The Case for a "Sentimentalist" Account of Moral Claims
February 20, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Ethics, Jesse Prinz, Moral Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky

I've rethought the Prinz article on the argument for "sentimentalism" as an explanation of moral valuing and now think that this does deserve a post of its own. Jesse Prinze presents his case for explaining moral valuation as emotional reactions based on some scientific studies of actual moral judgment-making among subjects in relation to their detected, hypothezised or reported emotional states in that article. He does this in light of the powerful critique offered by David Hume centuries ago which asserted that moral claims are just expressions of sentiment, reflecting our human inclinations to approve or disapprove of things around us and the training and education we have received which develops certain sentiments in us and, perhaps, suppresses others.

Since Hume this has been an important challenge to those wishing to make something more of moral valuation than just the idea that it merely expresses some feelings we happen to have because feelings, as Hume suggested, cannot really be argued for while moral claims seem to involve argumentation (we think we can give reasons for the claims of this sort that we can make, reasons which others will find convincing if understood aright). The Humean account gave rise to many schools of moral analysis in the last century including intuitionism, emotivism, expressivism and subjectivism. None of those accounts, though, meet the demand of providing a basis for rational argumentation about bottom line moral claims which our practices with regard to moral judgment-making seem to require.

Prinze writes in his precis:

Recent work in cognitive science provides overwhelming evidence for a link between emotion and moral judgment. I review findings from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and research on psychopathology and conclude that emotions are not merely correlated with moral judgments but they are also, in some sense, both necessary and sufficient. I then use these findings along with some anthropological observations to support several philosophical theories: first, I argue that sentimentalism is true: to judge that something is wrong is to have a sentiment of disapprobation towards it. Second, I argue that moral facts are response-dependent: the bad just is that which causes disapprobation in a community of moralizers. Third, I argue that a form of motivational internalism is true: ordinary moral judgments are intrinsically motivating, and all non-motivating moral judgments are parasitic on these.

For the record, I think this is moving in the right direction. That is, I've come to think the answer to the Humean challenge lies not so much in naturalizing claims of goodness, a la Anscombe and Foot (by showing "good" to designate natural features, things or states of affairs in the world in which we engage), but in showing that there's a logical dimension (room for objective discourse and argument) to the emotional part of our lives. That is, I have concluded that moral claims can be adequately explained by articulating a philosophical account of the subjective, i.e., that which we recognize as the mental aspect of our lives.

One problem I have with the article is the broad brush with which Prinz paints moral assertions and beliefs. He considers the full gamut of morality as we see it across cultures and over the course of history, with all its myriad variations. My own view is that, while "moral" applies to all sorts of valuational claims we make about actions, all such claims are not equal in a morally logical sense. I think the real moral question before us is not things like gay marriage vs. straight marriage, incest vs. its prohibition, cannibalism vs. non-cannibalism or vegetarianism, for instance, but why and to what extent we should ever choose to place others' interests ahead of our own.

The rest of the questions that we typically think of as morally relevant strike me as being very much culturally specific and contingent on the environments in which we have learned our interrelational practices vis a vis others. But the one case that seems to me to matter, the one moral question that stands out is the one which challenges us to subordinate our interests (needs, wants, inclinations and desires) to the needs of another. That is one moral claim that seems to me to occur throughout cultures and across history. It has a universal look to it. It's also the one that is fundamentally different from the others since the others can be accounted for by saying we do them for ourselves, i.e., to fit into our society, to please authorities, to get the good opinion of our fellows, to avoid disapproval, etc., etc. But putting the good of another ahead of our own cannot be justified in that way because to do it right is to be prepared to do it when one cannot depend on, or expect, others' approbation, etc. Otherwise, it doesn't seem to count as doing it for the good of another at all.

The question then is to what extent putting others' needs ahead of our own has any reasoned basis -- or are we to conclude that that particular inclination, the set of behaviors associated with that sort of feeling, is ultimately just a matter of personal preference, i.e., of the cultural inculcation (or genetic inheritance) which prompts us to feel one way instead of another?

If it is, then, it seems to me, there can be no room for this kind of assertion as a moral claim at all. It will all just be a matter of having particular feelings, whether one has the right ones or not and then there's nothing to argue for or against -- at least in the case of deciding on our own behaviors which, I think, must be the paradigm moral case.

Prinz is obviously interested in finding a way to explain moral claims consistent with the Humean thesis that moral valuation is all about our sensibilities and not our rational mechanisms. I think he has erred, however, in supposing that emotion is a kind of unitary mental phenomenon and that, as such, it can entirely account for moral claims (excluding the factual information which he acknowledges can inform our judgments about what is the case and about which we can argue separately -- which he deems "parasitic" on the emotional base). I think he is very much on the right track, though, in recognizing that valuing cannot be separated from sentiment. In my view understanding moral cases is a matter of sorting out the relationship between our emotional inclinations and our valuational assessments which, despite the obvious and unarguable link, are not the same thing. The latter is a rational process, part of the activity of reasoning that we engage in whenever we use beliefs about facts to draw conclusions (in fact, it's an essential component of reasoning since it enables us to relate competing facts and factors). The former, on the other hand, is a complex of sensations, beliefs, feelings, associations, etc., that underlie reasoning, language use and valuing and so make up the sphere of our subjectivity, what I have called, for want of a better term, our mental lives.

In other words the sentiment or emotion Prinz cites as the bedrock of moral claims is not just one thing while knowledge of facts is something else. Sentiment and emotions are elements in a complex of other features which, in toto, constitute our mental lives and which combine in a certain way when we engage in making of value judgments. We can say, in fact, that valuing is a complex thing which creatures, with mental capacities like ours, can do and that such creatures do it with anything they can objectify (make into a referential object). The feelings we have about things are, of course, the raw material for our valuational claims.

The moral dimension of valuing is a sub-category of the broader activity of valuing that we engage in. It is, in essence, the application of the valuing mechanism (a function of our rational/intellectual capacities) to elements in the subjective aspect of our world. That is, to the extent moral valuing objectifies behavior (i.e., considers actions as objects of assessment), it must look at more than just the physical events, which any action involves, or the physical objects -- or objectives -- which actions are directed at (and which we may have inclinations for). It must consider the action as an expression of the acting subject. This requires a phenomenological account of behavior (of treating psychological or mental features as referable).

That is, an explanation of moral valuing seems to me to require that we recognize phenomenological features as referable elements of our experience. But such recognition does not imply 1) granting such features existential status equivalent to what we grant physical objects of reference nor 2) ontological independence of the phenomenological from the physical at some deep causal level (the dualistic presumption). All that's required, to understand how moral valuing might work as an assessment of actions qua actions (i.e., actions in toto) is that we acknowledge the referential status of elements which make up the phenomenological dimension of our existence.

Prinz, it seems to me, wants to reject objective elements at the level of moral valuation entirely in favor of an analysis that grounds everything in feelings, whereas I would tend to say that, while feelings are an inescapable part of this, because they are implicated in intention formation and expression, they are as much a subject of rational choice for us as any other thing we can think about with an eye toward choosing or not choosing it. This means there must be a way to differentiate between the features of an action which we generally call intentional and to recognize the possibility of having (and recognizing) better or worse intentions in the acts we undertake so that agents can choose from among them. On this view, intentions must be seen as objects of reference, too, just as we can refer to desirable objects in the world around us (good foods, good states of affairs, etc.). In a way my view is less scientific (because it depends less on empirical findings and assumes a phenomenological dimension to our referential capacities) than the one Prinz presents and, to that extent, his view is certainly a challenge to my own account because science (or, at the least, consistency with it) is generally better than accounts which diverge from it -- or seem to.

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