Wednesday, April 12, 2017

An Open Letter to Jesse Prinz: Sentiments and Morality

137 days until the first class.

I think I have a decent paper in the final stages of being written concerning the relationship between morality and sentiments. This is something that, of course, somebody who embraces desirism would be particularly concerned about.

I am writing a paper for the class on the work by Jesse Prinz. He defends a type of moral relativism on the grounds that moral judgments are based on the sentiments of the person making them. Prinz is an experimental philosopher - somebody who actually does research on the brain in trying to answer philosophical questions. Thus, he thinks he has an empirical defense of this thesis.

My paper has inspired me to write Dr. Prinz a letter explaining how the very evidence he musters in defense of moral relativism actually defends desirism instead. (Only, I did not call it 'desirism'. I called it 'a more externalist and objective moral theory'.)

Well, you can read the letter yourself.


I am a graduate student at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

I would like to know if you would consider the proposition that the evidence you have mustered in defense of individual- or cultural- relativism instead supports a more externalist, objective morality.

If I can explain . . . starting with five assumptions that I do not think you will have any problem accepting.

(1) You have found yourself stranded on an island filled with sentimental creatures. Their sentiments color how they see the world and provide the key (sole) motivation for their intentional action.

(2) Those sentiments are not fixed, but variable, at least to some extent. Specifically, those sentiments are influenced by their interaction with their environment. 

(3) You are a part of their environment.

(4) Furthermore, you have the capacity to determine - at least approximately - how different environmental factors influence their sentiments, and thus their intentional actions.

(5) This means that you have the capacity to influence the sentiments they adopt through procedures that you call "emotional conditioning."

I think you would accept all of these suppositions.

In this situation, it would seem rational to put some effort into promoting sentiments in others that are useful to you. For example, it would make sense for you to create in them aversions to those types of actions that would tend to threaten your interests. In other words, "emotional conditioning" ultimately seeks to promote useful sentiments.

I want to use a distinction that comes from David Hume between sentiments that are pleasing to the person evaluating them and those that are useful to the person evaluating them. Respectfully, I see in your writings a strong - almost exclusive focus on sentiments that are pleasing to the person judging them. From this you get your individual- or cultural-relativism.

I would like to bring your attention to the question of whether a sentiment is useful to the person assessing it.

The difference between whether a sentiment is pleasing or useful is much like the distinction between whether a food tastes good or is good for you. Ultimately, it is not wise to judge whether a food is good for you by determining whether you enjoy eating it. Though evolution does provide a loose non-random association between the two.

This difference, with respect to morality, can be expressed as the difference between saying that something is wrong if I would have an attitude of disapprobation towards it if I were fully informed and free of influences I would regard as biases, and saying that it is wrong if I have reasons to promote that sentiment universally in others.

This would still yield a type of individual- or cultural-relativism. However, I want to introduce one more consideration.

I belong to a linguistic community. We invent terms to discuss items of mutual concern. There is no "mutual concern" for whether promoting a given sentiment is useful to me. However, when I get together with others in the community, we will likely discover that there are certain sentiments that all of us – or, at least, most of us – have reasons to promote universally.

This is a subject of mutual concern, and something for which we would have good reason to invent a common set of terms and common practices.

So, now, we are looking at a formula like, "X is wrong if people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally a sentiment against performing acts of type X." For example, people generally have many and strong reasons to promote aversions to lying, breaking promises, theft, vandalism, assault, rape, and murder. To the degree that those sentiments can be fine tuned, we may build in exceptions, such as self-defense, but exceptions are limited by our limited ability to build them into our sentiments.

This turns out to be inconsistent with internalism. What I have a particular sentiment towards (and a particular set of motives to bring about) may well be distinct from that to which people generally have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion.

Such a conception of morality is also ‘objective’, in a sense. The set of act types towards which people generally have reason to promote aversions does not depend on my own personal beliefs or desires. Indeed, the whole community may have reasons to promote an aversion to a certain type of action and not know it (i.e., because the act type spreads disease). Or they may falsely believe they have reasons to promote sentiments actions - to prevent offense to a god that does not exist.

Still, morality, in this sense, depends on sentiments - since the usefulness of a sentiment is cashed out in terms of its tendency to realize (or prevent the realization of) states of affairs towards which people have particular positive (negative) sentiments. The tendency to realize or prevent the realization of those states of affairs provide the reasons people have to engage in this practice of emotional conditioning.

This can be seen as a type of sentiment consequentialism. The right act, in this act, is the act motivated by good sentiments (and the absence of bad sentiments), and sentiments are evaluated in terms of their consequences.

This can also be put in Kantian terms – act on those sentiments that you can rationally will to be universal sentiments.

Though these phrases turn out to be more like slogans than actual statements of the thesis.

In the utilitarian case, what we would actually end up with is a type of harmony of sentiments or “coherence of sentiments” as each sentiment is used to evaluate other sentiments which, in turn, is used in the evaluation of other sentiments. Ultimately we get the Humean theory that sentiments are to be evaluated according to whether they are useful and/or pleasing to self and/or others. Still, usefulness to people generally plays the dominant role in people generally having reasons to promote that sentiment - using the types of emotional conditioning you mentioned.

In the Kantian formulation, we must recognize that there are sentiments we have reason to want some people to have, but which are not promoted universally. Interests respecting such things as what to wear, what to eat, where to live, who to marry or befriend, what profession to go into, and the like are not universal sentiments that everybody should have. Rather, there is no reason to allow - and, in some cases, reason to encourage - individuals to have their own interests. In the case of profession, for example, it is best that some people want to go into medicine, some prefer engineering, some like teaching, and others enjoy piloting airplanes. These latter interests represent the moral realm of non-obligatory moral permissions (a freedom to choose), whereas universal sentiments define the realms of moral obligation and prohibition.

Furthermore, since this is concerned with promoting sentiments, it can be seen as a type of virtue theory, where a virtue is a sentiment that people generally have reason to promote universally and a vice is a sentiment people generally have reason to discourage universally.

This allows moral facts to change over time – as new technology or other changes imply changes in what sentiments are useful or dangerous. This is something that you support, I believe.

Well, I simply wanted to see if you thought that such ideas had much merit.

I thank you for your consideration.

Alonzo Fyfe

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