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Home arrow Sociology arrow Humanitarian ethics : a guide to the morality of aid in war and disaster



Much of the modern European and North American tradition of ethics has been biased towards calculative or rational deliberation in ethical decision-making. Like many ancient Stoics before them, modern deon- tologists and utilitarians have been wary of our emotions as passionate and unreliable guides that might easily blow us off course in our ethical decision-making. Pure reason, they argue, is more likely to be a more stable and less biased guide. Immanuel Kant held clearly to the unemotional approach to ethics and encouraged "the duty of apathy” (nonfeeling) in which "the feelings arising from sensible impressions lose their influence on moral feeling”.6 He regarded this process as essential if one is to be able to live in line with moral law, and he was very wary of the "momentarily glittering appearance” of emotions in our ethical practice. Instead, he argued that:

A man [sic] should collect himself ..and bring all his capacities and inclinations under his authority (that of reason)...and not let himself be governed by his feelings and inclinations. For unless reason takes the reins of government in its own hands, feelings and inclinations play the master over man.7

This suspicion of emotion means that ethics has often been practised as if it were a purely rational cognitive science. However, while Kant tried to minimize the impact of emotions on ethics in eighteenth-century Germany, in eighteenth-century Scotland David Hume was convinced that reason and emotion needed to work together in moral decisionmaking. Recognizing that human morality has its source in our emotions, he was adamant that "the rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason...and tis vain to pretend that morality is discovered only by a deduction of reason”.8 Hume thought that our emotions should continue to guide our ethical decision-making; but he was in no doubt that our capacity for thought and reason should play a "correcting role” by verifying facts, assessing feasibility and avoiding bias in the choices and strategies we make. Because reason deals primarily in assessing truth and falsehood, Hume recognized that we must use it to gain a proper understanding of the situations that arouse our passions and our compassion.9

The recent "affective revolution” in psychology, sociology and political science has drawn on Hume and neuroscience to revive an important emphasis on the value of emotions and "emotional intelligence” in relationships, business, politics and ethics.10 In political theory, the role and value of emotions is increasingly recognized too.11 People’s political judgements as voters and politicians are increasingly understood to combine the emotional and rational very closely together. It is our emotions like anxiety, frustration or fear which first alert us to political dangers, or our hopes and subconscious scripts which dispose us to certain political preferences.12 It is the fact that we care about things that motivates our engagement with politics and ethics in the first place. The American political philosopher Sharon Krause has argued, therefore, that our emotions must be a central part of political discussion. She has importantly encouraged space for "civil passions” in democratic deliberations about changing values.13

In 2001, the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum put emotions right back at the centre of ethics. She argued for "the intelligence of emotions”, suggesting that our emotions are "judgements of value in a world that we do not fully control”.14 This is similar to how Aquinas described compassion as "a felt evaluation”.15 When we feel things, we are detecting what is morally valuable or morally repugnant in events happening around us. Nussbaum shows how our higher emotions (like grief, wonder, anger, joy, fear, loss, love and compassion) are not merely animalistic or bodily parts of us limited to expressing pain and pleasure and likely to blow us off course from practical reasonableness. They are not just physical reactions that will pass. Instead, she encourages us to respect our emotions as "a kind of judgement or thought” that has a richness and density that is superior to purely rational and calculative thought; a textured thinking. Nussbaum argues that our emotions are evidently concerned with our flourishing and the flourishing of others, and so we are wise to take them seriously as moral prompts and guides to what is important and what is right to do. Our emotions can embody our deepest thoughts of what is good and bad, right and wrong. When roused, they are really "upheavals of thoughts”.16

But, of course, we must not assume that all our emotions are good. Although our emotions can be evaluative and ethical in the best sense, they can also be immoral. As Nussbaum points out, "all emotions are not equaL.there may be some that are per se morally suspect...and linked with self-deception”.17 For example, many of our negative emotions, like greed, if left unrecognized as such, are unethical. Other emotions can be immorally constructed by the society around us or by imbalance in our personality. We can be encouraged by our class to look down on poorer people and feel them to be less valuable than us. Hardened racism and scapegoating ingrains in us feelings of disgust, envy and hate about certain types and groups of people whom we then learn to de-humanize, disregard and despise emotionally.18 Thus, while we are right to recognize our emotions as important ethical evaluations, we must also evaluate the ethical content of our emotions as part of our deliberation. So how are we to integrate the ethical insights from our emotions and our reason in an effective form of everyday ethical practice?

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