As mentioned in my previous entry, moral philosophy in the eighteenth century was principally concerned with three issues: “the selfish hypothesis,” the nature of moral judgment, and the character of moral virtue. This entry regards the second component: the debate between the rationalists and sentimentalists over the nature and justification of moral judgment.
Moral rationalism—exemplified most clearly in modern philosophy with the work of Ralph Cudworth, Samuel Clarke, and John Balguy—affirms two theses: first, that morality exists; and second, that all particular truths about morality are ascertained through a priori reasoning. Moral judgments are then, properly speaking, judgments performed by an agent’s “faculty of reason.” What is it that the agent is reasoning about? She is reasoning about conceptual relations; or, in Hume’s terms, the “relations of ideas.” (An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding IV.I) Ideas, or concepts, are either “fit” or “unfit” for each other. For example, the idea of “human being” fits with the idea of “perfecting oneself,” but it does not fit with the idea of “pursuing one’s happiness above all others.”
The relations between ideas are necessary and universal; making mathematics the model for rationalist moral deliberation. When an agent is trying to answer the question “what ought I to do?” she is trying to get clear on the conceptual entanglements of her potential actions and, through this process, deduce the proper course of action. The propriety of a moral judgment is grounded in its ability to get at the “fittedness” of the concepts in question. So, according to moral rationalism (bracketing certain brands of intuitionism) one becomes a more moral agent by becoming a more rational agent.
Moral Sentimentalism—exemplified by Lord Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith—affirms two theses: first, that morality exists; and second, that particular truths about morality are either a) discovered by or b) constituted by our sentiments. The version of moral sentimentalism which claims that ‘moral truths are discovered by our sentiments’ is commonly referred to as moral sense theory. Shaftesbury and Hutcheson fall in this camp. The version of moral sentimentalism which claims that ‘moral truths are constituted by our sentiments’ is sentimentalism, proper. Moral sense theory holds that we have an inborn “perceptual faculty” that enables us to have clear and distinct perceptions (perceptions that are not subject to skeptical objections) about moral matters.
As Shaftesbury notes, “therefore being as natural to us as natural affection itself, and being a first Principle in our constitution and make, there is no speculative opinion, persuasion or belief which is capable immediately or directly to exclude or destroy it.” (Shaftesbury: Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times 179) Moral sense theory is reflected in our commonsense phrase “you can just see it is wrong.” Sentimentalism holds that morality is not sensed by us, but is itself constituted by our sentiments of approbation and disapprobation: something is made wrong through our judgment of disapprobation. In other words, the moral ‘fact of the matter’ is created by the firing of our sentiments in a particular direction. As Hume notes, “when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling of sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it.” (A Treatise of Human Nature 18.104.22.168)
Instead of mathematics being the model of moral deliberation, both sentimentalist camps draw on the concept of beauty to illustrate the content of their theories. With the moral sense theorist, one can simply ascertain the moral character of an action like one ascertains the beauty of a piece of artwork: the ‘viciousness’ of father-killing is as easily apprehended as the ‘baseness’ of Andy Warhol. On the other hand, the sentimentalist claims that father-killing is made vicious by our negative reactions to it, just as Andy Warhol’s art is made base through our judgments about it.
In 21st century Anglo-American philosophy, sentimentalism is more popular. But I take it that moral rationalism is not simply a bankrupt theory. What do you think?