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.
Setting the table So far we’ve discussed three theories of emotion: visceral – the theory implicit in Homer, pluralist – the theory traceable through Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius, and cognitivist – the Stoic and to an extent Epicurean views. Now that we’ve laid all this ground work, its time to chart the fate of these competing camps in the Modern World. The 17th century was a fascinating age in philosophy and science with luminaries such as Bacon, Galileo, Hobbes, Kepler, Leibniz, Locke, Newton, Pascal and Spinoza (just to name a few) all flourishing during the period. And none of them was more influential regarding theorizing on the emotions than René Descartes.
Like most of his contemporaries, Descartes was amazed by the advances in empirical research and he, like they, firmly believed that most if not all of the world could be explained in terms of mechanics and mechanisms, a view sometimes called the Mechanist or Mechanistic philosophy. But Descartes and his cohorts were more radical than they might sound today. For example, Descartes claimed to commit himself to breaking from all previous theories of emotion and start thinking on the subject anew. But what he actually did was combine his ardent belief in a strict mind-body dualism, which we just saw in Stoicism with the mechanistic philosophy that dominated his times. There’s certainly novelty there, but it’s not nearly a complete break from the past.
The result of Descartes’ combination of mechanism and dualism was a severely flawed but highly influential theory of emotions. It – unintentionally – turns the mind into the equivalent of the scent that accompanies a cup of coffee, what we in philosophy call an epiphenomenon and makes the emotions and volition almost completely visceral – functions of the internal organs and muscles, and not of the brain. The Cartesian theory of emotions was and remains immensely influential and reaction to it was and is basically two-fold. People either agree with him that mind is some sort of non-physical, but real, thing and then try to fit it into what they know about physiology, or they say, sure that’s the best way to talk about ‘mind’, but it’s a hopelessly bad idea based on total B.S. so we shouldn’t talk about ‘mind’ (and often not emotions, either) as real things at all. I believe, as I’ll explain in a few posts, that this pair of reactions to the Cartesian view were a major influence on the rise of sentimentalism in ethics: basically the idea that we ‘get’ right and wrong in the same way we ‘get’ smells and colors; through a special sense and not through reasoning. And thus they ignore the development of and benefits to the P-A-L view of things. I’ll explain how it came to be that by the end of the 18th Century David Hume, taking the second reaction to the Cartesian view puts forth a full-grown sentimentalist ethical theory in combination with a worked out theory of emotion and cognition that is related pretty closely to the visceral theory of Homer.
I’ll come right out and say what you probably already get – I find the Cartesian theory, and the responses to it, deeply troubling. The fundamental reason I have such a dislike for both Descartes’ and Hume’s theories is that they share a fundamental problem: the want to but cannot drop the cognitive element in emotions and remain coherent. In the end, they slip the cognitive component of emotion back into the visceral account by means of ad hoc concepts and/or mechanisms, moves they are not entitled to, and which makes them at best internally inconsistent and at worst useless. That is, at best these theories have several claims that don’t agree with each other and it may even be that these and other problems make these theories incapable of offering us any positive guidance regarding the nature of thought, emotion, or right and wrong.
The Passions of the Soul
Descartes wrote an entire book dedicated to the nature of the emotions, The Passions of the Soul. In the next few blog posts I’ll explain the theory he puts forth in the book and identify three serious problems for it. I call these “Cartesian Errors” (the phrase is my own, and chosen for obvious reasons, but what I call the ‘first’ error is also the error referred to by the title of the book Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio, though I explain and develop it much more than he did). The Cartesian errors not only make the theory untenable, but worse, Descartes should have known better, and worse still, they became embedded in thinking on the emotions and remain so to the present day. Let’s wrap up this post with a brief introduction to the three Cartesian errors.
The three errors
The first Cartesian error has as much to do with his way of solving problems as it does with his commitment to dualism and the mechanistic philosophy: the belief that ‘mind’ or ‘mental activity’ is pure cognition and that ‘body’ is an unthinking machine, responsive only to pleasure and pain, and having nothing to do with cognition. The second Cartesian error is that his theory irreparably separates emotion from cognition and therefore is forced into an untenable ad hoc distinction between calm and violent passions in order to sneak intelligence into some emotions. As a result of this split, he can’t find much good to say about the emotions as far as ethics is concerned and so basically takes the position that emotions should be eliminated. The third Cartesian error is that the theory cannot explain how the mind and body could have duplex communication, which the P-A-L theory gave an excellent argument for, and which I conclude is a fundamental aspect of the emotions backed up by contemporary research.