Category Archives: decisions

Problems with Shaftesbury’s analogies between the five senses and ‘moral sense’


People don’t want to think that we are simply brutes, educated or trained only by treats and beatings. We like to think our minds have a lot to do with the process. Even during the original heyday of mechanistic philosophy, most 17th and 18th century thinkers argued that there was a real role, a fundamental role, for the soul and the mind to play in our daily lives, our education, and our choices in behavior.

Moral Sense Theory, often called Sentimentalism fit perfectly in that climate. It allows a person to check off both the ‘mechanistic’ box and the ‘soul serves a serious purpose’ box. Because its fundamental proposition is that the soul has a sense that is able to tell, immediately – without consciously analyzing or judging – right from wrong. Just like hearing allows us to process audible data immediately. And so this moral sense is effectively the motor of the body, the instigator of actions, because it is tied to pleasure and pain.

Cooper clarifies Cartesianism

Shaftesbury’s Moral Sense Theory does a huge service to Cartesian-inspired philosophy. It helps us see how a machine body coupled with a weakened ‘soul-mind’ could work together in practice. Though the soul is mostly unnecessary day-to-day because the body can handle itself very well, and though the emotions don’t “answer to” the soul, the soul does have sort of an ability, a sense, that works like the body’s senses: it is responsive to pleasurable and painful stimuli, and thus can effect physical responses and behavior much like the screech of a car wreck or a beautiful song can.

But it also clarifies something else about the Cartesian philosophy for us: Moral Sense Theory and Cartesianism share the same fundamental confusion as to whether emotions are judgments or not. Though it might seem clear that on Shaftesbury’s theory emotions are not judgments, he also makes a decent case for why they are. (This of course would undermine his moral sense theory.

Objects of emotion

Think about your favorite painting, or an Instagram picture you think is beautiful. When you look at something like that, you respond to a number of variables, such as color, proportion, and motion. You take all that in and it you are struck with the appreciation of beauty. Do you feel it is beautiful? Do you judge it beautiful? Whatever it is, it seems to happen immediately. Shaftesbury thinks these types of attributes don’t only immediately show the beauty (or ugliness) of objects to us – we are struck by it – but they do so necessarily. And he thinks there is a very close analog between seeing the beauty of that Instagram and capturing the motives, the nuances of another person’s behavior in a particular context. So we should and do see good and bad behavior necessarily and immediately.

That’s because the mind has its own sort of “eyes and ears” to perform the same sort of function, but relative to other minds. It watches and judges actions by seeing their proportion, by “scanning each sentiment or thought.”

So it is that if we a stranger helping a fragile old man to cross the street, we immediately appreciate that she did it out of benevolence and a good character. Though someone perhaps more cynical than Shaftesbury might advise you to turn your head before you see the young aide pick the old man’s pocket, Shaftesbury is convinced that the moral sense is excellent at feeling the “soft and harsh, the agreeable and disagreeable, in the affections” and perceives “foul and fair” harmony in actions just as it does in music.

The problem is that Shaftesbury finds it impossible to remain coherent and consistent in this view.

Understanding Shaftesbury’s problem

Just like Descartes, Shaftesbury thinks that the mind is under constant bombardment from “forms and images” notably for us, including the “moral and intellectual kind”. These forms or objects press on the mind the same way images of bodies, colors and sounds press on our senses. They press so hard that our sentiments, our heart, simply cannot remain neutral regarding these “pictures of manners” that the mind “imagines to itself.”

These moral forms, pictures of manners come not just from what our senses show us, but even the things that happen in our body when he have emotions and the emotions themselves. All these things, even our own being aware of ourselves having these thoughts, are objects that our mind and moral sense can ‘observe’ are objects of emotions.

All this passes the sniff test; I would agree that not only what I see with my eyes and hear with my ears lead me to have emotions and make judgments about good or bad behavior, but also my thinking about the things I see and how they make me feel cause me to have emotions and make judgments on behavior too. But it doesn’t really work the way Shaftesbury wants it to and Cartesian-type thinkers need it to.

The problems come out when we think about the analogy between you admiring your favorite painting or picture and you observing a person behaving in a moral situation. Think about; even when you are ‘observing’ the behavior of a mind you know well, a friend, a partner, do we really ‘immediately’ and ‘necessarily’ see the good or evil in what they do the way we see the beauty or ugliness in a picture or painting? What about when observing a stranger, an unknown person, acting in a context, in circumstances we don’t know or understand?

Any act can appear ‘proportionate’ or ‘morally beautiful’ when taken out of context, when motives are not transparent. But we don’t assign moral praise or blame in matters of right and wrong based on the outside appearance of things, without taking motives and contexts into consideration. In fact, even a person’s literal good looks can be magnified or diminished by a “better look” at the person overall.

Shaftesbury is convinced that the inclinations, passions and behavior of every person gets represented correctly, immediately in the mind of the observer, forcing the heart into a “trial or exercise” where it must choose between positive or negative emotional reactions, it must have a positive emotional reaction to what is right and just, and have a negative reaction to what is bad.

I think we’ve given a lot of reason to think something more than just ‘observation’ is going on in Shaftesbury’s moral sense. I think he’s allowing judgment in without crediting it. But let’s pick up next time with this ‘trial of the heart’ analogy and wrap up Shaftesbury.

What Everyone Ought to Know about Stoic Thought on the Emotions pt IV of IV

Was I being too hard on the Stoics?

I have strongly criticized the Stoics, concluding that their assumptions about the fundamental difference between the mind and the body, coupled with the insistence that you really must choose to ignore anything most people would say is ‘bad’ lead to impossible recommendations for how to act among people. You might think I’ve been too harsh, but I saved the best for last.

At §20 Epictetus makes the utterly stoic claim that “foul word or blows” are only an outrage because you judge them to be. §29 makes sure you get the point is serious, warning the would-be stoic that there are real costs to choosing the stoic life: grueling hours, you will have to “abandon your own people” and suffer the social humiliation of being looked down on by slaves and “ridiculed by those who meet you”. In fact, according to Epictetus, a true stoic gets the worst of every type of social good such as honors and offices, and even justice. And the reward for losing out on everything social is “peace of mind, freedom and tranquility”. So they shouldn’t care in any way about social norms or insults etc and they shouldn’t ditch their ‘stained’ friends.

So you see the Stoic position is simply a lost cause when it comes to the emotions and socialization. The two go hand in hand. And as we’ll see below the ad hoc revisions later Stoics make are nice only in the context of their assumptions and are intellectually spurious when viewed from outside the theory.

Theoretical & methodological problems

So I’ve made a lot of hay by attacking the core Stoic idea that emotions are judgments, and by pointing out how difficult it is to hold on to other key Stoic principles while still trying to account for proper socialization. But in fact, it seems even the early Stoics were aware of the problem. They just didn’t do very much convincing theoretical work to address it.

Chrysippus, who I mentioned before, and the Roman Stoic Seneca, whom Dante, among others, thought very highly of, did try to patch up the Stoic issues with emotions. Sort of.

Chrysippus tried to change the view to the idea that each emotion involves two separate value judgments. The first that there is a good or bad at hand, and the second is that it is appropriate to react to it. What type of emotion you experience will be determined by whether the thing is thought to be good or bad. So, when you decide that someone smearing gunk on your shirt deserves punishment, you experience the emotion anger, even if you can’t or won’t actually act on it. Chrysippus thought that this showed that it’s the second judgment – that its appropriate to react – that is the very bad judgment. He does this, of course, because you tend to lose trust and interest when you argue that awful things such as your wife dying in childbirth, or genocide, aren’t “actually” bad. But this was the original Stoic position.

So since the Stoics started with the goal of convincing you emotions are bad – which they had to – they need something to be wrong about you being upset about the truly bad things that are happening to you. They separated the mind from the body in an irrevocable way by saying you can only control your mind and that you must control your mind. The orthodox Stoic view held that your emotions are functions of your reasoning power, your ability to figure out what to do in a given situation. To the extent the emotions look like bad thinking, they must be fixed. (And if the emotions had a physiological (body) component and were able to overcome your mind, well that’s just awful).

In philosophy we call changing your core theory for the sole purpose of saving it from a killer objection ad hoc reasoning. It’s considered very poor arguing and thinking to do so. If the new additions to the theory are true, or make the new theory true, that’s fine. But you shouldn’t go around trying to argue that your original theory was correct. And its very often the case that these theoretical refinements are simply made-up and have no supporting evidence, don’t fix the problem or are undone by other problems.

I think their ad hoc move fails and I’ll take a moment to explain why. First, let’s keep in mind that the Stoics lean heavily on the idea that human emotions are voluntary. Their best piece of evidence for that is that emotions are eradicable; they felt that because we can get rid of an emotion, this proves that emotions are by their nature voluntary.

Of course, this absolutely does not follow logically. Here’s an analogy: Imagine that for no reason that you had anything to do with you got selected as the winner of a prize. But you can get rid of the prize by refusing it or giving it away. Does that mean you chose to win it? It’s silly, but the Stoics need it to be true. So they insist it is.


Plato, Seneca and Aristotle. I can understand why the artist made them look like twins.

Seneca, famous for his work on anger, gave a better argument for how Stoics should understand the emotions. He explained that the initial appearance (“first movements”) of anger or shocks of anger don’t have to lead to full anger because full emotion requires acts of assent and will. His idea is that since you can question appearances and not accept them, you don’t have to become angry. If it looks like someone is stealing your laptop you don’t automatically get angry, you can stop the process and see whether or not the person really is stealing it and then get angry for real or not. But if you let the initial ‘anger shock’ guide you to act out, it’s your own damn fault.

I kind of like this idea, but it’s far away from orthodox Stoicism. It seems to leave the possibility that some emotional action is justified. But it has the flaw of not realizing that in some cases this “initial” part of anger could be the difference between life and death. And it’s changing the concept of anger by somewhat arbitrarily cutting it up between the ‘initial’ shock and the rest of it; why isn’t the heat I feel in my chest when I’m bumped harshly on the subway steps ‘actually’ anger?

What I like best about Seneca’s kinda Stoic view is that it really comes close to agreement with P-A-L; that line of thinking says that time to reflect often enables us to halt our emotions too. But at the end of the day the Stoics want and need to say that emotions are voluntary judgments through and through if they really want to convince people that they can and should get rid of their emotions. But this “two-part judgment process” that equals one emotion isn’t very convincing – or practical.

Final thoughts on Stoicism

In the end, advocating that people lose all their sentiments, leave their family and give up any chance at a meaningful social life simply is absurd. It’s ridiculous to suppose that human beings ought to follow this plan in order to be happy. Humans, our minds and bodies, are social creatures. At the bottom, Stoics believe this, even if they overtly try to deny it. That’s why they are so inconsistent about whether social concepts such are reputation are truly good or bad. It’s as simple as realizing that if you really believe that when someone makes you angry it’s simply always “just you” who has angered yourself, you’ve created a hopeless situation. The extent to which stoic psychology denies that emotions exist at both hot and cold levels and that some emotions can and must be experienced and acted on, is the extent to which Stoicism is useless as an ethical theory.

At the end of the day, because of its misunderstanding of emotions, Stoicism offers some great thoughts on strength of character but is severely flawed when it comes to how to deal with other people. And lets be honest, that’s the major part of ethics.

In the next post I’ll discuss the rise of materialism and introduce you to the father of Modern Philosophy, René Descartes.

Materialist and Mechanistic philosophy created the modern world