Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethicsby Mark Johnson
Using path-breaking discoveries of cognitive science, Mark Johnson argues that humans are fundamentally imaginative moral animals, challenging the view that morality is simply a system of universal laws dictated by reason. According to the Western moral tradition, we make ethical decisions by applying universal laws to concrete situations. But Johnson shows how research in cognitive science undermines this view and reveals that imagination has an essential role in ethical deliberation.
Expanding his innovative studies of human reason in Metaphors We Live By and The Body in the Mind, Johnson provides the tools for more practical, realistic, and constructive moral reflection.
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Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics
By Mark Johnson
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1993 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Reason as Force: The Moral Law Folk Theory
The Moral Law Folk Theory
In the next few chapters we will see that every aspect of morality is imaginative—our fundamental moral concepts, our understanding of situations, and our reasoning about those situations are all imaginatively structured and based on metaphor. Once you start looking at how those concepts are structured and at how we reason, you can no longer get along with anything like our traditional view of morality. According to the traditional picture, moral reasoning consists in figuring out the proper description of a situation and then finding the particular preexisting universal moral law that tells you what you ought to do in that situation. We will see that such a view has no way of accounting for the imaginative nature of our conceptual system and our reasoning. Consequently, we need to rethink our conception of moral reasoning.
In this chapter I want to characterize more fully our traditional model of morality, which is based on what I am calling the Moral Law folk theory. It consists of a cluster of related assumptions about human nature, how the mind works, what counts as a moral issue, and where moral laws come from. I want to show how the Moral Law folk theory is grounded in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition that lies behind almost all Western morality. I will then show how it underlies, not only our dominant religious ethics, but also various rationalistic views of morality that are not theologically based, that is, theories that see moral laws as coming out of human reason, rather than divine reason.
In setting out the Moral Law folk theory we will begin to notice that it is defined chiefly by metaphors. Once we analyze (in the next chapter) the sets of metaphors that make up its basic assumptions, its central claims turn out to be anything but the universal truths we mistakenly take them to be. They look more like just one possible structuring of our key concepts, and one of several possible ways of understanding our moral experience. Some of its claims are half-truths, at best. Others presuppose false metaphysical or epistemological dichotomies, and thereby generate pseudoproblems that are utterly unsolvable if taken on their own terms.
In order to get an idea of what is involved in the Moral Law folk theory and its assumptions, imagine yourself caught up in the following situation: You have been in a healthy and satisfying monogamous relationship with another person for several years. But then something begins to happen to you that you neither sought out nor anticipated. Over a period of weeks you find yourself more and more attracted to a new colleague at work. You certainly weren't looking for trouble, but there it is, staring you right in the face. And there is no doubt about it that this is trouble for you, because your growing sexual attraction toward the other poses a problem for your monogamous relationship.
Now, of course, your problem is how you're going to deal with these conflicting feelings and desires. "Well," you say to yourself, "I've got to get a hold on myself. Obviously, what I'm feeling is lust for him (her) because he (she) is so damned attractive in so many ways and is obviously also strongly attracted to me, which, no doubt, is one reason I probably find him (her) so appealing. But I've got to get control of myself. I don't want this to jeopardize the relationship I've had all these years. It means far too much to me to risk losing what we have built together. I know it's not right to be unfaithful to my partner. Nobody should be treated that way. So, yeah, I've gotta get a hold on myself and stop this before it gets out of hand."
The question I want to ask about this scenario is this: Just why in the world should you feel, as presumably most of us would, that such a situation is 'trouble'? After all, not everyone would perceive this to be a problem the way you do. Somebody from another (nonmonogamous) culture might very well not experience any moral tension in this situation. Nor would someone in our own culture who held different values about sexuality, or the nature of relationships, or what moral obligation consists in. The obvious point here is that we experience this situation as morally problematic because we implicitly accept our culture's values concerning meaningful human relationships and our very conception of what makes something a moral issue. We would feel that we had gotten ourselves in a mess here, because we are brought up within a loosely shared cultural framework that defines a common moral tradition. That common moral tradition involves shared presuppositions about the nature of morality, reason, motivation, and a host of related philosophical notions. What counts for us as a moral problem is thus defined relative to such a tradition.
There is nothing special about the particular example I've given here. It is structurally similar to a vast range of mundane moral difficulties of the sort we encounter daily, all of which are experienced and understood in terms of th same basic assumptions of our moral tradition. Those assumptions form a general folk model of morality (the Moral Law folk theory) that defines the way we understand our moral problems. This Moral Law folk theory is based on another folk theory we share concerning the mind and human nature—a folk theory defined chiefly by different metaphors for the various aspects of mind.
The Metaphorical Folk Theory of Faculty Psychology
— There is a mental realm.
— This mental realm contains a society of mind with at least four members (the faculties): Perception, passion, will, reason.
— Perception receives sense impressions from the body and passes them on to reason and/or passion. Therefore, perception can be metaphorically either a person or a machine.
— Passions become active through bodily experience, either directly (from perception) or indirectly (from memories or from inferences made by reason on the basis of earlier perceptions).
— Will is capable of freely making decisions to act. Therefore, it must be understood metaphorically as a person.
— Reason calculates; it analyzes sense data and passes the information on to will. It also formulates principles, either theoretical descriptions of the world or practical imperatives telling us how we ought to act. Therefore, it must be either a person or a machine.
— Passions exert force on will, are unpredictable, and are difficult to control. Therefore, they are either people, wild animals, or forces of nature (e.g., floods, fires, storms).
— Will can exert force on the body, causing it to act.
— Reason can exert force on will and can thus guide action.
— Will is always able to resist the force of reason, and it may choose to do so or not. It can at least sometimes resist the force of passion. The stronger will is, the better it can resist the force of passion.
— Commonly, passion and reason exert opposite forces on will, placing them in a struggle for control over will.
This folk theory of Faculty Psychology is shared by virtually everyone in Western culture. It isn't something we think about very often. In fact, it operates mostly unconsciously for us to determine how we understand our mental operations. As we will see in the next chapter, it shows up everywhere in the ways we think and talk about human motivation, reasoning, moral problems, and the nature of our actions. For now, it is important to notice that it is a folk theory defined by basic metaphors. It understands our cognitive faculties metaphorically as either machines, animals, or people interacting with one another. It treats the relation of these faculties in terms of entities exerting force on other entities. Reason exerts force, passion exerts force, will exerts force, and perception sometimes exerts force. There is a never-ending power struggle going on among the faculties to determine which will rule. Actions are understood metaphorically as motions along paths. Freedom to act is understood as absence of impediments to motion. And the different metaphorical 'forces' in this mental domain jointly determine how we will 'move' along various action-paths.
We will examine many of these metaphors in more detail in chapter 2, showing how they structure our moral understanding, our moral reasoning, and the language we use to talk about morality. The existence of these metaphorical systems indicates that our understanding of action, motivation, and morality is somehow deeply and pervasively metaphorical in nature. Such metaphors define our conception of mind, and they therefore define part of our conception of morality. In particular, they support the dominant folk theory of morality in our culture.
The Moral Law Folk Theory
— Faculty Psychology. The folk theory of Faculty Psychology is assumed.
— Our dual nature. Humans thus have a mental (or spiritual) dimension and a physical (bodily) dimension. We are driven by our bodily passions to pursue pleasure (i.e., satisfaction of our needs and desires) and to avoid pain and harm to ourselves. Therefore, since our passions and desires are not intrinsically rational, our bodily and rational parts will tend to exist in tension.
— The problem of morality. The problem of morality arises from the fact that people can help or harm other people, depending on how they act. Unlike animals (who can also help and harm), however, only people can be moral or immoral, because only people have free will. Humans alone can use their reason to formulate principles concerning how they ought to act. And they alone can then decide freely whether or not to obey those principles. This raises the fundamental question of whether reason can give general guidelines to will about how to act when issues of help or harm (i.e., issues of well-being) arise.
— Moral laws. The answer to this question is that there most definitely are general laws given by universal human reason concerning which acts we must do (prescriptions), which acts we must not do (prohibitions), and which acts we may do, if we so choose (permissible acts). Reason both generates these laws and tells us how they ought to be applied to particular cases. It does this by analyzing situations to see how they fall under concepts contained in moral laws.
— Moral motivation. Reason is what separates people from animals. Lacking reason, animals have passion alone to determine their actions. What makes people better than animals is that reason can guide their actions. What we most essentially are, then, is rational animals. Therefore, it is better in general to be guided by reason than to be guided merely by passion. When will chooses to go against reason and with passion, it is seen as being immoral, since it is better to be guided by reason whenever it conflicts with passion. When will lacks the power to resist passion, it is seen as being weak. Acting morally requires building a strong will that can resist passion. And we have a moral duty to do so, since it is better to be guided by reason than by passion alone.
According to the Moral Law folk theory, then, morality is a massive, ongoing power struggle between the forces of reason and the forces of passion. Moral behavior thus requires us to keep our moral reason pure (so that it will give us the right principles of action) and to keep will strong (so that we have the willpower to do what our reason tells us is right). We thus come to experience our moral lives as ongoing struggles to develop and preserve purity of reason and strength of will in the face of constant pressures that arise from our embodiment in the world.
This folk model is present in the hypothetical case described above. For example, in such a morally problematic situation, I would experience myself as suffering the strong pull of bodily based sexual desire, which, if given free reign, would lead (by natural causes) to a sexual relationship. I experience myself as having a problem because my desires toward my new colleague come into conflict with my feelings toward, and attachments to, my partner. My reason tells me that I shouldn't let myself be overwhelmed by sexual desire, that my relationship to my partner is far more meaningful, and that I have obligations to promote the well-being of someone to whom I have made certain sorts of commitments and with whom I have shared my life. I feel the conflicting pull of the two sides of my dual nature. I experience the need for a strong moral will to do what I reason would be the morally correct thing.
One could give an increasingly fine-textured description of the moral conflict involved in this case, but the key point is clear enough—namely, that our very experience of this situation as morally problematic is based on our (mostly unreflective) acceptance of the Moral Law folk theory, which carries with it a large number of deep philosophical assumptions about the nature of mind, reason, action, and value. Therefore, in order to understand the core of our Western conception of morality, we must explore more carefully the basic concepts upon which it is founded. What this will eventually show us is the following key points.
1. Our moral tradition is but one among various competing moral traditions, and it came to its present form through a series of historical transformations.
2. Because the key concepts that define the Moral Law folk theory are metaphorical, there is nothing absolute about our moral tradition.
3. The Moral Law folk theory tends to ignore or deny imaginative aspects of our ordinary moral deliberation that turn out to be crucial. It overlooks these important dimensions of cognition principally because it is grounded on views of conceptual structure, action, and reasoning that recent empirical research has shown to be inadequate and in need of substantial revision.
By sketching the chief features of our Western moral tradition, I hope to show how some of its fundamental concepts and assumptions have developed historically, how it incorporates the Moral Law folk theory, and how it ultimately leaves us with an inadequate conception of moral reasoning. Our moral tradition is essentially a morality of constraint and limitation. It is founded on metaphorical conceptions of reason as a force, moral laws as constraints, and moral action as movement that does not violate these constraints. I shall argue that, by virtue of its negative and restrictive character (as a morality of force), our moral tradition, with its attendant conception of moral theory, overlooks imaginative cognitive resources that are the very means by which we are able to make morally sensitive and humane judgments.
It is important to be quite clear about the status I am claiming for our Moral Law folk theory. Like any other folk theory, it consists of a system of interrelated assumptions that define our understanding of some aspect of our world. In the case of the Moral Law folk theory, these are primarily assumptions about the self, reason, concepts, action, meaning, freedom, duty, and so forth that constitute our shared conception of morality. This folk theory forms the mostly unreflective horizon out of which our explicit moral views emerge. Churches and synagogues preach this view of morality, many people consciously entertain this view as defining their ethical values, and moral philosophies try to analyze, refine, and systematize the fundamental concepts that make up the folk theory.
But a serious problem arises when we try to live by some version of the Moral Law folk theory. The problem is that virtually none of the defining assumptions of the theory are compatible with the way people actually conceptualize, reason, deliberate, and so forth. This reveals a deep tension and dissonance within our cultural understanding of morality, for we try to live according to a view that is inconsistent with how human beings actually make sense of things. I am trying to point out this deep tension, to diagnose the source of the dissonance, and to offer a more psychologically realistic view of moral understanding—a view we could live by and that would help us live better lives.
The Roots of Our Morality in the Judeo-Christian Tradition
Whether we like it or not, we are all, as Westerners, caught up in a complex narrative web whose roots lie deep within the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. And this remains true regardless of our theological commitments, because what we have inherited is not so much a theological ethics, but rather the Moral Law folk theory—a set of shared values plus certain assumptions about human nature, reason, and action that underlie and support those values. Even where a theologically grounded ethical system has been rejected, its replacements (such as Kantian rational ethics, utilitarianism, emotivism, Marxism, and existentialism) have preserved most of these shared assumptions in one form or another.
Excerpted from Moral Imagination by Mark Johnson. Copyright © 1993 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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