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In Good Conscience: Reason and Emotion in Moral Decision Making.

Individuals shape their own characters and create their moral careers by large and small moral decisions. We interpret our social worlds and select our own environments, as well as the other way around. Yet at the same time, no individual is self-created de novo, nor can anyone live a moral life alone. The self is always partially constituted by a history of interpersonal relationships within a specific community and culture. This sociality is particularly influential during the formative period of infancy and childhood when an individual learns a language and the culture's rules. (p. 199)

So reads Sidney Callahan's creed. It is of course the creed of most of us who live in modern America. Accordingly this is a passionate book that is written in the hopes of making us capable of living appropriate to our own best moral commitments. Thus the stress on conscience, decisionmaking, and in particular the emotions. As Callahan says,

I think we best make decisions of conscience through an integrated, recursive process in which we direct and focus attention back and forth, within and without, activating, mutually testing, and monitoring all our human capacities of thinking, feeling, and self-consciousness. We can consciously use our reason to test our reasons, emotions, and intuitions, and use emotions and induced intuitions to monitor our reasoning and other emotions. We can simultaneously pursue overt, rational problem-solving strategies, while activating and paying attention to our inner, psychological subjective processes of intuition and feeling, which may be no less important. In a decision of conscience, I seek a holistic fusion and unified resolution of the different levels and different capacities of my self-consciousness and moral agency. (p. 115)

So Sidney Callahan has written what is in many ways an old-fashioned book about a very modern conception of morality. Several times she quotes Bishop Butler's Ermons and in many ways her book is comparable to his sermons. For though her book, like his Sermons, is now called "ethics," his and her work is much "thicker" than the word we usually associate with that genre. Thus her emphasis upon conscience is to remind us that our lives morally consist of "self-committed moral action" in which our decisions are "infused with wholehearted self-investment" (p. 23). Analysis has a role, but it is nothing without "wholeheartedness."

Callahan's book is therefore based on the claim that all moralists, religious and secular, share the basic consensus that the self-conscious person exists and accordingly all moral decisions can be oriented to doing good and avoiding evil (p. 32). She develops this claim by drawing on philosophical and psychological resources. Indeed one of the most attractive aspects of the book is its multidisciplinary and wide-ranging character. She is not afraid to draw on wisdom wherever she finds it, since her task is not to contribute to a field, but rather to help us all live better, or at least to think better about how we ought to live better.

Her chapters on reason, intuition, and emotions are, as one would expect, filled with rich material. She draws on a wide range of philosophical and psychological analyses to develop a complex account of the role of intuition and emotion in the moral life which in no way denigrates the significance of reason. This is not simply another appeal for the significance of emotion to be considered by those who overemphasize the place of reason, but rather she helps us see how the well-lived life is constituted by what Aquinas described as "reasoned desire." I found particularly helpful her account of how emotions tutor emotions, as so often we forget that, as she puts it, only love can cast out fear. In like manner she reminds us that the great problem of the moral life is not, as is often said, that our reason is distorted by our emotions, but rather that we lack sufficient emotional responses. The problem is not that we feel to much, but that we do not feel at all.

It might be thought that her emphasis upon "moral decisionmaking" might lead her to an overly rationalistic account of the moral life. Yet her analysis in this respect is deeply informed by Iris Murdoch, who reminds us, "If we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over" (p. 121). So Callahan is free from the prejudice that associates moral decisions with choices, as she quite understands that character precedes decision. Accordingly she provides extended discussions not only of self-deception, but of those who seem to simply be morally evil. Wisely she understands that self-deception, which grips each of us in quite different ways, is not something that we can shake off by an act of reason or will.

As happy as I am that Sidney Callahan has written this passionate book about our moral lives, I fear this book is flawed exactly in the manner that our moral lives are flawed. If the book fails, its failure is ours. As I suggested, this book embodies the best of what we are and I fear our best is not good enough. She notes,

A morally developed person must create his or her own moral narrative, and so cannot remain uncommitted to some worldview or specific moral beliefs about the good. All moral stories cannot be accepted as equally valid. Choices will be made, commitments entered into, and fidelity displayed despite stress and struggle. An integrated, morally mature person may be flexible, open-minded, loving, caring, and tolerant of others, but must still be firmly directed toward a personally owned vision. (pp. 208-9)

Thus standing at the center of this book is the self of modernity, constituted primarily by the assumption that we must be self-creating, self-controlling, and self-directed. She quite understands that persons so constituted are not the same as the morally good person, and yet the very terms of her analysis will not let her go further. Conscience, reason, and emotion are not primary terms of the moral life, yet Callahan has not other resources as long as the thinks morality is about "flexibility, open-mindedness," loving, etc.

To be sure, her analysis gestures toward notions like virtue and narrative but we never know whose virtues or whose narratives are choosing us. In like manner, we know that reason and emotion must be interrelated but we never know whose reason or whose emotions are so intertwined. Of course the understanding of 'reason' Callahan assumes is that associated with liberal-democratic societies. Thus the hallmark of consciousness is assumed to be self-awareness. Yet Callahan never subjects that assumption to analysis. If such an analysis had been undertaken, Callahan might well have discovered that 'awareness' turns out to be a very tricky notion indeed. That is why her own account of self-deception is a bit muddled: she is tempted toward the notion of self-lying exactly because she fails to appreciate Fingarette's analysis of consciousness as skill. There are certainly aspects of Callahan's analysis that point in this direction, particularly in her suggestion that moral development ought best to be understood like a priest entering the novitiate. Yet because she fails to develop those insights, she continues to underwrite the peculiar modern assumption that the more we know, the better we will perhaps be.

Callahan has to work at as general a level as possible since she believes there are "universals." Thus she argues that logic is logic no matter where it is found. Even Alasdair MacIntyre, she alleges, must recognize that there is a structural commonality in different ideals of virtue. Accordingly, 'there is evidence that persons and self-consciousness exist in all cultures, that innate human intelligence and reasoning powers exist everywhere, and that innate emotional programs ae everywhere the same. "Moreover, she approvingly quotes Jerome Kagan, the child psychologist, to this effect: "Humans are driven to invent moral criteria, as newly hatched turtles move toward water and moths toward light" (p. 177).

Of course the irony is Callahan's failure to note that the very idea that we must create our own narratives and/or morality is one that can only be produced by the kind of economic and political systems in which we find ourselves. In that respect she is writing an apology for what she regards as the best of the West. For that we can hardly blame her, but it is quite another matter to believe that best should be called good.

Stanley Hauerwas is professor of theological ethics, The Divinity School, Duke University, Durham, NC.
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Author:Hauerwas, Stanley
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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