Do we really value thinking for oneself?

by Emrys Westacott

Why do we choose to do what we think is right even when it goes against our inclinations or interests? This is one of the oldest and toughest questions in moral psychology. Knowing the good clearly does not entail that we will do the good. So what carries us from the former to the latter? Imgres

One philosopher who wrestled with this question long and hard was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He considered it profoundly mysterious that we often choose to do overrid our interests or desires and do our duty purely because we consider ourselves dutybound. (Nietzsche expresses a similar sense of wonder when he asks, “How did nature manage to breed an animal with the right to make promises?”) Kant's explanation is that we are moved by what he calls moral feeling.[1] And he identifies two main kinds of moral feeling: respect for morality, and disgust for what is contrary to morality. Discussing these in his lectures on ethics, he says that you cannot make yourself or anyone else have these feelings. But you can inculcate them, or something that will serve the same purpose, in a child through proper training. The following passage is especially noteworthy:

We should instill an immediate abhorrence for an action from early youth onwards . . . we must represent an action, not as forbidden or harmful, but as inwardly abhorrent in itself. For example, a child who tells lies must not be punished, but shamed; we must cultivate an abhorrence, a contempt for this act, and by frequent repetition we can arouse in him such an abhorrence of the vice as becomes ahabitus with him.[2]

I imagine this bit of moral pedagogy will strike many readers as morally suspect. But why?

Valuing intellectual autonomy

As members of modern, Western, liberal democracies, we are likely to value thinking for oneself. Thinking for oneself means, first and foremost, being able and willing to reflect on the truth or falsity of one's beliefs and on the value—particularly the moral quality–of the beliefs, practices, and institutions that one shares with others. This capacity is what we call intellectual autonomy.

Intellectual autonomy, especially regarding moral matters, is an assumed value in our culture. Like democracy, education, and apple pie, it is something most of us are automatically applaud. It was not always that way, of course. Not too long ago, a majority of intellectuals from professors to parsons would have denounced as absurd the idea that everyone ought to be encouraged to think for themselves. The default idea until fairly recent times was that most people should receive their beliefs, especially about moral matters, from their intellectual superiors. Descartes, for instance, while holding that any person who seeks truth must, at least once in their life, doubt everything that it is possible to doubt, accepted that his writings concern “matters which a large number of people ought to avoid reading about.”[3] Eighteenth century champions of enlightenment like Voltaire considered it desirable for the majority of people to accept uncritically religious doctrines that intellectuals like himself viewed as superstitious dogmas. “It is expedient,” he wrote, “that the people should be directed, not that it should be educated; it is not worthy of teaching . . . “[4]

Well into the twentieth century, having an independent mind would often still not be counted a virtue if the mind in question belonged to a woman, or a non-Caucasian, or anyone else who couldn't be trusted to reach the correct conclusions. But these doubts about the wisdom of encouraging the masses to think for themselves have usually been political, arising out of an anxiety that too many people trying to think for themselves could jeopardize the social order. Those who voice this anxiety still prize intellectual autonomy as a virtue when possessed by individuals who are “the right sort”–i.e. members of the educated elite.

Over the last two centuries, however, this elitist restriction has been challenged by the rise of another characteristic modern value—egalitarianism. Nowadays, therefore, most intellectuals praise intellectual autonomy more or less unreservedly. And those of us of who are teachers typically see one of our main tasks as encouraging and enabling our students to undertake critical reflection on the texts they study, the claims they encounter, and the world they inhabit.

Within what philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls “the philosophical discourse of modernity,” autonomy has been closely tied to the concept of rationality. Indeed, for many, to exercise autonomy and to exercise rationality is one and the same thing. And the foremost champion of this view is Kant. According to Kant, it belongs to the very essence of moral action that the agent does not just slavishly follow some authority, convention, or tradition. Rather, to act morally means to act in accordance with a rational principle. But although in acting rationally we are following a rule–e.g. Don't blackmail people–the rule is one whose correctness we can discover for ourselves through reflection. Most importantly, as rational agents we impose such rules on ourselves. Thus, moral principles, although objective and independent of our will, are not something we relate to passively. When we subject ourselves to them, we subject ourselves to rules that express our own nature as rational beings. By contrast, when we merely follow a moral precept that comes to us from a source other than our own rational nature—for instance, from scripture, tradition, an authority figure, or popular opinion—we act “heteronomously”.

A problem for Kant

There seems to be a conflict between two parts of Kant's ethical theory. On the one hand, to be moral is to be perfectly rational and to act autonomously; on the other hand, we are advised to inculcate certain automatic emotional responses in children. By “frequent repetition” of moral and emotional conditioning we can ensure that our children will grow up to prefer virtue to vice and justice to injustice automatically. These preferences will flow directly from their spontaneous emotional responses to situations—responses that will be automatic because they are “immediate” (i.e. not mediated by reflection). For while reflection may tell us what is right, it cannot provide a motive to do what is right; to be motivated we require moral feeling. Thus Kant, the great advocate of thinking for oneself, also urges us to condition children to have unthinking reactions to certain situations.

A problem for us

Perhaps Kant scholars can get their man off the hook by means of some ingenious and sophisticated interpretation of his moral philosophy. It seems to me, though, that his problem is also our problem. The same inconsistency persists within the approach most of us take to moral education today. We may not be card-carrying Kantians, but we would nevertheless endorse the key idea that intellectual autonomy is essential to a genuinely moral life. We want our children both to be able to think for themselves and to exercise this ability. To this extent, at least, we are all Kantians now. Unthinking conformity to our society's mores may lead a person to behave in a way that is generally viewed as unobjectionable; the predictability of such a person may give them a reputation for trustworthiness. But theirs is the sort of virtue of that belongs to an earlier time, when doing what society determined to be one's duty without worrying about whether the action was right according to more universal norms was both expected and admired. This view of virtue may still be found here and there in pockets of contemporary society where pre-modern ways of thinking remain dominant. To a modern mind, however, “not to question why” is a moral failing.

In spite of this commitment to autonomy, however, parents and educators still work fairly hard at moulding the moral sensibility of the young people in their charge. Through books, films, and television shows we bombard them with morality tales, guaranteeing that by the time they reach puberty they can distinguish heroes and villains from the slightest cue, will automatically identify with the heroes, and will assume that moral goodness leads to happiness while wickedness is invariably punished. Traditional forms of religious education deliberately aim at implanting for life a whole range of emotional disposition involving fears, hopes, loyalties, disgust, devotion, admiration, and so on. Nations consciously seek to foster “patriotism” in the young through frequent repetition of rituals such as pledges of allegiance, the playing of the national anthem, the singing of patriotic songs, and the hoisting of the colours. And while we may not make our children swear allegiance to a political party every evening, most of us do actively seek to inculcate our values in them by encouraging certain emotional attitudes such as pity for suffering, hatred of cruelty, and anger at injustice.

I believe these measures can reasonably be described as forms of emotional conditioning. And I would also maintain that, when effective, they inhibit a person's capacity for exercising intellectual autonomy. They do so by strengthening the influence of cultural traditions, institutions, social mores, and peer opinion over the individual, making it harder for him or her to reflect on certain issues in an independent and impartial manner. Jonathan Haidt's account of the moral perplexity most of us feel when confronted with certain sorts of question illustrates this point well. Haidt poses questions like: Is there something morally wrong with adult siblings having protected sex just once, as a kind of experiment? Or: Is is acceptable, if your dog is run over and killed in front of your house, to eat it for dinner? Haidt finds that most people respond by declaring these actions to be wrong, yet they are unable to give a cogent rational justification for their verdict.

My point here is not that we are necessarily wrong to pay heed to our “gut feelings.” But our response to Haidt's questions illustrate how difficult it is to free one's thinking from deep-seated emotional attitudes and dispositions.

Why do we practice emotional conditioning?

Given that the conflict identified here is real, the question arises: why do we practice emotional conditioning. I can think of five reasons.

1. Reducing risk

Emotional conditioning reduces the risk that a child will “turn out bad” or do something despicable. It sets boundaries that a normal person would find it psychologically difficult to cross. For example, inculcating a visceral disgust for racism makes it less likely that a child will adopt racist attitudes and beliefs later in life. All parents worry about various misfortunes that could befall their children: traffic accidents, abduction, drug addiction, sexual abuse, and so on. But worse, perhaps, than all of these possibilities is another kind of tragedy—the child growing up to be morally despicable, the kind of person who is capable of doing things that would horrify and shame his or her parents. Most parents give this scenario less thought and suffer less anxiety on its account, presumably because they are reasonably confident it will not happen; and this confidence, I would suggest, rests primarily on a belief in the effectiveness of the moral education they provide, an education that includes emotional conditioning.

2. Replicating ourselves

If one purpose of emotional conditioning is to keep people on the right track, an obvious question arises: what track is it we are talking about? The obvious answer is that we want them to follow the same track as ourselves. In short, the emotional conditioning of the young is one of the means by which we seek to reproduce ourselves. I am not saying, of course, that parents try to mould their children into exact replicas of themselves. We all know that we have failings, and we hope (pace Phillip Larkin) that our children won't inherit them the way we inherited the failings of our own parents. But since the very act of having children expresses a desire to reproduce ourselves physically, it is understandable that we would also want them to resemble us morally.

3. Promoting self-discipline

The feeling that a desire is shameful can help us keep it suppressed. The feeling that a certain course of action is honourable can help us stick to it. The hope underlying the inculcation of these emotional dispositions is that eventually the feelings in question will be deep enough and consistent enough to free us entirely from drives and desires that threaten our capacity for self-control. Something like this is the rationale for the sort of moral education and training that was given to aspiring Samurai in pre-modern Japan or to young Etonians destined for leadership roles in the British empire

4. Cultivating moral sensibility

Some people are inclined to view moral education as entirely a matter of trying to ensure that a person will unfailingly act in a certain way. But regardless of what behaviourists may think, for most people there is more to being a good person than just always acting rightly. Being a morally complete person also involves having the right kind of emotional responses to the situations one finds oneself in and to the things one witnesses. It also involves having the capacity for these responses. For example, we don't just want our children to grow up knowing that injustice is wrong. Nor is it sufficient for them simply to avoid acting unjustly. We want them to feel sorrow when they witness the suffering endured by the victims injustice, and disgust for the sort of actions and institutions that inflict this suffering.

We value a keen moral sensibility. Among our acquaintances, the people we view as the most morally sound often know nothing about Aristotle or Kant or Mill. They may not excel at analytical reasoning or be especially rigorous thinkers. But they are sensitive, empathetic, sympathetic types who take genuine pleasure in the happiness of others and feel genuine sorrow when they witness someone else's misfortune. Of course, one reason for cherishing these “warm hearts” is because we think their sensibility makes them trustworthy. But that is not the sole reason. We also believe that an ideally moral person would naturally experience spontaneous feelings of this sort.

5. What's the alternative?

Nomal human beings have some sort of moral sensibility: we feel approval or disapproval towards certain sorts of personality, behaviour, or situation. If Kant is right, such feelings are essential to being a morally motivated individual; rational reflection alone has no power to move us. Given the impossibility of moral life without such feelings, it makes most sense to cultivate the kind we ourselves approve of. The alternative is to leave that task to others, or to chance.

These are all cogent reasons for practicing emotional conditioning as part of the moral education of children. Yet the practice sits uneasily with our commitment to the value of intellectual autonomy. For Kant and for us, this is a conundrum with no easy solution.

[1] “In order for a sensibly affected rational being to will that for which reason alone prescribes the ‘ought' it is . . . required that his reason have the capacity to induce a feeling of pleasure or of delight in the fulfillment of duty . . .” Kant, Groundwork, in Immanuel Kant: Practical Philosophy, p. 106.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, trans. Peter Heath (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 72.

[3] René Descartes, Replies to the Fourth Set of Objections, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes Vol. I, p. 172.

[4] Quoted in Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment (Penguin, 1968), p. 160.