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Moral Sentiments


One's sentiments are the contents of one's sensed, or felt, experiencein contrast to the contents of simply one's thoughts. Whatever else they are, then, sentiments are affective phenomena. In common parlance, talk of sentiments refers alternatively to occurrent feelings, affective dispositions, and emotional attitudes taken toward people and objects. Moral sentiments, where the adjective moral is used in a descriptive sense, would then be some subset of these feelings, dispositions, and attitudes: those that are more or less intimately related to moral phenomena. Whether any of the moral sentiments thus understood are moral in a normative sense, that is, whether one morally may or should experience or express any of these sentiments in relevant circumstances, is a further question.

One problem that immediately confronts any philosophical account of moral sentiments is the question whether such affective phenomena in fact form a unified category. Affective responses vary widely with respect to their causes, phenomenology, duration, intentional objects (if any), and mode of expression, as well as their susceptibility to rational assessment and control. This variability is no less present in the case of that subset of affective phenomena related in some way to morals. Contrast, for example, rationally impervious and visceral disgust to resentment, a comparatively subdued attitude that arguably is a response fitting only to moral wrongs. Both disgust and resentment, however, are moral sentiments in the sense that people commonly experience these affective reactions in response to moral phenomena.

Just which phenomena one admits to the category of moral sentiments depends, of course, on the specific theory of the sentiments one accepts. Consideration of contemporary theories of the emotions is instructive here. Although such theories are quite varied, a common taxonomy distinguishes between cognitivist and noncognitivist theories of emotion. Cognitivist theories of emotion hold that emotions necessarily involve thoughts, beliefs, or judgments ascribing properties to their objects. Some cognitivists (Nussbaum 2001) identify emotions with evaluative judgments, for example, identifying fear with the evaluative judgment that the object of fear somehow threatens one's welfare or identifying one's resenting another's action with the judgment that the other wrongs one in so acting. Sentiments, understood as essentially affective phenomena, apparently play at best a peripheral role on some such theories of emotion.

Noncognitivist theories of emotion, in contrast, embrace a view of emotions as essentially felt experiences different in kind from thoughts beliefs or judgments. William James (1842-1910), famously identified emotions with the perception of bodily changesor feelingscaused by external stimuli. Contemporary followers of James (Prinz 2004) have built on his emotional noncognitivism to avoid what they view as shortcomings of the cognitivist alternatives. Some noncognitivists object that emotions, unlike beliefs or judgments, are not properly subject to assessment in terms of truth or falsehood. Noncognitivists also object that cognitivist theories require that those subject to emotions possess a conceptual or propositional repertoire that obvious subjects of emotionhuman infants and animals, for exampledo not, in fact, possess. In response to such objections, some philosophers opt for mixed theories according to which emotions are some amalgam of cognition and affect (Oakley 1992).

Clarity about the correct theory of affective responses is a prerequisite for progress in the longstanding philosophical debate over the role of moral sentiments in moral agency. Philosophers have long debated the role of moral sentiments in, for example, (1) moral deliberation and judgment, (2) moral motivation, and (3) moral responsibility.

In examining the role of moral sentiments in moral deliberation and judgment, moral motivation, and moral responsibility, modern moral philosophers have been concerned especially with the role one should attribute to moral sensibilitygenerally understood as a capacity for experiencing, or disposition to experience, feelings, emotions, and attitudes that include guilt, resentment, respect, esteem, honor, pride, and shamerelative to the role of reason, understood as a cognitive capacity whose objects (e.g., thoughts or propositions) are amenable to evaluation in terms of truth or falsehood. Moral philosophers committed to treating moral judgments as bona fide judgments, whether by taking them to refer to causally explanatory moral properties or by regarding them as subject to similarly robust standards of truth and falsehood as is descriptive discourse, are often known as metaethical cognitivists. Metaethical noncognitivists, in contrast, deny that moral evaluations identify irreducibly moral properties or report truth-evaluable beliefs. The distinction between cognitivism and noncognitivism in one's metaethical theory is independent of the distinction between cognitivism and noncognitivism about emotions. However, differences among philosophers concerning the relative role of sentiment and reason in the moral domain reflect philosophical differences in the specific theory of sentiment, or emotion, they accept.

Historical Context

Although contemporary moral philosophers might be inclined to trace the term moral sentiments to developments in eighteenth-century British moral philosophy, philosophical interest in the affective aspects of one's moral experience is not limited to any specific epoch. Already in ancient Hellenistic philosophy, one finds a concern with the place of feelings, emotions, and affective attitudes generally in the constitution and care of the psyche, or soul.

For Plato (c. 429347 BCE) and Aristotle (384322 BCE), for example, human excellence (for them the subject of ethics) required that one's soul be properly constituted in the relation of its rational, desiderative, and appetitive partsthe latter comprising the domain of sentiments or emotions. For Plato, the proper constitution of the soul was an achievement of an upbringing where one's appetites (e.g., natural urges for food and sex), desires (e.g., aspirations for the goods of honor and victory), and rational judgments were in harmony. Absent a proper upbringing, the desiderative and appetitive parts of the soul were bound to prove unruly and psychically divisive, thereby making a good life unattainable. On such a view, arguably, all affects of the soul have ethical import, whether or not they have ethical content.

Aristotle further developed an account of the education of the soul where the parts concerned with feeling pleasures and pains functioned, at least in persons properly reared, as important guides for choosing and acting well. Affective dispositions of the soul could play this role for Aristotle because he understood the feeling part of the soul according to a perceptual model on which it could provide one with knowledge of the objects it perceived through pleasure and pain, much as one's visual perceptions provide knowledge of the objects of sight. On this view, to possess virtues of character such as courage and justice consists in part in being disposed to experience the appropriate emotions in response to, respectively, fearful circumstances and the unfair distribution of goods.

The Stoic school of Hellenistic philosophers (of which Zeno of Citium [335263 BCE] is an example) combined a rich cognitivist theory of the emotions as judgments concerning value with the prescription that the wise person, or sage, should ultimately expurgate himself of emotion altogether. The motivation for the prescription derived from the Stoic view that virtue is the only good. Other things of value (e.g., health, and wealth), while typically choice-worthy, are things about which the Stoic sage is properly indifferent. To the extent that emotions give importance to things other than virtue by judging them good, then, they implicate one in false judgments about the good. As such, emotions are antagonistic to reason, by whose power one should strive to eliminate them.

This antagonistic divide between sentiment and reason reappears in the early modern period, fueled by changes brought by the advance of Newtonian science, religious strife, and philosophy itself (e.g., John Locke's [16321704] philosophy of mind). It is in this, the early modern period, beset by changes that sustained doubt about the status of morality as a deliverance of revelation or of reason alone, that one first encounters the school of moral philosophers known as the sentimentalists : Anthony Ashley Cooper (the third Earl of Shaftesbury [16711713]) Frances Hutcheson (16941746), David Hume (17111776), and Adam Smith (17231790).

Shaftesbury is perhaps most often credited with having first used the phrase moral sense, defending it as a sense, quite literally, of moral right and wrong. According to Shaftesbury, the moral sense enables all persons to experience affections of approval or disapproval upon reflection on the first-order affections, or motives, of oneself and others. Judgments about what is morally right and morally wrong, as well as the motivations to action that they support, are on this view expressions of the reflective approval or disapproval that is fitting for one's and others' motives.

Hutcheson adapted Shaftesbury's theory of a moral sense that apprehended with approval virtuous motives, which Hutcheson understood as forms of benevolence, and responded with disapproval to the vicious. However, Hutcheson abandoned Shaftesbury's metaphysical views, among them the view that the immutable order of nature guarantees the fittingness of these moral affections for their objects. Hutcheson also viewed reason, as opposed to sentiment, as a purely theoretical and, so, motivationally inert faculty. These two features of Hutcheson's philosophy are echoed in the empiricist sentimentalism of Hume.

An admirer of Cicero (106143 BCE) and Tacitus (c. 56120 CE), Hume inverted the Stoic hierarchy of reason and sentiment when he announced that "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions" (Hume 1973, II. iii. 3, p. 415). To be sure, Hume's slogan conceals a more nuanced Humean view of moral evaluation and moral motivation. Humans are naturally constituted, on Hume's view, to feel certain passions, or sentiments, in response to certain causes. Reason, exclusively concerned as it is with matters of fact and relations of ideas, cannot oppose passion in the sense that reason cannot cause us to form moral beliefs or motivate us to act in the absence of some affective input. Hume nonetheless distinguishes between better and worse ways of forming evaluative beliefs and between better and worse motives. He does so by privileging moral assessments made from what he calls the common or general point of view, a point of view one succeeds in occupying when one evaluates motives or character traits in terms of their typical effects. Such evaluation proceeds not through the operations of a moral sense but through the influence of the general point of view on what Hume identifies as the mechanism of sympathy. For sympathetic creatures occupying the general point of view, moral evaluation consists in apprehending whether the motives or character traits being evaluated are immediately agreeable or useful to oneself or others. In this way, Hume concludes "Moralityis more properly felt than judg'd of " (Hume 1973, III. i. 2, p. 470).

Smith developed his brand of moral sentimentalism in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759/1982). Smith's sentimentalism resembled Hume's in privileging sympathy as a psychological process by means of which one comes to take pleasure in virtue and be pained by vice. Significantly, however, the two differed in their conceptions of precisely how sympathy operates on the sentiments. Whereas Hume envisaged moral evaluation being made from an observer's point of view on the motives or character traits of others, Smith's sympathetic exercise required one to consider motives and character traits by projecting oneself into the point of view of the possessor or those affected by that point of view. By thus imagining oneself in another's situation, Smith maintained, one comes to share in the feelings that the other person experiences. Sympathy, understood as an imaginative capacity for fellow-feeling, in this way provides one a motive toward benevolence, according to Smith.

The antagonistic sentimentreason divide that some early modern philosophers championed is transposed into a semantic key in the work of some twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophers. The work of metaethical noncognitivists such as Charles Stevenson (19081979) and Alfred Jules Ayer (19101989) especially influenced the development of contemporary philosophical debate over the respective roles of sentiment and reason in morals. Ayer notably argued for a distinction between cognitive meaning (possessed by descriptive statements and analytic statements) and emotive meaning (possessed by moral statements). On Ayer's view, moral utterances, appearances notwithstanding, serve not to assert facts but to express the emotions of the speaker. "In saying that a certain type of action is right or wrong," he wrote in Language, Truth, and Logic (1936/1952), "I am not making any factual statement, not even a statement about my own state of mind. I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments." Thus, on Ayer's view, ethical utterances are not candidates for assessment in terms of truth or falsity. Stevenson endorsed Ayer's so-called emotive view of moral language, though he was careful to stress the interconnections between descriptive and emotive meaning, as well as a meaning of true that might appropriately (albeit emotively) be applied to ethical statements. Caveats notwithstanding, Ayer's philosophy of language, combined with the view that the proper task of philosophy is analysis of cognitively meaningful language, issued in an era when the work of the moral philosopher was limited to that of metaethical reflection on moral language and phenomena.

Contemporary Debate

Although the days when Anglo-American moral philosophers limited their task to metaethical reflection have ended, the debate about the respective roles of sentiment and reason in moral deliberation and judgment, moral motivation, and moral responsibility lives on.

In the area of moral deliberation and judgment, the expressivists are the noncognitivist inheritors of emotivism. Like the emotivists, expressivists (e.g., Allan Gibbard and Simon Blackburn) distinguish between descriptive and evaluative discourse. Whereas emotivists such as Ayer hold that ethical utterances express the speaker's sentiments, however, the expressivists defend a more complicated account of the affective phenomena expressed in ethical utterance. They do so in an attempt to avoid now-familiar problems with emotivism; for, example, its difficulties accommodating ethical disagreement and explaining the behavior of ethical expressions in the embedded contexts and inferences common to moral deliberation.

More recently, a form of sentimentalism about ethical judgment has become popular that holds that ethical utterances that predicate some evaluative property P (such as, "murder is wrong") do not express emotion but, rather, express the speaker's endorsement of the having of certain emotions in response to property P. Following on the work of Gibbard, Daniel Jacobson and Justin D'Arms have begun to develop a form of rational sentimentalism that clarifies the kind of endorsement that is at issue in evaluative judgments generally. Making use of a generic relationship of fittingness, they offer an account of when one's moral sentiments are fitting to their objects, which distinguishes this question from other appraisals of the sentiments (such as prudential and moral appraisals of these responses). Correcting past philosophers' conflation of the claim that an emotion is fitting its object with the claim that it is morally appropriate to its object, their work promises to reinvigorate philosophical study of moral emotions that, while arguably fitting to their objects in certain circumstances, nonetheless have suffered neglect due to their perception as being somehow morally undesirable. Contempt and moralized disgust are examples.

Neosentimentalism about ethical judgment of the D'Arms/Jacobson variety is a form of emotional rationalism that bridges the metaethical noncognitivism/cognitivism divide. In some ways this neosentimentalism resembles the so-called sensibility theories of moral judgment espoused by metaethical cognitivists such as John McDowell. McDowell holds that moral sensibility functions much like perceptual ability: One's moral sensibility enables one to apprehend and form beliefs whose contents are irreducibly moral properties, much as one's visual perception allows one to apprehend color properties. Some contemporary moral philosophers rely on metaethical cognitivism, such as McDowell's, to urge a return to an Aristotelian view of moral sentiment that rejects an inherently antagonistic divide between reason and sentiment. On such an Aristotelian view, ethical deliberation and judgment primarily differ from deliberation and judgment about nonmoral phenomena, not in any metaphysical or epistemological peculiarities pertaining to their content but in the necessarily practical nature of their progeny.

In stressing the obviously practical nature of moral deliberation and judgment (that is, the way in which it engages with intention, action, and affect), however, the metaethical cognitivist risks unwittingly fueling the metaethical noncognitivist program. If one holds, with the metaethical noncognitivists, that propositional attitudes such as beliefs are motivationally impotent in themselves, then acknowledging the practical character of moral deliberation and judgment requires one to reject a view of moral deliberation and judgment as exclusively cognitive phenomena. The metaethical noncognitivist's rejection is complete in denying that they are even partly so, a rejection supported by the noncognitivist tendency to understand mental phenomena in terms exclusively of beliefs or desires.

One response to this denial proceeds from arguing that such a mental repertoire is impoverished in failing to admit that certain mental phenomena, emotions among them, may possess the representational character of beliefs while also possessing the motivational force of desires. In this way, a more nuanced moral psychology might advance contemporary debate.

Finally, it is worth noting that although the necessarily practical character of moral deliberation and judgment typically is raised as a challenge for the metaethical cognitivist, cognitivism in the theory of emotionat least those versions that simply equate emotions with evaluative beliefsalso invites the question of how to account for the motivational potency of emotions.

As this brief taxonomy suggests, different theoretical commitmentswhether in moral theory or the theory of emotionssupport different conceptions of how sentiments figure in moral experience. These commitments also support different views concerning responsibility for one's moral emotions. If emotions are akin to urges and desires, to pleasures and pains, or to perceptions of some sortwith respect to which individuals arguably are passiveis it even intelligible to regard oneself and others as accountable for emotions? If, alternatively, emotions are judgments, are individuals thereby any closer to locating a form of control one exercises over them that would justify holding oneself and others accountable for them? Or should one challenge the assumption, as do some philosophers, that such control is necessary for justifying attributions of responsibility?

The philosopher P. F. Strawson famously argued that even should the metaphysical thesis of determinism hold true, individuals could not avoid holding themselves and others in general responsible for what he called the reactive attitudes (for example, gratitude, resentment, forgiveness, love, and hurt feelings). To be sure, he recognized, one often suspends these attitudes in special cases: the cases of children; the incapacitated. In the case of typical mature agents, however, susceptibility to the reactive attitudes is a condition of membership in a common humanity. On such a view, the theoretical question whether one possesses the freedom to control one's emotions is abandoned in favor of attending to the necessity of regarding oneself and others as responsible for emotions if one is to regard oneself and others as moral agents at all. The alternative, Strawson argued, is not a rational expurgation of such attitudes in deference to the determinist thesis but an objective stance toward oneself and others that amounts to viewing humans as perpetual patients, appropriate objects not of emotional engagement but of treatment. If Strawson is correct, philosophical interest in the moral sentiments is likely to continue to evade constraint to any single historical epoch, central as they are to moral personhood.

See also Aristotle; Ayer, Alfred Jules; Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Emotion; Emotive Theory of Ethics; Hellenistic Thought; Hume, David; Hutcheson, Francis; Locke, John; McDowell, John; Metaethics; Moral Sense; Newton, Isaac; Plato; Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper); Shame; Smith, Adam; Stevenson, Charles L.; Strawson, Peter Frederick; Virtue Ethics; Zeno of Citium.


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