Current Reading

[David Hume]

Current Reading: The Emotional Construction of Morals by Jesse J. Prinz.

Prinz’s website here. Prinz on Bloggingheads here.

It’s in the tradition (self-consciously) of Hume. A sentimentalist (i.e. morality is about emotional responses) account backed up by new cognitive science data: mRIs and so forth. [You can actually see a magnetic scan of Prinz’s brain on his website. Pretty cool…and somewhat weird].

For readers who know my philosophical proclivities (and for those who don’t) I’m come much more from a Habermasian-Apelian view of intersubjective ethics. Or discourse ethics. That is, the view expounded by Prinz assumes an entire language game (in Wittgenstein’s lingo) or in C.S. Peirce’s language, it’s a philosophy of two-ness (not thirdness). There is no interpretation in an intersubjective space.

On the positive side, Prinz, articulating well the tradition he stands in (and he’s very good writer and clear thinker imo) puts strong emphasis on the bodily nature of all cognition. I would say that means (a la Wilber) the body and mind co-arise and work that shows the material/behavioral components of tetra-arising, then all to the good on that front. The emotional construction of morals begins a quasi-postmodern turn in the tradition of bio-phenomenology from Maturana and Varela. In Wilberian terms, this account is an inside reconstruction (1st person pov) of an outside view (3rd person pov). In this graphic, zone #3 of the upper half of the page. The Habermas-Apel coordinate would be zone #1 on the bottom half of that map.

His view I think could be helped by a Whiteheadian expansion of Humean sensation (even including updated emotional-neuroscience tracking) to a notion of prehension.

But one thing I admire strongly about Prinz’s book is that he has the guts to say what I think is the inevitable (il?)logical conclusion of such a empiricist-sentimentalist-non intersubjective view-3rd person only view of things: namely it ends in Nietzschean moral relativism.

This interestingly is the exact argument made (from a very different starting and end point) by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue. In a modernist frame, to echo Max Weber, is and ought become separated. [But not then re-integrated according to Wilber]. Once they become separated–but still especially in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition–assume in a sense that they are related or that reason can give such an account, Nietzsche eventually comes along and undercuts the whole thing.

Prinz comes out and advocates forms of relativism and subjectivism in moral philosophy. And again I think he is dead on the money when he sees that taking a Humean view; I think that is a flaw in the empiricist tradition (he doesn’t obviously).  But at least he’s more honest than most (imo).


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