Emotion, Moral Intuition, & the Social Function of Literature

I was recently with a longtime friend who revealed that he does not believe in morality. He thinks the only ultimate good is his own happiness. Now, he tries to act in a way that others see as moral because he believes that that is conducive to his own happiness, and he acknowledges having emotions about what other people do (learning about mass murder would make him unhappy for instance), but he refuses to connect these emotions to any propositional knowledge. For him, words like “wrong,” “right,” “ought,” and “should” have no meaning apart from an instrumental one (“If you want to be happy, you shouldn’t go around murdering people – unless you really really enjoy murdering people”).

I agreed with him that there is no way to prove that morality exists, but I maintained that it’s a properly basic assumption. Morality is like causality. The mere fact that A has followed B 1000000 times doesn’t mean it will do so the next time unless we assume causality (see Hume). We can’t prove causality from anything else; it is a fundamental category of our understanding — just the way our brains organize our sensations of the world (see Kant). In the same way, for most of us, moral judgments are inescapable. When we see someone torture an innocent person to death, we judge that act as wrong, indeed evil. My friend does not apparently judge that act as evil; he says knowing about the act would simply cause him negative emotions.

I didn’t ask him what those negative emotions would be, but my guess is that anger would play the predominant role. If the perpetrator “got away with it,” that anger would mixed with indignation or resentment. But why would you experience indignation or resentment at a criminal’s getting away with murder? Why not fear, which is presumably what asocial animals would experience if they witnessed something like this? Why not melancholy?

We are angry because we believe that the act is wrong and unjust, and should be stopped or punished with force or even violence, if necessary. If the act goes unpunished, we are indignant or resentful; the criminal “owes” something that has not been paid. Our moral judgments cause our emotions; they don’t spring from nowhere, purposeless.

Recently, psychologists have been learning more about how emotion and moral intuition are connected, something Adam Smith knew 250 years ago. Sensitivity to moral concerns is not associated with study of moral philosophy or reasoning capabilities, but with strong empathetic abilities (see Haidt, who is wrong on moral philosophy but right on moral psychology, and Margolis).

With no intended disrespect to my friend, I suspect he scores very low on the empathy spectrum. He fails to see that other human beings have legitimate interests of their own and deserve to be able to pursue happiness just as much as he is. He needs treatment in becoming empathetic — in fact, we all need that treatment from time to time.

Here’s where literature comes in. Literary fiction’s central social function is to train our empathetic organ. When we read fiction, especially with complex, nuanced characters, we put ourselves in the place of some of the characters. We see the world through their eyes and come to understand and value them. We can witness an infinite variety of events, characters, and actions that have never actually existed, so allowing us to fine-tune and to extend our empathy to situations that challenge our intuitions, typically by bringing them into conflict, or that make us think of possibilities we have never previously considered. Literature has other, more personal functions as art and entertainment, but its central social function is training us to empathize. That’s the reason why children should read literary fiction, and why it should be taught in schools, not just considered a private hobby. When I discuss books with my daughter, I’m going to ask her about what she felt at particular points, and why she felt that way.

So there you have it: Adam Smith tells us why literature is important for moral development.

4 thoughts on “Emotion, Moral Intuition, & the Social Function of Literature

  1. 1. For what it’s worth, I think I’m more respective of, and sensitive to, other people’s feelings than most. This has no bearing on the correctness of our positions, as long as we’re trying to prove things through reason. All the empathy in the world is that – it’s a feeling. It’s an is, not an ought, as you say. Why do I accept that patterns of the past will continue into the future, but I don’t accept that feelings are more than a function of the brain? Come on. The world without patterns is unimaginable. A world without morality in the sense you speak of is.

    2. I just argue that it’s a feeling. You can imagine a world where people only had feelings and not intuitions but that functioned much like our current world. People don’t harm others because it feels bad. People help others because it feels good. In fact, if you give people surveys, a lot more people would talk about this in terms of their feelings, not their intuitions. Reverse the situation and posit a world without feelings but where you did have moral intuitions. First, I suspect you would not act at all but simply wither until you died, even if you had an intellectual intuition that you should do otherwise. But more importantly, I don’t think you’d have these intellectual intuitions. I think these intuitions you speak of results of the more long-lasting emotions and what we are conditioned to feel.

    3. Why do we experience anger? We’re evolved to experience anger. That’s a fact about it. But that doesn’t derive an is from an ought. We’re dealt an evolutionary hand; if you care about happiness, we have to play into the way we’ve evolved to feel.

  2. I have to disagree. I teach literature. I agree with your friend. I would ask how you would measure the refinement (?) of empathy as a function of reading literature. Hitler apparently loved Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Don Quixote, for example. Perhaps it is just a cliché that Fascists loved culture but if true, well there goes your argument. Go watch the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Plus I suppose you are indicting the illiterate as un-empathetic. Many people believe what you believe, of course. You are wrong. (And don’t forget, quoting Humbert Humbert, ““You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”)

  3. I’m shooting from the hip here, but… morality is probably a built-in survival mechanism considering that people are far stronger in groups and have been since inception. So. Those with a well-honed sense of survival, AND enough perspective to realize that they might need the help of someone they don’t expect, probably also has a pretty well defined sense of morality.

    Basic Example: You have a group of people stuck on an island together, and if they all play well together and support one another the whole becomes greater than the sum of individuals. We’ve seen that ad-infinitum. All of them benefit even if some have less to offer or offer something less often than others.

    Problems with the concept occur when people reject the idea of needing the help of others that they don’t know or haven’t met yet. If they think that (1) they can take care of themselves all of the time and need nothing from the group – or are (2) powerful enough to just take from it whenever and whatever they like – morality becomes ambiguous. And it stays that way as long as they continue to get positive reinforcement from what they’re doing, even if there is a conflict with morality there.

    There are obviously a lot of people out there with somewhat sociopathic behavior (moral ambiguity) that get away with it. Why? Evidently civilization supports and in some ways cultivates it – Think CEO’s shooting for quarterly gains. In much smaller groups this might never happen considering that everyone’s positive (rather than self-absorbed) contribution matters to the survival of everyone else in the group. But in something as big as civilization there aren’t often faces associated with basic survival. In fact, basic survival is off the table. You go to the store and get what you need. It just magically shows up there. So for someone with no moral compass, civilization isn’t going to help them find a sense of morality. It’s only going to reinforce that they don’t necessarily need it.

  4. Long story short – reading good stories with complex characters in difficult situations is a good way to develop a sense of morality… especially considering that most people are so well insulated by civilization that they’ll never experience something like this more than a handful of times in a lifetime.

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