More On Jesse Prinz. A Review Of “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” At Notre Dame

Full review here.

Here’s Jesse Prinz’s page.

On one hand, Prinz uses Hume, and the depth of Hume’s empiricism (wikipedia) and applies it to morality.  Where does morality come from? 

emotional responses, particularly approbation and disapprobation, constitute the core content of moral judgments.”

From our emotions.  But…how do our emotional responses actually tell us something about the world?  Do they contain factual content?  Prinz goes further:

“What are expressed in moral judgments are not just emotions but sentiments ”

Prinz constructs a theory of “Constructive Sentimentalism” which makes some deep arguments for his claim.  You’ll have to read the review and his book.


While moral progress is possible on Prinz’s theory, universal moral laws that transcend our experiences are not.  Christian morality and essentially all religious morality, Kantian secular morality, and any claim to knowledge that attaches itself to thoughts that don’t arise ultimately out experience… are not valid: 

“Like languages, moralities are constructed out of universal capacities, to form a great variety of mutually incompatible specific forms.”

This in interesting to think about, though do you have to throw out the baby with the bathwater? (A Nietzschean impulse, I think). 

Western liberal morality emphasises rights, fairness and the avoidance of harm, and is grounded in emotional responses to failures of reciprocity and empathy for suffering. But most non-Western cultures and indeed our own social reality involve ideas of “purity”, “sacredness” and “authority” constructed from primitive disgust and animal dominance. Since the latter can be equally intense, Prinz taxes the liberal West with “moral myopia” for downplaying the importance of such values as authority, purity, and sacredness.

Oh boy…here’s where it starts to fall apart.  If you throw out universal moral laws, you apparently also start talking about “Western values” and perhaps defend, like Prinz is doing here, moral relativism.

Still, it’s a deep theory, and I’ve not done it full justice here.

See Also: Jesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads.…and A Few Thoughts On Allan Bloom–The Nietzsche Connection.

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