Luke! Trust your feelings!” As we know, Luke does what he is told, and the galaxy is saved. How fortunate that he did not trust his mind and skill, as he was tempted to, because then the evil empire would have won. The Star Wars movies express a view of how to live, a morality of feeling, found far beyond the perimeter of the Dreamworks studio. As Keats wrote to a friend, “O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts!”
The morality of feelings turns out to be quite ecumenical. From a Roman Catholic website advising young people how to recognize the call of God: “Listen to your feelings.” From a young evangelical’s letter to a college magazine: “I became convinced that this is the guy God want[s] me to marry. . . . [But] he’s prayed about it and feels that she’s the one God wants him to marry. . . . There are times that I feel that maybe he’s wrong about her” (emphasis added). From a letter I received from a self-described witch, explaining why she converted to Wicca: “I enjoy it very much. I am no longer sad or lonely.” From the New Age best-seller of Neale Donald Walsch, Conversations With God: “Passion is God wanting to say ‘hi.’ . . . You need no outside authority to give you direction, no higher source to supply you with answers . . . . If you look to see what you feel about it, the answers will be obvious to you, and you will act accordingly.” From the back cover of Lynn Grabhorn’s popular self-help book, Excuse Me, Your Life Is Waiting: “With no effort other than paying attention to how we’re feeling, we can mold our lives exactly as we choose with relative ease and speed.”
The assumption common to all is that a monstrous idol of cold deliberation has all of us in its thrall. We must break the shackles of rationality and burst the doors of thought to bask in the warm, clear light of our feelings.
The morality of feelings comes in several varieties. First, there is the morality of ecstatic feelings, or Romanticism. Ecstatic feelings take us out of ourselves, out of our minds, out of control. As Shelly wrote in Prometheus Unbound:
The joy, the triumph, the delight, the madness!
The boundless, overflowing, bursting gladness,
The vaporous exultation not to be confined!
Ha! Ha! The animation of delight
Which wraps me, like an atmosphere of light,
And bears me as a cloud is borne by its own wind.
The key to this passage is the rhyming association of “madness” with “gladness.” Shelley finds madness attractive; it excites him. I suppose even Shelley was not mad enough to practice it continuously in every dimension of life. But madness does not easily compartmentalize, because chaos leaks through the walls from one compartment to another. Committed Romantics understand this. You will get nowhere by warning them about the consequences of their behavior, because the risk of utter ruin merely increases that sense of the wild, the mad, and the uncontrollable that so attracts them. Most Romantics are not committed; they are merely naive. Mere weekend Romantics, they think that they can abandon themselves to the winds and yet somehow wind up with a good job, a stable family life, and the man or woman of their dreams.
More radical is the morality of morbid or forbidden feelings, which we might call Transgressivism. As an adjective, “transgressive” is new, but the attitude that it describes is not. Consider the fascination of writers like Edgar Allen Poe with the morbid and unnatural. The same fascination with morbidity appears in the homosexual movement, the Goth cult, the Dungeons and Dragons game, the fashions of the late Gianni Versace, and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In his novel That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis said this about the terrible attraction of the forbidden:
It is idle to point out to the perverted man the horror of his perversion: while the fierce fit is on, that horror is the very spice of his craving. It is ugliness itself that becomes, in the end, the goal of his lechery; beauty has long since grown too weak a stimulant . . . . The terrible fascination suck[s] and tug[s] and fascinate[s] . . . [it is a] movement opposite to Nature . . . [an] impulse to reverse all reluctances and to draw every circle counterclockwise.
The inversion of values, this transgression for transgression’s sake, is where all Romantics come if they follow the Romantic path to the end. It makes perfect sense, because if the feeling that you crave comes from crossing normal boundaries, then eventually you will have to cross the boundaries of normal feeling.
Then there is the morality of irresistible feelings, supposedly inexorable predispositions to feel a certain way. We usually call this Determinism. Romantics and Transgressives are usually viewed as rebels against scientific rationality, but today some scientists seem to be abandoning rationality itself. Having prostrated themselves before the idol of mechanism in general, at last they kneel before the mechanism they suppose to inhabit themselves. Considering themselves merely cat’s-paws of genes, of hormones, or of neural circuitry, they declare in an unintended parody of Martin Luther, “So I feel; I can do no other.” Once this attitude takes hold, it makes irresistible feelings attractive even to people who have no Romantic leanings, just because it gives them an excuse for whatever they want to do. When challenged about their choices, all they have to say is, “I can’t help how I feel, and I feel I have no choice.”
A good example can be found in the notorious article of evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, “Why They Kill Their Newborns.” Pinker is a soft Determinist, as most Determinists are. He doesn’t think that the act of infanticide is irresistible. But he does think that the emotions that predispose a young mother to it are irresistible, so that we ought to view baby murder leniently. He writes of two young women who killed their infants, one a college girl, the other college-bound. With her boyfriend’s help, the first left her dead child in a hotel dumpster with multiple fractures to the skull. The second delivered her child in a toilet stall, strangled him, then stuffed him in a garbage can before returning to the prom. Pinker says only that “the laws of biology were not kind” to these mothers; because of the way that the “emotional circuitry” of women has evolved in an “unforgiving world,” mothers naturally kill babies who are born at the wrong time. How does he describe their state of mind? They “feel they [have] no choice.”
The morality of pleasant feelings is quite simple: seek pleasure and avoid pain. In its individualistic form, this is Hedonism; in its social form, Utilitarianism. Hedonistic themes have been enormously successful in advertising, as in the following ad for Nike running shoes:
We are Hedonists and we want what feels good. We are all basically Hedonists. That’s what makes us human. And we were made to want pretty simple things: Food. Water. Shelter. Warmth. And pleasure. We want what feels good. . . . If it feels good then just do it.
To be sure, the philosophical versions of Hedonism and Utilitarianism are more sophisticated than “If it feels good, just do it.” They aim at maximizing net pleasure, summed over the long term, so they forgo some pleasures because of the pains that accompany them. Epicurus, the founder of Hedonism, is said to have lived a quiet life.
But this doesn’t mean that the morality of pleasant feelings is safe. Consider Peter Singer, the Ira B. DeCamp professor of bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton, touted by the New Yorker as “the most influential living philosopher” and by the president of Princeton as “the most influential ethicist alive.” The foundation of Singer’s Utilitarianism is seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. But he notices that animals feel pleasure too, and some of them may even have stronger feelings than some humans. A variety of consequences follow. Cattle should not be killed for the pleasure of diners, because it hurts the cattle. Defective babies may, though, be killed for the pleasure of their parents, because babies don’t feel much anyway and because defectives cost society more pleasure than they give. A human being may have sex with a calf, but only so long as both enjoy it. He should not have sex with a chicken, because it usually kills the chicken. And so it goes.
The morality of higher feelings, or Aestheticism, received a powerful endorsement from John Stuart Mill. Mill always considered himself a Utilitarian, but he recognized the limitations of any philosophy that was unable to tell the difference between the pleasure of a pig, cooling off in the mud, and the pleasure of Socrates, hot on the trail of the true, the good, and the beautiful. In the end, he decided that although maximizing net social pleasure really is the only thing that matters, some pleasures are “higher” than others. Not only that, he decided that the difference between the higher and lower pleasures is not merely quantitative, but qualitative. It isn’t just a difference in amount, as if one viewing of Vermeer’s The Lacemaker were better than two enjoyments of a hot fudge sundae, while three hot fudge sundaes might tip the balance the other way. No, the higher pleasure is higher absolutely. Just one glimpse of the Vermeer is worth the sacrifice of galaxies of sundaes.
But the philosophy that Mill embraced is as problematic as the one that he rejected. If he was not a monster it is only because his age took nothing to its conclusions, whereas we live in an age that takes everything to its conclusions. While the morality of pleasant feelings ends with the likes of Peter Singer, who thinks little humans may be killed because their pleasures aren’t big enough, the morality of higher feelings ends with the likes of Hannibal Lecter, who thinks vulgar humans may be killed because their pleasures aren’t refined enough. It is all part of the same revolution.
The morality of religious feelings, or Spiritualism, has rarely been as popular as it is today. We have seen its two main forms already. One is the exaltation of feeling as the very voice of holy God, the means by which He speaks. But from exalting religious feelings, to exalting feelings in themselves as religious, is a shorter step than we realize. It was Keats who gave classic form to the latter notion: “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination. . . . I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty.” Plainly he attributes to “affections,” that is, to feelings, the attributes of holiness and creative power that belong to God alone.
The pop culture version of the Keatsian ethic is epitomized in the New Age writings of Neale Donald Walsch. Walsch quotes God as telling him “Mine is always your Highest Thought, your Clearest Word, your Grandest Feeling.” A little later God tells him “The Grandest Feeling is that feeling which you call love.” Still later God tells him that love is not a particular feeling but “the summation of all feeling.” The climax comes on the page where He tells him, “My purpose for you is that you should know yourself as Me.” There is a lot more of such faddle, but the meaning is clear. Whatever you feel is holy, because you are God, and God lives in what He feels.
Last but not least, there is the morality of moral feelings, or Moralism. It is too bad that this one has had so much less cultural influence than the other moralities of feelings, because it is head and shoulders above them. Yet it too is fatally flawed.
James Q. Wilson, its most eminent defender, identifies the four main moral feelings as sympathy, duty, self-control, and fairness. He means by them pretty much what the rest of us do; the only puzzle is why he insists upon viewing them as feelings. For example, he defines duty as “the disposition to honor obligations even without hope of reward or fear of punishment.” But dispositions are not feelings but virtues, and obligations are not feelings but objective relationships between persons. He defines self-control as the ability to defer the “immediate and tangible” for the sake of the “future and uncertain,” but something is wrong here too, for surely the ability to resist one’s feelings is not a feeling. In the end, the morality of moral feelings turns out to be an attempt to represent an eyrie full of eagles as one goose. The rich palette of traditional ethics, with different colors for moral laws, moral virtues, moral feelings, and moral relationships, is stirred and blurred and mixed until but a single muddy color remains—moral feelings. Though Wilson’s book The Moral Sense is helpful for its abundant cross-cultural data and its respect for common sense, at times it reads a bit as though it were written in George Orwell’s Newspeak. The words that you need just aren’t there.
Feelings are not unimportant. They give charm and energy to our lives, and even the unpleasant and inconvenient ones provide us with information. The problem is that the charm is not self-evaluating, the energy is not self-directing, and the information is not self-interpreting. We should not be like the Stoics, sad men who took counsel with each other to rid their souls of feelings—but neither should we make feelings our masters.
This would seem to be an obvious point. Then what gives the morality of feelings its appeal? A clue to the appeal of the morality of feelings is that in each of its varieties it avoids the language of moral law. Wilson is perhaps most blunt about this; he says that he writes about moral feelings because there are no moral laws. Of all the varieties of the morality of feelings, the only one that does make much use of the language of laws is Determinism, and it speaks not of moral laws, but of biological ones. The importance of this little difference is very great. As Determinists conceive it, biological law is impersonal—a dead regularity that applies to things that live. To some people, a dead regularity is rather comforting. However it may control us, it cannot make demands on us; on the contrary, it exempts us from demands. But law in the strict sense—in the moral sense—is personal. Rather than exempting us from demands, it is in its nature a demand. It is an instruction, framed by reason, ordained to the common good, and addressed to an intelligent and free agent by Someone who has authority to tell him what to do. Only one being has that kind of authority over the whole of human life: the one who designed us, who made us, and who knows what our life requires.
Although our feelings are a part of our inbuilt design, what the moralities of feelings try to do is make sense of them in terms that are alien to design—in terms that diminish, or dilute, or deny our dependence on the One who inbuilt and understands it. Rather than asking what place feelings have in the big picture, they make feelings themselves the big picture. In a word, the moralities of feelings are forms and expressions of our rebellion against our Maker.
So long as rebellion appeals to us, all its forms and expressions will also appeal to us. The critic’s hope is that the relationship might also run the other way—that if by God’s grace we can be brought to reconsider the forms and expressions of our rebellion, we might eventually be brought to reconsider the rebellion itself.
This may seem a slim hope, because intellectual defense and critique so often become just another game. But the Christian faith honors hope as a virtue, and slim hope is hope nonetheless.
J. Budziszewski is Associate Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. His newest book is What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide.