Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rhetorical Moral Psychology: Reasoning with the Emotions

In the latest issue of Nature, Paul Bloom has an essay on the scientific study of morality. As he indicates, recent biological studies of moral psychology seem to converge on the conclusion that morality is mostly an expression of emotions, so that what looks like rational deliberation is only a rationalization of what people have already decided emotionally. Bloom argues that this total rejection of reason in moral experience is a mistake. In particular, he argues that to explain how morality has changed over time--for example, in attitudes towards slavery--we have to see the role of rational persuasion in changing moral culture.

I agree with Bloom. But what I find surprising is that he apparently does not realize that he has rediscovered rhetoric. Beginning in ancient Greece--with Aristotle's Rhetoric--there is a long tradition of rhetorical moral psychology that sees moral experience as a complex interaction of reason and emotion.

To move their audiences, rhetoricians must appeal to the moral emotions. That's why Book Two of Aristotle's Rhetoric lays out a meticulous study of the moral emotions. But, as Aristotle indicates, the emotions depend upon judgments about the world, and therefore rhetoricians change the emotions of their audiences by changing the judgments on which emotions depend. Rhetorical persuasion requires a combination of reason and emotion.

As I have indicated in my previous post on Jonathan Haidt, he occasionally refers to Aristotle's Rhetoric in his account of the moral emotions. But, unfortunately, most of the scientists studying moral psychology today seem to be ignorant of the rhetorical tradition of moral psychology.

My account of Aristotle's moral psychology of the emotions is laid out in my commentary on Aristotle's Rhetoric. One of the best studies of this is Marlene Sokolon's book Political Emotions: Aristotle and the Symphony of Reason and Emotion (2006), which originated as a dissertation that she wrote under my supervision.

A couple of related posts can be found here and here.