Monday, May 08, 2017

Prinz on Moral Relativism

I am back from vacation and ready to work on making the world a better place.

In the "Documents" section of the new desirism blog site I have posted a new paper on Moral Judgment.

This is the paper I have been working on responding to the claims that Jesse Prinz, Distinguished Professor of philosophy and director of the Committee for Interdisciplinary Science Studies at the City University of New York, Graduate Center, on moral relativism.

Prinz argued that morality is the expression of our moral sentiments. As I understood and interpreted Prinz' thesis, it can be expressed as follows:

To believe that something is morally wrong (right) is to have a disposition to have an attitude of disapprobation (approbation) towards it under conditions of full factual knowledge and reflection and freedom from emotional biases that I myself would deem unrelated to the matter at hand.

When I consider these types of sentimentalist theories, I am reminded of people that I know who are strongly racist or strongly anti-gay. These people have an attitude of disapprobation towards, among other things, interracial or same-gender relationships. It is true that these people claim that such things are wrong, and they are basing their judgments on their sentiments. The question to be asked and answered, however, is whether their sentiments can be mistaken.

Actually, Prinz allows for the possibility of moral error. In the case of racism, Prinz allows us to question whether the racist has incorrect views regarding the race - e.g., that one race is intellectually inferior to another or more prone to violence, laziness, or some other negative quality. In the case of homosexuality, Prinz would allow us to question those who condemn these relationships on their factual assertion that a god exists and that this god condemns these activities. On matters such as this, we can say that another person's moral attitudes are mistaken.

However, if one simply has an attitude of disapprobation towards interracial or same-gender relationships, and holds no mistaken beliefs about those relationships, then those relationships are "wrong for me" (as spoken by the person who is judging them. A person cannot be any more mistaken about what is "wrong for me" as one can be about what is "delicious for me" when judged by the direct experience of that which is judged to be wrong or delicious.

I argue that some of Prinz's own evidence contradicts this thesis.

Specifically, Prinz talks about moral instruction and the fact that parents use a variety of emotional conditioning techniques to condition the sentiments of their children.

I try to point out that when a parent tells a child, for example, that hitting her little brother is wrong, from the point of view of the child, it is difficult to interpret this claim as an invitation to the child to use her own sentiments to judge the action.

By analogy, if the parents tell the child that stewed tomatoes are delicious, the child can challenge this claim by tasting stewed tomatoes and coming to the conclusion that she does not like them. For the child, stewed tomatoes are not "delicious for me". If she were to say so, she would not be challenged on this fact.

However, woe to the child who responds to the claim that hitting her little brother is wrong who responds by saying, "I feel no attitude of disapprobation when it comes to hitting my little brother. Therefore, it is not 'wrong for me' to hit him."

Unlike "delicious", the term "wrong" contains no invitation on the part of those who make a moral claim for the people they condemn to check their own sentiments and use those sentiments to dismiss the claim of wrongness. If one's sentiments do not correspond to the wrongness of hitting one's little brother, the proper conclusion is not to say, "There is nothing wrong with hitting my little brother." The proper conclusion to draw is, "There is something wrong with my sentiments."

I argue that these techniques of emotional conditioning are tools. Given these tools, prudence suggests that the person use them to create in others those sentiments that are useful to the agent. I gave examples of using these tools to cause a predatory animal to have an aversion to entering the territory in which one lives, or to cause a large herbivore to pull a plow or a wagon without protest. In the company of other intentional agents, the person given these tools would be wise to use them to promote in others an aversion to lying, breaking promises, theft, vandalism, assault, and the like.

Ultimately, Prinz's thesis concerning moral judgments is mistaken. A better view of moral judgments says:

To believe that something is morally wrong (right) is to believe that people generally have many and strong reasons to promote universally an attitude of disapprobation (approbation) towards acts like the act judged to be wrong (right).

The evidence that Prinz brings to bear in defense of his own thesis does not actually support that thesis. It better supports this alternative thesis instead.


Unknown said...

So, in arguing for "moral instruction", involving emotional conditioning, Prinz seems to be arguing for Desirism, despite what he claims to be arguing for.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

More or less. Prinz's problem is that he looks at the whole assembly from the point of view of the person making the moral judgment, when he really should look at it from the point of view of the person receiving the moral judgment. With this change in perspective, all of the pieces fall into place. Moral instruction has to do with creating universally those sentiments that are useful to people generally.