“It’s pretty clear that the essence of morality is emotional,” professor emeritus Daniel Kahneman says (Campus Notebook, Jan. 18). Well, that’s a very handy line if you want to justify doing something immoral! But it’s also nonsense.
First, emotions do not inherently generate moral propositions. There’s plenty of emotion involved in such things as viewing your favorite team win/lose, having someone you fancy return/rebuff your interest, and even facing a plate of Brussels sprouts. But no one infers that morality dictates some outcome or the other in those cases.
Second, the value of morality rests precisely upon its ability to restrain conduct that the emotions might favor. Some persons may want to cheat on their spouses or cheat on their taxes, but morality restrains them. A morality that simply followed emotions would be useless.
Third, morality exists even without emotional support. Yes, a person with a healthy conscience will be revolted at the thought of killing, raping, or trafficking in other human beings. But what of the cold-blooded actor whose heart is dulled to the plight of his victims? Are his atrocities therefore moral, at least as to him?
I hope Professor Kahneman was quoted out of context. Regardless, the notion that morality is essentially the rationalization of our emotions is both wrong-headed and pernicious.