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Parker Sanders
Parker Sanders

The Emotional Construction Of Morals [UPD]

Is the good a projection of our preferences, or are our preferences correct or incorrect according to their correspondence to some objective good, independent of our minds? The question goes back to Plato's Euthyphro. There have been major hitters on both sides, and it is one of the many scandals of philosophy that the debate drags on. Jesse Prinz's brilliant new book is a detailed and convincing defense of a fresh variant of the projectionist view, in which emotional responses, particularly approbation and disapprobation, constitute the core content of moral judgments. The view is refined in such a way as to embrace the possibility of moral truth, and answer a large array of objections. Its relativist consequences are embraced, and independently supported with a wide range of psychological and anthropological evidence. Prinz shows, however, that even full fledged relativism does not exclude viable notions of moral debate and moral progress.

The Emotional Construction of Morals

To these approaches Prinz brings many refinements, which allow him neatly to circumvent most of the objections in the canon. Take, first, the classic objection to the strong internalism that views an emotional response as inherent to the sincere endorsement of a moral judgment. This objection, long ago pressed by Peter Geach, Bernard Williams and others, adduces the impossibility of conditionalizing moral judgments. If the very meaning of p is good includes approval of p, one cannot use the proposition in the antecedent of a conditional without either changing its meaning or committing one to the consequent. For consider the following inference:

Prinz labels his fully elaborated view "constructive sentimentalism". The term underlines that morality is not, contrary to the view of moral nihilists like John Mackie, a mere projection of a subjective state. It consists in rules set up by sentiments, and these rules, like other social constructions such as money, have a perfectly objective existence independent of any particular person's subjective attitudes at any particular time. Indeed, it allows that an individual's actual emotional response at a particular time may fail to conform to that same individual's own values (96). I may quite genuinely love my daughter even when I fail, under the influence of stress, unusual provocation, or a momentary chemical imbalance, to respond lovingly to her demands.

There is a notorious problem lurking here, affecting the exact location of error in the perceptual causal chains described as Dretskean detection devices: has the frog's brain evolved to detect bugs, or has it evolved to detect moving black spots because those are generally identical with bugs? The non-conceptual nature of some emotional response evades this problem. In practical terms, the answer makes no difference to the fly. It's only when we start to talk about it that we can make the distinction. Similarly, we might say, when someone reacts with disgust to the very idea of stem cell research, we needn't fault the bodily processes that cause this response, but we can point to the inappropriateness of the implied identification, in this case, between stem cell research and the sorts of harms from which the disgust response evolved to protect us.

With characteristic panache, Prinz taxes the great moral philosophers with "usurping" morality, and then recruits them to work as underlings. If the core meaning of 'morally good' is "gives rise to approbation", the foundational absolutes of the classical philosophers are just failed rival definitions (306). (Against any substantive definition of 'good', Prinz endorses Moore's open question argument, ingeniously merged with a version of Frank Jackson's thought experiment about Mary, now emotionally inert rather than color-blind (38ff).) Universalisability, welfare, or eudaimonia are failures as definitions of the moral good, but "consistency, stability, well-being, and even conformity to biological norms are things we value in an extramoral sense" (292). All can be used, among other non-moral values, as important sources of argument in debating revisionist proposals in morality. "Everything we care about is potentially relevant in deciding how to improve our current system of morals" (293). This nicely reverses the hegemonic status of morality. Far from its being the case that morality trumps all other values, any other value may contribute to unseating a moral claim. Kant, Mill and Aristotle were wrong to think moral value could be defined as universality, welfare, or thriving in accordance with nature; but as non-moral values, these can help us to assess competing claims for reforming morality (303).

Jesse Prinz argues that recent work in philosophy, neuroscience, and anthropology supports two radical hypotheses about the nature of morality: moral values are based on emotional responses, and these emotional responses are inculcated by culture, not hard-wired through natural selection. In the first half of the book, Jesse Prinz defends the hypothesis that morality has an emotional foundation. Evidence from brain imaging, social psychology, and psychopathology suggest that, when we judge something to be right or wrong, we are merely expressing our emotions. Prinz argues that these emotions do not track objective features of reality; rather, the rightness and wrongness of an act consists in the fact that people are disposed to have certain emotions towards it. In the second half of the book, he turns to a defence of moral relativism. Moral facts depend on emotional responses, and emotional responses vary from culture to culture. Prinz surveys the anthropological record to establish moral variation, and he draws on cultural history to show how attitudes toward practices such as cannibalism and marriage change over time. He also criticizes evidence from animal behaviour and child development that has been taken to support the claim that moral attitudes are hard-wired by natural selection. Prinz concludes that there is no single true morality, but he also argues that some moral values are better than others; moral progress is possible. Throughout the book, Prinz relates his views to contemporary and historical work in philosophical ethics. His views echo themes in the writings of David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche, but Prinz supports, extends, and revises these classic theories using the resources of cutting-edge cognitive science. The Emotional Construction of Morals will stimulate and challenge anyone who is curious about the nature and origin of moral values

Research on moral judgment has been dominated by rationalist models, in which moral judgment is thought to be caused by moral reasoning. The author gives 4 reasons for considering the hypothesis that moral reasoning does not cause moral judgment; rather, moral reasoning is usually a post hoc construction, generated after a judgment has been reached. The social intuitionist model is presented as an alternative to rationalist models. The model is a social model in that it deemphasizes the private reasoning done by individuals and emphasizes instead the importance of social and cultural influences. The model is an intuitionist model in that it states that moral judgment is generally the result of quick, automatic evaluations (intuitions). The model is more consistent that rationalist models with recent findings in social, cultural, evolutionary, and biological psychology, as well as in anthropology and primatology.

Our hypothesis is that when people are confronted with a story about an agent who performs morally bad behavior, this can trigger an immediate emotional response, and this emotional response can play a crucial (distorting) role in their intuitions about whether an agent was morally responsible. In fact, people may sometimes declare such an agent to be morally responsible despite the fact that they embrace a theory of responsibility on which the agent is not responsible.7

Clearly, an intuition developed in a jealous rage is less trustworthy than one developed after calm and careful consideration. Thus, if our hypothetical philosopher discovers that her intuition about a case is driven by such distorting emotional reactions, this will and should affect how much she trusts the intuition.23 041b061a72


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