Symposium Introduction

It might seem odd to suggest that morality has a moral problem, but according to social-psychologist C. Daniel Batson (2016), that seems to be the case. In other words, despite the important work in moral theory from Aristotle to contemporary care ethicists, why is it that so often people fail to be moral? It seems that there is something of a translation (or transmission) problem such that even though we have numerous accounts of what goodness requires, rarely do those accounts succeed in bringing about good lives. Or, as Batson asks, why does morality so rarely get what it demands? In presenting things this way, Batson constructively, and non-reductively, positions moral philosophy as inevitably flawed unless it attends to the emerging data in moral psychology.

Although there are other philosophical takes on moral failure (see Tessman 2015), Batson’s approach is distinctive not only for its dependence on empirical data, but also for the way in which it positions moral life as a question of the relation between social values, emotions, motivations, and moral principles. Far from being a straightforward critique of moral philosophy as such, Batson’s text (along with his earlier work on empathy) helps to see the importance of philosophy in the first place as providing carefully articulated principles for moral social life. In this way, Batson offers what I would consider a psychological supplement that contributes both to the pragmatic question, “What is likely to make people more ethical?” and also to the phenomenological question, “What is the nature of morality such that it presents such difficulties for human social behavior?” In the present symposium, the contributors collectively address all of these components and implications of Batson’s work.

In the first essay, Christopher D. Merwin offers a social phenomenological consideration of Batson’s book by suggesting that from the outset Batson’s notion of “values” and “principles” requires a richer description of how such ideas get formed in the daily lives of social beings. Subsequently, Merwin contends that we should understand morality as always already plural: “moralities.” As such, the dynamics involved in moral life are, themselves, socially implicated.

The second contribution comes from Christy Flanagan-Feddon. In this essay, Flanagan-Feddon attempts to think at the intersection of the disciplines of philosophy and psychology in order to demonstrate that Batson’s account might benefit from a more expansive engagement with moral philosophers who have prioritized the relational dynamics of moral selfhood (viz., Emmanuel Levinas, Ludwig Feuerbach, Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler, among others). Flanagan-Feddon challenges what she takes to be Batson’s overemphasis on “intentional action-states” as missing the way in which morality might be a deeper aspect of social existence itself.

In the third essay, Lidewij Niezink extends the phenomenological approaches of Merwin and Flanagan-Feddon in a decidedly psychological, and applied, direction. Drawing on her own work in moral psychology, Niezink develops something of an account of phenomenological best-practices, as it were, for doing objective research into moral phenomena. Arguing that more qualitative empirical research would be a helpful supplement to Batson’s quantitative data, Niezink offers what she takes to be a better account of the moral lifeworld in which we could begin to get a better grasp on morality, and what might be wrong with it.

Finally, Mark Fagiano shifts from the phenomenological and psychological to the pragmatic in order to push back on what he locates as Batson’s ultimate desire to preserve “principlism.” Drawing on John Dewey and William James, Fagiano contends that moral experience is at least as important, and maybe more important than, moral principles. In this way, Fagiano moves in similar directions as does Flanagan-Feddon regarding the need to rethink Batson’s own conception of moral philosophy as too restrictive.

Ultimately, in this exciting set of exchanges with his critics, Batson is able to clarify and extend his position in ways that are provocative and promising for the future of moral philosophy, moral psychology, and moral life.


Works Cited

Batson, C. Daniel. 2016. What’s Wrong with Morality: A Social-Psychological Perspective. New York, NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tessman, Lisa. 2015. Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Christopher D. Merwin


Phenomenology, Our Shared Worlds, and Morality

One of the particularly challenging aspects of a philosophical analysis of morality is that morality is often interpreted and understood as a universal category, a univocal principle for normatively guiding our actions. Yet, paradoxically, the source of our moral values, that is, the place where we obtain this seemingly univocal principle, is both individually, interpersonally, historically, and socially determined. This is something of a conundrum. If morality is univocal in its scope and determination, then it should be universally similar across all cultures and peoples throughout history. Similarly, we should be able to easily access the moral success or failures of individuals in their behavior. Yet, this is clearly not the case. In recent years psychologists have begun to take up the analysis of the moral behaviors of individuals and to ask what the social and psychological factors are that make up our moral motivation and how it is that we know the right thing to do, but still choose to do the wrong thing.

In his recent book, What’s Wrong with Morality? A Social-Psychological Perspective, social psychologist C. Daniel Batson lucidly explores the ways in which our moral actions and behaviors often fall short of our moral principles and seeks a descriptive, rather than normative, explanation of how this is the case. Batson seeks to describe the moral behaviors of real individuals through numerous case studies and see how they succeed or fail to accord with moral principles. Batson’s conclusion, unsurprisingly, is that often our moral failures, or our “moral maladies” as he calls them, are due less to our own individual character or the circumstances and pressures which we face in our day-to-day moral activities, and more to “rationalization, self-deception, and moral hypocrisy” (228). Batson’s analysis is particularly important to philosophical discussions of morality because it considers actual descriptions and accounts of moral actors and the struggles they face, rather than armchair philosophizing. In this way, we may interpret Batson’s work along a phenomenological vein in that it attempts to understand morality through the lens of actual lived experience.

In what follows I would like to briefly critique Batson’s account from a phenomenological standpoint. My motivation for doing so is twofold. First, I take it as given that Batson’s analysis is a compellingly argued standard for a social-psychological understanding of morality. His text stands as an exemplar of how we can observe the interplay between moral behavior and moral principles in individuals. By drawing from the philosophical subdiscipline of phenomenology, my aim is to accept Batson’s argument and ask how we might take it further by making use of the rich history and practice of phenomenology. As such, my critique of Batson’s text is not a criticism, but an attempt to enlarge the scope of Batson’s examination. My second motivation is to ask whether or not phenomenological questions about morality can withstand the pressures of social scientific evidence. The first of these motivations I will address here, while the second will remain to be seen and is for social scientists like Batson to determine.

1. What’s Wrong with Asking What’s Wrong with Morality?

Batson’s text, particularly when applied to the United States, could not come at a more poignant time. Batson says at the outset that his task is to “consider morality not only as a solution but also as a problem” (Batson 2016, 3). Batson wants to understand just how it is that morality affects our behavior and to examine the range of motives and emotions, many of which, perhaps most, are themselves not intrinsically moral. The interplay between motives and emotions and their morality (or lack thereof) is especially pertinent in contemporary American culture and it is precisely this interplay which Batson seeks to examine in the text. In examining moral failures, that is, our oft-experienced inability to live up to our own moral standards, Batson sees, rightly so, that it is rarely the case that we are simply good people caught in a bad world (Batson 2016, 227). Instead our motivations and emotions, our behavior, is often vulnerable to “rationalization, self-deception, and moral hypocrisy,” and with nonmoral motives, emotions, and values playing much more significant roles in our behavior than our relatively weak moral ones (Batson 2016, 228).

The central question of Batson’s inquiry, which seems right, is to ask why morality doesn’t get what it demands? As a social scientist Batson wants to test a series of hypotheses and discover what symptoms lie at the heart of his diagnosis of what is wrong with morality. Aside from Batson’s own fourfold theoretical model, if there is a consistent metaphor guiding Batson’s reflection it is that of symptom, diagnosis, and disease and possible cure. Batson’s four-part doctor’s bag includes a methodology, apparently used across psychological and neurological research, of value → emotion → motivation → behavior in order to “consider the range of motives that might lead a person to act in accordance with principles of right and wrong conduct” (29). Batson proceeds skillfully and with a wide range of excellent case study examples to trace out the malady of morality through these four characteristics.

It is, however, here where Batson has already lost me as a philosopher and phenomenologist. Morality may indeed be principles of right and wrong, but I want to ask where these principles came from, what is their origin for the agent who has moral or nonmoral motivations? Moreover, is morality in fact a cross-culturally codified univocal principle of right and wrong behavior, emotion, and motivation? What I mean here is not whether morality is hard coded into the human experience, but how it is that we come to know principles of right and wrong in the first place. The easy answer is, our upbringing and environment. But these easy responses do not account for the complexity of human moral history, of the very complex ways that moral statements are shared and disseminated, reinforced, modified, ossified, and challenged. Batson, for his part, spends very little time on where our principles come from and instead focuses on the fact that we internalize principles as such (45–46). If there is anything that recent social justice movements, particularly in the United States, has taught us, it is that the principles themselves of right and wrong can, do, and maybe sometimes must, change based upon social, historical, and interpersonal factors. This is where I think that the conversation with social phenomenology may be fruitful for Batson’s project.

2. The Phenomenology of Shared Worlds

Perhaps the most well-known, although by no means only, social phenomenologist is Alfred Schutz. Similarly, the work of phenomenologist Max Scheler, whose work is in large part preserved and expanded upon by Schutz, also deserves special attention. Important for social phenomenologists is the role that time, intersubjectivity, and co-performance play not only in our social behaviors and actions, but also in the ways that our inner experiences are transformed through time and relation with others.

Part of the problem of defining morality as univocal is that it tends to cast moral principles in the light of unchanging laws about how we ought to act, without recognizing that what is understood by those principles of right and wrong themselves have a history and undergo transformations. Max Scheler, for example, provides a sophisticated and complicated phenomenological analysis of shame, including its relation to moral emotions, that is nevertheless and necessarily deeply rooted in the first decade of the 1900s in the German cosmopolitan culture of Berlin. Many of Scheler’s observations would be considered by us today as downright sexist or chauvinist, yet they are, as Scheler is at pains to point out, deeply temporally and bodily codified expressions of social moral behavior (Zahavi 2014, 114–18). Scheler, like any good phenomenologist, not only acknowledges his social temporal circumstances but uses them to ask about the difference between the structure, affect, and dynamics of shame compared to their social and intrapersonal expressions.

Schutz, following Scheler, two decades later in The Phenomenology of the Social World, understands that many of our deepest values, motivations, and moral principles come from our consociates, that is, our shared community of space and community of time. But importantly for Scheler and Schutz, and social phenomenology more generally, these communities of space and time also include communities of ideas, of historical receptions and interpretations, and even the ways in which understandings of these principles can be consciously (or unconsciously) changed. As John Drummond has rightly pointed out in his seminal collection Phenomenological Approaches to Moral Philosophy, one of the primary benefits of a phenomenological approach to morality is that it “makes possible a critical reflection both on the actions themselves and on the moral judgments we make about them and their agents. We can reflect on the rightness or wrongness of actions and on the correctness or incorrectness of our appraisals of them and of their agents” (Drummond 2002, 3). But this assessment of rightness or wrongness, rather than a view of morality from nowhere, instead takes into account how the agent, and intersubjective agents, of that life world understand by morality to begin with at a given time.

Because of phenomenology’s insistence on the first-person embodied standpoint, both singular and plural, it may be more fruitful to ask after how it is that we fail to live up to moralities, and not simply just a single univocal morality, and what the conditions are for a morality’s success or failure. A plurivocal approach, or a hermeneutic one, allows a rich methodology like Batson’s a broader conceptual framework. If we modify Batson’s fourfold model by adding: (engagement with) morality→ value → emotion → motivation → behavior, we may see a more multifaceted view of morality and its interplay with moral agents emerge. As moral actors, particularly in large multicultural and cosmopolitan societies, we are influenced not by a single morality, but many more claims. Where a phenomenological approach may be more helpful to Batson’s project is to acknowledge, as I believe Batson wants to, that there is within us as human beings a striving toward what we term morality (for an example of how this might be possible, see Kriegel 2008). The social, historical, interpersonal expression of how to understand what moral success or failure looks like, or what a morality looks like, is highly dependent on the first-person experience (in the many singular and plurals) of the moral agents involved. Batson’s descriptive project sits comfortably alongside phenomenology’s dictum that to be able to understand something, you need to understand what it looks like to others.

In contemporary America, social justice movements like #metoo have importantly come to the foreground of social consciousness and initiated discussions of not only what is considered right or wrong conduct, but also discussions of how and why the moral standards of the past may no longer be sufficient. This is not so much the case that we have universally all failed morality, or that we falsely believe we are “good people in a bad world,” but that morality is itself not univocal and static, or rather, what different persons at different times in different places in all of their subjectivity and intersubjectivity understand morality to be is something that must also be taken into account if we want to know why we fail to act as moral agents.


Works Cited

Batson, C. 2016. What’s Wrong with Morality? A Social-Psychological Perspective. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Drummond, J. J. 2002. “The Phenomenological Tradition and Moral Philosophy.” Introduction to Phenomenological Approaches to Moral Philosophy, edited by J. J. Drummond and L. Embree. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Kriegel, U. 2008. “Moral Phenomenology: Foundational Issues.” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 7.1: 1–19.

Zahavi, D. 2014. Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy, and Shame. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • C. Daniel Batson

    C. Daniel Batson


    Reply to Comment by Christopher Merwin

    I welcome not only Chris Merwin’s generous acceptance of my argument (something I wouldn’t do) but also his desire to take the argument further “by making use of the rich history and practice of phenomenology.” As the subtitle of What’s Wrong with Morality? says, mine is a social-psychological perspective. I hope this perspective adds to our understanding of what’s wrong with morality, but I’m not so delusional as to think that it offers all the insight we need. A more comprehensive view of our moral failures would need to take advantage of a whole host of other perspectives, including phenomenological ones.

    Chris specifically wants to enlarge the scope of my examination by asking both where our moral principles, standards, and ideals come from, and how they change. His focus is on social, historical, and interpersonal factors operating in “our shared community of space and community of time,” including “communities of ideas”—“historical receptions and interpretations”—that present us not with a “single univocal morality” but with the challenge of dealing with a multiplicity of moralities.

    Chris is right that my focus is on the psychological processes, especially the motivational and emotional ones, that all too often enable us to fail to live up to our personally held moral principles, standards, and ideals, whatever they may be. Being a social psychologist, I consider these psychological processes in the social context as perceived by the individual. Specifically, chapters 2 and 5 give attention to the socialization processes through which we acquire our moral standards, including their multiplicity and some of the psychological factors that work for and against moral change. Chapter 3 considers some key social and cultural pressures on our morality. My own research, however, has focused on how it is possible for us to fail to live up to our standards even when both we and our communities speak with a clear voice about what is right for us to do in a given situation—and when we aren’t under strong external pressure to do otherwise. Thus, my focus is downstream from Chris’s. As he says, our different foci are not in conflict but complementary.

    At the risk of introducing a discordant note into all this harmony, let me raise a concern about Chris’s suggestion near the end of his comment that where a phenomenological approach may be especially helpful is by acknowledging that “there is within us as human beings a striving toward what we term morality.” The blanket nature of this statement gives me pause. The striving he describes may be true for a given human being at a given point in time, but I doubt it’s always true for all of us—and for some of us, it may never be.

    How would we know if it’s true or not? This question shifts attention from the aims of a phenomenological approach to its method, which is often described as a focus on first-person experience and is often operationalized as careful, sensitive attention to how the experiencer describes the experience. To use this method to address such a question seems problematic. The problem is that when describing complex, multifaceted, multiply determined, and value-laden experiences—as our morality-relevant experiences frequently are—we often don’t know or aren’t willing to admit even to ourselves what’s really going on. So how can we trust first-person reports?

    To give an example that I used frequently in the book, think of John Dashwood’s experience in the first few pages of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as he decides how to fulfill the promise to his dying father to “do everything in his power” to care for his stepmother and stepsisters. From John’s first-person perspective, it seems that he honestly believes that the decision he reaches about what to do is moral—that it conforms to both his personal and his culture’s standards for right conduct in the situation. From our third-person perspective, we (and Austen) know otherwise. This example suggests to me that although a first-person perspective is valuable, and at times essential, internal states such as motives and values—including moral ones—often need to be understood in a larger context that includes not only antecedents but also actions. And sometimes, actions speak louder than antecedents, especially antecedents seen from a first-person perspective.

    Finally, let me express a regret. In addition to extending my analysis by use of phenomenology, Chris says that he also wants “to ask whether or not phenomenological questions about morality can withstand the pressures of social scientific evidence.” He then says he’ll defer to social scientists like myself to answer this question. For two reasons, I wish he hadn’t deferred. First, I’d like to know what phenomenological questions he has in mind. If I knew the questions, I might be able to suggest relevant evidence. Second, I think that either he or someone else more knowledgeable than I about phenomenology must judge whether the evidence provides pressure. I hope he’ll return to this issue at some point. I’d like to hear the verdict.

Christy Flanagan-Feddon


What’s Wrong with [Normative Claims about the Self and] Morality?

or, How Can Moral Psychologists and Philosophers Get Along?

I read Batson’s work with great interest, yet crafting this response has been quite challenging because of certain methodological differences between philosophy and psychology, and I’ve done my best to be cognizant of those differences. Batson writes that his study is focused on the moral lives of ordinary people, and not the ideals of saints, psychopaths, or philosophers (19). For the sake of both myself and of those reading this essay, hopefully the first and fourth categories have more in common with each other than he thinks.

Batson has given us an exhaustive account of the “wrongs” of failed moral behavior from a psychological standpoint, or how self-deception, rationalization, and even social warfare regularly erode our attempts at maintaining consistent moral standards in our behavior. Yet I think these points also demonstrate the inadequacy of viewing morality as a solely rational process, or at least in the sense that our rational faculties are defined in this project. Moral reflection goes “wrong” when we treat it as a solitary, singular endeavor, or bluntly, when we are allowed to stay in our own heads and the powerful mechanisms of rationalization and/or self-deception take over. The mind is a powerful thing and without some type of barometer that provides grounding and compels critical self-reflection, our moral reflections are rootless. When we ask questions about morality or what is wrong with it, inevitably we are asking questions about the self’s engagement with its world and the impact of the self’s actions on others. Moral failings occur when the self has reneged on its responsibilities to others in society. This barometer is not only a test of our morality, but also our humanity.

Certainly such broad philosophical questions go beyond the stated scope of Batson’s analysis, but interestingly as the book continues, we start to creep back into this territory (6). He tries to demarcate some of these methodological issues early in the introduction, explaining that his project relates to the dictionary definition of morality as conduct, or how “our morals affect our behavior,” particularly with reference to the different sources of moral motivation (3). In its reliance on empirical data he argues that his project is descriptive and not normative (6), yet the very framing of his question that something is “wrong” with morality—in terms of either motivation or execution, or both—is in fact a normative statement. Surely, in this kind of discussion of morality we do not need to go down the proverbial rabbit hole of why utilitarians do not agree with deontologists and vice versa, and their differences in how they define the good. In the spirit of Rawlsian pluralism, that conversation may no longer even be necessary.

Yet if we are to talk about a morality that has failed, that is inevitably a normative conversation of a different kind as it requires certain claims about human selfhood and what we should reasonably expect that we can and should achieve, and how we view the parameters of moral reflection going forward. Theorists in philosophy would associate these kinds of questions with meaning-determining normative statements. The term relates to Wittgenstein’s “language-game” theory, which argues that the meaning of a term relates to implicit rules for how the term is to be used. Again, this causes me to circle back to my initial claim that the very nature of this project (i.e., “what is wrong with morality?”) demonstrates its normative character. The very asking of the question requires us to expand the scope beyond what we are already doing to what we need to do and ultimately, who we are and the tools available to us to figure this out. The scope of moral reflection must be expanded beyond the self/ego’s understanding of moral rules. In fact, Batson’s many studies have shown us that this is precisely where our moral decisions go awry, as we use cognitive mechanisms to explain away the liberties we are taking in our execution of moral principles. As guides for action, moral rules can only be evaluated in the larger context of their practice, and this inevitably involves a deliberation about the self in the larger context of its world—and more specifically, what we ought to expect of the self.

Even Batson seems to recognize this on some level, as suggestions offered in chapter 8 on how to treat our moral maladies include prescriptions, which again relate to embedded normative claims about moral expectation (200). In spite of himself, his project veers into normativity and even further, larger expectations about the relationship between the self and its world. This is not to point out a shortcoming of his project but instead to praise it for its depth, although I might need to convince him that this is a good thing. Given that he has his own misgivings about his method and analysis, perhaps I can nudge him a little more to my side, or perhaps we can think further about where our disciplines come together (7).

Batson’s rejection of “normative” assertions seems to be associated with his lack of confidence in conclusions that use reasoning other than empirical data. Again this is a matter of methodological differences between disciplines, yet I think it is interesting to see how his analysis still opens the door for additional consideration of philosophical claims and methods, including phenomenological reflections of self and world and certain normative expectations that are already embedded in language.

The example of the high school student in Georgia at the time of desegregation is important for not only this text, but also as a means to demonstrate how some of these lines merge. In spite of his culture and background, the white student in the Coles study recognized that his friends’ racial abuse of the black student was wrong and told them to stop. He explained that he just saw a “kid,” presumably much like himself, and “something in me began to change” and he was compelled to defend the boy (221). As Batson explains, our goal for moral integrity is to internalize moral standards to the level of integration along the lines of Aristotle’s virtuous person or Colby and Damon’s moral exemplar (202). Yet Aristotle would explain the development of moral character as a process of habituation and action, and this student’s outspoken defense of the other was spontaneous and surprised even himself. Further, it was in the face of the situational pressure of the racist culture of his peers. I think the key to this story is the boy’s recognition that the black student was just a boy like himself.

The acknowledgment of his own moral obligation was made possible by seeing himself in the other person and vice versa. This is a very significant concept that relates to other points Batson explains in his research, namely his suggestion of perspective taking as a stimulus to moral integrity (117), and several discussions throughout the text regarding the use of a mirror in experiments (e.g., 108, 214). Batson argues that both of these strategies seemingly increased the subject’s self-awareness and therefore made them more likely to engage in morally sound behavior. Further, this recognition of self and other, and similarly, the moral obligations indicated by the other (and other-ing of the self), seems to touch on many of the prescriptions Batson suggests as treatment of moral maladies, including recognition of moral relevance, increasing perception, moral motivation, broadening one’s outlook, among others.

The mirror concept is not only an efficient strategy with reference to these empirically-justified postulates in psychology. There is a long history of figures in philosophy who explain similar concepts of the existential/ontological recognition of self through the Other and the resulting moral obligations. Batson’s analysis above leaves us with two great insights: one, morality as perceived through the self/ego’s cognition of rules is inadequate; and two, a key strategy in achieving moral breakthroughs is to undergo a reflective process of self-consciousness as facilitated by the relationship between self and Other. This opens the door for not only moral insight, but also insight into one’s own identity. Hegel wrote that “consciousness of an ‘other,’ of an object in general, is itself necessarily self-consciousness, a reflectedness-into-self, consciousness of itself in its otherness” (Hegel 1807/1977, 102).

Emmanuel Levinas furthers this basic model of self-other recognition to identify moral consciousness as a function of self-consciousness, in that the very notion of “subjectivity is the other in the same” (Levinas 1998, 25). This constitutes not only how we view ourselves in relationship to others, but even how we feel within our own skin: there is an aspect of our being that is fundamentally beyond being itself in terms of cognition, mastery, or definition. Levinas describes this faculty of otherness as not a stable give-and-take or “reciprocity,” but “restlessness” (Levinas 1998, 25) and it is ultimately the structure that signifies my “responsibility for the other” (Levinas 1998, 26). Think again about the example of the boy in Georgia: his defense of the other boy was not the result of a careful deliberation about rules and principles; it was in the instant moment of recognition of himself in his Other in a way that was immediate and pressing, but also uncertain and destabilizing, as he described it as “the strangest moment of his life” (221). This quality of restlessness resists the “moral myopia” Batson describes where we are all too quick to allow self-interest to cloud moral principles (120). When moral action is defined in clearly delineated moments of self-rule-action, the possibility of misfiring increases. But when it is an obligation that calls us, perhaps even disorients us, this is not so easily manipulated. Yet if we do not learn of our moral obligations through cognition and rules, then we also have to identify the tools we have available within experience that provide this ground for ethical awareness.

Ludwig Feuerbach also explained the dual nature of human self-consciousness, tying it to both our opportunity to realize our human potential and also our ethical obligations to other human beings. Following the aforementioned Hegelian model, he explained that what defines us as human beings is our ability to think in the “inner” and the “outer” or the “I” and “Thou”: “man is himself at once an I and Thou; he can put himself in the place of another” (Feuerbach 1841/1957, 2). Feuerbach explains how certain emotions and experiences act as phenomenological clues that make us aware of this self-othering aspect of our consciousness. These clues demonstrate the unusual ways in which intimate and personal experiences also distance the “inner” from the “outer” life and literally objectify the self to ourselves.

Similar to Levinas, Feuerbach explains selfhood as constituted in the fact that we are fundamentally vulnerable and capable of being affected, even within our own structure of self-consciousness. He also explains our ability to learn of this through sense-perceptibility (Sinnlichkeit) and feeling. Our self-consciousness is made possible through this exercise of self-reflection and reception, if not even passivity. We understand our humanity in the context of our characteristics and attributes, but when these characteristics are in effect, they demonstrate an autonomy beyond our intention or control: these “constituent elements of our nature” are also those “to which he can oppose no resistance” (Feuerbach 1841/1957, 2). In his description of falling in love, he writes: “which is the stronger—love or the individual man?” He also mentions similar experiences like being captured by a musical piece that moves us, or the notion of being lost in thought in a daydream. These aspects of human nature exceed our abilities of control and mastery, but nonetheless comprise the very source of our possibility for growth and self-transformation. For Feuerbach, to be “at once and I and Thou; he can put himself in the place of another . . . his species, his essential nature, and not merely his individuality, is an object of thought” (Feuerbach 1841/1957, 2). This reflective process of self-awareness that makes me aware of my own identity is fundamentally related to my relationship with other human beings and how I ought to act as a result. Feuerbach explained actions like violence or fanaticism as things that happen as the result of devaluing this common kinship among human beings. We are made aware of this process and our resulting responsibilities through reflection and relation; not clear cognition, self-mastery, and classification.

This is the aspect of Batson’s study with which I struggled the most. These figures in philosophy would describe moral responsibility as an inseparable aspect of our human identity. While we inevitably fall short with the execution of our moral obligations, the appeal to our being or nature is what makes us keep striving. Moral expectation is inexorably bound to ontological claims about who we are as persons, and we also have certain phenomenological clues as given through intuition, emotion, the face of the Other, and the like, that help to demonstrate our moral obligations. These clues demonstrate a similar process of othering that takes place within the self, but like the self-other discussion of the boy in Georgia, awareness only takes place as part of a reflective process between self and other, presence and absence. Further, on a “rational” level, the boy referred to the mores that he knew of being a product of the racist culture: the normalcy of the n-word, the expectations of his friends, and so on. He could profess to be a moral person broadly speaking, as could his peers, but the cognitive mechanisms of rationalization and self-deception could exempt him from treating the black student appropriately. However, the realization that was brought through by the reflective self-consciousness in seeing the other student as himself—even in spite of himself—impressed his moral obligation upon him and he defended the black boy. He identified no clear moral rules or obligations as the reason for his actions, but that “something in me began to change” in that moment of recognition and he reacted accordingly. Clearly this is an important anecdote for the book for the reasons mentioned above, yet it does not seem to meet Batson’s criteria for “moral” action as exclusively intentional and goal-directed behavior (19).

On some level, this seems to coincide with Hoffman’s notion of empathy-based morality, where empathy has the potential to transform abstract moral principles into “prosocial hot cognitions . . . thus giving them motive force” (219). Yet Batson also argues that altruism and morality have no necessary connection and might even compel us to immoral behavior (219). I do understand his concerns regarding altruism and partiality, in that if I feel a particular affection or affinity for a person or group it might cause me to bend certain standards to help them (33). However, I think even within his own examples given in this text, his rigid definitions of these categories undermine how other factors serve as key anima in moral action, such as emotions like empathy and concern.

As I read this book, I frequently found myself returning to the same concern: one of the main issues that is “wrong” with morality is how it is understood—and Batson’s own definition relates directly to the problem. His strict definition of actions as being moral only when they are intentional action-states that correspond with clearly delineated cognitive principles or rules is precisely what allows them to be so easily manipulated; one might say that rules are made to be broken. But when we look at moral actions and responsibility more broadly, in relationship to self-identity as well as the relationship between the self, world, and others, morality is not an option, but an aspect of both being and be-ing. It is part of my existential orientation in the world; to deny my obligation to the other, or ignore the phenomenological clues within experience that indicate the other, is also a denial of the most basic aspects of self. This concept of moral identity identifies the very notion of self in the context of its passivity and dependence on other things, both within oneself and Other. When morality is defined in the context of clearly defined rules of action—or only something we do—it sets up a structure of intention or option that I do not think is conducive to true moral thinking, or the internalization he discusses of the Aristotelian moral virtuoso. Also recall that Aristotle’s understanding of eudaimonia suggests that we find true happiness when we engage in the kind of actions that are conducive to our nature and the natural ends to which we are inclined.

What we learn from the examples of Eichmann, My Lai, and others are that we need to identify mechanisms that prevent our moral codes from going haywire and justifying terrible actions. The example of Eichmann is a prime case of morality’s failings. In interpersonal relations, he was perfectly pleasant and acceptable, a reasonable family man who worked hard and did his job, even if it was difficult. He was the “‘good man in a bad world’” that Saroyan discusses (11). Eichmann was not a sadistic madman on the fringe of society, but a quiet family man who in his own words, “did his job.” In so doing, one might even say that he employed an ethical system that appeals to the moral values of principlism: in this case, tradition, order, hard work, and respect of the law and authority (35). In other contexts, these moral principles might be described as reasonable and necessary components of a happy and stable society. But here, they were employed as the justification for one’s participation in one of the biggest atrocities of modern history. What was missing from Eichmann’s moral reflection was the aforementioned “barometer,” which does not allow the self/ego’s complex mechanisms to explain away bad actions.

In Hannah Arendt’s (1963) study of the Eichmann trial, she famously described evil as “banal” not to undermine the severity of the events of the Holocaust, but to highlight how it had to be subsumed within the “ordinary” aspects of society in order to operate. Behind the orders of the high-ranking officials who made the decisions were the thousands of workers like Eichmann, who actually had to facilitate the basic operations, the seemingly ordinary and everyday aspects of their work as train conductors, office bureaucrats, medical professionals, engineers, etc. Arendt was particularly interested in the way Eichmann forced himself to think in a way that blocked out these terrible events in spite of his obvious participation and complicity.

One of the examples Arendt provided was the “language rules” that regulated the terms used in all of the formal correspondence (Arendt 1963, 80). Rarely were the explicit terms of “killing” or “extermination” used to describe the activities of the Holocaust; instead the approved terms were such phrases as “evacuation,” “special treatment,” and even “change of residence.” In these events, language and thinking itself were hijacked so Eichmann and others could put on the blinders and exist in isolation, convincing themselves that they were doing their jobs in a vague “final solution,” rather than participating in acts of genocide and murder. When their actions were given alternate names, this obscured the true nature of what they were really doing, removing their interaction with the victims and finding ways to make the situation itself bureaucratic and ordinary. And the only way to make such an extraordinary situation ordinary is to hijack language so it stays within a very specific and immediate trajectory, and does not veer over to where it should—and where it would—if left in its own, which would illuminate the greater impact these actions had on others. It was not “killing” [innocent people], but implementing the “final solution”; at the trial Eichmann could not say that he was “not guilty” and leave it at that because he knew it was not true; he had to add the qualifier that he was “not guilty in the sense of the indictment.”

Again, this is where the significance of the above language rules is so telling: had the original terms describing the actions been used rather than their sanitized versions, thinking would have forced the players involved to face what they were doing. It also furthers the “banality” idea: this was not an unapologetic “evil” in the sense that they could be honest and open about what was going on for fear of a confrontation with one’s moral conscience. Instead, they deliberately changed the terms of language, and therefore how they thought about the situation and particularly the others involved, in order to establish an alternative narrative for what was actually taking place.

In Judith Butler’s (2011) analysis of Arendt’s book, she explained that Arendt had observed “a new kind of historical subject had become possible with national socialism” in which it was not necessary to “think reflectively about one’s own action as a political being, whose own life and thinking is bound up with the life and thinking of others.” Butler explained that while Eichmann knew what he was doing and engaged in “conscious activity,” it was not actual thinking in the fullest understanding of the term. She wrote that [Arendt] “insisted that the term ‘thinking’ had to be reserved for a more reflective form of rationality” (Butler 2011). This echoes Batson’s description of the accounts of the German Reserve Police Battalion 101, who said that “at the time we didn’t reflect about it at all” and “tri[ed] not to think, period” (12).

Arendt had significant criticism for Eichmann’s claim “that he had lived his whole life according to Kant’s moral precepts,” particularly because Kant’s moral philosophy and understanding of practical reason “rules out [the] blind obedience” that would be necessary to willfully participate in the system and ignore the larger framework of one’s actions (Arendt 1963, 120). This also reminds us of Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative, where he argues that we can only act according to maxims that could be regarded as morally universal. The judgment of an action is not only based on my assertion, but also the reflective deliberation about if this is proper and just for everyone else.

But in this deliberation, what is the assurance that someone will think beyond their personal frame of reference? As Batson noted, these perpetrators likely saw “themselves as highly moral people responding to the dictates of conscience” or orders, circumstances, etc. (14). But interpreting our moral dictates is not only a solitary cognitive process, as it also involves a process of reflection. As described above, Kant’s explanation of moral duty is grounded in the fact that we are all rational, and therefore deserving of the same treatment and the respect of our dignity and autonomy. But the way in which we test a potential maxim for action is through the principle of universalizability, where we essentially have to imagine if a reason for action would be valid in other circumstances. All of these concepts are directly related to the “reflective mode of rationality” Butler describes. Our moral rules—and perhaps more significantly, the understanding of how they are to be executed—do not exist in a vacuum. The morality of our actions can only be evaluated in the larger context of the world in which we find ourselves.

Butler argued that the type of thinking Arendt had in mind in this work is both an “exercise in judgment” and is “implicated in a normative practice.” In addition to Kant, this idea also relates to a number of other thinkers. In the Philosophical Investigations for example, Wittgenstein explained the meaning of language as part of a larger discursive process: “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life” (Wittgenstein 1949/1997, 11, #23), or more recently, Robert Brandom argued in Making It Explicit that language is the effort to make explicit certain moral norms that are already implicit in our society. Brandom explained that “one cannot address the question of what implicit norms are, independently of the question of what it is to acknowledge them in practice” (Brandom 1994, 25). Discursive practice is engaged in a process of “deontic scorekeeping” that is inherently social and “understood in practices of giving and asking of reasons” (Brandom 1994, 141). The Nazi documents demonstrated how they obscured their normative commitments through the manipulation of language. The words that described what they were actually doing—forcibly and violently removing people from their homes, executing women, children, and the elderly on the spot, etc.—were changed to innocuous ones like “relocation,” “inspection,” and so on, in order to sidestep the obvious moral obligations and repercussions that result from violating these implicit commitments. The use of the term “killing” immediately invites one to tabulate the score based on context: was it murder, self-defense, etc. By changing the terms, the Nazis avoided playing the game and could employ their own moral principles of purity, prosperity, and the like at will, and without reproach. Ultimately, this social scorekeeping process that is part of our social-linguistic identity is what prevents us from evading moral responsibility due to the cloak of epistemic context, self-deception, and so on.

And this is why any discussion of morality is implicitly normative, and inevitably part of a larger deliberation about the relationship between self and world. To identify it exclusively as rule-following and action-states treats it as a solely individual endeavor and removes us from the larger mechanisms in which we are already embedded—self, world, and society—that provides the mirror that forces us to look at our moral decisions and compels us to act responsibly. Batson provides an excellent study regarding the ways we act immorally. Yet even within its strictly defined parameters, it does not end there, veering into these larger normative and philosophical issues in terms of considering how we might resolve these problems. Morality is not comprised only by rules and principles, but also their practice; it is not defined by abstract principles separate from the self, but a way of being. The animus of moral life relates to existential commitments that are already underway and part of the social and linguistic world in which we find ourselves and view ourselves. I wonder if there are ways to incorporate these concepts more explicitly into his study, or perhaps more of the psychological methodology into mine. Or following the model of Hegelian recognition-through-the-other, perhaps it is in the very studying of these other methods that we also learn more about our own.


Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking.

Batson, C. Daniel. 2016. What’s Wrong With Morality? A Social-Psychological Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brandom, Robert B. 1994. Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing & Discursive Commitment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Butler, Judith. 2011. “Hannah Arendt’s Challenge to Adolf Eichmann.” Guardian, August 29.

Feuerbach, Ludwig. 1841/1957. The Essence of Christianity. Translated by George Eliot. New York: Harper.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1807/1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel. 1998. Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence. Translated by A. Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1949/1997. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

  • C. Daniel Batson

    C. Daniel Batson


    Reply to Comment by Christy Flanagan-Feddon

    Reading this comment by Christy Flanagan-Feddon, I felt like a guest at a cocktail party who is approached by another guest and given a rather stern chiding, only to have to say, “Sorry, but I think you’ve confused me with somebody else.” Christy takes me to task for defining “actions as being moral only when they are intentional action-states that correspond with clearly delineated cognitive principles or rules.” I, too, would take me to task for such a definition, and can only apologize for my apparent lack of clarity. This definition is far more restrictive than mine.

    When defining morality in chapter 1 of What’s Wrong with Morality? I deferred to the dictionaries, which typically define morality as “moral quality or conduct” (not very helpful) and define moral as “1. Of or concerned with principles of right or wrong conduct. 2. Being in accordance with such principles.” I went on to explain that at least as I was interpreting the dictionary, “conduct” can refer to a specific act or to general character, and “principles” is an umbrella term that refers not only to “clearly delineated cognitive principles or rules” but also to principles, standards, norms, ideals, and virtues that need not be explicit, conscious, rational, or specific (see pp. 19–24). I was trying to cast a very large definitional net in order to include whatever guides to right or wrong conduct various people employ. Thus, although I did not explicitly describe as an example of morality the “reflective process of self-awareness that makes me aware of my own identity [and] is fundamentally related to my relationship with other human beings and how I ought to act as a result” that Christy describes, I see it as falling well within the purview of my definition.

    Perhaps her objection is that my definition also allows for many other approaches to morality, including the one she rejects. The dictionary sets no bounds on the nature or content of moral principles. It’s in this sense that I say my definition is descriptive not normative—I want to include whatever guides to right conduct a given person endorses and employs, not only those with which I agree. My interest is in why we so often fail to pursue our own moral standards and ideals, whatever they may be.

    After this awkward first exchange, do Christy and I have anything more to say to one another? I think and hope we do. She rightly notes that although I endorse the standard explanations for why we fail to act as we feel we ought—personal deficiencies (chapter 2) and situational pressures (chapter 3)—I am particularly interested in going beyond these to look at motivational and emotional processes. I suggest that these processes, accompanied by rationalization and self-deception, contribute to our moral failures because we often value our morality extrinsically rather than intrinsically. Further, I at least imply that these processes are a potential problem for any form of morality. So my ears prick when Christy speaks of a “quality of restlessness [that] resists the ‘moral myopia’ that Batson describes.”

    She suggests that “when moral action is an obligation that calls us, perhaps even disorients us, this is not so easily manipulated,” and then goes on to identify “the tools we have available within experience that provide this ground for ethical awareness”—specifically, our ability to put ourselves in the place of another. Hearing this, the scientist within me wants to know whether this approach to morality really is less vulnerable to the motivational and emotional processes that contribute to our moral failures than are other approaches. Does it, for example, discourage the moral hypocrisy—motivation to appear moral while, if possible, avoiding the cost of actually being moral—I discussed in chapter 4?

    To know the answer to this question, it seems necessary to either identify or create people who approach a given moral situation in the manner she describes, then look at the effect on their action of providing them “wiggle room” (the chance to appear moral without having to actually be moral). The research I can think of that comes closest to doing this is presented near the end of chapter 4, where two experiments are described (117–20).

    The first of these experiments used a task-assignment procedure that colleagues and I have employed when testing for the existence of moral hypocrisy. In this procedure, each research participant is given the chance to assign him- or herself and another same-sex participant to tasks. One of the tasks is clearly preferable to the other (i.e., one has positive consequences—raffle tickets for a $30 gift certificate; the other has neutral consequences—just information—and is described as rather “dull and boring”). The other participant thinks the assignment is being made by chance. To provide wiggle room, participants (who are alone when they make their assignment decision) are told that most people think the fairest way to assign the tasks is to give each person an equal chance at the more desirable one by, for example, flipping a coin—and participants are provided a coin to flip if they wish. Evidence for moral hypocrisy appears when, among those who choose to flip the coin (appearing fair), significantly more than 50 percent assign themselves to the positive-consequences task (indicating that some avoided the cost of actually being fair).

    The tool that Christy identifies as providing the ground for ethical awareness is what social psychologists like myself call an imagine-self perspective—imagine yourself in the other’s situation. To test whether this perspective reduces moral hypocrisy, the first experiment had some research participants perform a brief imagination exercise prior to making their task-assignment decision. They were asked to “imagine yourself in the place of the other participant” for one minute, then write down what they had imagined. Other participants didn’t perform this imagination exercise.

    Results of this experiment revealed that the imagine-self perspective had only a limited (and not statistically significant) effect on the fairness of the task assignment. This perspective somewhat reduced the percentage assigning themselves the positive consequences after flipping the coin (67 percent compared to 85 percent for those not asked to do an imagination exercise), and it somewhat increased this percentage among those who didn’t flip (89 percent compared to 64 percent).

    Why did the imagine-self perspective have so little effect? Are the scholars and practitioners who have extolled the virtues of this form of perspective taking simply wrong? Perhaps not, at least not entirely. The task-assignment procedure used in this first experiment poses a moral dilemma in which the pre-assignment plight of both participants is exactly the same. Each faces the prospect of being assigned to either the more desirable or the less desirable task. In such a dilemma, to imagine myself in the place of the other participant, which is the same place I’m in, may not lead me to focus on the other’s interests, stimulating moral integrity. Instead, it may lead me to focus even more on my own interests. This may be why seeing myself in the other did little to reduce moral hypocrisy.

    If the limited ability of an imagine-self perspective to reduce moral hypocrisy was due to both participants having the same pre-assignment plight, then an imagine-self perspective should be more effective when the other’s initial situation is worse than my own. When the other is clearly disadvantaged compared to me, imagining myself in his or her place may provide new insight into what it’s like to be in such a position, and an imagine-self perspective may stimulate moral integrity. For example, when considering whether to vote for an increase in my own taxes in order to fund a job-training program for the unemployed, to imagine myself in the place of someone without work may stimulate moral action.

    Pursuing this logic, participants in the second experiment learned at the outset that they had been randomly assigned to an “asymmetrical condition” in which they would receive two raffle tickets for each correct response on their task and the other participant would receive nothing for a correct response. The participants were then told that if they wished, they could switch to a “symmetrical condition” in which each participant would receive one raffle ticket for a correct response.

    Participants who, before making the decision about whether to switch to the symmetrical (1-1) condition, imagined themselves in the place of the other participant were far more likely to make the switch (83 percent) than were participants who made the decision without the imagination exercise (38 percent). So, in this situation, an imagine-self perspective may indeed have reduced moral hypocrisy and stimulated a desire to be truly fair—moral integrity.

    But there is a second possibility. Perhaps imagining oneself in the other’s situation made the fairness of the symmetrical condition so obvious that it eliminated wiggle room, rendering it necessary to opt for the switch in order to appear moral. If so, participants who imagined might still be motivated by moral hypocrisy. We need further research to know which possibility is correct.

    These two experiments only scratch the surface of what we need to know about the effects on moral motivation of putting yourself in the other’s shoes. Still, I hope they’re a start down a research path that philosophers and psychologists can—even should—walk together.

Lidewij Niezink


June 20, 2019, 1:00 am

Mark Fagiano


June 27, 2019, 1:00 am