Before I get on to the main point of this post, let me ask you a question: when reading a piece someone wrote, does it matter if there use of language conforms to the rules of grammar your used to, or is it acceptable if their writing an they’re own dialect?
If you’re like me that sentence made you uncomfortable1. There’s a kind of twitch, a feeling that something isn’t right, a desire to fix it. Right? It feels wrong.
If you’re a Python programmer, I’d encourage you to go look at should-DSL and stare at the examples for a while until you understand how they work to get a similar sense of wrongness.
In his book “Voices: The Educational Formation of Conscience” Thomas Green describes these as voices of conscience. He defines “conscience” as “reflexive judgment about things that matter”, and argues that these voices of conscience are not intrinsic, but learned as part of our moral development through our membership in communities of practice – English speakers, Python programmers, etc.
That is, nobody is born knowing how to write Python or speak English, but in the course of learning how to do so we also learn how to behave as English speakers and Python programmers. By our membership of these communities we learn their norms, and by those norms we acquire voices of conscience that tell us to follow them. Because we exist in many different contexts, we acquire many different voices of conscience. Often these may disagree with eachother.
Importantly, we can acquire these voices for the norms of a community even if we don’t adhere to those norms.
Green distinguishes between three different ways of experiencing a norm. You can comply with it, you can be obedient to it, and you can be observant of it. Compliance is when your behaviour matches the norm (which may e.g. be just because it is convenient to do so), obedience when you actively seek to follow the prescriptions of the norm, and observance is when you have internalised the norm and experience it as a voice of conscience.
To this list I would also add enforcement – whether you try to correct other people when they fail to comply with the norm.
It’s easy to construct examples that satisfy any one of these but not the others, but for example the sentence at the beginning is an example of non-compliance where I am still observant of the norm: I know the sentence is wrong, but I did the wrong thing anyway. Similarly, I am observant of the norm when I notice that other’s usage is wrong, even if I make no attempt to enforce it (which generally I don’t unless I’ve been asked to).
It is specifically observance (and to some extent enforcement) that I want to talk about, and why I think the voices metaphor breaks down.
Let me turn to a different source on ethics, Jonathan Haidt. In his book the righteous mind he presents Moral Foundations Theory, which proposes a set of “foundations” of ethics. I think Moral Foundations Theory is approximately as useful a set of distinctions as Hogwarts Houses2, but a lot of the underlying research is interesting.
The following is a story that he presents to people as part of an experiment in where morality comes from:
Julie and Mark, who are sister and brother, are traveling together in France. They are both on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other. So what do you think about this? Was it wrong for them to have sex?Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 2013, p45
If you read interview transcripts of people’s reaction to this story (which was deliberately constructed to provoke a disgust reaction), the common factors that emerge are that it feels wrong, and to the degree people can justify it they first of all struggle and then eventually do so on the basis of it being a norm violation rather than being able to point to any “objective” reason why it was wrong (partly because the story was specifically constructed to achieve that – the parties are consenting adults, there is no risk of pregnancy, no harm is done, the story is kept a secret so does not normalise something that might be harmful in general even if it’s not in the specific case, etc.). People make their judgements about morality based on intuitive, emotional, responses to the scenario and then try to reason their way to that conclusion.
It is useful here to have the distinction between a belief and an alief. A belief is something that you think to be true, while an alief is something that you feel to be true (they’re called a-liefs because they become b-liefs). Haidt’s research suggests that aliefs and not beliefs are the foundation of people’s moral “reasoning”.
This then is the source of my disagreement with Green’s metaphor of a voice of conscience: Conscience doesn’t start with a voice, it starts with a feeling. There is then a voice on top of that, allowing us to reason about and navigate the norm, but the feeling is what gives the voice its power. Without a felt sense of conscience, the voice is just knowledge that this is a norm that should be obeyed if there are not to be consequences. Once the consequences go away, so does obedience to the norm, but if you have learned the feeling of conscience then it will linger for a long time even if you leave the community where you learned it.
How do we acquire these norms (Green calls the process normation)? Bluntly, operant conditioning.
When we obey the norm, we are often rewarded. When we disobey it, we are often punished. Sometimes this is enforced by other people, sometimes this is enforced by reality, sometimes this is enforced by our own latent fears about standing out from the crowd (itself a feeling of conscience that we have acquired – standing out makes you a target).
The conditioning trains our habits, and our feelings, to comply with the norm because we learn at an intuitive level to behave in a way that results in good outcomes – behaviours that work well are repeated, behaviours that work badly are not, and we learn the intuitive sense of rightness that comes with “good” behaviour from it.
So what does conscience feel like? Conscience feels like following the path in the world that has been carved for you via your training. When you stick to the path, it feels right and good, and as you stray from it the world starts to feel unsettling, and even if you no longer fear being punished for it you have learned to punish yourself for it.
This may sound like a very cynical framing of it, so let me just reassure you that I am not about to start talking about “slave morality” and how we should throw off the oppressive shackles of society’s unreasonable demands that we should be nice to people.
But there is an important point in this cynicism: The process of conscience formation, and the feelings that result, are morally neutral.
The ways that we learn the rules of grammar are the same as the ways in which we learn that harming people, are the same ways that people learn that, say, homosexuality is wrong. We might learn these through our memberships of different communities, and we certainly learn them with different strengths, but we acquire them through broadly the same mechanisms and acquire broadly similar senses of rightness and wrongness through them.
Over time, we are part of and pass through many communities, and accrue senses of conscience from them. Because of the shared felt sense of conscience, we cannot necessarily distinguish between them, and we end up with an underlying muddy sense of rightness and wrongness with no clear boundaries or sense where particular parts come from. Some things feel like the sort of thing you’re supposed to do and some things don’t.
Much of this underlying sense of conscience is bad and needs to be destroyed.
Because the formation of conscience is a morally neutral process, the consciences that we form may be bad.
How often does this happen? Well, consider this:
- We learn our consciences from the groups in which we are embedded.
- We are all a part of society.
- Society is really fucked up.
As we go through life, we pass through different spaces, and learn their norms, and then when we leave we drag the consciences that we learned there along with us. Many of these spaces are broken, and we learn bad norms from them that we have to break out of if we want to grow. e.g. “men shouldn’t express their feelings” or “I’m not allowed to set boundaries”.
As we grow more morally sophisticated (which is not necessarily the same as more moral) we come to understand that there is a distinction between “feels wrong” and “is wrong”, and that just because we react to something with visceral disgust doesn’t mean we should necessarily consider it immoral.
As a result we separate ourselves from the feeling of conscience and privilege the voice of conscience. If we can’t explain why something is bad, we say things like “Well I wouldn’t do it but obviously that’s fine if you want to”. Sometimes through gritted teeth, sometimes while genuinely managing to convey the impression that you should do you.
At this point we pat ourselves on the collective backs for having become enlightened and moved past those ugly primitive urges and archaic social constructs. We’ve moved from listening to the feeling of conscience to the voice of consicence, and because voices are the tool of rational analysis we think we have moved to a higher level of moral understanding.
We haven’t. This was the wrong thing to do. It is at best a transitional step, but more commonly it is a dead end.
The problem with this strategy is that it conflates enforcement with observance, and aliefs with beliefs. We think that because we have stopped enforcing the norm we have stopped observing it3, and we think that because we no longer believe something is immoral we no longer alieve it.
It is important to bring our moral beliefs and aliefs into alignment, but the way to do that is not to suppress our feelings on the subject. Suppressing feelings doesn’t make them go away, it buries them and increases the associated trauma. Disassociating from ourself isn’t the path to becoming a more moral person, it just causes us to build up trauma in the areas that we’re ignoring.
If we want to continue our moral development past a certain point, we need to learn the skill of navigating our conscience, and that means getting to a point where we can put aside the voice of conscience and look deeper as to where the feeling comes from.
Instead of flat out declaring that our moral intuitions are wrong and we shouldn’t feel that way, if something feels wrong we need to be able to approach that feeling and ask questions of it. The most important questions being where, why, and from whom did I learn that this was wrong?
This doesn’t make the feelings go away. Making the feelings go away is not the goal, at least initially. The goal is to get a handle on them, and to get to the point where you can make progress. Rather than being in constant conflict between voice and feeling, you can start to navigate between the two, and hopefully eventually come to a healthier position where your moral aliefs and beliefs line up.
This is extremely hard. I wish I had nice, easy, shortcuts to offer on how to do that, but I don’t. I’m still figuring all of this out myself.
I think the basic starting point for solving this is getting better at engaging with our feelings at all. I’m still processing how best to do that, and I owe you one blog post about this, but for now I’ll hand you over to this Twitter thread I wrote yesterday.
Once we’ve done that, the next step is to do the work. Ask ourselves questions, learn why we feel a particular way. If we still think the feeling is valid afterwards, that’s great, we’ve learned more about our moral intuitions. If, on reflection, we decide that actually this moral intuition comes from a bad place, we can start to examine it and, from a place of safety, start to unpick some of the moral damage that was done to us.