Impulses v. Morals

I think one of the greatest perspectives I gained from my undergrad philosophy days came from Dr. Sylvia Culp.  Sylvia was my first grad adviser; it was hard to lose her in 2004 — far too young — to pervasive cancers.  But I had her for one of the upper-division undergrad courses on the history of contemporary philosophy, and one of the assigned texts that semester was Jared Diamond’s Why Sex Is Fun.

It’s a short little book.  It’s not pretentious, despite the academic heft of its author.  In just a dozen or so brief chapters, Diamond explains human sexual and mating behaviors from the perspective of evolutionary biology, and Sylvia augmented the text with her own insights as a mother and feminist philosopher of science.*  This viewpoint has served me well as I’ve grappled with some of the behaviors I’ve encountered over the years.  In fact, this very week I explicitly invoked Diamond when counseling both Becca and Jen on relationship issues.

What intrigues me about the “evolutionary biology” approach is that it puts an interesting twist on questions of moral rectitude. 

Let’s begin with a distinction.  A judgement is a moral act; when I judge, I am weighing a pattern of behavior in a defined context to determine whether a particular action is worthy of praise or blame.  Since ethics is the study of value-laden decision-making, a necessary component to ethical analysis is reference to a person’s disposition — his intention.  The degree of culpability I have for taking a person’s watch, for example, depends very much on whether I intended to steal it, whether I was merely absent-minded in picking it up, or whether it fell into my pocket by mistake.  Without deliberate intent, the case for genuine culpability weakens.

An assessment, by contrast, is merely a description and summary of one or more actions in context.

So, let’s consider a hypothetical.  Let’s say a person named Bob is dating a person named Jane.  After two years together, Bob and Jane have grown quite close and have fallen in love.  As the two discuss marriage, or cohabitation, “something” happens that gives Bob cold feet.  He turns to Katy, a co-worker, and forms a quasi-relationship with her — not enough to outright derail his commitment to Jane, but enough to introduce a non-negligible degree of instability.

If we judge Bob, we may well conclude that he’s an idiot who betrayed Jane’s trust.  No matter how you slice it, this doesn’t bode well for Bob.  Consider the judgment of the leading moral theories:

  • Deontology (duty-based ethics):  “Bob had a positive obligation to honor his emotional commitment to Jane.  He violated that commitment by engaging with Katy, and his actions leading to the end of the relationship are therefore morally blameworthy.”
  • Consequentialism/Utilitarianism:  “Bob’s actions led to the unhappiness of Bob, Jane, and Katy, whereas remaining with Jane would have maximized the happiness of Bob and Jane and left Katy neutral.  As such, destabilizing the relationship was not the most appropriate course of action.”
  • Care Ethics/Respect for Persons:  “By bringing Katy into the mix, Bob demonstrated that he lacked a basic respect for the feelings and the autonomy of Jane, and he showed that he viewed Katy as a mere instrument for acting out his commitment issues. Therefore, Bob has demonstrated a blameworthy lack of consideration for the personhood of those he wounded in this situation.”
  • Divine Command:  “God wills that men and women should join together, get married, and raise children.  By setting aside the vocation of marriage with Jane, Bob lusted after another woman in his heart and therefore has broken God’s law.”

Clearly, Bob’s in the doghouse.  But let’s set aside our judge’s gavel and perform an assessment.  What might we find:

  • Bob was committed to Jane.
  • At some point, Jane communicated her desire for a permanent and exclusive relationship.
  • Bob, being a human male, is hardwired by evolution to prefer to spread his seed among as many females as possible, whereas Jane prefers a stable mate to raise her offspring.  This necessarily creates a psychic tension between the two.
  • Bob, like most people, does not reflect on what his instinctive impulses are; he merely acts in a manner that seems reasonable, even if it’s superficially reflective in-the-moment.

With these points in place, what might we argue? 

I think Bob’s moral guilt in allowing his cold feet to upset his relationship with Jane may not be as iron-clad as some might hold.  Although it’s undeniably true that a thinking human person has the ability to review his behaviors and dispositions, the power of instinct is difficult to master.  Our motivations — even to the most introspective among us — aren’t always crystal-clear. 

Because intent is necessarily to assign blame, we need to think very carefully about just what Bob consciously intended.  Did he want to hurt Jane, or Katy?  Probably not.  He should have foreseen that his actions would cause emotional distress, to be sure, but whether he actively intended for that distress to occur is unlikely.

I can understand and explain Bob’s behavior by resorting to psychology and evolutionary biology.  Explaining it doesn’t excuse it, of course, but it does allow reflection on the situation that’s not clouded by sweeping moral claims.

For me, the biggest teaching moment here, irrespective of the hypothetical, is that since assigning moral fault depends so much on conscious intent, people ought to be more willing to assess, rather than to judge, the behaviors of others.  When we judge, we tend to paint a broad-cloth picture of a person as either wholly good, or wholly bad, and the nuance of perspective and context become obscured.  Disagreement is acceptable, but condemnation or vilification is not always appropriate.

Human motivation is a complex subject.  When our first impulse is to judge without benefit of understanding, we neither improve the moral climate, nor do we advance our knowledge about human nature.

Judgment and assessment both have their place as important tools in diagnosing human behaviors.  Let’s be sure, though, that we use the right tool for the job.


* I cannot let slide, as an addendum, an anecdote about one of Sylvia’s lectures on Diamond.  There was a chapter in the book that discussed penis size — that human penises are much larger than they need to be in a functional sense, because the size serves as an outward indicator of virility.  To which Sylvia remarked that she once had sex with a horse-hung black man, “and it hurt.”  I’m not sure which was better: the free way she talked about her sexual history, or the way most of my classmates didn’t know whether to gasp, giggle, or nod in knowing fashion.  What made these lectures especially fascinating is that she was a second-career philosopher; her first career, and first Ph.D, was in biochemistry, and she did advanced research in New York before burning out and turning to the more sedate world of academic philosophy.

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1 comment

  1. Dude,
    In the time it took you to draft, write, and post that little exercise about thinking about moral choices blah blah blah divine command blah blah blah I read two novels, took up whiskey tasting as a hobby, and took a long walk with my wife.
    Who lived more in that time? I would say I did. On your deathbed, are you going to look back on this post with pride, or say “Christ, I wish I had taken up whiskey tasting as a hobby”?
    Get busy living, or get busy dying, my friend.

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