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The Emotional Construction Of Morals

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The Emotional Construction Of Morals

Is the good a projection of our preferences, or are our preferences correct or incorrect according to their correspondence to some objective good, independent of our minds The question goes back to Plato's Euthyphro. There have been major hitters on both sides, and it is one of the many scandals of philosophy that the debate drags on. Jesse Prinz's brilliant new book is a detailed and convincing defense of a fresh variant of the projectionist view, in which emotional responses, particularly approbation and disapprobation, constitute the core content of moral judgments. The view is refined in such a way as to embrace the possibility of moral truth, and answer a large array of objections. Its relativist consequences are embraced, and independently supported with a wide range of psychological and anthropological evidence. Prinz shows, however, that even full fledged relativism does not exclude viable notions of moral debate and moral progress.

To these approaches Prinz brings many refinements, which allow him neatly to circumvent most of the objections in the canon. Take, first, the classic objection to the strong internalism that views an emotional response as inherent to the sincere endorsement of a moral judgment. This objection, long ago pressed by Peter Geach, Bernard Williams and others, adduces the impossibility of conditionalizing moral judgments. If the very meaning of p is good includes approval of p, one cannot use the proposition in the antecedent of a conditional without either changing its meaning or committing one to the consequent. For consider the following inference:

Prinz labels his fully elaborated view "constructive sentimentalism". The term underlines that morality is not, contrary to the view of moral nihilists like John Mackie, a mere projection of a subjective state. It consists in rules set up by sentiments, and these rules, like other social constructions such as money, have a perfectly objective existence independent of any particular person's subjective attitudes at any particular time. Indeed, it allows that an individual's actual emotional response at a particular time may fail to conform to that same individual's own values (96). I may quite genuinely love my daughter even when I fail, under the influence of stress, unusual provocation, or a momentary chemical imbalance, to respond lovingly to her demands.

There is a notorious problem lurking here, affecting the exact location of error in the perceptual causal chains described as Dretskean detection devices: has the frog's brain evolved to detect bugs, or has it evolved to detect moving black spots because those are generally identical with bugs The non-conceptual nature of some emotional response evades this problem. In practical terms, the answer makes no difference to the fly. It's only when we start to talk about it that we can make the distinction. Similarly, we might say, when someone reacts with disgust to the very idea of stem cell research, we needn't fault the bodily processes that cause this response, but we can point to the inappropriateness of the implied identification, in this case, between stem cell research and the sorts of harms from which the disgust response evolved to protect us.

With characteristic panache, Prinz taxes the great moral philosophers with "usurping" morality, and then recruits them to work as underlings. If the core meaning of 'morally good' is "gives rise to approbation", the foundational absolutes of the classical philosophers are just failed rival definitions (306). (Against any substantive definition of 'good', Prinz endorses Moore's open question argument, ingeniously merged with a version of Frank Jackson's thought experiment about Mary, now emotionally inert rather than color-blind (38ff).) Universalisability, welfare, or eudaimonia are failures as definitions of the moral good, but "consistency, stability, well-being, and even conformity to biological norms a


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