George Eliot Against Ethics

On its theoretic and perceptive side, morality touches science; on its emotional side, Art. Now, the products of Art are great in proportion as they result from that immediate prompting of innate power which we call Genius, and not from labored obedience to a theory or rule; and the presence of genius or innate prompting is directly opposed to the perpetual consciousness of a rule. The action of faculty is imperious, and excludes the reflection why it should act. In the same way, in proportion as morality is emotional, i.e., has affinity with Art, it will exhibit itself in direct sympathetic feeling and action, and not as the recognition of a rule. Love does not say, “I ought to love”-it loves. Pity does not say, “It is right to be pitiful”-it pities. Justice does not say, “I am bound to be just”-it feels justly. It is only where moral emotion is comparatively weak that the contemplation of a rule or theory habitually mingles with its action; and in accordance with this, we think experience, both in literature and life, has shown that the minds which are pre-eminently didactic-which insist on a “lesson,” and despise everything that will not convey a moral, are deficient in sympathetic emotion.

George Eliot, from Worldliness and Other-Worldliness

Here’s some corroboration for my critique of Ethics, from the novelist and philosopher George Eliot. Eliot thinks that contemplation of “rule or theory” cannot coexist with authentic moral emotion; and that people driven to rule and theory-driven modes of ethics show thereby a deficiency in proper moral feeling. Moral impulses like love do not present as reasons. Instead they remain impulses. What is this “sympathetic emotion” and “moral feeling” Eliot talks about? We’ll get into that later.


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