling for the good of others. In fact, to achieve the public good in practice, they are “the most effectual means, and the most powerful instruments”. He recognises too that we often act from mixed motives. But he distinguishes between acts which are useful to others and those that are benevolent in a moral sense. For an act, or portion of an act, to be morally benevolent, the motivation for it, he believes, must be for the good of others. And he recognises that, while the moral sense is instinctive, it is often a struggle to act benevolently towards others as self-interest gets in the way. This is why he recognises that, while moral feelings arise independently of our will, acting morally often requires an act of will. It is also why he sees the freedom associated with the will as the mark of the liberty which gives rise to the consent needed for legitimate government rule; rule in which the legislature is charged primarily with balancing the need for individual freedom with restrictions to provide for the common good. His ideas were known to philosophers in pre-revolutionary France and are known also to have contributed to the intellectual climate which led to America’s independence and political foundation.

By acknowledging how moral good is bound up with both freedom and self-interest, Hutcheson’s theory can accommodate “expressive individualism” as distinct from the individualism which President Higgins has called “narrow” or “extreme”, which took off following deregulation in financial markets. Expressive individualism is the ethics, traceable back to the European Enlightenment, in which each person’s individual freedom is valued highly, along with entitlement to live a fulfilling life in accordance with his or her personal desires. Whether done for our good in a moral sense or not, much that is useful to us has come from individuals pursuing their own desires in all spheres of activity. And no matter to what degree an individual pursues an activity in a self-interested way without apparent regard for others, his or her activity has meaning and value only because there is a society which confers meaning and value on the activity in the first place. This underlying dimension can often be overlooked, and serves to show how indebted we are to the wider society for what we do.

The most striking thing now about Hutcheson’s identification of the source of our sense of ethics with naturally occurring feeling is the way in which it anticipated findings in neuroscience about how the brain works when we react with moral approval or disapproval, and this gives his account particular contemporary relevance. Heralded as “the new science of morality” based on evolutionary biology and neuroscience, research evidence indicates that moral feeling comes from patterns of activity in the brain which have been instilled over the course of our evolutionary development through natural selection and adaptation. Moral feelings come from brain patterns instinctively triggered by our organism’s reaction to what it finds beneficial or adverse to its survival and wellbeing. Once triggered by some behaviour or condition, in a fraction of a second a pattern arouses in us a feeling of approval or disapproval. And these fraction-of-a-second emotional responses impel our moral decisions and judgments. Subsequent justifications which we may make, and which we may like to think are the underlying reasons for our decisions or judgements, are no more than after-the-fact attempts to rationalise what has already been formed in us by instinctive reaction.

Also, as with Hutcheson’s account, a neurobiology-based view is not suggesting we are limited to acting on moral instinct alone. Since we have become conscious of our intentions we are able to calculate consequences in deciding how best to act. We can, and should, reflect on what our instincts are prompting us to do and, by using our reason, develop a more informed and considered judgement. Moral feeling sets aquiver the needle of our moral compass, which can be adjusted and steadied through reason and reflection. Nor is neurobiology suggesting evolutionary responses are crude mechanisms focused exclusively on self-survival in a competitive and hostile world, as they are sometimes thought to be. In the patterns of brain activity there is evidence of interconnection between our own interests and the interest of others. From this intrinsic connection we have with others for our wellbeing, our responses include having regard for their interests as well as our own interests, whether through feelings of care or fairness.

In a development of the new science, Johnathan Haidt and other researchers in the United States have tabulated some of the kinds of behaviours and conditions which arouse our moral feelings. In place of the idea of a moral sense he refers to “moral taste receptors”. Receptors are activated when we experience incidences of care or harm, fairness or cheating, group loyalty or betrayal, authority or subversion, sanctity or degradation. These are among the basic behaviours and conditions which exercise us morally, with the first in a pair stirring our favour and the second our disfavour, and they have been central to our evolutionary and cultural development. Throughout history we have been morally aroused by these behaviours and conditions in different ways and to different degrees, depending both on our genetically inherited disposition and on how we have been influenced by the value placed on them in our culture. For example, one study found that, while those of a conservative disposition gave the same moderately high rating to the influence on them which all five types of behaviours have, liberals rated not causing harm and ensuring fairness more highly than, for example, maintaining group loyalty or respecting authority.

A beneficial effect of a neurobiology-based account for a public ethics is that it enables us to understand why both we and others are exercised morally in different ways and attribute different levels of moral importance to different conditions and behaviours. It shows that no one response is exclusively right; that there is an ingrained basis on which people emphasise one response or another, as conservatives and social democrats do on, for example, the degree of regulation which should obtain in the financial markets. It is an understanding which can help us appreciate the ethical underpinning for the political positions of others with whom we disagree. At the same time, neuroscience shows that moral responses, while they have an ingrained origin in brain patterns, are not fixed. They are open to change from being influenced, for the research has found plasticity to brain responses whereby the patterns are formed in part by thinking and culture as well as by naturally occurring instinctive reactions.  

Hutcheson’s understanding of ethics is of course debatable, and, in the intervening centuries since he wrote, the idea that there is as a common human nature identifiable with desiring the good of others as well as our own good has been disputed. Faults, too, have been found with greatest happiness principle, on which his ethics partly relies. Also, the so called “new science” of morality is still in its infancy, and it is reasonable to be sceptical of ethics ever being put on a basis similar to the physical sciences. But all attempts so far to explain ethics have been inadequate. The point is not that Hutcheson’s understanding is philosophically watertight; the point is that it brings us back to a recognisable way in which we experience morality, whether through what he calls a human moral sense or something similar. His account of the way we experience our ethical sensibility is psychologically true. We can see this in the way the sensibility is aroused by real life events when we feel aversion to harm and warmth towards helpfulness to others. Also these are the two basic feelings stimulated and sustained in us by all the nuanced, complex and sophisticated stories of human conflict and support in countless soap operas, plays, novels and films.

An ethics based on reviving recognition of the underlying thrust which aversion to harm and attraction to kindness have in our responses, and of the many ways, overt and subtle, in which these feelings are expressed, can provide common ground for a communal society and economy aimed at reducing poverty and economic inequality. It is also an ethics which can ensure people are respected in their individual humanity and not as depersonalised into little more than consumers of goods and services or resources within organisations. And it contrasts with an ethics based solely or largely on belief in an entitlement to the pursuit of personal material gain with little or no social connection.

Differences in viewpoint on moral questions relating to the economy and society will of course continue to exist. And they will be influenced by allegiance to belief in the ultimate source for morality, whether in a religion, political ideology or philosophy. The experience of moral sensibility as a passive power through which we are acted upon, as in a passion, helps account for the strength of feeling with which moral views are often expressed. But it also leaves open the question of its ultimate meaning beyond its inherence in the evolutionary tendency. The very recognition of a shared basis for ethics in moral feeling will of itself help to lessen opposition, in particular when we can get past the suspicion that viewpoints have to be a guise to protect class or other interests. The recognition can form part of the shared “ethical consciousness” the president referred to in his DCU speech. Not that it will be easy to develop such consciousness. As he recognised, its development will require ethical considerations to feature more in the public arena alongside economic discussion and, in the longer term, for philosophical understanding of values to be developed within the educational system. At the same time, Hutcheson’s ethics offers a source for reviving an element of shared ethical consciousness as a more immediate prospect through the close attention it invites us to give to moral feelings which connects naturally with the common good, and to the influence that open and reasoned discussion of questions can have. And the element of attending closely to the feelings that arise in consciousness gives a phenomenological, mindfulness dimension to ethics which fits in with contemporary ways of thinking.
18/11/2013

Manus Charleton has lectured in Ethics and in Politics in the Institute of Technology, Sligo and is the author of the textbook, Ethics for Social Care in Ireland: Philosophy and Practice, Gill & Macmillan (2007).

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