An Ethic of Feeling

Many Americans today are moral skeptics; that is, they deny that there is such a thing as moral knowledge. This is especially the case with those persons who think of themselves as political and cultural “progressives.” There are moral beliefs, these people concede, but there is no moral knowledge. They take it for granted that there is no divine revelation. How could there be when (as progressives generally presume) there is no good reason to believe that God exists. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. Even if he does, how silly to think that he would make a revelation by writing a book, the Bible.

As for the Catholic contention that the Catholic Church is the custodian of divine revelation, a glance at the bloodthirsty history of the Church should be enough, progressives believe, to convince anybody that God, if he exists, would choose almost any organization other than the Catholic Church as a vehicle for his revelation. And if you don’t want to take the trouble to review the long and scandalous history of the Church, look at the present-day Catholic Church. Look, in other words, at the church of child molesters and protectors of child molesters.

If God exists, and if he were so odd as the make a revelation through a man-made organization, why would he choose so corrupt an organization as the Catholic Church? Isn’t it more likely that he would have chosen, for example, the United Nations or the World Court or the Nobel Prize Committee or Harvard University or PBS?

If there is no moral knowledge via divine revelation, there is also, according to these skeptics, no moral knowledge via reason; that is, via humanity’s natural powers of cognition. As humans, we have the capacity to know things that have sense characteristics – color, sound, shape, motion, etc. And that’s all. But items like right and wrong or good and bad have no sense characteristics. We can know that murder is bloody; for we can see blood and touch it and examine it in a laboratory. But we cannot know that murder is wrong; for what color is wrong, and how much does it weigh, and how can it be subjected to chemical analysis?

A liberal . . .

Look around the world. If we can know what’s right or wrong, what’s good or bad, why is there so little agreement on these issues? Why do some people say that abortion is wrong while others say it is perfectly fine? Why do some people say that animals have rights while others say that’s utter nonsense? Why do some condemn Jihadist terrorism while others hold that it’s a religious duty to cut Christian throats? And so on.

Now, those of us who believe there is such a thing as moral knowledge are distressed when we learn that there are many persons who are moral skeptics. For won’t moral skepticism logically lead to immoral conduct? If we cannot know that X is right or wrong, won’t we feel free to do X even if X is extremely wicked?

Not to worry, says the progressive moral skeptic. If moral convictions are not based on knowledge, they must be based on feelings; for there is no third possibility. But what feelings? Why, feelings of compassion. We humans are by nature compassionate animals. It pains us to see other persons (or other animals) in pain. We wish to relieve their suffering; we wish to block the causes of it; and if the cause of this pain and suffering happens to be another human being, we wish to hinder the action of this latter person.

If your morality is based on compassion, you will be a good person. Not only will you abstain from inflicting pain, but you will ease the pain of others. You will take the side of victims, the side of underdogs.

No wonder that when it comes to politics progressives are the unfailing champions of underdogs – of those who are supposed to be victims of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and so on. How could a compassionate person fail to be a champion of these victims?

But what about Hitler and Stalin? They were human beings. Were they motivated by compassion?

If morality is to be based on feeling, why does this feeling have to be compassion? Why can’t it be, for example, anger or paranoia? Why can’t it be hatred of Jews or blacks or illegal aliens or poor people or capitalists or priests or people with whom you have political or philosophical disagreements? If an angry mob sees you in pain, are you sure it will react with compassion? Isn’t it just as likely, or even more likely, that the mob will react with sadistic feelings and add to your pain? During the French Revolution’s reign of terror how much compassion was felt by the crowd of spectators (people like Madame Defarge) as they watched heads drop from the guillotine into the basket?

As progressives get rid of Christianity, they do so incrementally. They don’t destroy it all at once. They don’t want to administer too great a shock to those they wish to convert. Compassion is the last remnant of Christianity.

If you are a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that human nature is basically good, you will think it a safe thing to rely on a morality of feeling. But if you are a disciple of St. Augustine, and you remember the doctrine of Original Sin, you will think that nothing can be more dangerous.

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America and, most recently, Three Sexual Revolutions: Catholic, Protestant, Atheist.