Moral sense theory



Moral sense theory (also known as moral sentimentalism) is a theory in moral
epistemology Epistemology (; ), or the theory of knowledge, is the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Epistemology is considered a major subfield of philosophy, along with other major subfields such as ethics, logic, and metaphysics. Epis ...
meta-ethics In metaphilosophy and ethics, meta-ethics is the study of the nature, scope, and meaning of moral judgment. It is one of the three branches of ethics generally studied by philosophers, the others being normative ethics (questions of how one ought ...
concerning the discovery of moral truths. Moral sense theory typically holds that distinctions between
morality Morality () is the differentiation of intentions, decisions and actions between those that are distinguished as proper (right) and those that are improper (wrong). Morality can be a body of standards or principles derived from a code of co ...
immorality Immorality is the violation of morality, moral laws, Norm (social), norms or standards. It refers to an agent doing or thinking something they know or believe to be wrong. Immorality is normally applied to people or actions, or in a broader sense ...
are discovered by emotional responses to experience. Some take it to be primarily a view about the nature of moral facts or moral beliefs (a primarily metaphysical view)—this form of the view more often goes by the name "sentimentalism". Others take the view to be primarily about the nature of justifying moral beliefs (a primarily epistemological view)—this form of the view more often goes by the name "moral sense theory". However, some theorists take the view to be one which claims that both moral facts and how one comes to be justified in believing them are necessarily bound up with human emotions. Popular historical advocates of some version of the moral sense theory or sentimentalism include the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746),
David Hume David Hume (; born David Home; 7 May 1711 New Style, NS (26 April 1711 Old Style, OS) – 25 August 1776)Maurice Cranston, Cranston, Maurice, and T. E. Jessop, Thomas Edmund Jessop. 2020 999avid Hume" ''Encyclopædia Britannica''. Retrieve ...
(1711–1776), and
Adam Smith Adam Smith (baptized 1723 – 17 July 1790) was a Scottish economist and philosopher who was a pioneer in the thinking of political economy and key figure during the Scottish Enlightenment. Seen by some as "The Father of Economics"——— ...
(1723–1790). Some contemporary advocates include Michael Slote, Justin D'Arms, Daniel Jacobson, Jesse Prinz, Jonathan Haidt, and perhaps
John McDowell John Henry McDowell, Fellow of the British Academy, FBA (born 7 March 1942) is a South African philosopher, formerly a fellow of University College, Oxford, and now university professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Although he has written ...
. Simon Blackburn and Allan Gibbard endorse a non-cognitivist form of sentimentalism.

Intuition versus moral sense

Some use the term " ethical intuitionism" in
moral philosophy Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that "involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of morality, right and wrong action (philosophy), behavior".''Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy'' The field of ethics, alo ...
to refer to the general position that we have some non-inferential moral knowledge (that is, basic moral knowledge that is not inferred from or based on any proposition). On this definition, moral sense theory is a form of ethical intuitionism. However, it is important to distinguish between
empiricist In philosophy Philosophy (from , ) is the systematized study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about existence, reason, knowledge, values, mind, and language. Such questions are often posed as problems to be stud ...
versus rationalist models of this. One may thus distinguish between rationalist ethical intuitionism for the rationalist version and "moral sense theory" for the empiricist version. (This will be the use of the terms here. However, the terminology is not ultimately important, so long as one keeps in mind the relevant differences between these two models of non-inferential moral knowledge.)


The first prominent moral sense theory (especially using the term "sense") is found in
Mencius Mencius ( ); born Mèng Kē (); or Mèngzǐ (; 372–289 BC) was a Chinese Confucianism, Confucian Chinese philosophy, philosopher who has often been described as the "second Sage", that is, second to Confucius himself. He is part of Confuc ...
(372–289 BCE). The eponymous text deals with an innate moral sense possessed by all human beings. All orthodox interpretations of
Confucianism Confucianism, also known as Ruism or Ru classicism, is a system of thought and behavior originating in ancient China. Variously described as tradition, a philosophy, a Religious Confucianism, religion, a humanistic or rationalistic religion, ...
accept this view, several unorthodox groups make a point of refuting it (see: Xunzi). This line of thinking reached its most extreme iteration in xinxue, a form of
Neo-Confucianism Neo-Confucianism (, often shortened to ''lǐxué'' 理學, literally "School of Principle") is a moral, ethical, and metaphysical Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality, the first principles ...
associated with the
Ming Dynasty The Ming dynasty (), officially the Great Ming, was an Dynasties in Chinese history, imperial dynasty of China, ruling from 1368 to 1644 following the collapse of the Mongol Empire, Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. The Ming dynasty was the last ort ...
Wang Yangming Wang Shouren (, 26 October 1472 – 9 January 1529), courtesy name Bo'an (), art name Yangmingzi (), usually referred to as Wang Yangming (), was a Chinese calligrapher, general, philosopher, politician, and writer during the Ming dynasty. ...
. In the west, the first prominent moral sense theory is found in
Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (26 February 1671 – 16 February 1713) was an English people, English politician, philosopher, and writer. Early life He was born at Cecil House, Exeter House in London, the son of the future An ...
(1671–1713). His major work espousing a form of moral sense theory is ''An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, or Merit'' (first published in an unauthorized edition in 1699). Subsequently, Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) developed a version of moral sense theory. The chief statements of his theory occur in ''An Inquiry Concerning the Original of Our Ideas of Virtue or Moral Good'' (1725; Treatise II of ''An Inquiry Into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue'') and ''An Essay On the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, With Illustrations Upon the Moral Sense'' (1728). Arguably the most prominent defender of moral sense theory in the history of philosophy is
David Hume David Hume (; born David Home; 7 May 1711 New Style, NS (26 April 1711 Old Style, OS) – 25 August 1776)Maurice Cranston, Cranston, Maurice, and T. E. Jessop, Thomas Edmund Jessop. 2020 999avid Hume" ''Encyclopædia Britannica''. Retrieve ...
(1711–1776). While he discusses morality in Book 3 of his '' Treatise of Human Nature'' (1739–40), Hume's most mature, positive account of the moral sense is found in '' An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals'' (1751). Adam Smith also advanced a form of moral sense theory in his '' The Theory of Moral Sentiments'' (1759). Smith focused less on a single faculty of the moral sense and more on the various sentiments that make up the moral feelings that ground moral judgments.
Thomas Reid Thomas Reid (; 7 May (Julian calendar, O.S. 26 April) 1710 – 7 October 1796) was a religiously trained Scottish philosopher. He was the founder of the Scottish School of Common Sense and played an integral role in the Scottish Enlightenment ...
(1710–1796) defends moral sense theory in his ''Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind''. He compares the moral sense to sight and hearing, and defends its veridicality on the same ground as those. The introduction of
Herbert Spencer Herbert Spencer (27 April 1820 – 8 December 1903) was an English philosopher, psychologist, biologist, anthropologist, and sociologist famous for his hypothesis of social Darwinism. Spencer originated the expression "survival of the fittest" ...
's '' Social Statics'' argued on behalf of moral sense theory.


The moral sense is often described as providing information in a way analogous to other sensory modalities, such as sight in the perception of colors. It is contrasted with the way in which one acquires ''a priori'', non-empirical knowledge, such as mathematical knowledge for example. One way to understand the moral sense is to draw an analogy between it and other kinds of senses. Beauty is something we see in some faces, artworks and landscapes. We can also hear it in some pieces of music. We clearly do not need an independent aesthetic sense faculty to perceive beauty in the world. Our ordinary five senses are quite enough to observe it, though merely observing something beautiful is not by itself enough to appreciate its beauty. Suppose we give a name to this ability to appreciate the beauty in things we see: let's call it the aesthetic sense. This aesthetic sense does not come automatically to all people with perfect vision and hearing, so it is fair to describe it as something extra, something not wholly reducible to vision and hearing. As the aesthetic sense informs us about what is beautiful, we can analogically understand the ''moral sense'' as informing us of what is good. People with a functioning moral sense get a clear impression of wrongness when they see (or perhaps even imagine) someone being mugged, for example. However, though the wrongness is obvious, we may find it very difficult to list the features of the scene which account for the wrongness. We discover wrongness through observing natural properties with our five senses. Can we list the necessary and sufficient conditions such that any action which satisfies these conditions is wrong? The Ethical Naturalist thinks that in principle, we can. For naturalists, rightness and wrongness are nothing more than certain combinations of natural, non-evaluative properties. Since we can in principle build mechanical detectors for all these natural properties, the Ethical Naturalist thinks wrongness is something that a machine could eventually detect. The ethical intuitionist typically disagrees (although, it is not essential to the view): they see a wide conceptual gap between natural facts and evaluations. There seem to be no valid arguments in which purely descriptive/factual premises entail a prescriptive/evaluative conclusion. Ethical intuitionists claim that only an agent with a moral sense can observe natural properties and through them discover the moral properties of the situation. Without the moral sense, you might see and hear all the colors and yelps, but the moral properties would remain hidden, and there would be in principle no way to ever discover them (except, of course, via testimony from someone else with a moral sense).


The key opponents of moral sense theory (as a primarily epistemological view) are rationalist ethical intuitionists—such as G.E. Moore (1903), W.D. Ross (1930), and Michael Huemer (2005), and other moral rationalists, such as
Immanuel Kant Immanuel Kant (, , ; 22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) was a German Philosophy, philosopher and one of the central Age of Enlightenment, Enlightenment thinkers. Born in Königsberg, Kant's comprehensive and systematic works in epistemolo ...
Samuel Clarke Samuel Clarke (11 October 1675 – 17 May 1729) was an English philosopher and Anglican cleric. He is considered the major British figure in philosophy between John Locke and George Berkeley. Early life and studies Clarke was born in Norwich, t ...
. For a recent criticism of sentimentalism (as a primarily metaphysical thesis), see François Schroeter (2006). D'Arms and Jacobson (2000) also provide a recent critique; however, they criticize "simple sentimentalism" and defend a more "sophisticated sentimentalism". Joshua Greene criticizes the epistemic basis of moral sentimentalism because of beliefs formed in response to morally irrelevant factors. These factors change our moral decisions, but they should not because they do not have a bearing on the morality of the decision. The example he uses is the
trolley problem The trolley problem is a series of thought experiment A thought experiment is a hypothetical situation in which a hypothesis, theory, or principle is laid out for the purpose of thinking through its consequences. History The ancient Greek ' ...
and compares it to the fat man rendition of it. Empirical data shows that people chose differently between the two scenarios, despite them being the same moral dilemma, the only difference being pulling a switch in the former and pushing the man in the latter.

See also

* Ethical intuitionism

References and further reading

* Campbell, Richmond (2003). "Moral Epistemology", ''The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy'' Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
* Cohon, Rachel (2004). "Hume's Moral Philosophy", ''The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy'', E. Zalta (ed.).
* D'Arms, J. & Jacobson, D. (2000). "Sentiment and Value", ''Ethics'', Vol. 110, No. 4, pp. 722–748. * Fieser, James (2006). "David Hume (1711-1776) - Moral Theory", ''The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy'', J. Fieser and B.H. Dowden (eds.) U. Tennessee/Martin.

* Gill, Michael B. (2006). "Lord Shaftesbury nthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, ''The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy'' (Winter 2006 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
* Kauppinan, Antii (2014). " Moral Sentimentalism", ''The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

' *Moore, G.E. (1903). ''Principia Ethica'', Cambridge University Press. * Prinz, Jesse (2006). "The Emotional Basis of Moral Judgments", ''Philosophical Explorations'', vol. 9, no. 1. * Ross, W.D. (1930). ''The Right and the Good'', Oxford: Clarendon Press. * Huemer, Michael (2005). ''Ethical Intuitionism'', Palgrave Macmillan. * Raphael, D.D. (ed.) (1991). ''British Moralists: 1650-1800'', 2 Vols., Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing. Company. * Schroeter, François (2006). "The Limits of Sentimentalism", ''Ethics'', Vol. 116, pp. 337–361. * Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter (2006a). "Moral Skepticism", ''The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy'', Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
* Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter (2006b). ''Moral Skepticisms'', Oxford University Press. * Kane, Robert H. Quest for Meaning: Values, Ethics, and the Modern Experience. Lecture 6, "Hume and the Challenge of Relativism"and Lecture 7, "Cultural Diversity, Human Nature, and the Social Sciences". The Teaching Company



External links

Hume's Moral Philosophy
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