Considered Only Flesh and Passions: Evaluating Moral Sentimentalism in Evolutionary Psychology

In the aptly titled The Descent of Man (1871), Charles Darwin confronts a vexing question from the perspective of natural selection: why be good? Darwin imagined an archetypical scenario involving two warring tribes. The army comprised of the bravest soldiers won the conflict. However, of that same army, the soldiers who bravely stepped to the front of the line were precisely the ones most likely to die. In contrast, the cowards who lagged were likely to survive and return home to pass on their traits to the next generation. This suggests that the traits of cowardliness would be selected for their value for genetic reproduction, not bravery. Acts of self-sacrifice and generosity incur too great an evolutionary cost in the individual selection process.

If Darwin is correct, why then does humanity value moral virtue? He attempts to explain this vexing question by arguing that the “much more powerful stimulus to the development of the social virtues, is afforded by the praise and the blame of our fellow-men.”1Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (New York: Modern Library, 1940), 449. He theorized that social pressure awards acts of altruism and virtues conducive to sociability. He continues, “A man who was not impelled by any deep, instinctive feelings to sacrifice his life for the good of others, yet was roused to such action by a sense of glory, would by his example excite the same wish for glory in other men and would strengthen by exercise the noble feeling of admiration.”2Darwin, Descent of Man, 500. Spontaneously created systems of honor and heroism allow for traits to be selected by the group, rather than individual organisms. The desire for honor and recognition thus perpetuates, indeed creates, moral systems.

 

Evolutionary Psychology

Those acquainted with the burgeoning literature of evolutionary psychology will recognize key aspects of Darwin’s moral theory. This academic discipline often assumes Darwin’s insight by situating human motivations, desires, and behaviors within the context of humanity’s long evolutionary drama. In the process, it often adopts with modification the same conclusion that the faculty of moral reasoning is generated as a byproduct of sociability—an ability solidified in human nature for its adaptive benefits. This makes cooperation, not merely competition, a co-existing motivation. However, this theory precedes even Darwin. Its assumptions about moral reasoning repeat insights commonly associated with Moral Sentimentalism, an intellectual project most associated with the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Even now, this constellation of ideas continues to appeal to the same demographic as its forebearers—the centralist gentleman.

Moral Sentimentalism is currently experiencing a revival. Bookstores and scientific literature abound with theorists creatively applying the interpretive conclusions of evolutionary psychology to the realm of ethics, constituting what can be referred to as the “new moral science.”3An excellent resource is James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality, Foundational Questions in Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018). Popular writers include figures such as E. O. Wilson, Frans de Waal, Joshua Greene, Paul Bloom, Sam Harris, and Jonathan Haidt with similar ideas reverberating in the social commentary of Jordan Peterson, Rob Henderson, and Louise Perry. Haidt, a household name for those familiar with this trend, presents interesting parallels with the debates occurring hundreds of years ago and thus serves as an excellent case study to scrutinize. His enticing blend of scientific expertise and philosophy, along with a genuinely empathetic tone, undoubtedly strengthens the appeal of his message. But his overall thesis is nothing new.

 

The Origins of Moral Sentimentalism

Hundreds of years ago, the luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment, including Francis Hutchenson, Adam Smith, and David Hume, among others, attempted to rescue human nature (reason, feelings, motivations, etc.) from the excesses of ideological dogma and stifling abstractions by relying on naturalistic, rather than essential, explanations of human phenomena. They responded to those who probed the “state of nature” to investigate the contents of human nature unperturbed by accumulated traditions, society, family, duties, or bonds. Predecessors like Thomas Hobbes found this “savage” to be a bundle of passions governed exclusively by self-preservation and the fear of violent death—society being comprised of self-interested individuals held together by a greater fear of a sovereign. The Moral Sentimentalists, disturbed by this pessimism, sought to salvage some innate benevolence.

Generations before Darwin, Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature (1739) proposed that moral judgments articulate feelings of approval or disapproval whereby the in-born sentiment of sympathy—the phenomenon by which an individual can imaginatively share in the sentiments of others—serves as the basis for benevolence.4“Now in order to know what passions are related to these different kinds of sympathy, we must consider, that benevolence is an original pleasure arising from the pleasure of the person belov’d, and a pain proceeding from his pain: From which correspondence of impressions there arises a subsequent desire of his pleasure, and aversion to is pain. In order, then, to make a passion run parallel with benevolence, ’tis requisite we shou’d feel these double impressions.” David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1896), 387. Sympathy also serves as the animating principle of pride and humility, as an individual actively seeks to manipulate other people’s impressions of himself.5“Whatever other passions we may be actuated by; pride, ambition, avarice, curiosity, revenge or lust; the soul or animating principle of them all is sympathy; nor wou’d they have any force, were we to abstract entirely from the thoughts and sentiments of others.” David Hume, Human Nature, 363. His theory therefore presumes moral judgments as communication of intuitions rather than reason; post-hoc description of a moral “sense” or “taste”:

Morality is nothing in the abstract Nature of Things, but is entirely relative to the Sentiment or mental Taste of each particular Being; in the same Manner as the Distinctions of sweet and bitter, hot and cold, arise from the particular feelings of each Sense or Organ. Moral Perceptions, therefore, ought not to be class’d with the Operations of the Understanding, but with the Tastes of Sentiments.6This passage is used in the Enquiry but deleted in later editions. Quoted by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 135.

Hume’s suave skepticism suits those suspicious of ideology. His vindication of sympathy provides a more optimistic modification to the “selfish theory” and better explanation of mankind’s complex moral nature. But every movement has its foils. For the Sentimentalists in Hume’s day, the rouge satirist Bernard Mandeville proved especially provocative. Mandeville, a pivotal but often unrecognized figure from history, pushed the Sentimentalists’ presuppositions to the limits. In the process, he revealed its uncomfortable paradoxes and unintended consequences.

 

Bernard Mandeville and The Fable of the Bees

Born in 1670 to a distinguished Dutch family, Mandeville evidenced his hereditary genius early. Prominent paternal figures dotted his family line which no doubt informed his decision to enter the well-respected medical field. Mandeville would later relocate to England in the fallout of the tumultuous Glorious Revolution of 1688 where he carved out a successful career as a physician.7See “Life of Mandeville” in Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, ed. F. B. Kaye, vol. 1, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 1988). Mandeville’s percolating interest in politics and social commentary led to his eventual infamy. His anonymous doggerel verse entitled The Grumbling Hive: Or, Knaves Turn’d Honest (1705) would serve as the foundation of his most notorious work—The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits (1714).8Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, ed. F. B. Kaye, vol. 1, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 1988).

The whimsical plot of the poem reimagines contemporary English society as a hive of bees that live in luxury and ease. Yet there remain vestiges of vice and selfishness. Petty crimes, exploitation, and political squabbles stubbornly persist in the otherwise idyllic society. The ethically minded bees reflect upon their guilt and ask the higher power (“Jove”) for perfect benevolence. With reluctance, the higher power “rid the bawling Hive of Fraud, and did. The very Moment it departs, And Honesty fills all their Hearts.”9Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 27. From that moment on, the hive lived in perfect sympathy—a moralist’s paradise.

 

The Virtue of Selfishness

The tale takes a damning twist. After just half an hour the economy of the hive collapsed. Production abruptly halted as rampant greed and consumerism evaporated. The bees found contentment with a bare minimum level of self-preservation, seeking neither extravagance nor improvement. In a direct attack on the moralists, Mandeville attributed the previously enjoyed prosperity directly to the clever arrangement of personal vice. The imagery is unflinching:

The Root of Evil Avarice,
That damn’d ill-natur’d baneful Vice,
Was Slave to Prodigality,
That Noble Sin; whilst Luxury.
Employ’d a Million of the Poor,
And odious Pride a Million more
Envy it self, and Vanity
Were Ministers of Industry;
Their darling Folly, Fickleness
In Diet, Furniture, and Dress,
That strange, ridic’lous Vice, was made.10Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 25.

The 433-line poem methodically subverts the project of those who sought to promote perfect benevolence within English society. Vice and viciousness carefully arranged, not virtue, perpetuates society. Indeed, each canonical vice appeared to Mandeville as producing a corresponding public benefit: the envious consume without limit, the lazy sponsor industry, the greedy apply good business practices, etc. A functional society is but the aggregate of self-interest. Mandeville states the message bluntly: “Thus every Part was full of Vice, Yet the whole Mass a Paradise.”11Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 24.

The original Fable parrots a crude version of Hobbesian egoism where “every individual is a little world by itself, and all creatures, as far as their understanding and abilities will let them, endeavor to make that self happy: This in all of them is the continual Labor, and seems to be the whole design of life.”12Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, ed. F. B. Kaye, vol. 2 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 1988), 178. In the state of nature, “all untaught animals are only solicitous of pleasing themselves, and naturally follow the bent of their own inclinations, without considering the good or harm that from their being pleased will accrue to others.”13Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 41. But the primacy of self-preservation ultimately explains how civilization emerged from savagery.

Mandeville mused that clever politicians emerged in humanity’s distant history who successfully hijacked the passion of self-love to obtain benefits only accessible through the infrastructure of society. These sagacious moralists talked highly of virtues and created accompanying schemes of reward and punishment conveniently designed by those who would find themselves at the top of the hierarchy. Insidiously, the motive to pursue a virtuous life in whatever form proves to be nothing but disguised self-interest—a more socially accepted means of winning status and reward. The self-deceived moralists, those who insist on the possibility of untarnished virtue, must come to terms with the fact that their schemes only perpetuate splendid vice.

Mandeville adopts the same moral emotivism as his interlocutors in understanding moral judgments as mere expressions of pleasure and harm. Or, in his words: “it is manifest, that when we pronounce actions good or evil, we only regard the hurt or benefit the society receives from them, and not the person who commits them.”14Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 244. At a societal level, this view accords well with his laissez-faire economics and loosely regulated pluralism. The conclusion can be easily discerned “that welfare, or pleasure, or happiness should be the end of action does not mean the limiting of this welfare, pleasure, or happiness to one particular kind, but may allow the satisfaction of as many kinds as there are people…a man could enjoy blue mold without forbidding his neighbour to eat truffles.”15Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), lix. Happiness refers to the pleasures of sentiments; as unique to individuals as fingerprints. Further, “these various passions and wants, it remains to add, he found to be so many manifestations of self-love, and all the actions of men so many naive or deliberate efforts to satisfy that self-love.”16Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), lxi. Talk of objective good proves self-deceived at best, and tyrannical at worst.

 

Challenges to the “Selfish Theory”

Nearly a decade later, the second edition of the Fable was published which included “An Essay on Charity and Charity-Schools” and “A Search into the Nature of Society.” This edition proved too abominable to be ignored and an ensuing court case made infamous Mandeville’s unwavering axiom that “moral virtues are the political offspring which flattery begot upon pride.”17Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 51. When this version entered the public eye, debunking Mandeville became a publishing phenomenon. A furry of pamphlets, reviews, and full philosophical works responded to his shocking egoism from all directions. Adam Smith, David Hume, Francis Hutcheson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, George Berkeley, Joseph Butler, William Law, and more all commentated on the work with varying degrees of revulsion. The firestorm persisted for decades.

Critics often agree that flattening all motivations as expressions of self-interest does not easily conform with the common language of mankind. Mandeville’s simplistic egoism would make any distinctions between “good” or “bad” completely frivolous. Where would the language of “good” and “bad” come from, the question is raised, if individuals were not predisposed to distinguish motives? Common sense also suggests situations where people regularly incur great sacrifice in ways that do not contribute to self-preservation—such as in acts of extreme heroism or revenge. The thorough-going instrumental reason of the egoist, where the agent’s pursuit of pleasure is the sole reducible motive, makes explaining away instances where people willingly act against their self-interest difficult to account.

 

Self-Liking vs. Self-Love

In reluctant agreement with these criticisms, Mandeville concedes situations of great sacrifice which the motive for self-interest alone cannot easily account (such as in dueling or natural parental affection). The “selfish theory” demanded a more complex theory of motivations. In a second volume, Mandeville sought to salvage his argument by revising points that he feared remained ambiguous in the early work. He clarified further that an individual must first like the self to want to seek his well-being. Self-liking precedes acts of self-love as “no creature can love what it dislikes.”18Mandeville, Fable (vol. 2), 129. This innocuous clarification adds a deeper motivation that can sometimes act incongruently with self-interest: the desire to be liked.

The second volume of the fable explores this new dimension whereupon Mandeville declares: “The most superlative Wish, which a Man possess’d, and entirely fill’d with it can make, is, that he may be well thought of, applauded, and admired by the whole World, not only in the present, but all future Ages.”19Mandeville, Fable (vol. 2), 64. One commentator notes the implication: rational faculties in service to self-liking “furnish[es] every individual with arguments to justify their inclinations.”20Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 333. In sum, “it is one of Mandeville’s basal beliefs that our most elaborate and judicial philosophizing are only a rationalization of certain dominant desires and biases.”21In Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), lxiii. The motive to secure esteem and honor for acting virtuously makes it necessary to distinguish “good” or “bad.” The puzzling phenomenon of altruism could finally be explained as the adaptive practices of pride and vainglory (the conclusion Darwin would borrow to explain the mechanisms of group selection). Most importantly, Mandeville argues that acts of empathy and benevolence, as explained by Sentimentalists, are best understood as mere manifestations of self-liking—a crude, yet challenging assessment to sidestep.

From the opposite direction, Mandeville ended at similar conclusions as his polite-minded opponents. Someone like Mandeville just proved more apt than others in recognizing that merely distinguishing motives is different than vindicating morality. Empathy may spur acts of benevolence, but it is nevertheless self-regarding. “Virtue? Honour? Charity? Are not these of a transcendent sanctity?” one commentator rhetorically inquiries. “Certainly not, [Mandeville] would answer if thus asked; they have their roots in human nature and desire, and are as relative to the forces of nature as is the cultivation of a tulip.”22Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), liii. Ethical statements describe human nature as it is, not what it ought to be. Because of this presupposition, there is “admitted no final criterion for conduct whatsoever…There is no such thing as a summum bonum…The inevitable differences between men render it impossible that any definite agreement should ever be reached as to what is really desirable. Shall we say that the pleasurable or useful shall form our ideal? Why, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.”23Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), lvi.

 

Moral Sentimentalism and its Unintended Consequences

Alasdair MacIntyre wisely notices that convoluted psychologies proliferated in this era to solve the inevitable difficulties of pinning morality to the inner workings of passions, interests, motivations, and esteem.24See Alasdair C. MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century, Routledge Classics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), 161. This is not a coincidence. However, the possibility of defining the substance of happiness ironically stands more aloof as passions increase in complexity. There exists little guidance for evaluating if any given desire is better or worse as all are fundamentally of equal consideration. But “telling us to obey Instincts” C.S. Lewis quips, “is like telling us to obey ‘people.’ People say different things: so do instincts.”25C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 35. Individuals enviably find themselves pulled by various instincts which cannot easily reconcile nor distinguish. The contest between personal wants and social pressure is equally paralyzing.  The lack of clarity involving the prioritization of passions inevitably leads to inner fragmentation and anxiety. Mandeville himself confronted firsthand this psychological fragmenting in his career as a doctor, specifically a doctor who specialized in hypochondria.

Published shortly after the initial Grumbling Hive poem, Mandeville’s Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Passions (1711) circulated with favor in certain medical circles despite its unusual format as a dialogue. Curiously, Mandeville never explicitly defines hypochondria in this treatise but uses the text to categorize various symptoms which modern readers may associate with depression. Mandeville identifies a close link between self-liking and mental health. The desire to be esteemed, he understands, is the ultimate source of hope and aspiration. If not satisfied, the passion renders various forms of apathy or even self-hatred at its extreme. Moreover, if this inner mechanism is compromised in any way, the various symptoms of shame, paranoia, loneliness, apathy, or melancholy begin to overwhelm—consequences of unbalanced passions or maladaptation. Hypochondria manifests as the want of self-liking. The doctor, adopting the role of a therapist, replicates social interaction by exposing the patient voluntarily to controlled forms of dialogue, encouraging interest in public impression.

 

Hypochondria, Self-Esteem, and Despair

In the case of the hypochondriac, the unquenched desire to be liked incentivizes the morose to invent self-diagnosed ailments which provide a post hoc justification for their alienation from others. Indeed, Mandeville saw how hypochondriacs passively latch on to anything to validate their feelings of unworthiness, being susceptible to social-contagions, ideologues, conspiracy, virtue-signaling, and self-diagnosed trauma. Descriptions associated with shame and despair undergird the hypochondriac’s condition: “Sometimes my Spirits are oppress’d of a sudden with an unaccountable Sadness, and I feel a great Weight at my Heart; at the height of this Anxiety I am often seiz’d with such a terrible Fits of Crying, as if I was to be dissolv’d in Tears, by which yet I am generally reliev’d.”26Bernard Mandeville, A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Diseases (London: J. Tonson, 1730), 267. Interestingly, he considered the upper class especially suspectable to this form of melancholy.

Mandeville observed how those of privilege are “more at leisure to reflect, besides that their wishes and desires being larger, themselves are more likely to be offended at a great many passages of life, than people of lower fortunes, who have seldom higher ends, than what they are continually employed about, the getting of their daily bread.”27Mandeville, Treatise, 219–20. While the daily necessities distract the mental energies of the poor, the wealthy suffer the introspection made possible by tranquility. Wealth only agitates feelings of self-doubt and enlarges appetites which cannot be absolved with more consumerism. Only the luxurious can afford this kind of madness and despondency. The exclusive motivation for self-interest could not explain why the materially comfortable would suffer from such internal distress. The deep desire to be liked makes relating these symptoms to low self-esteem a more intelligible explanation.

The insidious character of this despair is the perceived absence of meaning and consequent apathy, reminiscent of the vice of acedia. Nothing seems worth doing. To break this indifference, the patient must aspire—but aspire to what? And to what degree? Unfortunately, the therapist cannot know or say. Successful treatment, for Mandeville, serves only to validate the efforts of the patient’s self-discovery. The afflicted ought to see themselves as someone worthy of being liked, a necessary precondition for pursuing and obtaining the esteem of others. While Mandeville praises this as an effective strategy, his own philosophy may in fact undermine his intentions. For if everything hinges on self-liking, then mental well-being ultimately depends on the fickle (and often contradictory) judgments of outsiders. Like a hall of mirrors, occasions for guilt extend infinitely, darkening with every reflection. There exists no resolution to the most basic existential question “What ought I to become?” except a slave to impressions, naturally making the confused person dangerously impressionable. The individual desperately requires yet repulses the objectifying gaze of the Other. Jean-Paul Sartre’s somber aphorism emerges: “Hell is—other people!”28Jean-Paul Sarte, No Exit and The Flies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1949), 61.

 

Jonathan Haidt: A Case Study

In 2012, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt released his celebrated work The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012). As with Hume and Mandeville, Haidt openly challenges conventional views of ethics which he claims overly emphasizes the role of reason in moral decision making. Instead, he presumes the familiar dichotomy between the calculative process of reason—lumbering, slow, and conscious—and the more dominant role of intuition in human behavior.29This dichotomy of human cognition appears frequently in modern literature such as in Daniel Kahneman’s best seller Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational (2008), Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (2005), Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge (2008) or Iain McGilchrist metaphysical tome The Matter of Things (2021). Consequently, he sees moral evaluations as deriving from sentiment rather than rational calculation whereby “reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people.”30Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 104. In reality, talk of virtue and vice serves only as learned vocabulary through which an individual communicates his own moral sentiments to others who hopefully respond with reciprocity.

The premise is elegantly simple: intuition comes first, reasoning second. As a result, when individuals provide post-hoc reasons for why they acted, they are primarily concerned with justifying oneself to others. This evolved ability to communicate sentiments and sympathize allows for stronger (and larger) bonds between fellow-men—obvious evolutionary advantages. But if morality is a byproduct of the socialization supported by group selection, then it should come as no surprise that biases and self-righteousness dominate supposedly “rational” moral discourse. Irresistible instincts to self-justify become the very impetus for fanaticism, bigotry, and partisanship. The cultivation of sympathy, not continual reliance on “reason,” serves as the only proper way of pacifying moral tribalism.

 

The Problem of “Facts”

Haidt’s open praise for Hume throughout his work testifies that this project consciously connects itself to the Sentimentalist’s legacy.31For example, in describing a social experiment where test subjects were asked to explain their moral impulses, Haidt concludes: “They seemed to be morally dumbfounded—rendered speechless by their inability to explain verbally what they knew intuitively. These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard at reasoning. But it was reasoning not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of emotional reactions. It was reasoning as described by the philosopher David Hume.” See Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 29. But someone like Mandeville helps to reveal the pertinent implications of this tradition. Firstly, it demands a theory of human nature separate from and predating judgments of human “goodness.” As particulars, expressions of “good” and “bad,” emerge as byproducts of spontaneous social norms yielding adaptive benefits (traditions are merely the norms which “worked”). For certain theorists, the goal is to live more in conformity with the ingrained instincts and habits solidified, for better or for worse, during human evolution. It is therefore necessary to invent a psychology of passions and motives that can undergo adaptation and uncover the conditions which spurred their “improvement” or “maladaptation.” But speculating on this “state of nature” is a strategy of a bygone era to uncover the lowest common denominator of human nature. Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, for example, all valiantly attempted to develop theories of mankind’s base psychology and eventual trajectory—and all these theories hopelessly contradicted each other. What one found in these systems depended largely on the personality of the theorist, a convenient property of “facts” for these social engineers.32Consider Alasdair MacIntyre who surmised: “What Hume presents as human nature as such turns out to be eighteenth-century English human nature, and indeed only one variant of that.” Alasdair C. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 295.

It is also common for these kinds of theorists, as it was for their forebearers, to write themselves out of their system. At once they say every system of thought springs from pride, power, lust, envy, self-interest, bias, social reputation, or some conglomeration of passions either cruel or benevolent—yet they somehow free themselves from this spell to tell the reader this objective truth. In his witty apologetic Remarks on The Fable of the Bees (1724), William Law notes this sleight of hand:

If man had nothing but instincts and passions, he could not dispute about them; for to dispute is no more an instinct or a passion, than it is a leg or an arm. If therefore you would prove yourself to be no more than a brute, or an animal, how much of your life you need alter I cannot tell, but you must at least forbear writing against virtue, for no mere animal ever hated it.33William Law, Remarks on the Fable of the Bees (Cambridge: D.A. MacMillan, 1845), 4.

To insist upon the irreducibility of human sentiment in matters of truth is soft relativism masquerading as humility—whether adaptation of reason is defined in reference to power or the more complex motive of self-righteousness. Relativism of any form always catches up with itself. Consider Haidt’s own words again: “Reasoning…evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation.”34Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 104. Perhaps he should be believed.

 

“What Ought I Desire?”

David Hume’s infamous “is-ought” problem also remains a stubborn roadblock for the new social engineers. Long ago, Hume identified a logical gap between making descriptive statements about how the world as it is (facts) and offering evaluative judgments about how it ought to be (values). Psychologists may hold out hope that they can categorize passions with precision, but there remains a question regarding how these passions ought to be arranged or in determining what a person ought to desire. Haidt, for example, distills a list of moral sentiments from his research including care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression but unlike Aristotle’s list of deficiency and excess, there can be no golden mean. For when all moral judgments equate to expressions of feeling, then “he who prefers equity to injustice is but like him that chooses a great button rather than a small one; and he who prefers fidelity to falseness, as whimsical as the florist who admires the auricula more than the tulip.”35Law, Remarks, 53.

While Hume tried inconsistently to confront the inherited “is-ought” gap within the Empirical method, his followers often dismiss it with flippancy. Evaluative judgments are frequently smuggled, only signaling unvoiced assumptions about what constitutes “good” or a “well adjusted” personality to the theorist (consider the popular terminology “Dark Tetrad” composed of the devil terms: “narcissism,” “Machiavellianism,” “psychopathy,” and the recently added “sadism”). Without declaring a frame of reference for excellence or flourishing regarding human nature as such—knowledge of universals which this tradition denies by fiat—all value statements and interpretive judgments collapse into mere idiosyncratic expressions of preference. To this end, protest not dialogue becomes the only remaining method of persuasion.36See chapter 6 “Some Consequences of the Failure of the Enlightenment Project” in Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). This is a problem of their own making.

 

Reason Precedes Sentiment

The English Anglican clergyman Joseph Butler, a contemporary of Hume and Mandeville, observed another frequent logical leap. Butler observed how pleasure would never arise in the first place if not “for that prior suitableness between the object and the passion.”37Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel and A Dissertation Upon the Nature of Virtue (London: G. Bell & Sons ltd, 1914), 167. The desire which impels action is “toward external things themselves, distinct from the pleasures arising from them.”38Butler, Sermons, 167. The clarification is subtle: sentiments of pleasure are the byproduct of a specific end sought for its own sake which brought satisfaction. Sentiments presume desires, they do not cause them. William Law explores an implication:

Moral virtue came amongst men in the same manner as seeing and hearing came amongst them. Had there ever been a time when there was nothing of it in the world, it could no more have been introduced, than the faculties of seeing and hearing could have been contrived by men who were blind and deaf. Were not the first principles and reasons of morality connatural to us, and essential to our minds, there would have been nothing for the moral philosophers to have improved upon.39Law, Remarks, 17–18.

Social conditioning could not explain the faculty of moral reasoning if humans were not first beings capable of virtue just as social conditioning could not explain why the blind would take an interest in color. Said differently, sentiments function as the currency of desire; they may facilitate every transaction, but their utility consists precisely in helping obtain objects independently recognized as valuable. Sentiments are means to an end, not an end of themselves. Those like Haidt have this relationship backwards.

Modern Sentimentalists hoped to situate moral judgments in the realm of intuitions, supposedly challenging the long-established “Rationalism” and reductionism in Western society. In the process of rejecting the cold abstract Rationalism of René Descartes, these Empiricists inadvertently reject the concept of teleology—goodness defined in references to some end (telos) or purpose. This serves as the central tenet for the much more ancient and robust ethical tradition of Natural Law. As Law explains,

As things are different by their own proper natures, independent of our wills, so actions have their own peculiar qualities from themselves, and not from our thoughts about them. In these immutable qualities of actions is founded the fitness and reasonableness of them, which we can no more alter, than we can change the proportions or relations of lines and figures.40Law, Remarks, 21. Emphasis mine.

In this usage, reasonableness in moral judgment means the apprehension of ends which perfect a being’s nature (such as comprehending that sunlight befits the true “happiness” of plants). This makes perfection in accordance with nature, not social acceptability or feelings of sentiment, the true concern for ethical reasoning since “happiness is the only reasonable end of every being. An action is not good, or virtuous, because it is self-denial.”41Law, Remarks, 31. Indeed, this foundational principle of natural law that looms largest in Western civilization, its principles being only called into question with seriousness at the dawn of the Enlightenment. In this era, it was the “enlightened” who attempted to sever morality from teleology in the name of simplification who were ironically responsible for generating a wake of confusion and disunity.

 

The Coddling of the Mind

The contemporary attempt to diffuse ideological strife by reframing moral judgments as expressions of intuitions is certainly noble—those like Haidt are no doubt excellent neighbors and citizens. They see cooperation as more adaptive than competition, empathy more prized than egoism. However, the controversy surrounding Mandeville and the British Moralists hints that the project of grounding morality in sentiment (of any kind) remains ill-equipped to resolve its own missing premises. Someone like Mandeville recognized that even gentler sentiments like empathy, when abstracted from discussions about “good,” end up functioning as expressions of self-liking—a passion that proves both insatiable and debilitating. His writings prophesied the resulting fascination with psychology and therapeutic malaise. This phenomenon, he inadvertently observes, may arise from the very assumptions upholding Moral Sentimentalism, not remedied by it.

It was inevitable that Haidt would need to co-write a companion piece The Coddling of the American Mind (2018) aptly subtitled: “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.” Haidt rightly dreads how the obsession for self-esteem normalizes a fragile psyche (just as Mandeville confirmed in his own way for hypochondriacs). But the irony of contemporary writers blaming modern pathologies on the “Enlightenment” by parroting arguments from someone like David Hume should not be overlooked (thoroughgoing Empiricism is just as much a child of this era as Rationalism). If morality at its best is nothing more than sociability perpetuated by empathy, then would not a culture of safetyism and self-obsession be an inevitable consequence? Unless of course, humans ought to be reasonable. Modern attempts to revive Moral Sentimentalism to remedy these social ills will not succeed; it was contributing cause. Grounding moral principles in the basest elements of human nature inevitably means humans cannot aspire to anything beyond their lowest (and most impressionable) form. The project is doomed to failure because it prevents itself from answering the fundamental moral question: what is good?

 

Conclusion

It is fitting, therefore, to end with C. S. Lewis’ famous words in The Abolition of Man (1943) which sharply warn against the sentimentalist project: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the functions. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”42Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 26. This experiment in ethics and its myriad philosophical assumptions contributes to a descent of human nature. While some plunged the depths, many evolutionary psychologists seek a subtler decline. In any case, the end is the same: reducing humanity to mere nature, a “bundle of passions.” And to this end, “If man chooses to treat himself as raw material raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners.”43Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 72–73. In like mind, Law offers a pertinent conclusion to those still allured by this vision of man: “Since you desire to be thought only skin and flesh, and a compound of passions, I will forget your better part, as much as you have done, and consider you in your own way.”44Law, Remarks, 4.

 


[1] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man (New York: Modern Library, 1940), 449.

[2] Darwin, Descent of Man, 500.

[3] An excellent resource is James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky, Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality, Foundational Questions in Science (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

[4] “Now in order to know what passions are related to these different kinds of sympathy, we must consider, that benevolence is an original pleasure arising from the pleasure of the person belov’d, and a pain proceeding from his pain: From which correspondence of impressions there arises a subsequent desire of his pleasure, and aversion to is pain. In order, then, to make a passion run parallel with benevolence, ’tis requisite we shou’d feel these double impressions.” David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1896), 387.

[5] “Whatever other passions we may be actuated by; pride, ambition, avarice, curiosity, revenge or lust; the soul or animating principle of them all is sympathy; nor wou’d they have any force, were we to abstract entirely from the thoughts and sentiments of others.” David Hume, Human Nature, 363.

[6] This passage is used in the Enquiry but deleted in later editions. Quoted by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 135.

[7] See “Life of Mandeville” in Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, ed. F. B. Kaye, vol. 1, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 1988).

[8] Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, ed. F. B. Kaye, vol. 1, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 1988).

[9] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 27.

[10] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 25.

[11] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 24.

[12] Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees or Private Vices, Publick Benefits, ed. F. B. Kaye, vol. 2 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund Inc., 1988), 178.

[13] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 41.

[14] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 244.

[15] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), lix.

[16] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), lxi.

[17] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 51.

[18] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 2), 129.

[19] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 2), 64.

[20] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), 333.

[21] In Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), lxiii.

[22] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), liii.

[23] Mandeville, Fable (vol. 1), lvi.

[24] See Alasdair C. MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century, Routledge Classics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2002), 161.

[25] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 35.

[26] Bernard Mandeville, A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Diseases (London: J. Tonson, 1730), 267.

[27] Mandeville, Treatise, 219–20.

[28] Jean-Paul Sarte, No Exit and The Flies (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1949), 61.

[29] This dichotomy of human cognition appears frequently in modern literature such as in Daniel Kahneman’s best seller Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational (2008), Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (2005), Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge (2008) or Iain McGilchrist metaphysical tome The Matter of Things (2021).

[30] Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 104.

[31] For example, in describing a social experiment where test subjects were asked to explain their moral impulses, Haidt concludes: “They seemed to be morally dumbfounded—rendered speechless by their inability to explain verbally what they knew intuitively. These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard at reasoning. But it was reasoning not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of emotional reactions. It was reasoning as described by the philosopher David Hume.” See Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 29.

[32] Consider Alasdair MacIntyre who surmised: “What Hume presents as human nature as such turns out to be eighteenth-century English human nature, and indeed only one variant of that.” Alasdair C. MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 295.

[33] William Law, Remarks on the Fable of the Bees (Cambridge: D.A. MacMillan, 1845), 4.

[34] Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 104.

[35] Law, Remarks, 53.

[36] See chapter 6 “Some Consequences of the Failure of the Enlightenment Project” in Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).

[37] Joseph Butler, Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel and A Dissertation Upon the Nature of Virtue (London: G. Bell & Sons ltd, 1914), 167.

[38] Butler, Sermons, 167.

[39] Law, Remarks, 17–18.

[40] Law, Remarks, 21. Emphasis mine.

[41] Law, Remarks, 31.

[42] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 26.

[43] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 72–73.

[44] Law, Remarks, 4.

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