The Ethicist: Thinking and Feeling

I recently read an article that fascinated me. It was about a conversation between President Donald Trump and the mayor of a small island off the coast of Virginia that is quickly disappearing beneath the water as sea levels rise.

Harbor channel, Tangier Island, Virginia. (Photo by David Broad [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Harbor channel, Tangier Island, Virginia. (Photo by David Broad, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The article is accompanied by a short video that demonstrates that, if something is not soon done to slow the rising sea levels, the island is likely to be completely submerged sometime within the next fifty years, causing the inhabitants – many of whom have ancestors who settled there in the 17th century – to lose their homes and their livelihoods. As everyone who has been following discussions of climate change knows, one of the expected results of global warming is a rise in sea levels; and, as everyone who has been following the news knows, President Trump recently withdrew the United States from participation in the Paris agreement that was designed to help ensure a global response to the problem of climate change.

Climate change, of course, has tremendous ethical implications, including concerns about the sustainability of our own lifestyles, our obligations to future generations and questions about what will happen to those who are displaced, either because their homes are submerged as sea levels rise or it becomes too hot to grow crops. (If you think we have a problem with refugees now, just wait a few years…) The issue of climate change, then, is not merely of political or environmental concern; instead, it is permeated through and through with ethical implications, questions, and challenges.


Trump Island

What was interesting about this article was not its relevance for anyone living along the coastline (as, of course, people in Cape Breton and other parts of Atlantic Canada do), it was the content of the conversation between Donald Trump and the Mayor.

By The White House from Washington, DC (President Trump's First 100 Days: 6) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: The White House (President Trump’s First 100 Days: 6) Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Apparently, the inhabitants of the island in question voted 87% in favor of Trump in the recent American election, and nothing about their own situation or his actions (which make fighting climate change more difficult) has made them change their minds about giving him their support. The mayor reportedly told President trump: “This is a Trump Island; we really love you down here,” “The stuff you are doing is just common-sense stuff,” and he even went so far as to say “I believe you came along for such a time as this.”

To which the flattered President reportedly responded that there was no need to worry about the possible disappearance of the island beneath the waves, because “Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.”

I was, to be honest, initially flabbergasted when I read this article, unable to comprehend how the mayor could maintain his support for President Trump (let alone believe that  he is the right man for the present moment), given Trump’s obstruction of efforts to slow climate change and the evidence of his own eyes as he watches his home get swallowed up by the sea. (Donald Trump’s views I shall pass over without comment).

But the more I thought about it, the more this story seems to me to illustrate what is both a matter of fundamental concern for ethicists and a danger facing us all: we are perhaps more like the mayor than we like to think. To see why this is the case, I must give you a quick tour of moral theory.


Teaching ethics?

As regular readers of this column will have gleaned, I teach courses in ethics (both theoretical and applied), sit on ethics committees in various healthcare organizations in my community and (of course) write about ethics. Sometimes all of this activity feels pointless because there is a fundamental problem with teaching courses in ethics, helping institutions devise codes of ethics for staff and even with writing articles of this sort: none of this activity (on its own, at any rate) can ever make anyone want to behave more ethically.

Plumber putting what he's learned about plumbing to use (Photo by By Tomwsulcer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Plumber putting what he’s learned about plumbing to good use. (Photo by  Tomwsulcer, own work, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

If I were teaching electrical studies or plumbing, chemistry or medicine, I would have every reason to expect that my students would learn to be electricians or plumbers or chemists or doctors. With ethics, however, no one becomes more ethical.

Moreover, in the case of other subjects, it is hard if not impossible to teach what one doesn’t know: someone teaching a course in plumbing must know how to be a plumber. But in the case of ethics, one can know the theory very well without ever having to put that theory into practice. Indeed, in philosophy circles, people often joke that the least ethical people they know specialize in ethics. (I hope that I am an exception!) So why doesn’t teaching courses in ethics or helping people become familiar with ethical theory result in them learning how to behave more ethically?

Ethics is concerned with matters of right and wrong, good and bad — perhaps even good and evil. In the modern world, the subject matter of ethics (as my column of several months ago on the trolley problem amply demonstrates) is primarily focused on our behavior –-  the question of what actions we ought to perform. Is it ever morally acceptable to tell a lie? Would it be wrong to push the fat man? How should I respond to a friend that has let me down? And so on.

The difficulty faced by ethicists is that, while ethical theory can teach us how to think in ethical terms, and courses in ethics can show us how to apply those concepts in concrete cases, this knowledge can never make us want to behave ethically. If I am teaching a course in bioethics to nursing or medical students, for example, I can give them principles to apply and guidelines to follow which will help them demonstrate ethical behavior in those professions –- but nothing in those principles or guidelines will make them want to behave ethically in the first place.

If they are already committed to being ethical nurses or physicians, the principles and guidelines I offer can be helpful; if, however, they are not already so committed, nothing in them will move them to action.

As philosopher Alan Goldman observes:

If there is a route to required motivation through an argument that all rational people can grasp, no one has yet made that argument.

If they had, of course, the world would be a very different place.


Virtue ethics

While contemporary moral philosophy tends to focus on the rightness or wrongness of the actions we perform, an older approach to ethics –- usually called virtue ethics –- focuses instead on the question of moral character. What makes us good or bad people? Or, to use the language of virtue ethics, what makes us virtuous or vicious people?

When we focus primarily on character rather than actions, we must think not only about someone’s ability to correctly determine what ought to be done through an exercise of the intellect, we must also think about their emotional responses. For the virtue ethicist, the emotions and the intellect must work together, and it is both working together that leads to action.

For example, if I say something thoughtless and hurt a friend’s feelings, I not only ought to rationally recognize what I have done, I ought to feel badly about this as well, and apologize. Likewise, on a larger scale, if we are asked to do something unjust by a dictatorial ruler, we need not only to intellectually recognize that to follow the order would be morally wrong, we also need to feel revulsion. It is the feeling of revulsion, in large part, that will give us the strength to refuse the command.

For the virtue ethicist, then, we cannot separate rationality from feelings, and both contribute to our actions and help determine the kind of people we are: brave or cowardly, honest or deceitful, cheap or generous. In short, it is as important, so the virtue ethicist believes, to feel in the right way as it is to think in the right way.

In virtue ethics, the emotions have a dual role to play: first, the virtuous person will want to act in the way that she should; second, the emotions work with the intellect in such a way that these two elements, together, help us determine the relevant moral details of the situations in which we find ourselves, help us determine what we ought to do, and provide us with the motivation to act on that knowledge.

Moreover, the virtuous person will feel pleasure when he acts as he should and pain when he does what he knows to be wrong. And the reverse, of course, is true for the vicious person: he takes pleasure in doing the wrong things. Most of us, of course, fall somewhere along the spectrum between virtue and vice, and the most important thing that holds us back from becoming fully virtuous, I have come to believe, is not that we do not know what we ought to do, it is that we do not feel in the right way and so we fail to act on that understanding.


Emotional commitment

All of this brings me back to the story with which I began, and the peculiar conversation between Donald Trump and the mayor.

In the mayor’s case, as is the case for many of us, in our own lives, and in the particular contexts in which we find ourselves, there is a disconnect between his intellectual apprehension of the situation facing his island home, and his emotional commitments — and this disconnect seems to extend to his fellow islanders. Even though they can see with their own eyes that water levels are rising, even though they know that, if present trends continue, they will have to find new homes, and even though they are probably well aware that scientists believe that global warming will lead to higher sea levels, they have made an emotional commitment to support Donald Trump, and that emotional commitment remains intact, come hell or high water. (Pun intended!)

Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge (Photo by Dave Harp via Bay Journal

Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge (Photo by Dave Harp via Bay Journal)

This story, then, encapsulates, for me, the central problem facing the ethicist: not how to get people to think differently, but how to get them to feel differently. If they feel differently, their thinking and actions are likely to change; if only their thinking changes, however, their feelings and actions will not necessarily follow.

The islanders surely know what the little video accompanying the article makes obvious — their homes and livelihoods will soon be lost unless something is done to slow rising sea levels, and done fast — but this knowledge is not enough to alter how they feel about the person they voted for.

I want to make it clear that I am not intending to poke fun at Donald Trump’s supporters, or cast aspersions on people with right wing views. Rather, the problem I am identifying runs across the political spectrum, and can afflict all of us: I have seen people on the left make equally problematic claims and judgments.

Indeed, I would argue, how we feel lies at the root of almost every ethical problem facing us today, from racism and sexism, to inequality and homophobia, and, yes, to climate change and our collective unwillingness to make the radical changes that rationally seem to be required if we are not to doom our own species.



The more I thought about this article, the more I realized that the disconnect between the mayor’s thinking and his feelings may apply to more of us than I’d like to think. I’ll take myself as an example. I am very concerned about climate change, and make an effort to vote for politicians who promise to do something about the problem – but, invariably, once they get into office, they disappoint.

Ice-covered fjord on Baffin Island with Davis Strait in the background.By NASA/Michael Studinger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ice-covered fjord on Baffin Island with Davis Strait in the background. (Photo by NASA/Michael Studinger, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

For example, the liberals, who talked a good talk on the issue, plan to meet only the same goals that were already agreed to by the Harper government. And yet, because the liberals present a kinder, gentler image, their failure on this file has not enraged me in the same way that the Conservative failure did. Worse still, I continue to drive a car, live in a house that is bigger than I need, and do other unnecessary things that have an environmental impact — and I do these things for the sake of convenience and comfort. In other words, there is a disconnect between my thinking and my feeling, and this disconnect has an impact on my actions and my choices.

So, dear readers, do a little experiment on yourselves. Identify an issue that is important to you, and which has ethical implications (as, indeed, most issues have). Once you have identified your issue, see if you can disentangle how you feel about that issue from how you think about it. If you are able to do this, you might find that it is your feelings that are shaping your actions in response to it, rather than your thinking. How, then, can we change our feelings, since, if we want to act well, it is not enough that we merely think well?

This will be the topic of my next two columns.


Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.




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