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The Emotional Construction of MoralsReview - The Emotional Construction of Morals
by Jesse Prinz
Oxford University Press, 2008
Review by David Teira
Sep 9th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 37)

Jesse Prinz's intellectual enterprise is of truly classical proportions. This book is the third in trilogy paralleling the structure of Hume's Treatise of Human Nature: Furnishing the Mind (2002) and Gut Reactions (2004) presented empiricist theories of concepts and emotions. This makes the sentimentalist theory of morality introduced in this new book quite unusual in its philosophical depth and scope. Few moral philosophers seek the foundation of their approach in neighbor disciplines. But even less do so in such a truly empiricist manner: drawing on the best available evidence provided by the social sciences  (here, psychology and anthropology). In all these respects, Prinz work is certainly original and deserves all praise for bridging so many gaps between intellectual communities that --at least, in my view-- should interact more with each other. It is therefore impossible to cover all the ground discussed in Prinz's book in a short review, but let me at least highlight the main theses defended in the book.

Prinz defends a strong emotionist theory about morality that hinges on the two following claims: (a) a metaphysical thesis, according to which an action has the property of being morally right (wrong) just in case it causes feelings of approbation (disapprobation) in normal observers under certain conditions; (b) such a disposition is a possession condition of the normal concept right (wrong) --this is the epistemic thesis. In support of the former, Prinz argues, on the one hand, that moral properties (as expressed at least in ordinary moral concepts) seem difficult for us to grasp without emotions and, on the other hand, these emotional reactions provide the only ground to unify moral properties for lack of any other distinctive feature. Prinz defends the epistemic thesis namely on the impossibility for those who lack emotions (e.g., psychopaths) to have moral concepts either. Conversely, induced emotions can elicit moral reactions. In Prinz's view, our basic values are ultimately grounded on emotions and deliberation in the end is just to pit emotions against emotions through deliberation until the stronger wins out.

Drawing on his previous work, Prinz defends that emotionism should be built up on a non-cognitive theory of moral emotions to establish the priority of these latter over any moral judgment. In Prinz's embodied appraisal theory, emotions would be thus conceived as somatic signals representing concerns about the world. These representations are functionally grouped (in what Prinz calls calibration files) by their capacity to cause such somatic signals. There would be a small number of somatic signals that would produce different emotions either by combination or by changes in the calibration file that activates them.

According to Prinz, moral emotions are those triggered by the detection of a conduct that violates or conforms to a moral rule. Prinz distinguishes between reactive moral emotions (namely, moral anger, disgust and contempt for someone transgressing a norm) and reflexive moral emotions (the varieties of guilt and shame felt when you are the transgressor). Moral emotions are the context-sensitive occurrent manifestations (varying across contexts) of the long-term memory dispositions we call moral sentiments. All this constitutes a rich phenomenology of moral emotions encompassing a variety of previous psychological and anthropological approaches.

Prinz can now refine his epistemic thesis defining ordinary moral concepts, such as wrong in the following manner: "a detector for the property of wrongness that comprises a sentiment that disposes its possessor to experience emotions in the disapprobation range". Moral rules and judgments, as grounded in concepts of this thick kind, are equated with sentiments and emotions. Though the articulation of rules and judgments can be inferential, the ultimate "grounding norms" are not open to rational debate.

Emotionism is presented as a new version of the so-called sensibility theories about moral properties (namely, taking them as response-dependent properties). Prinz proceeds then to defend emotionism against the standard objections against this latter, arguing at length against the possibility of moral objectivity. He claims that it is possible for the emotionist to be a (internal) realist about moral properties: "They are made by our sentiments, and, once made, they can be perceived". Prinz's constructive sentimentalism promotes content relativism (context contributes to determine the content of a moral judgment), for which there is indeed ample empirical evidence.  His theory of concepts allows him to bypass the standard philosophical objections (incoherence, indexicality). His defense against the purported moral insidiousness of the relativist is a bit more conventional: it promotes healthy tolerance, given the difficulty to overcome our respective grounding norms.

The constructive sentimentalist should explain how moral sentiments emerge and evolve. Prinz offers a couple of case studies (cannibalism, marriage) that suggest the kind of explanations that he favours. The book ends with a long argument against the possibility of some sort of objective genealogy of morals (by way of evolutionary ethics): the biological basis of our behaviour would not yield moral judgments without cultural elaboration. Moral progress would be still possible if we focus on empirical indexes that allow us to improve our current values.

This is indeed an unfair summary of the second part of Prinz's book: it is as long as the first one but it only deserves here a paragraph. I am biased, since being myself more familiar with the topics discussed I find Prinz's claims a bit less original than in the first one. It is certainly a new approach but not one that yields radically new conclusions. What I find puzzling in the sociology of morals advocated by Prinz is that there are surprisingly few clues about the mechanisms that connect the emotional construction of a moral rule and its actual functioning in society. We can see how a moral rule is sentimentally stored in our individual memories, but how do we know that the actual compliance with empirically given norms is sentimentally triggered the way Prinz claims and not rather by external cues of the sort detected in experiments: for instance, who the "normal observers" are or how many, the sort of expectations we adjudicate them, etc. There is evidence indeed that the basic moral emotions listed by Prinz are spread in a wide number of cultures, but we do not know much about their role in the actual emergence and operation of empirically identifiable moral norms. Without a genealogical explanation of the emotional underpinning of moral norms, the constructive part of sentimental constructivism will rest unaccomplished and the objectivity adjudicated by Prinz to moral facts will remain more a position of principle than an actual causal mechanism in the world.   

© 2008 David Teira

David Teira, UNED (Madrid) 


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