The Moral Dimension of Fear

On a certain level, my life’s career has been an in-depth study of fear. It has had a hold on my imagination since my first nightmare.

That dream was a standard horror. I was running from something invisible behind me through a dark, tangled wood. I tripped, and recovered, but I could tell that the missed step had cost me my chance to escape. Just before my pursuer caught me, I woke up.

Instead of going back to sleep  or crawling into bed with my parents, I lay awake wondering exactly what was chasing me and why I feared it.

In retrospect, those first questions about my nightmare led to a decades-long exploration of emotional aversion. From fights, to speed, to height, I fixated on the subject. It was an unconscious enterprise at first, but eventually I began to reflect on what I was doing. Through reflection and reading, I learned something about fear beyond instinctive familiarity and mere control.

In summary, fear is nothing more than emotional aversion. It is the feeling of motive turning aside, and as riders on motive, fears present themselves to us as motivations present themselves to us. To borrow Nietzsche’s formulation, they come to us unbidden.  I no more choose to be afraid of being hit than I choose to start paying attention to time’s passage when I wake up in the morning.

In a certain sense therefore, we may be exonerated for our fears. They happen to us. However, what happens to us, makes us, and we accrue responsibility by and for our constitution. That is the vey nature of moral responsibility, as opposed to the sort of responsibility we take on when we park our car in a handicap spot, for example.

To follow this example down the line, parking in the reserved spot may carry  a whole, separate load of moral implications, of course. Fellow citizens may hold us in moral contempt for the act of parking selfishly. Some of our neighbors will even find a statement of intent to park in the reserved space as morally offensive as the act itself. The city cop doesn’t care about motives. His concern – the law’s concern – is functional.

The act of steering your car into the slot suffices for the law, no matter how the officer may feel about it, or your intent. You get the ticket, even if you have suffered a stroke the day before and are handicapped, but lack the proper permit – a situation which absolves you of moral responsibility in the eyes of most people.

The point is: morality is not a set of laws like the municipal codes. If I do not want a ticket, I ought to avoid parking in a handicap space, if I don’t have a placard. Not parking in the handicap spot, definitively makes me a non-violator. However, no such action will make me good.

Morality is not a set of facts in the world. I can’t look at the handicap spot and say that it is 25 square meters, blue, bright and benevolent.

Morality is not a set of sentiments. I can feel sad about having to bypass the handicap spot and park in the boondocks. But, I will also feel sad about actually parking in the spot, if I am good.

Moral responsibility resides in global action, not circumstance.

In the latter sense, we may not be exonerated for our fears. Our emotions are inseparable from the motives which birth them.  So all of our emotions have a latent moral dimension, because the moral nature of our actions depends essentially upon our motives. Morality appears to be the process of reconciling motives, the psychological conditions which evoke those motives, and the truth.

And if morality is a class of activity, rather than a formula or a set of real properties in the world, then fear carries the greatest moral weight of any of our emotions.

All other emotions follow from their associated motives, but fear has an echo. Within the individual, anger does not evoke anger and admiration does not evoke admiration (except perhaps in a really committed narcissist). However, fear evokes fear.

Our impulse is to turn away from our aversion, resulting in a spiral which orbits farther and farther from the truth.

 

 

 

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