The Ethicist: Why a Feeling Is Not an Argument

Last month, I asked readers to consider the case of carnivorous Cleo, and her beloved feline friend, Hector, who ended up as her supper. I concluded by asking why it seems so wrong to eat Hector, especially if we are willing to eat other kinds of meat? This month, I want to further explore a topic I have touched on in the past, namely, why we must view our emotional responses with care when we are asking ethical questions, and exploring ethical issues.

Emoticons printed in 1881 in the U.S. magazine Puck.

Emoticons printed in 1881 in the U.S. magazine Puck.

Ethical issues, almost by definition, are things guaranteed to provoke strong feelings. Indeed, they remain issues – which is to say, problems that we have not yet managed to resolve – precisely because they provoke strong and conflicting feelings on the part of all participants. Is abortion morally wrong, or is a right to freedom of choice in all reproductive matters a necessity for female empowerment? Does the legislation allowing medical assistance in dying constitute the liberation of patients from a medical system that was not previously responsive to their needs, or does it symbolize, instead, a distortion of the practice of medicine that will lead to unnecessary and tragic deaths? Is our use of gene-editing technology the path to a disease-free future or us tampering with forces we don’t fully understand and cannot control? Was Cleo right or wrong to eat her cat?

That these issues raise strong feelings is both good and bad: good, because these feelings reveal to us that the problems we are considering are morally serious; but also bad, because these feelings can interfere with our discovery of the truth and even lead us astray.

When we feel strongly about an issue, it is very tempting to assume that we just know what the truth must be, without even having to consider the arguments that might be made on the other side. Our feelings, moreover, may be responsive to (often unrecognized) prejudices, irrational, or a result of nothing more than our cultural conditioning. While we are all affected by cultural expectations (and usually in ways that are completely invisible to us), the goal of ethical reasoning – and of philosophy more generally – is to try to discover the truth about the matters we are examining, with “truth” meaning something that lies beyond any and all culturally-based judgments. (This is sometimes called “the view from nowhere,” or the “God’s-eye view.”)

Moreover, if we work only with our feelings, we will find conflict unavoidable: my strongly-felt intuition that, say, a right to abortion is necessary for female emancipation will clash with your equally strongly-felt intuition that abortion involves nothing less than the taking of an innocent human life. Consequently, if we want to reach the truth about how abortion should be understood, we need to let our feelings be guided by rational arguments, rather than the other way round. In essence, feelings can be understood as more akin to matters of taste or personal preference than they are to reasoned and defensible positions. If I tell you that I feel that tea tastes better than coffee, and you like coffee better than tea, we can both recognize that there is nothing to argue about here, no objective answer to the question of which comforting hot beverage tastes better. When it comes to ethical questions (which, as we shall see in a moment, overlap with political ones), we often tend to think that our feelings themselves constitute an argument, and that those who feel differently are simply wrong. And this fact has important real- world consequences.

I recently read a fascinating book by Arlie Russell Hochschild entitled Strangers In Their Own Land, which illustrates this point in a dramatic and troubling way. Hochschild is a sociologist with liberal views, who decided to investigate why it is that, in the United States, a large number of people vote Republican when doing so seems to be clearly against their own best interests. As she details in a horrifying litany of examples, people living in parts of the United States which reliably vote Republican suffer from the worst rates of environmental pollution, have the worst healthcare, the shortest lifespans and the lowest levels of education – all things that liberals like Hochschild (and myself, to be honest) believe can best be addressed by government policy, regulation and action. Yet the people who live in these places consistently vote for politicians who espouse fewer environmental regulations and less healthcare coverage, and who take money out of public education to give incentives to big business.

Emoticons printed in 1881 in the U.S. magazine Puck.

Emoticons printed in 1881 in the U.S. magazine Puck.

What Hochschild discovers, as she tries to unravel this conundrum, is that those who label themselves “liberals” and those who label themselves “conservatives” quite literally see the world in different ways, and have correspondingly different emotional responses to what they experience. She constructs two opposing “deep stories” to capture the source of these differing conceptions and feelings.

In the conservative deep story, there exists something we can call “the American dream,” and it lies somewhere just over the horizon. All citizens are lined up trying to reach it, and those who are hardworking and honest (like themselves) are sure to get there eventually – at least, as long as the rules are fair. However, they feel (and, consequently, believe) that liberal policies – such as taxing the rich to pay for social programs, fining the polluting companies that offer them “good jobs” or implementing strategies to help disadvantaged members of minority groups get a higher education or a better job – allow the undeserving to push ahead of them in the line. Consequently, they believe that government interference in the lives of citizens benefits the undeserving and punishes those who work hard to take care of themselves.

Liberals, Hochschild reminds her readers, have their deep story as well. Liberals, she writes, instead of visualizing a queue of people lined up trying to achieve the illusive American dream imagine a public square, one lined with good schools, light-filled public libraries and theaters supported with public money; with a safe park for children in the middle; and healthy, happy and well-educated people strolling around enjoying it all. These things, liberals believe, are all within the power of governments to provide, and are an appropriate use of our communal resources. When liberals look at conservative politicians and the voters who support them, what they see are not hardworking people struggling to live well, but vandals, who are hell-bent on destroying the public goods that already exist and on blocking the creation of any new ones.

Clearly, these deep stories are incompatible with one another – and the people who see the world through the lens they provide have strong and conflicting feelings as a result. What is to be done? Hochschild isn’t sure, and neither am I; but I can say that, philosophically speaking, the goal should be to move beyond feelings and towards the kind of rational argumentation that can get us to the view from nowhere, from which we can see things as they really are. This is hard work – but it is important and necessary.


Featured image: Emojis by Freepik


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.