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Philosophy in Russia

Models of Moral Activity

Alexander Razin considers why people act morally (when they do).

Is there a universal moral feeling that all humans share? And if so, what role do different emotions play when we make moral choices? Clarifying this issue can be helpful in demonstrating that disagreements over explaining moral motivation are often caused by attention being concentrated on the different situations of moral choice rather than on the moral motivation itself. What is it that motivates us to perform certain actions deemed to be morally acceptable or unacceptable?

In cases when the moral motive is represented clearly, without being mixed with other social motives (such as ambition), it can be seen that it is always the external situations that produce our moral motives. If so, then there are no special internal ‘moral needs’ capable of determining our moral activity. I hope to make this point clearer by examining models of moral behavior in different situations. For instance, if somebody rushes to save a drowning man, she doesn’t do it because of having experienced some emotional discomfort, like a hunger to do good, but rather due to a subconscious feeling that otherwise she would suffer guilt similar to that caused by an unpaid debt.

This situation illustrates the first model of moral behavior, which might be called the sacrificing model. The moral activity represented by this model is the most distant from having positive emotional motivation. In fact, behavior in this situation is based on the desire to avoid powerful negative emotions. This motivation can be very strong – stronger even than the urge to self-preservation. For example, someone refuses to commit treachery even knowing that he will face death as a result. He thus deliberately chooses death (though some extra motives such as hatred towards the enemy or a wish for revenge cannot be excluded). However, the need for such extreme self-sacrifice is fortunately rather rare.

When investigating the nature of moral motives, it is important to consider not only the fear of suffering guilt due to unfulfilled duty but also more positive motivations. These can include the long-term results of a lifetime’s activity. Clearly, the foundation of this long-term behavior doesn’t arise in extreme or short-term circumstances, and for its existence a person needs long-term goals. This brings us to the second model of moral behavior: the programmatic model.

People make plans for their lives. Someone might dream of being famous or might be content with quiet family happiness. In either case that person has some criteria, which state that this kind of life is better than any others for that particular person. Moral values are a considerable part of these criteria. People often want to live as good people in their own eyes, as part of their life plan.

The third model of moral behavior can be called the compassion model. Compassion as the basis of moral behavior was the core of the moral philosophies of David Hume, Pytor Kropotkin and Arthur Schopenhauer. The latter saw in it the basic foundation of morality, out of which all other moral relations are derived. I believe this kind of moral motive acts alongside other kinds as a relatively independent basis for certain moral relations. Many thinkers have pointed to the possibility of putting yourself into the position of the other as the basis of compassion. Thus, in displaying sympathy towards the suffering other, a man actually sympathizes with himself, as one who might be in the same bad situation. Seeing you hit your thumb with a hammer, I wince as I imagine what that would feel like if it happened to me.

My fourth model of morally-motivated behavior is the philanthropy model. In this model a human being acts because he tries to avoid strong negative emotions that arise due to the capacity for compassion. Correspondingly, he tries to improve the position of the other. It can be expressed in a single act of helping, or can acquire a more general character when society itself supports such activity, for instance when special institutions are created for this goal. For some people working in such institutions, such as hospitals or charitable societies, this can be their profession and can give them the main meaning of their lives. In this case this model links up with the second one.

The appropriate course of moral behavior may be founded on general ideas about social justice that develop on the basis of moral as well as political consciousness. This allows us to speak about a fifth model of moral behavior: the social justice model. Moral behavior based on the idea of justice connects with the negative emotions that arise when somebody sees such justice violated (the indignation of unjust actions or an unjust social order). The relation of people to each other is reflected in the notion of justice in connection with their belonging to society as a whole. In this connection, society itself undergoes an evaluation in terms of individual rights. The notions of equal opportunities and of individual achievements become central in moral theory. This means that society defends equal possibilities and accepts inequality in outcomes. At the same time in the conception of justice the possibility for self-realization for each individual always correlates with the interests of others, with an increase in social value as a general goal. Consequently, the notion of justice expresses the degree to which an individual can be separate from society in the sense of his own desires and own goals. The evaluation of the self produces negative emotions that are the basis of the sense of justice. Positive emotions can arise in cases when violated justice is restored through the activity of people and social institutions. Hume stressed that any just moral acts increase the moral feeling among the people who accept the same ideals of justice.

Nevertheless, emotions connected with desire for social justice cannot override the initial stimuli of human behavior. A man cannot consciously hold the restoration of justice as his sole moral goal (even if he is by profession a lawyer or judge), for to do so would suppose his indirect interest in the violation of justice. Therefore, in such cases we also have to deal with independent moral motives that do not directly connect with some basic human needs.

The sixth and final model of moral behavior is veneration inspiring heroic actions. The relation of a particular human being to the society in which he lives can be the expression of a noble feeling that his belonging to this culture has a special meaning for him; that he is ready to act for the maintenance and progress of this culture. In the religious consciousness this feeling is represented as adoration. By its nature this emotion expresses the highest degree of respect and thankfulness. But this feeling doesn’t arise spontaneously, in the way that other socially-caused feelings do (for example shame). It is cultivated by specific forms of moral education. In traditional systems of morality the virtue of piety was connected with the formation of a feeling of veneration. Feelings of adoration for the deity spring originally from being terrified before God, a terror which is transformed into quietness by the thought that all necessary debt is paid through paying homage to God (the person shows respect, demonstrates awe, worships, or sacrifice something as a gift to gods in some religions). Therefore, in this moral feeling we find emotions both positive and negative in character.

In a culture based on secular ideals the virtue of piety loses its role, but any culture nevertheless develops a system of symbols and traditions that push an individual to feel his coexistence with the life of the whole. For example, there are military traditions of flag raising, of securing the division’s banner. In one subtle form or another such adoration can also be found in the works of prominent scientists, great composers, and well-known writers, who sought to inspire people through their works.

Such devotion to certain causes by people leads to a desire to defend them from disgrace. This can be the inspiration for specific heroic actions and commitments by which a human being identifies himself with the whole, and with his culture in the deepest sense. This kind of heroism is different from that described in the first model, which was represented as inevitable, caused by external situations (i.e., somebody refusing to commit treachery). In actions performed to defend sacred features of some culture we are faced with positive emotional motivation. Nevertheless motivations of this kind arise only due to a long process of intellectual and emotional development – of ‘socialization’. In some cases heroic actions can be described in terms of the second model simultaneously with the sixth one. This is the concern for heroic ways of life as a constant process that takes place in special professions connected with constant risk, such as the military.

By analyzing various models of moral behavior, I wanted to show that humanity does not have any universal moral feeling. The positive and negative emotions I have described appear in concrete situations in various ways. The dominant role goes to negative emotions provoked in response to possible or real violations of moral demands. This, by the way, explains the fact that most well-known moral rules have a negative character (don’t lie, don’t use others solely as a means to your own ends, don’t commit adultery, and so on). The positive motivations are mainly represented in situations where shared values influence the process of satisfying highly developed human needs. This is probably the most difficult situation of moral behavior to explain, because traditional approaches can’t be applied to it. At the same time traditional approaches to ethics (especially Immanuel Kant’s) stressed the separation of moral motives from other socially and naturally caused behavioral stimuli. So in order to solve the problem of explaining moral behavior in the situation represented in the second model, we need a new methodology. The basis of this new methodology has to be a principle which allows us to show how different motivations can be combined under one nature without mutually suppressing each other. The Hegelian dialectic forbids such combinations. This has long had a detrimental influence on the development of moral theory in Russia.

© Alexander V. Razin 2006

Alexander Razin is Professor of Ethics at Moscow State University, and is a contributing editor of Philosophy Now.

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