Francis Hutchenson on morality

Not long ago, in an article entitled “What is Morality,” I offered up the argument (not original to me) that moral behavior is built into our brains via evolution. I noted…

We want to believe that by being moral we are following a set of rules — perhaps divine rules, or perhaps rules dictated by some kind of universal logic. But I am saying morality is neither divine nor logical; moral rules are simply the rules of socialization that have evolved through the history of our species. Our brain applies these rules, much the same way it applies rules for emotions. When we are contemplating or performing an immoral action, we are prodded with a sting of discomfort, similar to the sting of fear. When we are contemplating or performing a moral action, we get a “good feeling,” similar to joy or pride.

The idea being that we literally sense which behaviors feel good and which feel bad. At the time I thought this was a fascinating development in moral psychology. But, while reading the book “Soul Machine,” a history of the development of the concept of the mind, I find…

Hutchenson accepted Locke’s argument that sensations created ideas which then furnished the mind, but he also believed with Shaftsbury that an innate moral sense was the primary motivation for humans, and the source of their emotions. Sentiments arose from that moral barometer—joy from acts of charity and remorse from deceit. Through this moral sense, we experienced another’s emotional state deeply and directly. Ethics and social stability rested, not on the Good Book, but on this natural state of shared compassion, what he called “sympathy” between human beings. Like muscles in the body, this shared emotion balanced private desires and yielded both personal and social harmony.

This Hutchenson fellow basically nailed the idea back in the early 1700s. Interestingly, his idea of experiencing others’ emotional states ties into the the recent, still somewhat controversial, discovery of mirror neurons.

The general sense I get with this book is that all the great philosophical thoughts were thunk centuries ago. Now people are just arguing around the edges.

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