In defence of “muh feels”

For years now, a big feature of right-wing rhetoric has been to present the arguments of the Conservatives and/or Right-Libertarians as rational and evidence-based, while dismissing those of Liberals and the Left as emotive and irrational. To a lesser extent, similar arguments are used the other way, although this seems to occur mostly as an effort to turn Right-Wing rhetoric on its head. In general, there’s a tendency (which I’m not saying has any basis in reality) in popular political discourse to view the Right as pragmatic and the Left as emotive.

However, what I’m saying is that this dichotomy of “facts” versus “feelings” is not a sensible way to discuss Political Philosophy, and that any Political Philosophy must depend on a synthesis of the two.

The Is-Ought Gap

A big issue in ethics is the problem of how to derive moral facts (what ought to be) from natural facts (what is). David Hume just flat-out said it can’t be done and, like a lot of things David Hume said, it’s irritatingly difficult to argue with.

Ethical Naturalism

An ethical naturalist could argue that objective morality still exists if you can decide on a goal that you’re trying to achieve, as follows:

p1: C is a morally desirable state of affairs.
p2: If A does B, then C will occur.
c: Therefore A should do B.

Here, premise 2 is entirely objective and naturalistic, and the premises entail the conclusion. The issue is with premise 1. This is a claim that C ought to be the case, and not a claim that clearly linked to any natural facts.

An example of a branch of ethics in this form is Utilitarianism, most famously proposed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. According to this ethical doctrine, the ultimate goal is maximising total happiness, and one ought to do things that can be expected to increase overall happiness, and avoid things that will decrease overall happiness. For example:

p1: Greater happiness is a morally desirable state of affairs.
p2: That homeless man there will gain more happiness having from the change in my pocket than I will.
c: Therefore I ought to give him the change in my pocket.

Here we clearly have one of the premises (p2) that is based on a (sort of) observable, measurable natural fact, and another (p1) that isn’t. However, p1 is necessary to link p2 to the conclusion.

The Categorical Imperative

Ethical naturalism, based on is not, however, the only approach to trying to create objective moral facts. Immanuel Kant argued that morality is based on a Categorical Imperative (an absolute statement of what you ought to do), as opposed to Ethical Naturalism’s Hypothetical Imperatives (statements of what you should do if you want to achieve a particular goal.

According to Kant, there is one rule that governs how you should behave:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

Basically, this means you should only do things if it would make sense if everyone did them all the time, for example:

p1: You should only do things if it would make sense if everyone did them all the time.
p2: If everyone lied all the time, nobody would believe anything anyone said, and it would be impossible to communicate.
c: Therefore lying is wrong.

Kant is saying that actions in themselves have properties of goodness or badness, which derives from their relation to this principle, and have nothing to do with their consequences in any one particular case.

Ultimately, though, Kant’s principle succumbs to a similar problem to that of Consequentialist ethics, in that there isn’t an objective fact about the world from which you can derive the connection between Goodness and the Categorical Imperative. All Kant has done is asserted that the Categorical Imperative is equivalent to a moral fact and worked from there. Indeed, any other categorical imperative must have the same problem.

What we’re getting from this is that any attempt to derive a moral “ought” from a natural “is” fails. Either you’re already assuming a moral fact about the consequences of an action, or you’re assuming a moral fact about the action itself.

How Ideologies Work

The point here is that political ideologies are, in essence, sets of moral statements, just applied to governments rather than individuals. Either there is a goal (such as common ownership of the Means of Production) in mind, and policies are intended to move towards that, or there is a principle (such as the Non-Aggression Principle) that has to be followed at all times, and policies are judged based on their compliance with that. Justifying these principles, you might end up with more general principles, about rights or freedoms or living standards or military strength or something like that. In the end, though, you have to come back to something you can’t argue for based purely on natural facts – something fundamental, something basic. Without a basic principle like this, you’re trapped forever in a regress.

In general, the non-naturalistic content of an ideology can be expressed as a set of desired ends, and a set of principles that constrain the range of actions that can be used to achieve that end. Applying logical reasoning to empirical input can tell you what the initial conditions are, and what actions are likely to get you from the initial conditions to the desired outcome. However, they cannot tell you what the desired outcome is, or what methods should be rejected on ethical grounds.

This is where “feelings” (or “intuitions” or whatever you want to call them) come in. Feelings are what motivate us to act. Feelings are what tell us how the world should be. Without feelings, we would not act, we would simply observe. We would see the world, we might even make logical deductions. But we would have no impetus to interact with the world. In many ways, such a world sounds very appealing, but it’s not the world we inhabit. In the real world, we feel, and through those feelings we are active participants.

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