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Sentimental RulesReview - Sentimental Rules
On the Natural Foundations of Moral Judgment
by Shaun Nichols
Oxford University Press, 2004
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D.
Mar 22nd 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 12)

Recent years have seen more and more philosophers turning to cognitive science and social psychology as a source of data to guide and constrain their theories. Nichols is one of the growing number who have gone a step further, and actually begun to conduct experiments of their own. This book is the fruit of his research into the affective responses of children and adults to moral, conventional and disgusting transgressions. It presents us with a unified account of the origins and causes of moral norms, one that is simultaneously philosophically sophisticated and empirically up to date.

On this account, which Nichols dubs the Sentimental Rules theory, moral judgments are the product of two factors: our affective response to certain actions and a normative theory specifying which actions are wrong. Both are necessary for us to judge an action paradigmatically morally wrong. Our normative theories prohibit some actions that do not provoke a strong emotional response: for instance, tax evasion. When moral transgressions lack what Nichols calls Affective Resonance, they are not felt to be especially wrong. On the other hand, it is at least possible for actions to provoke strong emotional responses (or so at least Nichols seems to think) without being prohibited by a normative theory.

The Sentimental Rules account of moral judgment yields a variety of Humeanism which is able to respond to some of the standard argument against emotivist theories of ethics. One of the most common, and most powerful, objections against emotivism is that it is unable to capture the semantics of moral argument. We seem to engage in moral disputes with one another, and to use moral claims as premises in logical arguments. But if moral claims are simply the expressions of our feelings, then it seems that we fail to really disagree with one another, and that we make some kind of mistake when we use attempt to use moral claims as premises in arguments. Nichols suggests that moral arguments ought to be understood as disputes about the content and implications of our normative theory. Emotions play a crucial role in shaping the content of our normative theory, but moral judgments do not concern these emotions, but are instead about the content of the normative theory.

Nichols makes much of empirical work on the moral/conventional distinction in motivating the Sentimental Rules account. It is now well established that from an early age children (as well as adults) distinguish paradigm moral transgressions from conventional transgressions on a number of dimensions. Moral transgressions are held to be more serious and less permissible, but more importantly they are held to be less authority dependent. For example, children hold that conventional transgressions, such as talking in class or wearing gender-inappropriate clothes, are alright if the authorities permit them, but deny that the authorities can modify the wrongness of moral transgressions. Actions that harm victims are typically held to be non-conventionally wrong.

Now, though he does not draw attention to the fact, Nichols draws conclusions from the empirical findings on the moral/conventional distinction that are almost diametrically opposed to those its originators claimed for them. The psychologists who he relies upon take the distinction to show that the core of morality is cross-culturally invariant, and that therefore morality is universal and objective. Nichols himself takes the distinction to show that morality is relative and lacking in objectivity. His argument is, essentially, that vindicating the objectivity of morality would require us to show that the emotions we have are the right ones, and that this is a challenge that cannot be met. There are two possible responses available to this argument. First, we might question whether a universal morality mightn't count as an objective morality. That is, we might concede that were we to have different emotions we would probably have a different normative theory, but deny that this possibility is enough to shake our confidence in the objectivity of our morality as it is. Nichols seems to think that moral norms are not cross-culturally universal, but it is far from clear that he is right about this. Beneath the surface diversity, there may be deep agreement. That is precisely what the original proponents of the moral/conventional distinction thought, and it may well be true.

The second possible response to Nichols's Humean assault on objectivity is, to my mind, more interesting. We might confront his challenge head on, and argue that our emotions are the right ones. This may be easier than Nichols thinks. Our core moral emotions, he argues, are responses to harms. Now, suppose it is true, as Nichols thinks, that were we never to have developed our repugnance toward harms, we would never have developed a normative theory which (defeasibly) prohibits harms. Would it really be the case that such a normative theory would have been just as good as our current theory (on this question)? Surely not; it is plausible to believe that to the extent to which our affective response to harms brings us to see them as impermissible, this affective response allows us to tune into a genuine feature of the world. Perhaps the point is clearer with the notion of "bad" (in the sense of undesirable, as opposed to in the sense of reflecting badly upon an agent), rather than "wrong." Suppose we had never come to realize that pain is bad, because we lacked the appropriate emotional response. Nichols suggests that in case it would not be true that puppy torture for fun would be wrong. Clearly, however, it would still be true that puppy torture was bad (the puppy's responses are sufficient to make this so). It may be that "wrong" is an amalgam of "bad" in this sense, and of "blameworthy", in the sense in which the latter can only be addressed to moral agents who are capable of controlling their actions in the light of a knowledge of moral goods. Hence we don't feel that non-human animals commit wrongs when they cause unnecessary pain. But we do believe that their actions are nevertheless bad: that it is objectively better that the cat kills the mouse quickly rather than slowly. Why not think exactly the same of the puppy torturing of our emotionless counterparts? If this is plausible, then our responses to harms give us access to a genuine feature of the world, and therefore our emotions are the right ones (or, less grandly, to the extent to which they allow us to be sensitive to the badness of suffering they are the right ones).

Nichols's failure to consider this possibility is the result of a deeper failure, to distinguish between deeper and shallower notions of response dependence. Some concepts wear their response dependence on their sleeves. For instance, something may be "fun" just in case someone finds it fun. Other concepts may be more deeply response dependence. For instance, something may be wrong just in case it has certain properties that typically elicit certain responses in observers in ideal conditions. Something that has the latter property has a genuine property, to which we respond or fail to respond, whereas something that is only shallowly response dependent need not have any such property: different people may describe an activity as fun for quite different reasons.

Nichols's exposition and defence of the Sentimental Rules account, quibbles about objectivity aside, is the most interesting and successful part of his book. Less successful, to my mind, is his epidemiological speculations about the development of our norms. He suggests that our norms are importantly the product of a process of cultural evolution, in which our affective responses to certain kinds of things – to harms, as well as the kinds of things we innately find disgusting – would have given certain norms an enhanced degree of fitness. Now, it certainly seems right to suggest Affective Resonance would enhance fitness in cultural evolution, but the evidence suggests that this process cannot explain the origin of our norms. As Brian Skyrms' work on the evolution of norms seems to show, given a very small edge in cultural evolution, norms backed by feelings ought to go to fixation very quickly, other things being equal. The basin of attraction of these norms will be far greater than most others, and almost all societies will end up with the same norms ("same" at some, perhaps quite high, level of abstraction). Nichols's postulated mechanism is too successful: it leaves us unable to explain normative diversity, or, more importantly, the fact that the affectively backed harm norms and disgust norms have only recently become widely accepted in Western societies.

To be sure, Nichols does proffer an explanation of why other things weren't equal. So long as animals were threatening we could not afford to extend our harm norms to them; so long as we had no effective alternative to corporal punishment we could not allow our distaste for harm to find expression. Even if we grant that we could not afford to extend our harm norms to all animals, however, why should we not have taken those that were harmless to us under its umbrella? Why not extend it to birds, for instance? As Nichols points out, Hopi Indians knew that birds could suffer pain, but did not see this fact as counting against hurting them. Second, even if Nichols's explanation for the slowness of the evolution of norms against harming succeeds, he offers no parallel explanation for the recent emergence of norms against disgusting actions. Relatively recently etiquette manuals were advising those who wanted to behave properly to spit on the ground and blow one's nose on one's fingers. If we really are innately disposed to find these behaviors disgusting, then these norms should have emerged much more recently.

I suspect that the problem Nichols seeks to solve just doesn't exist, at least not with regard to moral norms. He is trying to explain the development, over cultural history, of norms against harming. But I suspect that these norms have existed more or less as long as human beings have, though they have been understood in different ways and have been extended to cover different classes of beings at different times. Evolution proper explains the fundamental norms we have (though culture may explain the exact form they take in different societies at different times). It is no mystery why our emotions tend to back our norms; we evolved to have the emotions we do because they back these norms, and these norms enhanced the inclusive fitness of our ancestors in the environment to which they were adapted. The development which those norms have since undergone is to be explained largely by rational factors: we dislike inconsistency and have therefore gradually universalized these norms where we have been unable to detect differences which would justify refusing to do so.

I have dealt briefly only with some aspects of this extraordinarily rich book. There is a great deal more to be said: about Nichols's use of data on psychopathy to criticize certain philosophical theories, about the relationship between the capacity to make moral judgments and the capacity for perspective taking, and much else besides. I should not like my criticisms of Nichols's theories to disguise my admiration for his achievement. This book is a genuine advance in empirically informed moral philosophy, one which should be read by all those interested in normative theory and philosophical psychology, as well as those who seek a model for the manner in which philosophy can become empirical without sacrificing its distinctive methods and identity.

 

2005 Neil Levy

 

Neil Levy is a research fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne, Australia and is author of Being Up-To-Date: Foucault, Sartre, and Postmodernity (Peter Lang, 2001), Moral Relativism: A Short Introduction (Oneworld, 2002), Sartre (Oneworld, 2002), and What Makes Us Moral?: Crossing the Boundaries of Biology (Oneworld, 2004).


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