Moral sense.

Emotion can serve as the engine of action. Emotion drives us to act, not in a certain way, but in general. If ethics is the study of human actions as good, bad, right, wrong, just or unjust, it follows that ethical reflection cannot be abstracted from the appraisal emotions, as emotion can be easily identified in human moral life. Take Christian morals as an example: you see in Christian morals the feelings of fear, love, tolerance, suffering, and each of these things has a role in Christian morality. Also in non-Christian morals, as in the concept of African ubuntu, we observe feelings of sympathy, gratitude, and no one can say that such morals should no longer be an object of ethics just because they include a sentimental, emotional element. We can therefore find traces of emotion and feeling in many of the morals we see today. And that’s because emotion is inherent to man. A moral code that disregards emotion entirely is divine and, as such, inapplicable to human beings.

In the previous text, I wrote briefly about the relationship between morals and feeling according to David Hume. It is convenient to go deeper into this subject. But before proceeding, it is important to mention that the only “moral” feelings, so to speak, are sympathy and comparison. It is not just any feeling, according to David Hume, that helps us in making decisions. Just remember that some feelings or emotions are pathological, such as the kleptomaniac’s desire to steal.

For example, we’ve all heard from our parents or legal guardians that we shouldn’t do a certain thing because it’s “ugly” to do so. But ugly and beautiful are aesthetic criteria. According to another philosopher, Stephen Kershnar, aesthetic judgments cannot be used to base moral judgments, and he is right: the fact that something is “ugly” does not qualify it as wrong. Furthermore, aesthetic judgments are highly subjective (not that sympathy and comparison are not, but aesthetic judgments are based on individual taste and are too volatile to be taken into account in serious matters). This subjectivity of such judgments makes them unsuitable for any reflection that has an all-encompassing character, even if not universal. Your aesthetic taste is only valid for you. And it is not with individual taste that ethics is concerned.

Sympathy and comparison.

If emotion can work against reason (and it often does), it must be fair to say that emotion is not all bad. It can be used in favor of reason and justice, as an engine of action. We could even say that ethics is a rationalization of the emotion we feel towards each other. Indignation at injustice is such an emotion, and Hume would probably place it in the category of sympathy.

Under what circumstances do sympathy and comparison may serve us in moral reflections? It is necessary, before answering, to define both. Sympathy is the feeling that brings us closer, that allows us to put ourselves in the place of others, while comparison takes the other as distinct from me, instead of my peer, giving rise to self-protective behaviors.

Sympathy has its uses. It is felt by people close to each other and serves to bring them even closer, as it communicates needs and sensations among those who identify with each other. At the community level, we can say that sympathy is an element that keeps nations united, causing the feeling of belonging to a kind of “family”. There is an affective bond here, which works even better than reason in keeping individuals together. This is because sympathy allows us to be influenced by each other, making community thinking more homogeneous. It’s easier for us to understand each other when sympathy leads us to listen to each other. Isn’t that what makes each people have their community morality? The comparison is made between distant subjects and its function is to draw the limits of identification promoted by sympathy. This is not always a good thing, as it can give rise to destructive impulses.

We talked earlier about penalty mitigations. Few will disagree with the idea that there are circumstances that make a crime worthy of less punishment. If you were a police officer and received two criminals in your police station, one who stole a package of stuffed biscuits because he was hungry and another who embezzled money of public health, would you treat them both equally? Reason says no. But emotion also says no: the feeling of sympathy leads us to resent the suffering caused to people who needed health services and also leads us to sympathize with the person who, like us, feels hunger and despairs in the face of death. One of them deserves an softer penalty, while the other should suffer a harsher penalty. Thus, we see that reason and feeling (in this case, sympathy) can be in agreement.


We often think that philosophy, being the territory of reason, hates the body or feelings. But Hume’s reflection shows that this is not the case. There are philosophers who place great importance on feelings. It is important to note, however, that Hume does not give all feelings the character of “ethical feelings”, but only to sympathy and comparison. In ethics, you must use your reason and these two sentiments often agree with reason. But other feelings more easily get in the way, instead of helping, such as aesthetic taste or disgust. The fact that you find something “disgusting” does not indicate that you are facing something morally wrong. If our society thought less with the heart, rather than letting itself be carried away by ethically irrelevant feelings, perhaps we would be less hypocritical and more developed people.

The exercise of sympathy allows us a better approach between human beings and a better understanding of the human race. This becomes easier if we focus on our similarities rather than our differences. If we can identify with each other, understanding among men will be more rewarding.

Publicado por Yure

Quando eu me formei, minha turma teve que fazer um juramento coletivo. Como minha religião não me permite jurar nem prometer, eu só mexi os lábios, mas resolvi viver com os objetivos do juramento em mente de qualquer forma.

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