In The Enchantment of Modern Life Bennett is pretty persuasive in arguing that formal ethical/moral rules are inadequate, in and of themselves, to motivate ethical action. Rather than focusing on the what of ethics, Bennett instead wishes to focus on the how. Her thesis is that formal ethical principles are unable to motivate ethical action in the absence of the right sort of affects. It is affects, as Rousseau argued long ago, not formal principles, that motivate action and our preferences for one alternative over another. In the absence of these actions we aren’t motivated one way or another. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is that of the psychopath. The psychopath is like a color-blind person with respect to affects. Where most of us regularly experience emotions of empathy and compassion with respect to others, for the psychopath these sentiments are entirely absent. The psychopath is not a “mad” person, like serial killer Ed Geins, incapable of reason. Indeed, perhaps psychopaths are more adept at reasoning in the formal sense than the rest of us because they are missing this component moralists often refer to disparagingly as “the passions”. Rather, the psychopath can understand formal moral commands perfectly well– they manipulate them in others regularly –they simply lack the affects that would motivate them to follow these ethical commands.
Of the affects, Bennett is particularly interested in the ethical potential of what she calls “enchantment”. As she remarks,
Enchantment, in the model I am defending, is operative in a world without telos. I have been suggesting not only that that an array of minor experiences in contemporary life enchant, but also that enchantment is a mood with ethical potential. More specifically, my contention is that enchantment can aid in the project of cultivating a stance of presumptive generosity (i.e., of rendering oneself more open to the surprise of other selves and bodies and more willing and able to enter into productive assemblages with them). (131)
For Bennett, enchantment or wonder generates a sort of generosity that is a condition for ethical comportment towards others (where “others” would include other people, animals, and the earth itself).
Throughout the history of ethical reflection there has been a distrust of affectivity. This, of course, isn’t to say that there hasn’t also been a rich tradition of ethical thought that has focused on affectivity. The Epicureans and Stoics, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hume, Nietzsche, and many others come to mind in this connection. Nonetheless, affect, by and large has been approached with suspicion by ethical theorists. One line of thought has it that we are controlled by our affects, patients of our affects, rather than being “self-directing”. As such, affect would provide an insufficient ground for ethics. Another line of thought– often raised in a Kantian context –has it that affect is too singular, too restricted to the individual, to provide a ground of universality required for ethics. Yet another worry might revolve around questions of the transmissability of ethical principles. We can readily imagine formal ethical principles being transmitted or taught to someone else and can even imagine someone being persuaded in discussion of the truth of these principles. It is much harder to see how an affect can be transmitted from one person to another or how one can be made to feel such and such a way. The proponent of the theory that “we cannot help how we feel, but can help how we reason” therefore ends up looking at affects as a ground of ethics with deep suspicion. The reasoning seems to run that we cannot persuade the psychopath to feel empathy and compassion, though perhaps we can persuade him to recognize formal moral principles (though evidence is mounting that this isn’t, in fact, the case).
I think this really gets to the heart of Bennett’s argument. She’s clearly on to something with the claim that affect marks the “how” of ethical action. Affect is the “energy” that motivates ethical action. Without the right sort of affects, we’re either entirely indifferent to formal ethical principles as in the case of the psychopath, or we end up as one of those twisted individuals so nicely analyzed by Nietzsche and Freud who formally follows ethical principles as a way of gratifying a very unethical will to power or set of desires. This would be the familiar figure of the person who follows the “letter of the law” without recognizing the “spirit of the law”, using ethical judgment to either punish others or establish his superiority over others. Such a person is pervaded by the spirit of revenge and resentment described so beautifully by Nietzsche.
The problem is that if Bennett is right such a theory perhaps puts us at a significant impasse where ethics are concerned. If it is affect and not formal principles that are the ground of ethics we risk finding ourselves in a situation where matters are hopeless where ethics is concerned. If it turns out that affects are just “givens” of our constitution, then we’ll find ourselves in a situation where there are simply those who have– innately –the capacity for the right sort of affects and then there are others that just don’t have the capacity for the right sort of affects. Those that lack the capacity for the right sort of affect would be forever incapable of ethical action and being– even when following formal ethical principles –and therefore would not be ethically responsible for their actions. Those that do have the right sort of affects would be capable of ethical action, but not in any sort of praiseworthy way, but rather simply by dint of having been born with these capacities. So the real question at the heart of Bennett’s work is not whether or not affect plays a key role in motivating ethical action, but rather whether affects can be cultivated or formed. Are affective capacities merely something we’re born with, or is it possible to cultivate the ability to experience certain forms of affectivity? Following the Stoics, Epicureans, and thinkers like Spinoza, I’m inclined to hold that we do, in fact, have substantial power to cultivate certain forms of affectivity. Not only are we able to erase certain affects that haunt us such as the visceral hatred and disgust Ed Norton’s character experiences towards other races in American History X, but we are also able to cultivate new ways of feeling and experiencing. For example, when we’re younger it’s likely that many of us experience Shakespeare as a dreadful bore, but over time we cultivate taste through working with the texts and plays and encounters with those who have spent more time with Shakespeare than us that lead us to take great enjoyment in reading him. Perhaps the same is in the ethical domain. Thus, while there might be limit cases between ethical idiots such as the psychopath that, by virtue of being “affect-blind”, can never experience certain affects and the affective genius to whom these things seem to come naturally, it’s likely that many of the affects most of us have are things that had to be learned and cultivated. If Bennett’s right, it is the cultivation of these affects, not the formal principles, that we should be focusing on. However, if we are to focus on this we need to know the mechanisms by which affects are cultivated.