If you, like me, are a moral particularist, you don’t think people generally make moral decisions on the basis of principles and conclusions. It might be that, if a person was sufficiently dedicated to, say, utilitarianism, she could twist the way she made decisions into a tolerable imitation of utilitarian deductive reasoning – but this would be unnatural. Of course, being unnatural doesn’t make something automatically wrong. The problem is that a this person’s natural sense of ethics would be artificial and awkward. She would take too long to make some decisions and make others too quickly. She would find herself afflicted by unconscious biases. In short, utilitarian deductive reasoning is not a good fit for the way humans make moral decisions – much in the same way that a child’s bicycle is not a good fit for a NBA player.
Well, how do we make moral decisions? From our sentiments and emotions, in particular our empathy for other human beings. If I believe that eating animals is morally okay, ethical argument is only going to change my mind insofar as it touches my empathy and makes me imagine what it is like to be a cow in a factory farm. A poem or novel may do exactly the same thing, and better. Nobody in the history of the human race has felt that other people’s pain should be a concern to them on the basis of Kant’s reasoning; they have felt it because they are biologically conditioned to. What people decide should be a concern to them, of course, is another matter. If we want to improve ethically we should dedicate ourselves to two things:
1) Gathering knowledge of the people around us, their situations, their needs and preferences
2) Fostering within ourselves the ability to empathize: to feel the pain of others
The first is incredibly difficult because of the complexity of the world and human relations. The second is difficult because it is draining and unpleasant to feel the pain of others; and because our society – hello capitalism, hello anarchist critique – depends upon and encourages the stifling of empathy.
Is there room in this view for talking about moral principles? We’ll look at that soon.