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Terence Kuch

Moral Education and Emotional Lying


There is a long tradition, fathered by Aristotle and recurring like some recessive gene in recent virtue theorists, that holds that the emotions, like acts, must be 'trained'. Consider the following:

[In Beckett's portrayal,] "Emotions are not feelings that well up in some natural and untutored way from our natural selves, that they are, in fact, not personal or natural at all, that they are, instead, contrivances, social constructs. We learn how to feel, and we learn our emotional repertoire. We learn emotions in the same way that we learn our beliefs — from our society." (Nussbaum 1990, p287)

"Emotions, in Aristotle's view, are not always correct, any more than beliefs or actions are always correct. They need to be educated and brought into harmony with a correct view of the good human life ... with regard to both passions and actions". (Nussbaum 1994, p96)

"Developing moral character ... requires training and developing passions and patterns of desire, choice, and emotion." (Stocker, 1980)

According to Stuart Hampshire's 'second theory' in Two Theories of Morality (Oxford, 1977), Aristotle's proponent asserts that "one's childhood morality needs civilizing adjustment". (quoted by Stevens, p.6)

"If [moral] education does not revolve around issues such as what to fear, what to be angry about, ... I do not know what it is. ... As Aristotle perceived, we are concerned with ... the education of the emotions." (Williams 1973, p225)

Rorty (1980b), following Aristotle, also holds that emotions are learned.

Now, it is clear that people can be trained to exhibit 'appropriate' emotions at the 'appropriate' time and to the 'appropriate' degree, or they learn to do so in the interest of self-preservation. Societies do this kind of training all the time, and the wise man will understand and defer, like Galileo, even if E pur si muove.

The problem arises, however, when we consider two agents: Agent X acts in accordance with social demands, or, does not act (also in accordance with social demands) while considering this merely a means to ensure such social harmony as he can get. Agent Y exhibits or does not exhibit emotions also in accordance with social demands, while considering this also merely a means to ensure social harmony. Neither Agent X nor Agent Y 'believe in' what they are doing, in any sense deeper than the wish to conform to reasonable social demands.

We can portray this situation as follows:

Agent CA conforms with respect to acting.

Agent CE conforms with respect to 'emoting'.

Agent BA 'believes in' his acts.

Agent BE 'believes in' his emotions

Are Agents CA and CE not on equal footing with agents BA and BE as regards ethics, for better or worse?

Apparently not. There is widespread dislike of Agent CE as a hypocrite, an accusation rarely hurled against Agents CA, BA, or BE. Even Williams (1973, p224) states that simulating emotions one does not feel could be 'misleading, even deceitful'.

Agent CE is in a bind: if he responds as society dictates, he is a hypocrite; and if he does not, he is a misfit or (in extreme situations) a 'psychopath'. Agent CE has been 'trained' in the sense that he knows what is expected of him, and does it; and his motives are those of prudence. However,

[Aristotle] "holds that the truly good person will not only act well but also feel the appropriate emotions about what he or she chooses. Not only correct motivation and motivational feelings but also correct reactive or responsive feelings are constitutive of this person's virtue or goodness." (Nussbaum 1990, p78; emphasis added)

All this is fine, if one can internalize the training enough to forget that it is — training. But people who are not 'truly good' are also observing social norms.

[for Kant,] "an action will have genuine moral worth only if it is chosen for its own sake." (Nussbaum 1990, p76)

But even for Kant, moral actions taken without 'genuine moral worth' are not condemned as immoral, blameworthy, or deceitful, but are deserving of neither moral praise nor blame.

This leads us to:

The Thesis

Simulating or suppressing emotions in order to conform to social expectations is just as praiseworthy or blameworthy as the corresponding act (or failure to act) would be, if performed in order to conform to social expectations. (Some social expectations may be reasonable and acceptable; others may not be; but that is a different matter.) That is, ethically speaking, CE = CA, and BE = BA. Further (within agents CE), simulating emotions one does not feel for the sake of social conformity, is as morally praiseworthy or blameworthy as its opposite, repressing the expression of emotions one does feel, also for reasons of social conformity.

Argument 1

Having effectively been 'morally educated' to act or to portray emotion of the 'proper' kinds, has to be morally acceptable to the society that conducted the training, or a different kind of training must have been required, one that rather than insisting "in situation 'X', do act 'A'", would render itself invisible to the ex-trainee so that he would no longer be aware of having been trained. If the moral education fails to become transparent, but the student nonetheless 'behaves', this is not even an instance of 'moral bad luck' in which non-conformity by mere luck results, or fails to result, in a bad outcome (the drunk driver makes it home safely, or kills someone). It is difficult to see how the moral education has failed if the trainee 'behaves'; or, if it has failed, this must be a flaw in the education programme, not in the trainee.

I should leave aside the question as to whether or not it is ethical for the teachers of morals to mesmerize (less politely, 'brainwash') their students, because admittedly, it is logically possible to answer 'yes' to this question, if one has no ethical objection to this sort of thing. Geoffrey Klempner writes [personal communication, July 2000] that "what you learn in learning appropriate emotions is primarily how to see and judge things. There are circumstances where, if you see things aright, you ought to feel sympathy. There are circumstances where, if you see things aright, you ought to feel anger. If you merely learn to act as if you felt these emotions, then you haven't learned the lesson." Similarly, Preston holds that

"In furthering action from the right motive Christian ethics is concerned with what is often called 'spiritual formation'. By this is meant a growth in character ... so that one's insight or powers of discernment deepen." (Preston, 1991)

This is precisely the 'mesmerize' ethical question; to which a blunt response would be

"I'm acting the way you taught me to act in your lessons. There's nothing more I need to do in order to 'behave'. There's nothing unethical in my behavior (acts or emotions). Now [as Stirner put it in another context] get out of my sunshine!'".

Argument 2

Agents CA and CE accept conventional morality to get along in society, and agents BA and BE 'believe in' the 'inherent rightness' of what they have been taught. But is it possible to distinguish the 'C's from the 'B's 'from the outside'? Let's ask someone who to all appearances acts and 'emotes' morally, who verbally acknowledges his conventional moral attitudes and behavior, etc., and see what he says: "Do you personally observe conventional morality because it (a) helps people live together in society, 'is the done thing', want to 'stay out of trouble', want to obtain reward, etc. or (b) just because it is 'right'?

We really can't determine much from the answers to such questions. At the least, the person may well be conflicted or confused about his motives; or, his motives may be quite subconscious and hence unreportable; or, the person may consider getting along in society to be an absolute moral imperative (just obeying orders), regardless of what specifics his society teaches; or, the person may not be willing to report that he is 'only' conforming (this last is the 'emperor's new clothes' problem). And so the line between 'C's and 'B's may often be blurred or indistinguishable.

Is our investigation then limited to subjective reporting, itself of questionable truth-value and subject to considerations of prudence?

Argument 3

What are we to say about a person who is genuinely, passionately, cynical about society's entire enterprise but who acts 'morally' (to stay out of jail, impress his superiors, live the good life, etc.), v. one who honestly believes that the acts and feelings he believes to be moral would still be moral even if all the world were to call them wicked? Is moral condemnation appropriate for one with 'bad moral luck'? Or is this a case of what the Roman Catholic Church used to call "invincible ignorance" which was not considered blameworthy, even if unfortunate (a sentiment Kant, but not Aristotle, would agree with). But even to pose the question in this way presupposes that one knows 'what's right' in some absolute sense of 'right', knows who is having a spell of 'moral good luck' v 'moral bad luck' — thus begging the question.

Argument 4

Emotions and acts can be viewed as different aspects of the same natural kind, 'emotion-and-act' (as argued in the previous paper). Briefly, in origin human acts (except simple physical reactions, accidental movements, etc.) are accompanied by emotion, and all emotion is accompanied by acts (or impulse to act, quickened pulse, facial redness, muscle tension, and the like). Civilization has trained us to dissociate emotion and act, but in origin they are constantly conjoined (as we can see in newborn babies, who show no emotion related to their random arm and leg movements; but when they can begin to control these movements at 3-4 months of age they become excited and pleased by their four new 'toys').

Opposing this position involves a 'sticks and stones' argument: hate doesn't kill, even if killers hate. Morally speaking, however, it is quite plausible to consider hate and killing both objectionable (or not) for the same reasons, for example as Spinoza apparently held. What we do with killers is quite different from what we do with haters, and appropriately so; but this is a matter of social determination of the degree of harm done or likely to be done, not of moral judgement as to the kind of offense involved.

Emotional lying

We can use the term 'emotional lying' to mean either simulating emotions one does not feel, or repressing the expression of emotions one does feel. Either type of lying can occur accompanied, or unaccompanied, by the other.

Everyone (except Kant and perhaps Tolstoy) has held that lying is morally acceptable in at least two kinds of situations: (a) Where the social situation allows for lying, and everyone involved knows that an assertion (or lack of assertion) in this situation cannot be taken at face value, or where to express what one believe or feels would not be socially acceptable, and (b) Where higher moral priorities obtain. It should not matter if the lie, in these cases, is acted, spoken, or 'emoted'.

It is commonly held that telling a lie (spoken or 'emoted') is wrong (with the two sort of exceptions noted earlier), even if only a peccadillo, because liars will sooner or later cease to be believed ('crying 'wolf''), but more tellingly, since lying is parasitic on truth-telling, if everyone were to lie much of the time, then no one would believe anyone, and hence lying itself could then not be successfully practiced. Good liars tell the truth most of the time, and acquire a reputation as truth-tellers.

Remaining silent poses different issues. Again, there is a disconnect between one's opinion and the opinions others perceive us to have. Remaining silent is generally considered less culpable than uttering a lie, but there are notable exceptions, such as failure to speak out in the presence of great injustice.

What is the ethical distinction between simulating an emotion one does not feel, and repressing the expression of emotions one does feel?

Geoffrey Klempner writes, "It seems to me that there is quite a strong disanalogy between expressing emotions one does not feel, and suppressing emotions one does feel. I would accept that expressing emotions one does not feel is prima facie dishonest (with certain debatable exceptions). Suppressing emotions one does feel is more often than not a matter of acceptable diplomacy." [emphasis added]

We should be leery of the "there are agreed exceptions" argument to emotional honesty, not because it is untrue, but because it is too convenient. I can too readily claim an exception for myself for one reason or another, under some description or another.

If emotions are to a large extent learned responses, then exhibiting a socially appropriate emotion one has learned but does not happen to feel is just as commendable (no more, no less) as performing socially appropriate acts one has learned, such as remaining silent in theatre when one might rather get on stage and tell Harry Hotspur that he should just chill out a little.

Certainly, if I am to maintain that emotions are act-like, in that emotions and acts both begin as act-with-emotion, then if I allow society to control my acts (within limits), then I also must allow society to control (educate) my emotions (also within limits). Since I acknowledge society's right to stop me from committing murder or at least to punish me if I do commit murder, then I must acknowledge society's right to educate me in the proper emotions to use and not to use on appropriate occasions, whether or not such education is in my interest or by my desire. The key question is, is one morally obliged to internalize society's teaching by developing certain (largely unconscious) sensitivities, or merely to rationally acknowledge its authority and follow its rules. And if the former is the case, the second question is then, how to eradicate all traces of the training so that my sensitivities appear, to me and others, to arise from my character. And if this is possible, the last question is, is it desirable? According to what set of presumptions?


(Nussbaum 1990) Nussbaum, Martha C. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford, 1990.

(Nussbaum 1994) Nussbaum, Martha C. The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics. Princeton, 1994.

(Preston 1991) Preston, Ronald. "Christian Ethics", pages 91-105 in Singer, Peter, ed. A Companion to Ethics. Blackwell, 1991.

(Rorty 1980a) Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg, ed. Explaining Emotions. Berkeley, 1980.

(Rorty 1980b) Rorty, Amélie Oksenberg. "Introduction". Pages 1-7 in Rorty (1980a).

(Stevens 1981) Stevens, Rex P. Kant on Moral Practice. Mercer University Press, Macon, Ga., 1981.

(Stocker 1980) Stocker, Michael. "Intellectual Desire, Emotion, and Action". Pages 323-338 in Rorty (1980a).

(Williams 1973) Williams, Bernard. "Morality and the Emotions". Pages 207-229 in Problems of the Self (Cambridge, 1973).

(Williams 1981) Williams, Bernard. "Moral Luck", pages 20-39 in Moral Luck. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

(Williams 1993) Williams, Bernard. "Moral Luck: A Postscript", in Statman, Daniel, ed. Moral Luck. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993; reprinted in Williams (1995), pages 241-247.

(Williams 1995) Williams, Bernard. Making Sense of Humanity. Cambridge University Press, 1995.