Humanist Ethics: Emotion and the Ethical Foundations of Humanism

by Robert D. Finch


1. Behavior and Situations

This essay is a continuation of the discussion of the Humanist Lifestance started in the previous installment.  The lifestance is that part of our total world-view which concerns the life of the individual.  We argued that a good part of the lifestance is shaped by biology and instinct and is the proper province of psychology.  This subjective part of our behavior is governed by emotions.  Plants do not have emotions.  It is only members of the animal kingdom who need direction for their behavior as they move around to satisfy needs for breathing, nutrition, reproduction, fleeing from danger, finding shelter and so forth.  Biologists tell us that animals have various urges based on chemical potentials associated with their primitive motivations.  For most animals presumably these urges are felt as elementary drives or emotions and they do not require complex choices or deliberations for the animal to arrive at decisions.

But with the appearance in the world of vertebrates, and especially the large brained mammals and primates, quite complicated thinking evolved between stimulus and action.  The additional sophistication in data processing permitted by the nervous system provided its possessor with more successful ways of coping with life together with a wider range and repertoire of emotions.  Nature usually arranges evolution by building on existing structure and behavior and thus it is reasonable to assume that humans share most of the same basic drives as the rest of the animal kingdom together with some feelings unique to our species.  Ethical and moral thinking presumably started when we humans began to consciously examine our motivation and behavior.  This departure occurred when the cerebrum evolved to the point that rational (i.e. logical) thought could take place.  Presumably it entailed the ability to make abstractions, use symbols and language.  Ethics concerns the questions of how we should behave, as opposed to psychology which is concerned with how we actually do behave.  I have written in more detail about moral and ethical systems (see Finch 2008) including a representation of the process by which humanist ethology works, and have written a series of essays on ethics (see Finch 2009). This article is a thumbnail sketch of how the whole topic.

The history of ethics is the story of how our primitive motivation and rationality led us to the present juncture.  In this abbreviated account I cannot provide a detailed history but will try to outline the main features of the subject in an analytical manner.  Humanists realize that ethics are not absolute but that our behavior should and does depend on the situation.  I am including human nature, as programmed through our genome, as a part of our situation.  It is right and proper that our morality should develop as we grow older and should depend on both the physical and social environments in which we find ourselves.


2. Systems and Evolution

Our brains are continuously bombarded with inputs from the five senses, our internal organs, the endocrine system and the specialized modules of the brain itself.  These sensations and emotions are subject to interpretations which tell us about the situation in the world around us as well as our own internal drives and conditions.  It was Hume who first pointed out that the way this works is that the brain recognizes certain constancies.  The constant categories underlie what we term “systems” in modern parlance.

Hauser’s theory (2006) is that we have an instinctive moral system which operates in a way similar to language.  The latest theory of language is that it depends on a complex adaptive system which is put in place genetically as generalized equipment which enables the process of language acquisition to begin.  We may think of the brain as computer hardware.  In the early years of life an operating system is laid down by our learning a set of parameters which encode the grammatical rules for our particular language.   The underlying universal grammar has to permit the wide variety of human languages.  A baby can learn any one of the family of languages but new language acquisition becomes increasingly difficult as the person grows older.  Hauser posits that there exists a universal grammar underlying our moral system and that the codes for the various different moral cultures are laid down as sets of parameters which we learn in youthful instruction.

Evolution may be defined as the usually gradual process by which an organism changes into a different and usually more complex form.  The changing form leaves a trail of paleological or genetic evidence which enables us to construct tree-like structures to trace the organism’s ancestry.  System theory gives us a neat explanation of evolution in which we propose that there are small changes in the constant which defines a system.  Such a system is said to be adaptive.  In the biological case for example the variation occurs in the genome or its epigenetic control.


3. Values, Virtues and Utility

The fundamental importance of emotion to Ethics was re-emphasized by Spinoza and by Hume during the period of the Enlightenment.  Hume’s book on Human Nature (1748 & 1777) is credited with being the first modern psychology text and his emphasis on emotion is now accepted by all psychologists. Emotions are felt only by the person experiencing them and we say that they are subjective.  On the other hand there are many situations in which phenomena are observable to everybody and in this case they are said to be objective.  Reports on evaluations of ethical and moral behavior are thus objective.  Science has progressed by concentrating its deliberations on objective phenomena.

The organs that enable animals to be aware of the world around them are all represented by sensations in the animal’s nervous system as a result of feedback.  Carrier (2005) makes the point that we actually have more than five senses because there are also mechanisms to inform us of the conditions of our internal organs.  Thus the primitive drives (hunger, thirst, sexual arousal, tiredness etc) that cause animal behaviors are known to the animal’s brain. The various sensations and feelings that present themselves to the brain are subject to interpretation by specialized modules which may recognize the presence of danger or of potential food or a potential mate etc.  These recognitions may produce the responses we term emotions.  Sensations and emotions are of course known only to the person experiencing them and are said to be subjective.

In this respect of sensation and emotion the human brain is basically the same as that of our animal forebears.  One of the most important attributes which evolution gave to the Human species was a great enhancement of the power of reasoning. We have additional neuronal layers which enable us to perform further analysis of the information we receive.  We are able to recognize the constant characteristics of the various systems that we encounter.  We humans are able to use symbols to stand for objects and actions and to use these symbols in associations that model the world in expressions of language and art.  We are the only species that thinks deeply, employing long chains of reasoning based on simple syllogisms.  We can use the cerebral cortex to enable us to imagine the consequences of our actions. We may use language and words in these recognition processes and indeed designate certain combinations of sensations and emotions as systems of a higher level which we call “values”.   It appears that hunter-gatherers had already developed systems of values reflecting the virtues which enhanced their lives: strength, bravery, loyalty, love, and so on.  By the time of the Greek civilization the desirable virtues reflected the ideals of urban living: honesty, industriousness, knowledge, wisdom, benevolence, freedom and justice. Because they involve the use of language, values may be shared with other humans and are thus objective.  We are able to compare the degree of value in various circumstances a process which we actually term evaluation.  This includes the basis of the economic activity of bartering and determining market prices.

Our recognition of constancies enables us to respond in definite ways and we develop what we call habits.  These habits are what provide the structure to our everyday behavior.  A person may develop habits quite privately but is much more likely to do so in interaction with others.  We all incorporate specific values in what we do and the aggregate of those values are what we recognize as our individual characters.  Good character traits are said to be “virtues” and their study has been a facet of ethics since the earliest times. We understand now that well established habits may actually be reinforced in the brain by the growth of new neurons, and that there is a plethora of neuro-transmitters that can strengthen the interneuronal synapses.

Some of the most dramatic behaviors we have are our patterns of sexual conduct.   These originated all the way back in our evolutionary past, but it is clear that the mould was only set at the time when distinctions were drawn among the various species of great apes (chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangs).  Nevertheless, human sexual conduct is largely determined by instinct and the outlines of family life are set similarly.  Family therapists frequently analyze specific cases in terms of systems.  Extended families can grow into tribes and this is presumably the way social systems got started.


4. Freedom of Choice

One of the persistent difficulties in the treatment of Ethics has been the controversy over “Free Will”.  The rationalist approach to cognitive science is based on the assumption that there is a cause for every event.  This so-called deterministic stance seems to belie our ability to choose freely between alternatives.  That this is not the case, however, may be demonstrated by the following argument.  Suppose a course of action is considered.  Then its likely physical results can be predicted from reasoning and from memories of similar circumstances.  These results may be then evaluated on the basis of the sensations and emotions likely to be caused by said physical events.  The outcome of this evaluation may be compared with that from some other possible course of action.  The one with the highest figure of merit can then be selected.  But this is precisely the process by which computers are programmed to make choices, the computer being well known to be a thoroughly deterministic machine. Our choices may of course be far more complex than in the foregoing simple case but they can always be reduced to a simple situation.   Thus we see that human beings have the ability to make choices.

Sidgwick probably did the most thorough job of pointing out the conflicts which can arise from trying to follow different value systems at the same time.  On the other hand Dewey pointed out that values still have a use in that they can be used as measures of the merit of a pacticular ethical theory.  A process in which such a measure is carried out is called an evaluation.  The final point we should mention in this discussion is that the sum total of the merits in an ethical system has come to be known as its utility.


5. Process and Management

In social systems decisions may be made in situations where parts of the process involve exchanges between people and where at least two individuals may make evaluations. As in the case of an individual thinking alone, again we see that the combination of two people can arrive at a decision.  However there are important distinctions between cases where the individuals are of comparable standing and competence and other cases where the individuals are unequal. In the first case the system evaluation may involve some form of averaging or weighting of their separate responses.  In larger social systems it is beneficial to use juries of several evaluators to arrive at decisions or indeed to pose the questions for evaluation.  Such “ethical communities” are frequently used in legal and political work for instance.  In science it is mandatory to expose new findings to evaluation by a jury of peers.  Economic decisions are often made by a “market” of buyers and sellers.  So it is only to be expected that in humanist ethics there must be peer evaluation of ethical theories.

Where the participants are unequal, as for example parent and child, or teacher and student, we expect the superior person to “assume responsibility” for what happens.  In business transactions where one person has a superior knowledge or a position of legal authority, there are again issues of responsibility and there may be societal specifications on how the superior person should act in order to protect the lesser partner.  There are similar requirements in the case of medical or legal practice involving professionals and lay persons.  The situation in which two people have complete parity is probably only a very small minority of all interactions and in actuality we all have responsibilities most of the time.  In many cases someone who assumes a role of “leadership” is taking on some set of responsibilities.

The methods and procedures that have been developed in Ethics are not always self evident but they should be helpful for everyone and especially leaders and other people with responsibilities.  One common procedure is to specify ethical conduct with sets of rules, the statement of the ten commandments being a well known example.  The procedure is probably quite useful since the rules can be committed to memory provided their number is not too great.  But one of the problems with sets of rules is that they can lead to conflicting results.  In this case it is better to use “maxims” or “principles” of less rigidity which can be regarded as guides to conduct, as for example in the Humanist Principles at the end of this essay.   These principles call for following the perceived wisdom in all the main systems of practice.  Humanism can then be surmised to have the role of systems integrator.  We have discovered that there are no absolute rules of conduct, but we can posit plans for the various situations in which we may find ourselves.  We can move our concerns forward in the world a little at a time, but we are like Sysiphus and must expect to evaluate the results and repeat the cycle over again.  We use values and habits as building blocks and revise our ideas from time to time in processes which may be more or less systematic. There is a good account of the practical issues involved in the psychology and ethics of the individual in the book by Butler and Hope (1995).  If we are systematic then we may plan our activities on a daily, weekly, monthly or annual basis. The few of us who dwell in privilege in the USA or Europe or Japan surely have a duty to help the rest of the world catch us up and it seems to me that the most important gift we might impart is the understanding of ethical principles.  We must strive to build a better world for all mankind.  We must preserve our planet and seek to understand the mysteries of Nature and the Universe.



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