More Than a Feeling

Against Kant and all rationalist accounts of morality, sentimentalism insists that humans are ruled by their passions.  Specifically, Simon Blackburn, in an article titled “Must We Weep for Sentimentalism,” argues against rationality on the grounds that there are no rational moral imperatives under which all humans are obligated to action, and, even if one were to be able to find a universal rational principle, no one would is actually obligated to obey it.


Oddly enough, Blackburn seems to me to be right on the mark with this statement, but he insists that there can be morality based on sentiments or, more accurately, expressivism.  There is a sense in which Blackburn has a reliance upon the human mind, in that expressivism “starts from reflections on the kind of mental state that gets expressed when values are made public and exchanged.” 


But Blackburn insists that his is not a rational, mind-centered system.  Rather, he views his moral expressions as centered in the value of the objects outside of the human mind.  Thus, he sees moral expressions as being world-centered, child-centered, or dog-centered.  In this way, Blackburn can say, “The truth (for I say it is a truth) that you have an obligation to your children is child-dependent, and the truth that you should not kick friendly dogs for fun is dog-dependent.”


Blackburn, in fact, is quite confident in moral assertions.  The Iraq war, for instance, is wrong in his view regardless of what others think about it or how others regard it.  It isn’t true in one place or for one group and false for another.  “The criminality of the Iraq war is dead-innocent-Iraqi-dependent…”  Likewise, Blackburn insists, people who “are course and brutal are not ‘just’ different.  They are also depraved, and as a result they are rotten judges of value.”


Blackburn insists that moral sentiments are primitive and moral thoughts are derivative.  Emotions explain thoughts of wrong behavior.  Feelings of injustice precede pronouncements of injustice.  Emotions and attitudes are primitive “and are there to be socially harnessed and refined.”  For Blackburn, this harnessing actually means, “the best we can do is to educate people so that the best passions are also the most forceful.”


The terms “best” and “forceful” are disconcerting, in my view.

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