Is reason ethical?

In my previous blog I argued that neo-liberalism, and the ‘classic’ economic theory upon which it is built, is fundamentally flawed – flawed on two crucial counts. First, because of its belief in individualism, that humans have an essential individual ‘self’ that is the recipient of our experiences rather than a unique personality that is the product of them. And second, because of its exclusive focus on our rational faculty. My gripe here is nicely summed up by George Monbiot in his most recent book: “In no aspect of our lives do we behave like the calculating machines – using cold reason to interpret and promote our self-interest – of economic mythology”. Please do not misunderstand me. I fully support the use of reason in many aspects of our lives. It is vital to the clearance of much of the gunk that clogs our social pipes. What I object to is the implication that reason is our only tool. Specifically, I suggest that emotion provides the ground to all our ethical responses to others, and to focus exclusively on reason in economic theory is to render that theory unethical.

There is a growing body of research that suggests that the root of our sense of right and wrong is well and truly planted in our evolutionary history, supplied neither by cold reason nor a super-natural being, and that this root is precognitive and emotional. Patricia Greenspan, for example, has argued that “What we seem to have…as innate bases of ethics, are first, some primitive states or elements of emotion…secondly, a set of mechanisms for emotional learning, or the transfer of emotions.” In other words, the core of that which we generally regard as ethical or moral first emerged as an evolved emotional response to a situation, a response that provided an evolutionary advantage and which has since been developed through social and emotional learning.

I am not arguing that this emotional root explains all our various and wide ranging ethical theories, but I do agree with Greenspan when she says that whilst “the content of ethics may be supplied by various sorts of cognitive judgment…their motivational force – the effect moral judgements have on behaviour, what makes them moral judgments – depends on the possibility of recruiting emotions for initial learning.” Irrespective of any rational thought process that justifies a particular action, what makes that act a moral act, what supplies the imperative to perform the act, is its emotional base. But not just any emotion, fear or disgust for example, provides the base for such ethical judgements. These judgements require an emotional connection with the social other, they require a degree of concern or care for the other. And it this aspect of our ethical life that is so glaringly absent from classical economic theory. And at the very core of this concern for the other is our ability to empathise.

Martin L. Hoffman, one of the leading researchers in the field, defines empathy as “an affective response more appropriate to another’s situation than one’s own”. According to Hoffman, empathy is at the root of our moral responses, responses that develop over time and with the aid of our evolved cognitive abilities. Hoffman cites five modes of empathic arousal. The first three of these (mimicry and afferent feedback, classical conditioning, and direct association) are preverbal, automatic and involuntary. They are well and truly rooted in our evolutionary past and we have little or no influence over their development in our early years. The last two modes, however, are what Hoffman describes as ‘cognitively advanced modes’ – modes that are developed using the developed (and developing) cognitive abilities of the human brain, and (most importantly) “add scope to one’s empathic capability and enable one to empathize with others who are not present”. So, for example, evolution has programmed us to have an empathic response to a member of our family in distress. A mother cannot avoid feeling distress at the distress of one of her children, but, in terms of our evolutionary past, would have had far less concern (if any) for the distress of children in another community. But we have since evolved the ability to imagine what we would feel if these other children were our own to the point that we can be in tears at news pictures of children suffering on the other side of the world. And not only have we developed the ability to feel this suffering, but have developed the rational ability to do something about it.

My point is simply this: Ethical judgements and actions have both an emotional and a rational element. We are motivated to act in an ethical manner because we feel an emotional attachment to another person or group of people, and then, on the back of this feeling, we use our reason to both extend the scope of this feeling and to decide on the best course of action to take. Economic acts, acts purportedly made in rational self-interest, acts devoid of an emotional (empathic) connection with other people, cannot be ethical; and any economic theory that only acknowledges rational decision making is, by definition, unethical.

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