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 220.127.116.11)
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?
That Guy Montag says
I’m inclined personally towards a moral sense-theory. I think a pure sentimentalist view tends to end up treating sentiment too much like “mere” sentiment which tends to ignore how powerful sentiment can be. Just look at the importance of propositional attitudes!
The emphasis in a sense theory and the tendency for perception more generally to get tied up with questions about concepts and the impact of theory means that in my experience it can be hard to make a hard distinction between this kind of a view and moral rationalism though, so maybe that’s one way of arguing for moral rationalism, though slightly through the back door.
One thing is for certain though: any thought that we can hive off moral questions from our more general epistemic concerns is doomed to become confused about our actual experience of moral sentiment, one way or the other.
David Buchanan says
If the debate between sentimentalists and rationalists were a Gordian knot then we might say William James cut right through it with an early essay called “The Sentiment of Rationality”. As the title suggests, James tried to convince his rationalist opponents that they were motivated by feelings just as much as anyone else. Their affection for rationality was itself a reflection of their tastes and sensibilities, he thought, and this has everything to do with the construction of rationalist philosophies. Some people are emotionally comforted, we might say, by clarity, clean lines or certainty and they find beauty in the precision of logic and math. Considering the elegance of an equation like E=mc2, this conception of rationality doesn’t seem so weird. He developed this further in his pragmatism, wherein he says the differences between rationalism and empiricism are largely a matter of temperament.
Switching gears now.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the church looms large in that historical context and back in those days rationality was considered a divine gift and rationalism was all tangled up in theology. Hume wasn’t just working the empirical side of the street, he something like a covert atheist. To assert that reason is a slave to the passions, as Hume did, is to covertly defy centuries of asceticism. The church had a monopoly in the morality business for just as many centuries and Hume is working at a time when this was disintegrating. As Kant would point out, science, morality and art were going their separate ways. Intellectual turf wars are going in this Modern period. I mean, the word “rational” doesn’t have a religious ring in contemporary American english but 18th century rationalists tended to be way into math and God. You can see this in Spinoza’s god, which is more or less the same as Einstein’s god. Newton’s laws were conceived as insights into the mind of god, etc..
Getty Lustila says
I identify with your concern about sentimentalism. I think this is why some modern defenders of moral sentimentalism tend to defend a version of moral sense theory (see John McDowell). However, I think that moral sense theory runs into problems, because, as you noted, it does seem to slip into a kind of moral rationalism.
The difference between moral sense theory and moral rationalism bottoms out in the cognitive processes involved in making moral judgments. Contemporary rationalists take practical reason to be the key to grasping the moral facts of the matter, while moral sense theorists consider our perceptual faculties to be central to this process. But this distinction between practical reason and perception seems negligible, as contemporary research in the cognitive sciences and the philosophy of perception seem to suggest. So the defender of moral sense theory seems to be in a bind (insofar as they want to distinguish themselves from a sort of rationalist position).
I’m not sure I got your last point. Care to elaborate?
Jay Jeffers says
Hello That Guy Montag.
When you say, “One thing is for certain though: any thought that we can hive off moral questions from our more general epistemic concerns is doomed to become confused about our actual experience of moral sentiment, one way or the other,” I’m not sure what to make of it.
I’m afraid if I disagree I’ll be missing some nugget and so will be talking past you. So, will you say what it means to “hive off,” moral questions from more general epistemic concerns? Who are the historical thinkers that have done it, the movements that have done it, and/or just a rough summary of how’s it commonly done? hiving off, that is?
Obviously you don’t have to explain ALL that, just trying to make the question broad enough.
That Guy Montag says
Oh yarbles, forgot about this.
Seems to me distinguishing moral sense theory from rationalism is a bit of a six of one, half a dozen of the other sort of question. Accepting theory into our account of perception seems necessary to resolve issues in so many situations from science to ethics that I don’t think we’re losing much however we try to slice this particular pie. A far more necessary distinction I think would be with the idealist or projectivist/moral sceptic position ala Mackie and the language of the moral sense theorist seems to me to have an easier time avoiding this particular confusion.
As for the comment you and Jay call me up on I’ll admit it’s a bit cryptic. Basically I think that one of the really big problems we face in ethics is a very strange set of assumptions about the relationship between reason as a faculty and reasons as motivation. It’s almost casually assumed that reason as a faculty needs to be conceived of in non-motivated terms but then all that motivated terms are is reasons. So we’re supposed to engage our faculty of reason, without using reasons. It makes no sense and given that this distinction between reason and reasons strikes me as the only argument we have to separate out ethics from all the other realms of human inquiry, I can’t see how we can keep the distinction running.
Jay Jeffers says
That Guy Montag,
Thanks. That’s helpful. I’m still circling around the issue here, and I take it that even under the best of circumstances it’s hard to grab a hold of what the issues are. I mean, it’s not so easy, at least not to me. So, lemme just take a stab here:
Even if the distinction between reason and reasons is softened up, there still seems to be a distinction between what we want out of moral beliefs versus everyday beliefs about the world. We take it that the world is as it is, and we passively receive it as such (even if we have to work to find out what it is, it’s just there for the finding). Sometimes our views change as we find out we were wrong about something big or small. Although there can be controversy in the mean time, we generally shrug our shoulders that people used to believe things about the world we no longer do.
On the other hand moral disagreement is extremely emotional and passionate. We are unable to have a “live and let live” attitude when it comes to fundamental moral disagreement (although at times political disagreement – which is a form of moral disagreement – can be tolerated). Also we don’t shrug our shoulders at the past when we see how different their moral practices were, rather, we’re freaked out. And a belief like “it’s wrong to torture babies for fun” is something we expect everyone to believe and behave accordingly (by not torturing babies). It’s not negotiable, it will never change. If it did, morality as we know it wouldn’t exist. There is no amount of counter-evidence that can overturn it.
Also, when someone believes something about the world that contradicts us, we generally don’t take it as a moral failing. Creationists are blamed, in my view, not because they believe the wrong thing, but because they are not shooting straight in the conversations they have with the rest of us. Some guy in cabin somewhere that wants to be a creationist doesn’t bother me a bit; I don’t consider it a moral failing, not necessarily, at least.
It’s true that I may believe there is something “wrong” with the way the creationist-in-a-cabin is responding to the world in terms of how to form his beliefs, but it strikes me as more instrumental than moral. In other words, I do believe that all other things equal, believing that perceptual input is content (acquiring directly or represented by) of an external world, and it’s true that the content of the world itself does not come packed with that reason. That one’s perceptual input should be believed and responded to in a certain way strikes me a bit like “2+2=4.” If someone said it didn’t seem that way to them, I would be surprised, but I suppose I would shrug. With morality, on the other hand, we expect reason-giving power to override any other considerations.
I mean, if someone decided that they wanted to deceive themselves into believing something weird about the world, I suppose I don’t have anything to say in terms of whether my quasi-rationalistic principle (it’s warranted to believe one’s perceptual inputs are content of an external world – represented or directly apprehended) overrides. It depends on the instrumental base. However when it comes to morality, people **may not** deceived themselves into believing it’s right to torture babies for fun so that they can engage in the activity. That’s just **wrong**.
In this way, it seems like moral reasons are more stubborn, they drive a harder bargain, or something. It’s true that in order to properly apprehend the world, certain principles, without empirical content, must be invoked (implicitly or explicitly). But then people may behave however they want toward that world, even invoking other principles to override. They don’t have that option with morality. Being inaccurate is not the same as being immoral. The former is an option, the latter isn’t.
Jay Jeffers says
That was a long walk for something I probably could have said with fewer words. Hopefully the rambling didn’t distract too much. I think what I want to say is:
Everyday reasons for belief (reason) doesn’t posit overriding reasons for action, while moral reasons (reasons) do. True enough in order to apprehend the world, certain reasons override others. But someone can opt out without my moral scorn (e.g. reason has a more instrumental quality). No one can opt of the moral game that way. So moral reasons seem much more ambitious than (non-moral) epistemic ones.
Perhaps I should leave it to this book review.
There is a section of the book review where moral realism is compared to epistemic realism. Each has four theses, the last of which is, with moral realism,
“There are categorical moral reasons. (Moral statements can be prescriptive [reasons for actions] and authoritative [override other reasons for actions])”
and with epistemic realism,
“There are categorical epistemic reasons. (Epistemic facts can be prescriptive [reasons for beliefs] and authoritative [override other reasons for beliefs]).”
What I want to do is deny this thesis of epistemic realism while affirming it’s version in moral realism. I don’t see how epistemic reasons are authoritative in the way moral reasons are. So, moral reasons are more ambitious.
Now I’ll hang back..
Jay Jeffers says
That is to say, epistemic reasons are prescriptive but not authoritative, while moral reasons are both. At least putatively.
I still do not grasp the distinction Getty makes:
“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.”
I’m focused on ‘discovered’ vs. ‘constituted by’ as a way of distinguishing two schools sentimentalism.
My interest that brought me to the site was a search for Smith’s on the role of reason in moral judgment.