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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Hannah Arendt

There’s a terrific (although slow) movie on NetFlix instant these days called Hannah Arendt. It’s a very accurate movie about a famous philosopher and a book she wrote about the “banality of evil”. She said that the Nazis weren’t necessarily evil because of being monsters, but by being ordinary people making ordinary but wrong choices for bad reasons. They weren’t evil because they were so extreme, but simply because they somehow didn’t allow themselves to ask whether what they were doing was wrong. There is something disturbing about a system that allows horrendous evil to be done by regular people. That should give us pause. Sometimes bureaucracies can be dangerous, and sometimes people can rationalize abhorrent evil as long as it lets them be part of something bigger.

An interesting article about the movie and the book is here.


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One of my classes is looking at what the textbook calls the desire preference theory, which has me thinking again about the differences between desires and values.

Hume divided our psychological world up into two categories: beliefs, and desires. Ethical standards, he thought, are motivated by desires but directed largely by beliefs. For example, if I were against capital punishment, it might be because of a) a belief that capital punishment is murder coupled with b) a desire that leads me to oppose murder.

I can hold beliefs about my desires – I can believe that I am strongly opposed to capital punishment, for example, or in favor of it — but the beliefs are not the same as the desires. Sometimes I may even be wrong in my beliefs about my desires. I may say, “I have completely forgiven you; I want you to succeed”, and yet those who know me may realize that I am deceiving myself, that deep down I am still angry and want you to fail! (Similarly I can have desires about my beliefs: if I were afraid of making a speech, and wanted more confidence, I might say, “I wish I really believed I could do this.”)

One reason Hume makes the distinction is so that he can keep properly formed beliefs anchored in observable empirical evidence. I can verify empirically whether someone is guilty of a crime, and I can verify empirically what the consequences of executing him will be, but I cannot verify empirically whether we ought to put him to death. Decisions about what things are good or bad to do are not matters of observable fact. Therefore Hume assigns them to our ability to desire.

Some philosophers (for example, Gary Watson) argue that in addition to desires and beliefs we also have values. We can imagine a value system as a long list of numeric ratings for various actions or situations; our values are the ratings we assign to everything.

The point is that there can definitely be things I desire but do not value, as well as things that I value but do not desire. For example, an alcoholic struggling not to take another drink will desire the drink but assign it a very low value. Simultaneously he will value abstinence highly but not desire it.

Yet perhaps values are not beliefs either. At least, they cannot necessarily be empirically verified in the way that Hume wants well-formed beliefs to be.

I agree with the idea that we have values, distinct from beliefs and desires.

An interesting question is how much choice we have about our value system. Do we get to value whatever we want?

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Quality of life

How do you compare the value of one person’s life to another’s? If two people are about to die, and you can save one, which one should you save? Most of my students last summer assumed that you should save the one whose life is going to have less suffering.

It makes a kind of sense, I suppose. Killing someone is taking away their future. To figure out how much harm you’ve done them, you should figure out how good their future would have been. If someone was going to suffer a lot anyway, they haven’t lost much if they die now.

That is, quality of life can be measured in terms of how little someone suffers.

The problem is, I don’t think that’s true at all. I don’t think suffering, just by itself, has much to do with quality of life.

If X suffers, and Y does not, then all other things being equal, X’s life must have less net good in it than Y’s. But all other things are never equal in the cases we consider. Suffering comes bundled with very good things, like free will or having a meaningful life or loving others. Rocks don’t suffer but have no life at all. Jesus (for example) suffered tremendously but also presumably had a wonderful “quality of life”.

I said that suffering doesn’t have much to do with quality of life. In fact I think one could even argue that suffering for the right reason tends to be linked to a higher quality of life.

What about people who are being tortured, or who grow up in such horrendous conditions that they have no chance to find any value in life beyond merely surviving? I admit that there may be some cases like that, but my students weren’t focused on those cases. They were saying things like, “suppose this baby will grow up in a poor family – then it might be better off for him not to live at all”.

In class we studied the “the argument from evil”. It runs like this: an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful God would not have allowed evil, yet evil exists, and so therefore there must be no such God. We also studied the typical response to this argument, which is to say that the best possible world God could have created would be one with evil in it. Evil exists as the necessary consequence of a greater good. My argument is similar, but applied to individual lives. I claim that some of the lives of highest quality will also have lots of suffering in them.

(My Christian take on this post is over at my personal blog.)

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