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Where do our moral intuitions and our moral emotions come from? What are these to us and how do they relate to our being as an individual and social being? Here, I will introduce ‘moral senses’ as a framework with which these questions can be answered. These senses give us the experience of having a body, a mind and a character. Not only as an individual, but also as a member of a community. The moral senses do so by constructing a narrative, in which the body, mind or character is assigned the role of protagonist. The senses thus create the possibility of actions that are understood as intentional.
There is already a moral senses theory in ethics, but this theory is weird. It seems to be based on the way people thought about senses in the seventeenth century, with a reality that is displayed one-on-one in our mind’s eye (or ear, nose, skin, tongue). If it was up to ethicists, surgeons would still dedicate themselves to the noble art of phlebotomy.
I will ignore that theory and come up with an alternative description of moral senses, one that fits a contemporary understanding of our sensory perception; senses do not just register external reality, no, they organize reality.
In the first place, I distinguish moral senses that create an ‘individual self’. The senses give a coherent image of our body, our mind and our character. They enable us to make choices that we think are ours. Secondly, there are senses that construct a ‘social self’. These senses allow us to be part of a community, based on our ability to sense what another person feels and on our need for ultimate explanations.
Senses of the individual self
Proprioception as a moral sense
The idea of moral senses comes from reflections about the phenomenon of ‘proprioception’, it ensures that we recognize our limbs as belonging to our bodies so that we can move those limbs in a controlled and coordinated way. Often proprioception is called the sixth sense, namely the sense with which we experience our body as a whole. This experience usually takes place unconsciously, which explains why there is hardly any attention in conventional descriptions of sensory perception.
If we see senses as ways in which our brain is able to understand the outside world, there seem to be no reason to introduce forms of perception? If it is so easy to talk about a sixth sense, then it might be reasonable to look further than the five functions introduced by Aristotle (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste).
What proprioception shows is that senses not only register the outside world, but that senses are functions of the brain. In the case of proprioception case, the brain provides a mental map of the body, so that the body is perceived as a coherent unit that can be centrally controlled and that can respond to circumstances outside the body.
Proprioception creates a mental map, which indicates that our senses give meanings to things around us. When it comes to physical senses, it concerns categories such as taste, color, tone, which are applied to classify reality. These classifications enable us to respond in the right way to external changes.
Unlike the five classical senses, proprioception can be said to be a moral sense (actually it is better to speak of a proto-moral sense). With this kind of senses, the meanings given to things are meanings that can be understood as either good or bad: something is tasty or dirty, ugly or beautiful, attractive or repulsive, nice or scary. In short, we order the experiences on the basis of normative schemes. The interpretation of our experiences results in emotions that encourage us to make a moral choice.
What is good or bad with proprioception? In my opinion, the moral role of this sense has to do with the way in which we understood cleanliness and dirtiness. In this, the boundary between the body and the external world is decisive for what we see as clean and dirty. Things that cross the boundary between the body and the external world are seen as dirty. Blood, sweat, sperm, snot and pus are generally considered to be taboo, they are dirty because they draw our attention to the fact that the border between ourselves and the world is not impenetrable.
The guarding of boundaries is an essential function of moral senses. It concerns the boundary between the ‘self’ and the rest of the world that is crucial to the idea of control (that idea is, as will be seen later, an illusion). So, body control comes down to the realization that all those limbs belong to you and that they do what you want. What does not belong to your body obeys to a much lesser extent.
Incidentally, sensing our body does not have to stop at the border of our skin. We have no problems experiencing clothing, cutlery, musical instruments or cars as extensions of our bodies.
A final point that is important in moral senses is that meaning in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ amounts to the construction of a storyline, an episode in which a protagonist encounters something that must be reacted by the protagonist. Proprioception ensures that the body becomes the protagonist in the story that acts as a unit.
The mind as a moral sense
If we can present the body as a protagonist, we can also see the mind as such a protagonist. According to Daniel Dennett, various information flows are brought together in the consciousness and they are transformed into a coherent story. This coherent story makes intentionality possible, the unity of our mind gives us the impression that our choices are deliberate choices and that our actions are deliberate actions. Of course, we do most things without giving these too much attention. We can breathe, eat, and walk without even noticing it. We can also do extremely complex activities such as driving a car or playing the piano without thinking about it. But also decisions that we believe have been made consciously of are in many cases the result of unconscious mental processes. Time and time again, psychological experiments have shown that we are not as rational as we think, and that the reasons that our consciousness think are real are nothing more than rationalizations, while the genuine motives are to be found elsewhere.
This does not mean that we do not have free will. It means that our free will does not take the form as it shows itself to our consciousness. The denial of free will or intentionality usually seems to be based on the rejection of the idea that our brain is being operated by a little man in the brain – the homunculus. But even philosophers see that such a little man does not exist (or can exist). The conscious mind appears as an ‘epiphenomenon’, it is the result of a collection of different information processing streams. Intentionality can best be seen as a narrative of the brain that turns our beings into protagonists of a story.
Moreover, there are also things done that are genuinely on purpose. For many activities we depend on our ability to make informed plans. Our large prefrontal cortex is not really as useless as a cecum or coccyx. Just try to divide 345 by 15 only you’re your gut feeling.
We can also reflect on our decisions and internalize those reflections. We retrieve a decision for our mind’s eye and see if we made right decision. If we find ourselves in a similar situation, we might just pay a little bit more attention. In this way, new patterns can be created, which means that new intuitive reactions emerge that actually are the result of the conscious work of our mind.
As with proprioception, the unity of the mind is based on maintaining a boundary, namely the boundary between processes that are deliberate and processes that are not. Just like the limits of the body, this limit is far from unambiguous. The brain can indeed fool itself and we can be taken over by processes far beyond the scope of intentionality, usually in the case of benign addictions and inconsistent habits.
Character as a moral sense
The mind creates a story of the now. Impressions are organized in such a way that the illusion of control is possible. We also create unity by reconstructing our entire life as a coherent story. Our character determines who we are here, we create a ‘biographical self’ that helps us to make the moral choices that we think are right because they suit us.
Losing such a biographical self, for example because of Alzheimer’s disease, affects the core of our being: without being able to act as part of a story that unfolds in the course of time, we lose our personality.
The biographical self provides a narrative, but it is a fictional story. The brain is constantly adjusting memories so that it does not conflict with the idea of our identity. In other words, the brain determines and guards the boundaries of the self: with each action and every normative assessment, it must be tested what belongs to the I that I am or to the I that I am not.
Senses of the social self
The three moral senses mentioned above are senses that enable us to be an individual self. But we are not only individuals, but also social animals. We experience that we are part of a community. The description of this experience in terms of moral senses allows a better understanding of ourselves as a social animal and of the moral implications that come with it.
In short, our moral senses not only provide an individual self, but also a social self. Below I explain that social self by means of the following senses: experiencing the group as a self, the symmetry of experience, and the experience of infinity.
Experiencing the group as a self
With the community that we think we are part of, we share pain and pleasure, but also our hatred and pride. In fact, the same senses play a role as at the level of an individual. Also in a group we experience a body, a mind and a character, even though these do not exist in reality.
Feeling what the group feels has strong moral consequences. We identify ourselves emotionally with the group, the standards of the group become our individual standards. We do this by making a mental map of the group we are part of, just like the brain constructs a mental map of the body.
The norms of the group form the basis of social interaction, allowing individuals to coordinate their activities as a collective. Norms allow individuals to align their actions with those of others, everyone knows what can be expected of her.
Durkheim’s ‘collective consciousness’ can be seen as a form of perception in which individuals have mastered the norms of the group. Individual moral orientations are to a large extent based on the identification with a community that exceeds the simple aggregation of individuals. You acquire such common norms through imitation and punishment. We see how other people do things and make their norms into our own ones. Sanctions often have an implicit character: an angry look can be taken as a sign that someone’s understanding of a norm does not match someone else’s. The hardly noticeable discomfort can be reason enough to adjust a norm.
Social collectives also have a ‘collective character’, a shared identity or a common biography that enables individuals to participate in joint actions and legitimizes the given social order. Such a social order can be seen as a belief system that contains myths and histories which gives the group an overarching identity and a common goal.
Also the construction of a collective identity is all about boundaries, namely those between those ‘us’ and ‘them’. The story we share as a collective is often based and strengthened by the construction of outsider groups that are seen as an existential threat to the identity of our own group. History shows how we protect the boundary between ourselves and the others, just as we protect the boundaries of our bodies, by excluding the others and seeing infiltrators as filth. Analogous to the body, boundaries between groups allow the perception of self-control and the capacity to act as a collective.
This moral sensory experience has undoubtedly been of use in our evolution within tribal structures, but that has changed. Traditional societies determined the personality of the individual. In modern societies it is often the other way around, one firstly is an individual and secondly a person defined by her community. The modern social order is both complex and ambiguous. Individuals are part of a heterogeneous network of coalitions, such as families, circle of friends, football clubs and companies.
Since the nineteenth century, the nation is often supposed to be a natural community. Culture, language and history are then seen as the qualities that turn us into us. The moral hazard of this is that it contributes to a discourse of ‘us’ against ‘them’, which is expressed in the call to defuse ‘intruders’ – language that we unfortunately still can recognize in contemporary politics.
But a nation is primarily an imagined community that consists of a group of people of whom we do not know the vast majority and whose only tangible common denominator seems to be that everyone has the same passport. Yet, we often have the feeling of belonging and having a shared destiny. Sometimes we share our pride, for example when the country gets a medal at the Olympic Games. But enemies in the stadium are often friends in a different setting. The experience of a community can no longer be equated with the imagined community of the nation (or any imagined community). The tendency to search for a group that determines our identity must be countered. Certainly in this case we have to distrust our instincts and look for a conditional and flexible idea of community.
The symmetry of experience
Our empathic abilities allow us to feel what others feel. Our mirror neurons make it possible not just to recognize the feelings of others, but also to actually experience them. When we see someone suffering pain, the brain lets us experience this pain – perhaps not in the same intensity, yet the brain receives the same stimuli it receives when your own body is in pain. The ability to feel the feelings of others actually creates a symmetry in physical experience.
The symmetry of experience goes further than just empathy. It is also about recognizing the wishes, needs and intentions of others. We are ‘mind readers’, we only have to look at someone else’s eyes to have an idea what someone thinks. It is not for nothing that we are the only primates with visible eye whites – that helps to read the thoughts of someone else.
Recognizing the intentions of others is an essential condition for collaboration: if you know what others are going to do, you can adjust your own actions. In short, recognizing emotions and intentions allows an individual to be part of a larger collective of individuals.
The ability to read thoughts is also reflected in the innate urge to help someone in need. Experiments show that this urge is already present in very small children. That requires quite something: before a child can help, it must recognize the situation, be aware that it can do something itself, recognize that the other person is in need, and internalize that need. Yet toddlers can do this even before they recognize their reflection as themselves.
We are good mind readers, but still we make mistakes. There would be far less #Metoo-affairs if that hadn’t been the case. We also try to project intentions on inanimate objects, sometimes we feel pain when a robot or a toy is violated, or are we afraid of the power lust of too clever artificial intelligence.
Empathy does not mean that we are naturally inclined to be kind to each other. Knowing what hurts is useful when you want to hurt someone; knowing how people are inclined to respond can invite strategic and sometimes even violent behavior. This is because people seek power, or in rare cases, have psychopathic tendencies. Moreover, we are empathetic to those whom we think are part of our social group. Our mirror neurons discriminate on the basis of who belongs to us and who does not. The ability to recognize the feelings and needs of others thus helps to maintain the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
The experience of infinity
Descartes stated that people are able to experience ‘infinity’ . We are looking for ultimate explanations for the reality that we perceive and we seem to assume a transcendental order that gives such explanations.
Of the moral senses this is clearly the most enigmatic one. What we truly perceive as ‘infinity’ is not really clear, it is a feeling that is impossible to express. Also its evolutionary role is ambiguous, some would say it is a ‘spandrel’, an architectural decoration that has no function. Our idea of infinity would then be such a non-functional element that happened to arise during our evolutionary development. As Freud claimed, our great brain caused us to see that we were mortal, which led us to reflect on what lies behind reality. Other scientists argue that believing in a supernatural reality helps to keep a community intact. In any case, an outer-worldly order is the strongest legitimation of a social order.
Unlike it is the case with the other moral senses, the experience of infinity does not come with an innate story, instead such a story is constructed within a community in the form of myths and religions. Thus meanings are given to the empirical phenomena around us.
Most of the moral rules we employ are based on the statements of the worldly order in terms of non-secular statements, of myths and of divine intentions. Perhaps you can say that rationality has become the source of ultimate truth since Enlightenment. But rationality does not seem to meet the need for ultimate explanations. An inanimate physical universe is an ‘absurd’ universe. Apparently there is nothing that can direct our moral choices, there are only contingent social rules and individual preferences. Myths seem to be much more effective: shared stories show worldly things as a reflection of a divine order that is eternal and unchangeable. The eternal order is what is real, its earthly representation is only a replica.
This transcendental order gives us an idea of ‘purity’. The unpredictability, the imperfections and the conflicts that characterize our conventional social orders can be solved by following the right, unchangeable, rules. For example, in the case of nationalism, where faith in a ‘pure nation’ is seen as a viable future vision and encourages many zealous people to impose moral rules.
A metaphysical order is often used to legitimize a moral order. This is not the intention of Emmanuel Levinas. He also relies on the experience of infinity, but in his cases this is a worldly manifestation of that experience. According to Levinas, reality is an organic, seamless whole, in which language forces us to use categories and classifications. The experience of infinity manifests itself in a pre-linguistic (or pre-ontological) awareness of the arbitrariness of these categorizations. We feel that language is inadequate, but we can never express that, because that would only be possible through the language, which, as we know, falls short. For Levinas, it is the awareness of the inadequacy of language that forms the core of ethical behavior: we must be open to the experience of infinity and accept the arbitrariness of linguistic classifications. To this end, we can be stimulated by the confrontations with others: recognizing that other individuals are also struggling with the inadequacy of linguistic schemes, shows us how imperfect and vulnerable we are.
One problem is that the classifications no longer only concern language. It is not just about social and moral rules, it is often about overarching institutions that create their reality. For example, unitary states have organized themselves around the idea of nationality. However, large groups of people, such as immigrants, refugees, or ethical minorities, do not fit this classification. They end up ‘between’ the rules and are not only vulnerable because of the impossibility to find the language that fits the non-linguistic reality, they are especially vulnerable because they themselves do not fit anywhere and can be victims of institutional, political and social arbitrariness.
According to Levinas, ethics should not be about moral rules or metaphysical legitimacy, it is about increasing the awareness that such rules and legitimations only apply conditionally. Ethic should point towards the vulnerability that we share, no one is able to escape from weaknesses and unforeseen circumstances. In addition, I believe that based on this awareness of vulnerability, we have the duty to care for those who are even more vulnerable because they do not fit the institutionalized classifications.
The recognition of vulnerability, however, is not easy. Many people seem to have connected their identity with a specific social or transcendental order. Norms are quickly absolutized. Our moral senses can easily be tempted. It is important to see this as moral delusion and we must force ourselves to come to different insights through reflection and discussion. Insights that can ultimately lead to the reassessment of our intuitions, in such a way that our moral emotions and reactions fit the moral demands of our times.
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