Jesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads.

Full diavlog here.

Prinz’s book here.

Generally, I haven’t been too friendly toward theories of morality based in feeling nor the idealism that can attend them.  However, this discussion offers some deep ideas to think about:  Jesse Prinz merges David Hume with current anthropological and psychological research.

More on Hume here (wikipedia).

After Hume, Prinz accepts the idea that our experience is primary, our knowledge comes after…or that all of our deepest thoughts have their roots in perception.  We simply have no claim to knowledge beyond this.

Prinz extends this to morality; suggesting that there is no universal basis for morality and that within morality our ability to feel is primary and that our thinking…comes after.

The emotions, then, are the seat of morality, and the only way to have moral thinking is to first have moral feelings.  He who extends his feeling (compassion?) to a person, or groups of people…is the only person who can legitimately claim to have moral thoughts about those people, or groups of people.


So how are moral judgments based in feeling? Prinz appeals to:

1.  Common sense-most people will assume that if you don’t seem to have any emotional interest in a subject, idea or pursuit, then you’re not really invested in it.

2.  Neuroscience:  Parts of the brain associated with emotion become active when involved in making moral judgments.

3.  Causation:  During psychological experiments in which people were put in disgusting environments, i.e. bad smells, unclean conditions, they were more likely to make harsher moral judgments, Prinz suggests this is because they are instrospecting their feelings.

4.   Pathologies:  People who kill and commit acts of brutality like serial killers demonstrate a reduction or elimination of emotion…and this leads to a corresponding reduction of moral competence.


A few brief responses:

Prinz is relying on causal arguments to support his position (no #3 especially), and Hume casts some important on the relation between cause and effect.  Hume also casts doubt onto not merely cause and effect, but also the sciences, and especially the disciplines Prinz cites here in support of his positions.

Hume is incredibly deep, but there is a Kantian dispute with Hume (which has it that if you keep following Hume’s ideas, you will come to deny the possibility of even scientific knowledge…the possibility of knowledge that doesn’t arise out of experience).   I’m most concerned with what Prinz and cognitive scientists are leaving out.

Needless to say, I find it very interesting.  More to come later.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Addition:  I think it’s fair to say that Hume makes the argument that all knowledge arises from experience.  Now whether or not this necessarily makes a case for sentimentalism is up to Prinz.

See Also On This Site: A Brief Review of Jesse Prinz’s ‘The Emotional Construction Of Morals’

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