Warehouse 13, morality, and “personal feelings”

I was watching the first season of Warehouse 13 over Christmas break, and the following conversation occurred.

Benedict [interrogating Artie about his past errors]: And in attempting to save Joshua Donovan, you placed his sister, yet another civilian, in danger.

Artie: Yes, yes, in saving Joshua, I maybe put Claudia in dan- a little danger, but I promised her that if …

Benedict: You promised. You promised. Sounds as if personal feelings became involved in professional judgment. This has been an issue in the past.

Now, there are two ways to interpret this conversation. One is that Benedict says Artie shouldn’t have promised anything at all, but his emotional involvement led him to make the promise.

The second way, which I suspect is the one the writers intended, is that Benedict is saying that Artie should have been willing to break his promise. Benedict is assuming that a true professional would not consider himself bound to promises he has made. Worse, Benedict is assuming that to consider oneself bound to keep promises is a merely a matter of “personal feelings”.

Benedict is mixing up having moral convictions with having personal feelings, but the two are very different. Suppose Artie believes that lying is wrong. Does that mean that he always feels like telling the truth? Not at all. He might easily find himself in a situation where he feels very much like lying — to save his own reputation, perhaps. Yet his feelings are in conflict with his values, and so he tells the truth. The personal feelings, in such a case, are dominated by a desire to lie. His moral convictions are dominated by the belief that one should tell the truth.

Maybe Benedict read Hume. Hume said that reason alone never gives us any motive for doing anything. It merely tells us how to reach our goals. Deciding what the goals are — what is important to us — is a matter of desire, not reason. Thus moral convictions like “it is important to tell the truth” or “it is important to keep promises” arise from personal desires.

But this won’t do. Set aside the point that desires and feelings are not necessarily the same thing. Even then, there is another problem. If Hume is right, then not only is “keep your promises” a matter of personal feeling, but so is any other standard of behavior. That means that “keep civilians out of danger” or “follow procedures” or “act professionally” are also matters of personal feeling. Benedict says Artie put “personal feelings above professional judgment”, but if Hume is right then “professional judgment” is just one more set of personal feelings.

In that case, Benedict’s real complaint was just that Artie chose to prioritize feelings about promise-keeping above feelings about following procedure. The problem wasn’t following feelings vs. following professionalism, it was following feelings that were related to right and wrong vs. following feelings about obeying orders. It isn’t that Artie was too impetuous, but that he was principled in a way that went beyond merely obeying Warehouse rules.

I see this a lot in daily life. People who have strong moral principles are dismissed by others as being overly emotional or not sufficiently rational. But strong moral principles are an important part of rational behavior. The only question is whether those strong moral principles will involve things like honesty or things like sticking to procedure, whether they will involve our doing what is right or our doing what we are told.

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