|Path Home: Empathy, Altruism and Agape | Presenters or Itinerary
Constructing a Theory of Moral Action on the Concept of Self
To be a rescuer, under these circumstances, it took a unique person. Someone who had the deep-seated conviction...that they had to do it. And they were not people who were making choices on reflection. They just simply had to do it because that's the kind of people they were.
I begin with a puzzle. Rescuers of Jews during World War II insisted they had no choice in making what appear - at least to the rest of us - to be extraordinarily difficult life-and-death decisions. Yet the rescuers themselves insist, in study after study, that there was no decision to take (Magda Trocme, French rescuer). If this is true, if rescuers indeed had no choice in their actions because that's the kind of people they were, then the dominant motif in moral theory needs to be rethought, for the traditional approach to moral theory builds on precisely the kind of agonistic choice the rescuers claim they did not experience. This is the puzzle I treat in this paper.
My approach is that of the empirical political theorist. My goal is not to demonstrate or explain this puzzling finding ‹ that identity and perspective constrain choice ‹ but rather to treat this anomalous finding as an analytical tool that can both reveal limitations in the traditional literature on moral choice and help construct new theories to more fully capture the complexities of empirical reality.
The paper begins with the simple documentation of the puzzling anomaly that intrigues me. I present several illustrations, from my own research and from studies by others. I then contrast what we learn from an empirical examination of moral exemplars with the theoretical discussions found in the traditional literature on moral choice. My conclusion - that the major theoretical explanations of moral action omit critical aspects of rescue behavior - turns me in Part 2 to recent work in psychology and in virtue ethics, both literatures that stress character and identity. I ask whether this literature accurately captures the psychological process through which identity and perspective trump choice, and conclude that it does not. In Part 3, I use my empirically based understanding of rescue behavior to create a new theory of moral action, one that more accurately captures the moral psychology. This is the heart of the paper, in which I propose amoral theory driven not by ratiocination or religion but by one's sense of self in relation to others.
This theory builds on my earlier work (1996) on perspective, which suggests that perceptions of our selves in relation to others define the range of options available, not just morally but empirically. To construct a moral theory driven not by ratiocination or religion but by identity, especially one's sense of self in relation to others, I draw on literatures in three areas not traditionally the domain of moral theory: (1) psychological work on the need for consistency and self-esteem, (2) linguistic and psychoanalytic arguments on categorization, and (3) empirical work on the cognitive frameworks of altruists and genocidalists.
The basic argument can be expressed in five parts. (1) The need for both consistency and self-esteem is universal and innate in human beings. (2) We desire to be treated decently by others. (3) Psychoanalytic categorization and linguistic communication causes us to recognize this desire in others as in ourselves. (4) We thus are led to extend universal rights of entitlement reciprocally, treating others as we would ourselves wish to be treated. (5) This ethical reciprocity is more basic than an intellectualized sense of duty or a religious dogma. It is a fundamental correlate of the human capacity for intersubjective communication and the need to distinguish boundaries via categorization. As such, it can transcend the arguments against universal morality leveled by cultural relativism.
To construct and describe my theory, I begin by discussing the psychological work on consistency, especially the role consistency plays in linking identity formation to acts that confirm our sense of self. I next draw on psychological studies on self-conceptualization to argue that the narcissistic need for self-esteem works to establish boundaries between one's self and others. I then link this psychological need for individuation, boundaries and identity formation with Chomsky's arguments about language analysis and categorization. I argue that basic syntactic structures, encoded in an innate human capacity for language learning, are central to the establishment of behavioral expectations in interpersonal interaction. I apply Chomsky's arguments regarding the nature of language and speech communities to Smiley's work on pragmatist moral theory to argue that the only coherent understanding of moral community that we can reasonably form in the modern world will be a universal one. Finally, I return to the rescuers of Jews during World War II as illustration of how our sense of self in relation to others leads to moral action through a sense of universal entitlement, based on psychoanalytic and linguistic principles of categorization and boundary formation.
I do not argue that rescuers are paradigmatic of all moral actors. But I do believe my analysis suggests the advantages of supplementing traditional explanations with theories emphasizing identity and perspective, as outlined above. As a piece of moral theory, the work is preclusive; perhaps even attempting to construct original moral theory is an audacious act. I offer the work in the hope that it will stimulate the debate necessary to further understanding of what encourages moral action.
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