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