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Moral Sense


Sentimentalism, of which moral sense theory was a part, initially had a short run. Until the end of the twentieth century, all the major versions of the theory were produced within a sixty-year period in eighteenth-century Britain. Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), initiated the sentimentalist line of thought with his theory that morality is grounded in the reflexive sentiments of the mind, but the idea that human beings possess a specific moral sense, in addition to their external senses, is due to Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746). David Hume (1711–1776) explains the moral sense in terms of more fundamental psychological principles of the mind, especially sympathy. Adam Smith (1723–1790) follows Hume in tracing the moral sentiments to sympathy while dispensing with the idea of a moral sense altogether. Joseph Butler (1692–1752) advocated a compromise between sentimentalism and rationalism, describing the deliverances of conscience as a "sentiment of the understanding."

The sentimentalists think morality is rooted in human nature in two ways. First, what has moral value are first-order sentiments, the passions and affections that motivate people to act, and actions expressive of these sentiments. Second, what gives these motives their value is our reflective, second-order sentiments; sentiments we have about our own or other people's sentiments. We feel approval or disapproval toward ourselves or others for having and acting on certain first-order sentiments and affections. The eighteenth-century sentimentalists compare moral qualities to secondary qualities such as color that result from our visual apparatus. Because we have a propensity to project color onto objects, we come to think of color as a property of objects themselves. Similarly, we project our approval onto people's motives, which explains why we think virtue is a property of actions themselves and approval is a response to that property. For the sentimentalists, however, an action is virtuous only because we approve of it.

Both sentimentalism and its rival, rationalism, initially developed in reaction to Thomas Hobbes's (1588–1679) moral theory. The rationalists objected to Hobbes's claims that there is no right or wrong in the state of nature, that rightness or wrongness is determined by the sovereign's will, and that morality requires sanctions if it is to motivate us. The sentimentalists took a different tack, opposing what they took to be Hobbes's "selfish" conceptions of human nature and morality. They argued that we are by nature social creatures. Other-regarding affections such as benevolence, gratitude, and compassion are an original and real part of human nature. Butler's criticisms of Hobbes's selfish conception of human nature are held in high repute to this day. The sentimentalists also tried to show that morality has nothing to do with self-interest. Self-interest neither provides the motive to act morally nor explains why we morally approve or disapprove.

By the middle of the century, rationalists and sentimentalists began to argue with each other. The rationalist Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) claimed that our moral ideas spring from reason and that the rational awareness that actions are fit or unfit has the power both to obligate and to motivate us. The sentimentalists objected to both claims. One surprising advantage that the sentimentalists had over the rationalists is that they had a more fully worked-out view of what reason is and does, and they interpreted the rationalists in terms of that theory. On that view, reason is inert in two ways. First, reason's operations are limited to the examination and comparison of ideas, that is, to ascertain facts and to determine a priori relationships. Rationalists and sentimentalists agree that basic moral ideas are simple. On the sentimentalist view, however, reason alone never gives rise to simple ideas, so reason alone cannot be the source of moral ideas. Reason is inert in another way: it cannot by itself give rise to a new motive. All reason does is notice the relations between ideas; noticing a relation cannot move us. Hume infamously added that there are no normative rational standards at all that apply to action. We are no more required by reason to act prudently than we are required to act morally.

Shaftesbury characterizes the reflective moral sense as a tendency to admire and approve what is beautiful in people's motives and characters. Butler agrees that the principle of reflection—or conscience—is an essential part of human nature but argues that Shaftesbury overlooked its most important feature. Conscience, he insists, has authority—a right to rule us—that is independent of its strength or power to move us. Both Shaftesbury and Butler conceive of human nature teleologically, as a system structured to promote good ends—one's own good and the good of other human beings. The constitution that is morally approved of is one appropriately balanced between other-regarding and self-regarding affections. Moral evil results not from evil affections, but from our affections being out of balance. As these philosophers see it, human nature is on the whole good.

Starting with Hutcheson, later sentimentalists began to move toward a more modern scientific conception of human nature as morally indifferent. They thus reject the teleological picture of human nature Shaftesbury and Butler endorsed. They continue, however, to think of our nature as benign. Hutcheson, for example, denies that human beings have such evil affections as disinterested malice.

Hutcheson is famous for two claims. First, taking over Shaftesbury's idea of a reflective sense and embedding it in the empiricist view that simple ideas must come from the senses, he claims that human beings possess a unique moral sense that disposes us to immediately and noninferentially approve and disapprove of people's characters and their actions. He also argues that the only character trait of which the moral sense approves is benevolence. The four cardinal virtues—temperance, courage, prudence, and justice—are virtues, he insists, only when motivated by benevolence. Hutcheson distinguishes three types of benevolence. The morally best kind is calm universal benevolence, which aims at the good of all sentient creatures. The moral sense also approves of benevolence directed toward smaller groups, such as love of family or country, as well as particular benevolent impulses, such as pity and gratitude, but only if they do not counteract universal benevolence. When Hutcheson turns from a discussion of why we approve or disapprove of certain actions to a discussion of what actions we should choose, he says we should always choose the action that "produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number." He is the first to enunciate the utility principle.

Even more than Hutcheson, Hume and Smith explicitly aimed at providing a naturalistic explanation of morality, one wholly consistent with the scientific picture of the world. They criticized Hutcheson not only for positing an extra sense but also for failing to explain its origins and workings. The moral project, as they see it, is to discover the fundamental principles of the mind that account for the origin of moral concepts. Both trace the moral sentiments to the operation of sympathy, although they conceive of sympathy differently. For Hume, sympathy is a propensity to feel what other people are feeling, even those wholly unrelated to and removed from us. For Smith, sympathy is the ability to put yourself imaginatively in another's situation and to feel what you would feel in that person's place.

Hume's explanation of moral approval and disapproval begins with our more ordinary loves and hatreds that are violent and vary from person to person. He then describes the process whereby we transform these feelings into a kind of calm, uniform moral love and hatred. On his view of sympathy, we sympathize more easily with people who resemble or are contiguous to us. Although our ability to enter into the feelings of others varies, Hume believes, like most other moral philosophers of this period, that our moral approvals do not. Accordingly, moral approval springs from sympathy but only when we take up a "general" or "common" point of view. There are two regulating features to the general point of view. The first is that we survey a character from the perspective of the person and his or her usual associates. We sympathize then with the person and the people with whom that person regularly interacts, and we judge character traits in terms of whether they are good or bad for these people. The second is that we regulate sympathy by relying on general rules that specify the general effects of character traits. We do sympathize not with the actual effects of a person's character traits but with their usual tendencies for a person's regular associates.

Hume offers as an empirical hypothesis the claim that the moral sense approves of motives that are pleasant and useful to agents themselves or to others. Smith criticizes Hume for ignoring another important way in which we judge people's sentiments. We judge the propriety of people's reactions—whether they are excessive or weak in relation to their object. When we blame someone for excessive anger we do so not only because of its bad effects on that person or others, but also because it is out of proportion to its object or occasion. Smith explains judgments of propriety in terms of his own distinctive conception of sympathy. We judge the propriety of someone's reaction by seeing whether his reaction is the same as our vicarious reaction. We imaginatively put ourselves in the other's shoes and feel what he should feel, given his situation. We then compare his reaction with our vicarious one. If his actual feeling is excessive compared with the vicarious one we are feeling, we disapprove; if the feeling is similar, we approve. Smith's account of judgments of propriety is one of his most distinctive contributions to sentimentalism.

Subsequent sentimentalists objected to Hutcheson's reduction of virtue to benevolence, claiming that we approve of a wide variety of character traits and motives. Butler argued against Hutcheson that utility cannot be the basis of our approval of justice, since we disapprove of such injustices as theft and treachery even in those cases in which they are useful. Hume grants that acts of justice, taken singly, do not always promote the public good, but he argues that what is useful is the system of justice with rules and procedures that everyone is to follow. Hume also accommodated the rationalist idea that the good person does the right thing because she sees it as right. He argues that in the case of justice this is the morally best motive as well as our usual motive.

Although all the sentimentalists believe that we have the capacity to judge ourselves, Smith tries to explain how we acquire this capacity and in so doing become reflective agents. According to him, conscience, or the "man within," comes from our social nature. We first learn to internalize the judgments others have about ourselves, viewing ourselves through their eyes. But others may misinterpret or misunderstand our motives, praising or blaming us when we do not deserve it. Smith thinks we learn to distinguish the actual praise of others from judgments about whether we are worthy of praise. The sense of moral obligation arises when we internalize the gaze of the ideal spectator—the man within—and try to meet the standards of praiseworthiness he sets for us.

Sentimentalism is enjoying a revival. New versions of the theory have been produced at the end of the twentieth century and the start of the twenty-first, the most prominent of which are the neosentimentalist theories of Simon Blackburn and Annette Baier. Both are followers of Hume, although Blackburn incorporates important elements from Smith. Their main target is Kant, whom they misread as a traditional moral rationalist along the lines of Hume's main opponent, Samuel Clarke. Traditional moral rationalists were realists: they believed that moral truths are part of the framework of the universe. So for Blackburn the foundational issue of whether morality should be located in sentiment or reason is one that asks whether morality is grounded in the framework of the universe or in that of human nature.

Like Hume and Smith, Blackburn wants to provide a naturalistic theory that is consistent with the scientific worldview. According to his theory, to value something is to have a stable disposition in favor of that thing, a disposition we approve of having and are concerned to preserve. Blackburn believes human beings tend to share the same settled dispositions because we need to coordinate our actions with those of others and because we want to be loveable in their eyes.

Blackburn conceives of morality as a product of human nature, springing from second-order sentiments we have about our first-order sentiments. He explains this characteristically sentimentalist idea in terms of a "staircase of emotional ascent." At the bottom are preferences, simple likes and dislikes. The next step up are our primitive aversions to some kind of action or character. Following Smith and going up another step, Blackburn argues that if you are angry and I come to share your anger, we come to see the matter as a moral one. The sympathetic identification causes us to see the sentiment as legitimate. We take the final step when we are moved to urge others to share the sentiment, effectively treating it as required.

Moral obligation and motivation result from a four-step process. Following Hume, Blackburn thinks the process begins with the natural emotion of love we feel toward certain character traits. We turn that love into moral esteem by taking up what Hume calls the common point of view. We then notice whether we have the character trait or not. Blackburn relies on Smith's theory that we become agents by internalizing the moral gaze of others and on his explanation of how we come to desire not just praise but praiseworthiness. For Blackburn, the latter is the desire to do what is right, so we are motivated to act morally.

Like the earlier sentimentalists, who compare moral properties with secondary qualities, Blackburn gives a projectivist explanation of why morality appears to us as a feature of reality. We tend to project our approval onto people's motives and see it as a property of the motives themselves. This "quasi-realism," as Blackburn calls it, is the aspect of his theory for which he is best known.

Blackburn provides a naturalistic explanation of what we are doing when we use normative concepts. According to him, we are expressing or voicing our values rather than describing something. He thus defends a form of noncognitivism, the view that ethical judgments cannot be true or false, since they do not describe facts. Borrowing the term from Allan Gibbard, he calls this type of noncognitivism "expressivism." The twentieth-century noncognitivists are often thought to be following in the footsteps of the classical sentimentalists. But the eighteenth-century sentimentalists were concerned with the question of where our moral concepts come from rather than with the analysis of moral language. They did not deny that sentences in which moral concepts appear could be true or false.

Blackburn adopts the Humean view that the role of reason is limited to informing us of the facts of the case, including the likely effects of proposed actions. Awareness of these facts will move us, but only if they are tied to some desire or contingent concern of ours. Like Hume, Blackburn denies that there are rational standards governing action. Nevertheless, he argues that there is a perfectly respectable sense in which people may be said to reason about their ends or are criticized for being unreasonable. Reasonableness stands for freedom from certain traits—ignorance, lack of foresight, lack of concern for the common point of view. Those of us who value these traits may condemn someone who lacks these traits as unreasonable.

Baier provides perhaps the most sympathetic and systematic reading of Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature in A Progress of Sentiments. The progress is a turn from a reliance on pure Cartesian intellect to an attempt to employ philosophically all the capacities of the mind: memory, passion, sentiment, and "chastened intellect." On her reading, Hume's "carefree" or liberated philosophy is an investigation of the whole mind by the whole mind, in contrast to the Kantian investigation of reason by itself.

Baier sees Hume's moral theory as friendly to women's moral experiences and the inspiration for a new approach to feminist ethics. She thinks Hume anticipated many important elements of feminist ethics. Agreeing with the classical sentimentalists that we are essentially social creatures, she believes, as she thinks Hume did, that relationships are at the heart of morality. She applauds Hume for realizing that the system of justice with its rules and rights is an offspring of family cooperativeness and love. She sees him as one of the first philosophers to emphasize intimate and involuntary relationships and relationships between unequals such as parents and children.

Baier advocates a feminist ethics in which trust underwrites both love and obligation. Her deepest debt to Hume comes from his insight into how trust can come to be progressively enlarged, a view she reconstructs from Hume's account of the artificial virtues and the conventions in which they are embedded. Unless people trust each other, they will have trouble loving each other. To recognize a set of obligations is to trust that those who have the power to impose sanctions will enforce sanctions if obligations are not met. It is to trust a group of people with coercive power. Important questions include whom we should trust as well as distrust. Baier looks at obligation from the point of view of the powerless, not the powerful.

Despite Hume's commitment to naturalism, Baier, along with the neo-Kantian Christine Korsgaard, claim to have found in Hume a general test of normativity that applies to the understanding and the moral sense. Both agree that for Hume the normative problem is not whether our beliefs and values are true in the sense that they correspond to some independent reality. The problem is whether our more unreflective beliefs and values and the faculties that give rise to them can withstand their own reflection without incoherence or self-condemnation. Both argue that, on Hume's view, when the moral sense turns on itself and its operations it survives its own survey; therefore its judgments are authoritative.

Charlotte R. Brown

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