Cover image for The Roots of Morality By Maxine Sheets-Johnstone

The Roots of Morality

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone


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ISBN: 978-0-271-03393-8

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The Roots of Morality

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone

This innovative and clearly written book is a significant contribution to the philosophy of the body, to ethics, and to phenomenology.


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This book argues the case for a foundationalist ethics centrally based on an empirical understanding of human nature. For Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, “an ethics formulated on the foundations of anything other than human nature, hence on anything other than an identification of pan-cultural human realities, lacks solid empirical moorings. It easily loses itself in isolated hypotheticals, reductionist scenarios, or theoretical abstractions—in the prisoner’s dilemma, selfish genes, dedicated brain modules, evolutionary altruism, or psychological egoism, for example—or it easily becomes itself an ethical system over and above the ethics it formulates,” such as the deontological ethics of Kantian categorical imperatives, the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, or the ethics of care.

Taking her cue from Hume, especially his Treatise on Human Nature, where he grounds “the moral sense” in human nature seen as always in tension between the natural tendencies of selfish acquisitiveness and sympathy for others, Sheets-Johnstone pursues her phenomenological investigation of the natural basis of human morality by directing her attention, first in Part I, to what is traditionally considered the dark side of human nature, and then, in Part II, to the positive side. The tension between the two calls for an interdisciplinary therapeutic resolution, which she offers in the Epilogue by arguing for the value of a moral education that enlightens humans about their own human nature, highlighting both the socialization of fear and the importance of play and creativity.

This innovative and clearly written book is a significant contribution to the philosophy of the body, to ethics, and to phenomenology.
The Roots of Morality is the crowning glory of Maxine Sheets-Johnstone’s career-long three-volume survey of the sources of human thinking, power, and morals in the operations of human nature. With her trademark erudition and comprehensiveness of thought, drawing dramatically from disciplines as diverse as biology, sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and literature, she traces the origins of morality in patterns of human behavior that shape our troubled journey from birth to death. Sheets-Johnstone gives a breathtaking tour of the deep tensions between our aggressive self-interest and our counterbalancing concern for the welfare of others. Along the way, she guides us into the depths of male-male competition, the cultural origins of war, our reliance on ideologies of immortality to flee from death, and the empathic strands of our nature that make possible our capacities for care, nurturance, and trust.”
The Roots of Morality is a powerful examination of the origins of basic moral character from the interplay of human nature and social affective bodily experiences. Sheets-Johnstone offers ample evidence that moral education must be based not in formulation of moral principles, but rather firmly rooted in understandings of the nature of human nature. This carefully argued, well-documented text offers a compelling challenge to traditional approaches to moral theorizing.”
“Maxine Sheets-Johnstone handles weighty philosophy like a dancer: she writes gracefully of the body, movement, creativity, the smile, and vital aspects of play, not just cerebral matter.”

Maxine Sheets-Johnstone is an independent scholar affiliated with the Department of Philosophy, University of Oregon. This volume is the third in a series of studies about “roots.” The previous volumes are The Roots of Thinking (1990) and The Roots of Power (1994).


Prologue: Human Nature and Human Morality: The Challenge of Grounding “the Moral Sense”

1. Introduction

2. The Foundations Laid by Hume in His Moral Philosophy

3. On the Origin of Sympathy and Selfishness: An Initial Determination

4. Unevenly Valorized Binary Oppositions: A Question of Life and Death

5. Hume’s Affective Polarity Revisited

6. The Culture/Nature Opposition

From the Perspective of Mythology and Religion

From the Perspective of Patriarchal Symbolism

From the Perspective of Practices in Present-day Western Science

From the Perspective of the Cultural Practice of War

7. Conclusion


Part I

1 Size, Power, and Death: Constituents in the Making of Human Morality

I. Introduction

II. Size and Power

III. Cultural Translations of Biological Facts

IV. Cultural Transformations and Evolutionary Ethics

V. Immortality Ideologies

VI. Implications


2 Death and Immortality Ideologies in Western Philosophy

I. Introduction

II. Descartes

On the Purpose of the Meditations as Specified in the Synopsis

Mind as Immaterial Substance

Mind and the Question of Time

III. Heidegger and Immortality Ideologies

IV. Psychological Underpinnings of Immortality Ideologies

V. Derrida’s Immortality Reading of Husserl and Derrida’s Own Immortality Ideology

VI. The Double: A Further Sign of Derrida’s Immortality Ideology

VII. The Last Word and the Ultimate Mortal Question


3 Real Male-Male Competition

I. Introduction

II. On Natural and Sexual Selection

III. Darwin’s Seminal Insights into Male-Male Competition and Their Total Neglect in Current Research

IV. Exemplifications

V. Evolutionary Considerations

VI. A Methodological Imperative and A Closing Apologue

VII. An Afterword


4 On the Pan-cultural Origins of Evil

I. Introduction

II. The Banality of Evil

III. Affective Elaborations of the Banality of Evil

IV. Toward Pan-cultural Understandings of the Banality of Evil

V. Beginning Evolutionary Considerations

VI. Clarifications Along Motivational Lines

VII. Killing, Death, Fear: Elementary Facts of Human Life

VIII. Warriors and the Heroic Honing of Males

IX. A Finer Analysis of Motivation

X. Broader Socio-Political Understandings of the Heroic Honing of Males: A Return to Evolutionary Considerations

XI. Classic Studies: An Afterword on History and Science


Part II

5 Empathy

I. Introduction

II. Early Clues and Husserl’s Archival Texts

III. Affect Attunement and the Qualitative Nature of Movement

IV. Emotions and Movement

V. Spontaneity

VI. The Kinetic Foundations of “Knowing Other Minds”

VII. Responsivity

VIII. Empathy

IX. A Postscript on Origins, History, and Methodology


6 Child’s Play: A Multidisciplinary Perspective

I. Introduction

II. Rough and Tumble Play

III. Locomotor-Rotational Play

IV. Play and Laughter

V. Morality and Child’s Play


7 On the Nature of Trust

I. Introduction

II. Learning to Trust: Uncovering Affective and Existential Realities

III. A Critical Examination of Luhmann’s Thesis of a “Readiness to Trust”

IV. Affective Experience, Human Freedom, and Uncertainty: Deepened Understandings of Trust


8 The Rationality of Caring: Forging a Genuine Evolutionary Ethics

I. Introduction

II. Transfers of Sense: The Ground of Caring

III. Comsigns: The Evolutionary Basis of Intercorporeal Life

IV. The Rationality of Caring: Laying the Groundwork

V. The Living Import of the “Metaphysically Significant”: The Experience of Interconnectedness

VI. The Living Import of the Metaphysically Significant: Interconnectedness, the Principle of Not Harming, and “Difference Removed”

VII. A Closer Look at the First Moral Principle and the Challenge of Human Existence


Epilogue: Re-Naturing the De-Natured Species: An Interdisciplinary Perspective

I. Introduction

II. Endangered Species

III. Ontogeny and Natural Signs

IV. Aggressive Complexities in the Socialization of Fear

V. Acquisitive Complexities in the Socialization of Fear

VI. On Psychological Ignorance

VII. A Moral Education

VIII. Concluding Thought




I. Introduction

This book elucidates an understanding of morality grounded in the nature of human nature. Its guiding thesis is that a bona fide ethics rests on bona fide understanding of what it is to be human, and in consequence, on bona fide explorations of human experience, of the phylogenetic and ontogenetic heritages of humans, of the human psyche, and of elemental facets of human existence. In carrying out these explorations, it articulates a morality that emanates from within rather than from without. That is, it proceeds not from a consideration of rules, duties, rights, moral judgments, moral status, moral agency, current ethical issues in Western society and in the world at large, and so on, but from an examination of fundamental realities of human nature. It thereby articulates understandings of human morality grounded in pan-cultural aspects of human existence—war, trust, and the concept of death, for example. In a word, it articulates a foundationalist morality, each successive chapter offering an in-depth analysis of an essential element of the whole. Chapters in Part I offer an in-depth analysis of what is classically considered the dark side of human nature; those in Part II offer in-depth analyses of what is classically considered the positive side. Given a nature basically conflicted by opposing dispositions, an interdisciplinary therapeutic is called for. It is set forth in the form of a moral education and justified in detail in the Epilogue.

An ethics formulated on the foundation of anything other than human nature, hence on anything other than an identification of pan-cultural human realities, lacks solid empirical moorings. It easily loses itself in isolated hypotheticals, reductionist scenarios, or theoretical abstractions—in the prisoner’s dilemma, selfish genes, dedicated brain modules, evolutionary altruism, or psychological egoism, for example—or it easily becomes itself an ethical system over and above the ethics it formulates. In the latter instance, specifying how we ought to conceive ethics and how we ought to behave in light of that conception ties us to a particular theoretical system of thought and to a correlative set of prescriptions to guide our actions. For example, it prescribes an ethics conceived as a system of duties requiring us to behave according to “categorical imperatives”; or an ethics conceived as a compilation of rules requiring us to behave in ways that secure equal justice for all; or an ethics conceived on the basis of utility, which requires us to conduct ourselves in ways that produce happiness for the greatest number of individuals; or an ethics conceived on the basis of care, which requires us to behave in ways that show a solicitous concern for the welfare of others.

Hume, Rousseau, and Hobbes—and to some extent, Bentham and Mill—are notable in dissenting from this theoretical-prescriptive approach to morality. Each philosopher spelled out an understanding of morality rooted in what he saw as the nature of human nature. Hume saw humans as naturally sympathetic toward one another but at the same time powerfully driven by a self-interest mitigated to a degree by a “limited generosity” (Hume 1739 [1888], 586); Rousseau saw humans as naturally—in a “state of nature”—compassionate toward one another, joined together in a basic positive mutual accord that is negatively transformed by culture; Hobbes saw humans as aggressively self-interested and destructive of one another, and thus needing the rule of law to keep them civil. Each of these views is strongly empirical in the sense that, whether acknowledged as such or not, it is based on evidence from both personal and social experience. Were each view cast in phenomenological perspective, it would be seen as offering a profile of human nature, i.e., just as an object offers multiple possible profiles to a phenomenological observer, so also does human nature. The views are thus not speculative, but neither are they radically empirical; they are rooted neither in a rigorous phenomenological methodology or phenomenologically informed psychology, nor in an evolutionarily and developmentally resonant pan-human perspective. The challenge, in effect, is to discover the nature of the human condition on the basis of which just such profiles emerge—or in other words, the challenge is to discover the roots of human morality.

II. The Foundations Laid by Hume in His Moral Philosophy

What is distinctive about Hume’s analysis of “moral subjects” is his attempt to ground “the moral sense” in human nature and his discovery that that nature harbors dichotomous tendencies. As indicated above, Hume finds that humans are naturally both sympathetically attuned to each other and acquisitive. While “kind affection” (1739, e.g., 482) toward others is not universal—“there is no such passion in human minds, as the love of mankind, merely as such, independent of personal qualities, of services, or of relation to ourself” (481)—sympathetic feelings nonetheless link us with others, notably with our family and friends, but also with strangers with whose plights we sympathize. On the other hand, our “natural temper” (486) also disposes us toward a selfish possessiveness that is “insatiable, perpetual, universal, and directly destructive of society” (492).

Though Hume clearly minimizes the selfish nature of humans in comparison with sympathy—“it is rare to meet with one . . . in whom all the kind affections, taken together, do not over-balance all the selfish” (487)—his basic insight into the opposing tendencies of human nature stands. The basic insight, however, commonly goes unnoticed, his moral philosophy being customarily discussed in terms of its emphasis on sentiment over reason and its arguments against there being any universal principles determining the rightness or wrongness of an action. The oversight results in a less than full appreciation of his moral philosophy. From a methodological viewpoint, it has the effect of skipping over his keen empirical insights into human nature and his quasi-biological concerns with origins. However skipped over, his conception of humans as by nature conflicted by two opposing sentiments is of considerable interest; his conception of the origin of human society as a solution to the deficits of that nature is equally so. That his treatise is A Treatise of Human Nature shows that he considers human nature to be part of the natural world. It is thus not surprising but provocative and even edifying that he begins his inquiry into the origin of justice and property with the observation, “Of all the animals, with which this globe is peopled, there is none towards whom nature seems, at first sight, to have exercis’d more cruelty than towards man, in the numberless wants and necessities, with which she has loaded him, and in the slender means, which she affords to the relieving these necessities” (484). His subsequent comparison of the way in which necessities and abilities are conjunctive in other animals rather than disjunctive as in humans, and his observation, “’Tis by society alone he [man] is able to supply his defects, and raise himself up to an equality with his fellow-creatures” (485) is moreover compelling and equally provocative. Further still, his identification of three specific “inconveniences”—the force of a single individual, the ability of a single individual, and the relationship of an individual’s force and ability to his sense of security—warrants serious attention. In particular, when Hume writes, “By society all his [man’s] infirmities are compensated” and “’Tis by [the] additional force, ability, and security [that society provides through common labor] . . . that society becomes advantageous” (485), he is identifying the elemental motivations of humans to come together to form societies and specifying the fundamental positive value of society. He is, in effect, elucidating both the fundamental nature of human nature and the social consequences of that nature.

Hume’s subsequent observations concerning selfishness take on added significance precisely in view of the dangers posed by society. “[O]ur outward circumstances,” Hume writes—i.e., our membership in society itself—put us at risk: “such possessions as we have acquir’d by our industry and good fortune” become “expos’d to the violence of others” (487). His point is that our naturally opposing sentiments—our inherent “contrariety of passions”—would by itself pose little problem. It is only in virtue of living in a far larger setting, among others who are neither family members nor friends, that humans are at risk. The risk traces back to both the basically deficient nature of humans and to their “limited generosity,” i.e., their natural possessiveness and cupidity. Though Hume does not put the matter in these terms, it is clear that when he writes of the instability of possessions—what one has may be taken by others—and of scarcity—there is an insufficient quantity of goods for all—he is affirming that human desire outruns itself: humans continually want more. “[T]he love of gain,” he says, is insatiable (492). Not only this but “the larger our possessions are, the more ability we have of gratifying all our appetites” (492). Hence the pursuit of more is self-propelling. The theme of more is indeed of quintessential significance in human morality. We will find it surfacing again in the following section and in a later section as well as in chapters of Part I, and will examine it in existential detail in a section of the Epilogue.

Hume’s analysis of human nature is consistently rich in insights and correlatively rich in its methodological rationale. As the subtitle of his Treatise specifies, his attempt is to provide an analysis of “moral subjects” on the basis of “a cautious observation of human life,” which means collecting and comparing observations, and regarding them as “experimental” evidence (xxiii). The aim of his analysis is to provide a “solid foundation” for the science of man, one grounded in “experience and observation,” and in turn a “solid foundation” for all other sciences (xx). Given his aim and methodological program, it is hardly surprising that his Treatise has a quasi-phenomenological tone: its dual aims coincide with Husserl’s later phenomenological ones. Not only this, but if feelings of sympathy and selfishness are indeed part of our natural temper, then it should be possible to specify the natural conditions of their possibility, the natural ground on which they arise—what in evolutionary and developmental as well as phenomenological terms would be described as their origin. Hume’s experiential-observational findings concerning human nature might thus be taken as clues to the phenomenology of feelings underlying human morality—or perhaps better, the fundamental moral tension underlying human social behavior. The clues would open a phenomenological path leading to an elucidation of the distinctive origins of sympathy and selfishness. Being of the nature of human nature, the identified origins would be natural, and being natural, would be pan-cultural. To follow through on the clues would mean to ask two questions: what experiences are the generative source of sympathy? what experiences are the generative source of possessiveness and cupidity? In light of his central concern with human nature, his recognition of human nature as the starting point for understanding human morality, and his subsequent insights into the nature of human morality, the clues Hume offers are particularly compelling. The possibility of grounding his findings in a more detailed phenomenology of human morality is inviting. Accordingly, we will turn to the two questions and in an initial way lay out the terrain to be covered in this book.

III. On the Origin of Sympathy and Selfishness: An Initial Determination

Human existence begins with birth and ends with death. These thoroughly individual events anchor incontrovertible realities of every human life. However differently treated, attended, explained, managed, valued, mythologized, or memorialized in any given society, birth and death are pan-cultural events. Oddly enough in view of their pan-cultural nature, they are events to which each human has a peculiar relationship. Though birth is individually experienced and may be remembered by others, it is not remembered by the birthed individual; though dying may be individually experienced and death may be remembered by others, neither dying nor death are remembered by the dead individual. There are, in effect, no first-person experiences to be consulted with regard to either birth or death. What as adults one knows of either is a matter of what one learns in the course of living. This fact poses a problem for phenomenology since there is no direct, first-person evidential ground to which to return. The problem may be initially circumvented by a reliance on studies of human nature, and in particular, studies that highlight fundamental human affective dispositions. Hume’s study, being what might be called a composite rather than one-sided picture of human nature, is obviously of moment in this respect. In contrast to the strongly positive picture of human nature painted by Rousseau and the strongly negative one painted by Hobbes, Hume suggests that “kind affection” and “possessiveness” exist along an affective gradient; that is, sympathy and selfishness are polar affective opposites that in broad moral terms define the two fundamental ways in which humans actively relate to one another. Put in the context of birth and death, the import of these natural affective dispositions is magnified. To sketch out the expanded significance in a beginning way, let us first briefly consider what we have learned from others and thus know second-hand of birth and death, then broaden that knowledge by putting it in preliminary evolutionary and ontogenetical perspectives, and in turn suggest how it may be deepened phenomenologically by probing along elusive experiential borders to reach the roots of human morality.

It is commonplace to remark that human infants are helpless, and that they are so for a relatively long period of time. Unlike many mammals—rodents, ungulates, cetacea, for example—human infants do not begin life by crawling or walking, or if in water, by swimming about on their own. Moreover unlike other primate infants, they do not cling to the fur on their mothers’ ventral side, hanging on by themselves while their mothers move about. They are, in effect, neither capable of getting around on their own nor capable of supporting their own weight. Being capable of neither, human infants are quite incapable of sustaining themselves by themselves. They must be cared for and nurtured by others; they are totally dependent creatures. Thus, all humans, not only those living today but those living across past millennia, are and were alive because at birth they were cared for and nurtured—however minimally, however sufferably. That they live or lived is indisputable testimony to the ministerings of others. Hume would likely judge feelings of sympathy (based on resemblance and contiguity, as we shall presently see) to undergird and to have undergirded the ministerings. Darwin would likely agree with Hume in basic ways (though differentiating sharply between feelings of sympathy and of love [Darwin 1871 (1981), 1:81]). Indeed, concordances in the writings of the two men indicate that Darwin read Hume closely, as is apparent in his discussion of sympathy as a constituent of “the moral sense,” for example, where he in fact cites Hume (1:85; see also Sheets-Johnstone 1996, 122). Moreover observations of Hume are prescient of those of Darwin: for example, “A man naturally loves his children better than his nephews, his nephews better than his cousins, his cousins better than strangers, where every thing else is equal” (Hume 1739, 483–84). Psychiatrist Daniel Stern would likely judge affect attunement to undergird and to have undergirded the caring and ministerings in that affect attunement is a more fundamental relational form of affectivity than sympathy (Stern 1985). The focal emphasis nevertheless remains on a feeling accord between infant and parent. A detailed, phenomenologically anchored analysis would specify empathy, and spell out its provenience in ontogenetical relationships such as those described by Stern. In the process, it would show how empathy, being fundamentally a social transfer of sense, translates naturally into a basic moral character; that is, how it is first and foremost generated from, and anchored in social affective bodily experiences, how it is carried over and exemplified in the phenomenon of child’s play, and how it is sustained by trust. This phenomenologically-anchored analysis in fact constitutes chapters in Part II.

Humans, like all living creatures, are helpless in an altogether different sense in the face of death. They are helpless not in the sense of lacking self-sufficiency among others, but helpless in the sense of lacking existential autonomy over their own lives. They are helpless to change their fate, helpless not to leave the world, helpless to outstrip their own mortality. The reality of death is in fact a uniquely human reality (see Sheets-Johnstone 1990, chap. 8). Noticing a lapse in the physiognomic animateness of another and feelings of loss are certainly documented aspects of nonhuman animal life, as are also feelings of grief (e.g., Goodall 1971), but the concept of death is non-existent in nonhuman animal worlds. Humans alone know that they lead a punctuated existence, that their life, like the lives of all creatures, is on the line. They know that once their time has come, i.e., once death is imminent, there will be no more time: there is no generosity on the side of death. From a Humean perspective, whatever security they might amass in the form of possessions or find in the form of fame (see Hume 1789 [1888], 316–24), it cannot protect them from death. All the same, the security more buys is or can be soothing, even lulling—whether a matter of possessions, fame, political power, economic killings, territory, or even children. More is a palliative to the no-moreness of death, a temporal fortress of sorts. Cupidity thus becomes a cultivated human affection by which one’s own inevitable no-moreness is psychically tempered. Living amidst plenty diminishes thoughts—and fears—of death. How it does so, how size and power are constituents in the making of human morality, how immortality ideologies are constructed to preserve one beyond the nothingness of death, how male-male competition is a culturally elaborated built in of human morality, especially as played out politically and economically, and how self-interest and self-aggrandizements are tied to knowledge and fear of death, are each basic themes of Part I.

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