Appendix A. Questions about Our Moral Sense

Some people are skeptical about the moral sense. They think we don't have it, or it is too vague or too mystical to include in rational discourse. In this appendix, I attempt to correct this skepticism by answering questions about and arguments against our moral sense. Here are the topics addressed in this appendix.

1. If we have a moral sense, why don't we know about it?

Adam Smith argued that morality cannot possibly be based on a moral sense, because most men have not noticed any such sense in themselves and there wasn't even a name for it in the English language until the 18th century. If a moral sense is part of our makeup, we should be immediately aware of it, and we should not have to listen to arguments about whether it exists. The fact that its existence is disputed proves that we don't have it.1

Adam Smith's argument proves that most people are not familiar with the term moral sense. It does not prove that we are unaware of the phenomena denoted by the term. If I gave it another name, or described it better, even the skeptics might acknowledge it as part of our nature.

One word that comes close to what I mean by moral sense is conscience. Here are the first two definitions of conscience in Webster's Dictionary:

a: the sense or consciousness of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one's own conduct, intentions, or character together with a feeling of obligation to do right or be good
b: a faculty, power, or principle enjoining good acts2
Even Adam Smith recognized the connection between conscience and a moral sense or moral faculty:
The word conscience does not immediately denote any moral faculty by which we approve or disapprove. Conscience supposes indeed, the existence of some such faculty, and properly signifies our consciousness of having acted agreeably or contrary to its directions.3
Although Adam Smith did not care for the term moral sense, he did, nevertheless, believe in it. He preferred to write about conscience and natural sympathy. For him, sympathy connoted more consciousness and intelligence than the term moral sense. To be sympathetic means to imagine how you would feel in someone else's position. It implies the ability to think abstractly and objectively. For Adam Smith, the term moral sense sounded too much like a biological function rather than something involving intellect. He may well have been correct in saying that moral sense is not a particularly well-chosen term and that Frances Hutcheson and others who used the term made it sound too instinctive and automatic.

To conveniently write or talk about something, we need to have a name for it. Here I shall continue to use the term moral sense. If you don't like this term, read it as moral faculty, sympathy, sentiment, conscience, or whatever term you feel best describes the whole gamut of moral emotions from guilt to righteousness and the natural disposition to make moral judgments.4

When people deny having a moral sense, they may mean that they are not familiar with the term or they do not define it the way I do. If they really understood what I mean by it, I believe most people would not deny having a moral sense. There may be some people who fail to develop it, but they are as abnormal as people without emotions or reasoning ability.

To deny having a moral sense is to say that you don't understand what people are talking about when they speak of emotions such as righteousness, approval, and shame. Only a person who lacks the natural capacity for these emotions has no moral sense. Such a person is not a normal human being.

The normal person experiences these feelings, and, since the capacity to do so is what I am calling the moral sense, I can say that the normal person has a moral sense. This is what makes us feel guilty when we act in a way that we believe (correctly or incorrectly) is morally wrong. Our moral sense is not our beliefs about right and wrong—it is the natural capacity to develop such beliefs and the emotions that go with them.

2. Why do people disagree about justice?

If we have a moral sense, why do people disagree about right and wrong?

By using the term moral sense, the sentimentalist philosophers (the 18th-century British moralists who emphasized the moral sense) implied that a sense perception or instinct is the source of our knowledge of moral principles. If this were true, differences of opinion over moral issues would imply that people's senses differ—a supposition that we are reluctant to make about members of the same species.

We cannot solve this problem by changing the terminology from moral sense to intuition.5 Moral intuitionists, who are critical of the term moral sense, have as much difficulty explaining differences of opinion in ethics as do the sentimentalists. If reason provides immediate apprehensions of moral principles, which are thereby self-evident, as Richard Price and other moral intuitionists have alleged, then we can only explain differences of opinion over ethical principles by supposing different intuitions or different faculties of reason. This is as objectionable as supposing that people's senses differ.

Any philosophy that implies that we automatically know something, either through the senses or through our intuition, is in danger of being easily refuted by the fact that people do not agree on the alleged knowledge.

My moral-sense philosophy is not itself a theory of knowledge. Having a moral sense does not mean that we automatically perceive through this sense what is right and what is wrong.

The moral sense is the faculty of the mind that causes us to develop a conscience and that spurs us on to adopt abstract moral principles. It makes us interested in the categories of right and wrong, but it does not supply the specific principles by which we classify actions as right or wrong.

We must use reason with our moral sense to discover the principles of morality. Unfortunately, we assimilate too many unreasonable moral principles from our culture, our government, our parents, our religious leaders, our peers, and various other sources that vary from person to person. This explains much of the difference of opinion among people as to what is right and what is wrong.

The moral sense gives us the capacity to have feelings of approval and disapproval. These feelings or emotions are subjective. What one person approves another might disapprove. The moral sense does not provide us with objective moral principles. It provides us with an interest in moral principles, the capacity to acquire moral principles, and a desire to rationalize our behavior either by making our moral principles conform to our actions or our actions conform to our moral principles.

Having subjective moral emotions is a prerequisite for developing the objective moral code. This objective moral code must be developed logically, but in humans it is based on the innate belief provided by our moral sense that some things are right and some things are wrong.

The main problem of moral philosophy is to discover the correct principles for classifying actions as right or wrong. Nature has given us minds that naturally develop the general categories of right and wrong and strong emotions to make us interested in these categories and a tool, reason, to discover the moral principles. It is up to us to apply intelligence to our moral sense.

The fact that men in different cultures feel guilty or proud about different things does not prove that nature has not given us a moral sense. On the contrary, it proves that all men have a moral sense that allows them to develop moral views.

The fact that Asian music sounds awful to Western ears does not mean that mankind has no sense of beauty.6 On the contrary, the fact that men in different cultures develop their esthetic sensibilities differently means that the ability to seek beauty is part of human nature rather than something that depends on one's milieu. We do not all agree on what smells good or what tastes good, but that does not mean that mankind does not have a sense of smell or a sense of taste.7

The fact that people disagree about moral judgments can be better explained by the weakness of our reasoning ability than by lack of the moral sense.8 9

3. If we have a moral sense, why aren't we always good?

Doesn't having a moral sense mean that we are automatically good and that we can never intentionally do anything wrong?

No. Even though we have a moral sense that inhibits us from doing things we believe are wrong, we still have two reasons for doing wrong:

  1. Because, as explained in the answer to question 2, we use our ability to reason so poorly that we accept mistaken ideas about right and wrong.
  2. Even if we have correct beliefs about what is right, we can still derive benefits from doing wrong.

Poor Reasoning as a Source of Evil

Most people let their consciences guide their deliberate, inter-personal actions.10 This does not mean that their actions are objectively good. It is only objectively good for a person to obey his conscience when his relevant beliefs about right and wrong in the particular situation are correct. Otherwise, a person might be led astray by following his conscience. Nonetheless, if a person obeys his conscience, he will have peace of mind. If he goes against his conscience, he will feel guilty, even if, in reality, he has done nothing wrong.

Much of the evil that we do can be explained by the weakness of human reasoning. The crimes that people commit often result from mistaken ideas about justice rather than a lack of concern. A savage's actions are often consistent with his own interpretation of justice.11 Even professional criminals have a moral sense. Such men often have an unorthodox moral code that allows them to experience less guilt and shame from their behavior than other people would.12

But we cannot blame all evil on the weakness of human reasoning. Even if everyone were in agreement on the principles of right and wrong, and even if everyone understood how these principles apply in all situations, there would still be injustice, because we can gain benefits from wrongdoing.

Personal Gain as a Source of Evil

Having a moral sense means that doing what we consider to be the right thing gives us satisfaction and we derive no pleasure from doing what we believe to be wrong per se. In fact, we have a natural aversion to doing what we believe is wrong. It does not follow from this that we cannot derive great pleasure from acts that we believe are wrong. Although we do not enjoy the wrongfulness of these acts, we may well enjoy the benefits of them. This is possible because we have other values in addition to moral values.

We have many values that for us are ends in themselves. The value that is normally the strongest is self-preservation. Life per se is pleasurable, in most cases, and it is, of course, necessary for achieving all other human values. Other natural values for normal human beings include eating, drinking, playing, relaxing, making love, listening to music, appreciating beauty, and so on.13 Obtaining any of these values can, at times, conflict with an individual's sense of right and wrong. When this happens, the individual acts in accordance with his own priorities and thereby reveals something about his moral character.

When a person deliberately does something that he believes is wrong, it shows that he values something else more than he values morality. It does not mean that he has no conscience. To say that morality is natural does not mean that we act morally all the time.14 It means we are born with a moral faculty that develops and is shaped as we mature.15

Similarly, the fact that men sometimes willingly sacrifice their lives does not prove that we were born without a desire to live.

4. If belief in morality is based on a sense rather than reason, then isn't it arbitrary?

The most successful argument against the moral sense has been that if our belief in morality is based on a sense, rather than reason, then morality is arbitrary, because we could have been born with a different moral sense. John Balguy16 and Richard Price17 used this argument to deny the moral sense. They asserted that God could have given us any kind of senses that he wanted to.

I have two responses to this argument:

  1. The same argument could be used against all philosophies.
  2. Conformity to the natural world is the ultimate test of whether something is arbitrary or not.

Reductio ad Absurdum

Rationalists such as John Balguy and Richard Price said that if morality rests on an instinct, or moral sense, rather than reason, then morality is arbitrary and has no necessary correspondence with reality. They assumed that internal feelings cannot be shown to correspond to the external world or to reason, and that to base morality on such feelings makes morality subjective rather than objective. They pointed out that we can conceive of rational beings with instincts different from those of humans and that if morality were based on instincts, these rational creatures would have a different system of morality than we have.

If we apply this argument to other philosophies and follow it to its logical conclusion, it leads to absurdity. Utilitarianism, for instance, is based on values that are as arbitrary as the moral sense. Utilitarians base their calculations on unquestioned assumptions such as that human life and pleasure are good and that death and pain are bad. Nobody seriously doubts these assumptions, because they are self-evident. But their self-evidence means they are innate rather than rationally derived.

If our moral sense is arbitrary because it is not derived from reason, then so are our love of life and pleasure and our aversion to death and pain. If morality based on the moral sense is arbitrary, then so is utilitarianism. Furthermore, because pure reason cannot provide the ultimate motive for any action, moral or otherwise, all human action is ultimately arbitrary in the same way.

The argument can be carried even further. Reason and logic are based on pre-rational axioms such as the laws of identity and noncontradiction. Reason cannot prove these axioms. They are assumed in all arguments. They are part of the innate structure of the human mind. Reason did not create the structure of the human mind, the human mind created reason. Therefore, according to this argument, the laws of logic are arbitrary and so is anything based on them.

Natural Selection

The sentimentalists could not satisfactorily explain why our instincts and moral sense are not arbitrary. (No one could explain why the instinct for self-preservation and the axioms of reason are not arbitrary either, but no one questioned those.) The best that the sentimentalists could say in rebuttal to this charge was that God is good and he would not play a trick on us by giving us instincts that do not correspond to the real nature of things. This was fine for those who were looking for a religious answer, but it did not satisfy those scholars who were looking for a scientific or philosophical answer. Neither the rationalists nor the sentimentalists realized that if a species of animals had powerful instincts that did not conform to the real world, that species would not survive.

The fact that the human species has survived proves that our instincts and faculties conform to the real world. What the sentimentalists such as the Earl of Shaftsbury, Francis Hutcheson, and Lord Kames needed was the theory of natural selection. Natural selection explains why our instincts, innate ideas, and moral sense conform to the real world.

The sentimentalists lost their debate with their rationalist contemporaries, because, at that time, there was no theory of natural selection to explain why our sentiments are not arbitrary. The sentimentalists were still wedded to Moses' account of the Creation and to the medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being. They believed that all species of plants and animals were created by God at the same time (within a week) about 10,000 years ago and that he created every possible species that could ever be. His creation was complete and perfect. So the idea of species adapting or becoming extinct as a result of natural selection did not occur to them. By the time the theory of natural selection was developed, the sentimentalists had been forgotten and their psychological insights were lost.

After the passing of the sentimentalists, the idea of individual rights was destined to fade away. If morality is based on reason, it must have a purpose—it must be instrumental. The attempt of some rationalists to say that we should do the right thing regardless of the consequences, was nonsense in this context.

Most of the rationalists assumed that the welfare of society was a reasonable goal. They did not question the basis of this assumption. If morality is based on reason and if social welfare is the goal of morality, it follows that all individual rights are contingent on their usefulness to society. Logic was on the side of the social utilitarians, and they became the dominant school.

Next came the socialists. Although the arguments of the socialists were not more logical than those of the utilitarians, the socialists had wider appeal. The socialist program of wealth redistribution—taking wealth from the few rich people and giving it to the many poor people—was bound to be more popular than the utilitarian policies. Without a philosophy of individual rights, nothing could stop the march toward socialism.

Socialism and welfare-state liberalism have more appeal to our sense of right and wrong than do libertarian theories of private property that are based on economic reasoning and utilitarianism. The ideas that people deserve a decent standard of living, at least at some minimum level, and that everyone deserves opportunity are not based on utilitarian arguments. Instead, they appeal directly to our sense of justice and fairness. In other words, they are moral arguments for people who have consciences. That is why utilitarian economists have been so unsuccessful at displacing them.

To reestablish man's autonomy and status as a moral agent, we need to resurrect the sentimentalist idea that man has a moral sense, which makes morality an intrinsic value rather than an instrumental one. This is the best way to defend individual rights now that we are in the scientific age.

Today with the theory of natural selection at our disposal, we can defend the sentimentalist's ideas better than they could. We do not have to rely on the argument that God would not have given us an arbitrary moral instinct. We can argue that even if instincts were originally arbitrary, the instincts that did not promote survival have been eliminated through the process of natural selection. Consequently, man's instincts are not arbitrary. After untold years of adaptation, our instincts and innate faculties have been tuned to the conditions of the real world in a way that promotes the survival of the human race as a species of rational and social animals.

The moral sense has been molded by natural selection. It is arbitrary only to the extent that all facts and laws of nature are arbitrary. Because human reason did not create the universe, the whole universe can be called arbitrary. Natural law has no more reason for existing than do the laws of physics or the laws of logic. There is no apparent purpose behind them. As far as we know, nature simply exists. If there is a reason for it, the reason is not man-made. Natural things and the laws governing their relationships existed before man. Our logic tells us that we could not have created nature and we cannot change it.

Although our instincts, innate ideas, axioms, and the moral sense are arbitrary in that we don't know of any purpose behind them, they do conform to the nature of the real world, and in that respect they are not arbitrary at all. Our instincts and the logical categories in our minds are given to us by nature. To use these instincts and categories is as natural and in accord with reality as to use our bodies. To ignore our sense of morality is arbitrary, unnatural, and unrealistic.

5. Does the moral sense deny free will and moral responsibility?

Doesn't having a moral sense imply that we are no better than robots? Doesn't the concept of the moral sense deny free will and portray us as mindless machines instead of rational moral agents whose moral acts are praiseworthy? Aren't moral responsibility and the moral sense mutually exclusive?

To answer these questions we must make a distinction between determinism and behaviorism. Determinism is simply the idea that everything that happens has a cause. Behaviorism is a particular kind of determinism that recognizes physically measurable things as causes, but refuses to acknowledge that ideas and emotions can cause or explain events. Insofar as behaviorism acknowledges the existence of thought, emotions, reason, purpose, motives, and ideas of any kind, it regards them as epiphenomena (experiences that have no effects on events).

If the moral sense theory implied a behaviorist view of the world, then it would not be a moral theory at all, because it would deny the existence of moral action. Moral action presupposes preferences, choices, and reasons.18

The only reason for choosing an end is because it promotes some other end that we already want. If this end is one that we have chosen, we must have had a reason for choosing it. That reason can only be that it promotes some other end that we already want. And so on, until we reach an ultimate end that we want without choice. An ultimate end is one that is given to us by nature. We have no freedom of choice with regard to ultimate ends.

One of these ultimate ends is morality. We approve acts that we believe are morally right, and we disapprove acts that we believe are morally wrong. We cannot choose to feel otherwise. This limitation in no way makes us robots. We still have to think and decide whether an act is moral before we can approve or disapprove of it. If we don't think about such things, we will not feel the emotions that are based on our moral sense.

Determinism is usually assumed to be incompatible with moral responsibility, and determinists are often accused of denying the moral dimension of human life. Determinism, however, is a logical corollary of the law of causality, and the law of causality is ingrained in the structure of the human mind as much as is the moral sense. How can determinism and moral responsibility be reconciled?

The moral sense and the idea of causality both affect how we interpret our experiences. Both have served our species well. They make our survival as a rational and social species possible. Whether or not moral responsibility is compatible with causality, we will continue to believe in both, but it would be nice if what we believe in is logically coherent.

Determinism is the doctrine that human actions as well as occurrences in nature are determined by antecedent causes. There is nothing in this doctrine that denies that we can act willfully, intentionally, voluntarily, purposefully, consciously, or deliberately. The only thing that determinism denies is that an act or event can be uncaused or self-caused. This includes the act of making a decision—resolving to do something—forming a will.

Determinism has gotten a bad reputation because some determinists deny the existence of or the importance of the will. By doing so they deny the most immediate and certain knowledge that we can have. Any honest person would acknowledge the existence of his own will, his own volition.

Most determinists are honest enough to admit they make decisions. What they deny is that their decisions are uncaused or self-caused.

Those who believe in free will claim that the human will is self-caused and free from external causation. Determinists counter this by saying that a volition cannot be self-caused unless it has always existed. We have not always existed, so our volitions cannot be self-caused. If a volition comes into being, if a resolution is made, this is an event that must have an antecedent cause rather than a miraculous, spontaneous creation from nothing. Michael Levin refutes the notion of a self-determining will this way:

a self-determining will is inherently obscure. It invites but cannot answer the question of what makes such a will determine itself to choose one way rather than another. Not external factors, for then the will is not self-determining. Not nothing, for a will acting by chance is not self-determining. Not a prior act of the will to choose its choice, for that launches an infinite regress. These alternatives exhausted, a self-determining will is impossible, and should such a will be necessary for desert, no one deserves anything at all.19
Some people want determinists to prove their doctrine by predicting and explaining everything that happens. They claim that until determinists can do this, determinism is merely a hypothesis. Of course, determinists cannot accurately predict everything. It would require the omniscience of God to do that. Natural scientists, proceeding on the assumption of causality, have been able to predict quite a few things, but they will never be able to predict everything that will happen in the nonhuman world, much less in the more complicated human realm.

Fortunately, determinism does not have to be proven by demonstration. Determinism is founded directly on the laws of logic and the law of causality, which are built into the structure of the human mind. We can be more sure of determinism than we can be of any of the natural laws discovered through the methods of the physical sciences.

Most advocates of free will accept the law of causality. They believe it applies to everything except the human will—the decision-making process. They exempt the will from the law of causality because they experience a sense of freedom when they make decisions. These decisions, not some unfathomable social, environmental, or hereditary determinants, are the immediate reasons for human actions. People reject behaviorism because it denies that people make choices and it denies the validity of the feeling of freedom associated with making choices.

We really do make decisions and experience a sense of responsibility for the decisions we make. The key thing to understand about the human will is that it is real. It actually happens. Since it is real, it must be caused. Only if it were imaginary could we say that it is not caused and that it has no effects. Free will, as an undetermined, uncaused volition is unreal. But the human will and the associated feelings of freedom and responsibility are real, so they must have antecedent causes and subsequent effects.

Some determinists say that society, rather than the individual, is morally responsible for the individual's actions, because the individual's personality is formed by his social environment. This view is not logical. Moral responsibility presupposes willful action, but society, per se, has no will and cannot act. So it is nonsense to say society is morally responsible for anything. The only way in which society can be said to be responsible for the actions of an individual is as one of the influences that helped to shape his character and helped to make him the kind of person he has become. Other things such as the individual's heredity and physical environment, books he has read, conversations he has had, accidents of fate—all his life experiences—influenced his personality and made him the kind of person who makes the kinds of choices he makes.

If your character (personality) is a significant cause of what you do, which it is when you consciously decide to take an action, then you are responsible. It doesn't change things that your character or personality was shaped by forces beyond yourself. What you are is the result of your genes and your history. But it is you who decides what you will do. The part of the environment that is morally responsible for your actions is what we mean by you.

We make a distinction between deliberate actions, in which your personality and character play important causative roles, and unintentional actions, which do not reveal as much about the kind of person you have become. Deliberate actions, in which your character plays a significant role, are actions that you (your personality and character) are responsible for. This isn't changed by the fact that your character and personality were shaped by forces internal and external to yourself.

What is the point of stressing society's role in the endless chain of events? Presumably, these determinists want to make a better world by reforming society. But society cannot hear these reformers, because it has no ears. Only individuals can hear and be reformed. But if individuals can be reformed by moral arguments, they are morally responsible agents, which is exactly what these determinists deny in the first place.

While environmentalists over-stress the role of society, sociobiologists are guilty of stressing the role of genes in explaining human morality to the exclusion of the other factors in the chain of events. They confuse intermediate causes with epiphenomena. They overlook the fact that:

The causation of behavior by genes does not mean behavior would occur absent preferences. ... You can't have genes without desires; once you have the genes you have the behavior because you have the behavior-producing desires. Conative drives are how genes bring behavior about. They [desires] are not epiphenomena, but necessary intermediate mechanisms.20
What sets humans apart from other animals, plants, and inanimate objects is not that we are exempt from the law of causality. Rather, it is that we, unlike them, can be influenced by ideas. Ideas have consequences because they can cause us to act.

Moral arguments do have effects. Individuals can hear them, read them, think about them, and change their behavior as a result of them. The individual is the only one we can work with. To improve society we must deal with its individual members by treating them as morally responsible agents.

6. Is action based on the moral sense selfish?

Another objection to the moral sense is that it gives us a personal, selfish interest in morality. Kant drew a distinction between action-from-sense-of-duty and action-from-desire. For Kant, action-from-sense-of-duty is principled action and has intrinsic worth, but action-from-desire has no moral worth, even if the action is good.

What can we say about these claims? It is true that action-from-sense-of-duty is principled action and has intrinsic worth. It is also true that action-from-desire is not necessarily principled and need not have intrinsic worth. But all purposeful action, including action-from-sense-of-duty, is a kind of action-from-desire. So it is not true that no action-from-desire can be principled. If we do not have a desire to do our duty, we cannot act from a sense of duty.21

7. Are we no better than beasts?

Rationalists do not want to admit that we have instincts, because they think it is degrading. They believe we have risen above beastly instincts by virtue of our superior reasoning ability. Whereas beasts have biological drives and instincts that explain their behavior, rationalists say that human action is motivated by reason and free will. They do not admit the possibility that we can be superior to beasts intellectually and as moral agents and still possess natural drives and instincts like other animals.

Rationalism is at odds with the theory of biological evolution. If mankind has evolved from species of animals that have instincts, and if those instincts were beneficial to the survival of those species, isn't it reasonable to assume that mankind would have inherited some of those beneficial instincts? Wouldn't men who had such beneficial instincts have an advantage over men who lacked them? Wouldn't natural selection favor men with those instincts?

Rationalists, if they have any theory of evolution at all, must have a very strange one. They look at the spectrum of animal behavior and explain it by saying that the more complex behavior of the higher species is due to their having more instincts than the simpler animals. The simpler animals have few instincts and behave simply. The more advanced animals have many instincts and have complex behavior, until you get to man who has the most complex behavior and no instincts at all!

Alternatively, we could look at the spectrum of animal behavior and explain it in terms of intelligence by saying that the more complex behavior of the higher species is due to their having more intelligence than the simpler species. Mankind exhibits the most complex behavior and has the most intelligence. At least this explanation shows a logical progression. However, many rationalists don't want to admit that animals have intelligence, because it implies they may have virtue as well.

Peter Kropotkin theorized that man has inherited a lot of wisdom from the animals. Primitive man lived among the animals and learned from them what is edible, what kinds of food can be stored, how to prepare for winter, how to cooperate in defense of young, how to communicate danger, and many other basic survival skills. Most of the conventional rules of social life such as the family system, mutual aid, common defense, and even communication, were not invented by man. They were a legacy from the so-called "wild" animals, partly, perhaps, as a biological inheritance and partly by demonstration. We observed, imitated, and adapted our basic social fabric from wild animals.

Maybe we should recognize a kind of virtue in animals. Don't some species care for their young, make sacrifices to protect their families, have loyalties, and otherwise exhibit virtuous behavior? The rationalists must either deny these facts or explain them. If they explain them by referring to the complex instincts of the social species, then they will have a difficult time explaining why all of these instincts disappeared all at once in the human species. On the other hand, if the rationalist tries to explain altruistic animal behavior by giving animals credit for intelligence, he must give them credit for enough intelligence to follow the rationalist/utilitarian moral calculus—a feat too difficult for most humans.

Sentimentalists, who believe in a moral sense as well as intelligence, can explain the spectrum of animal and human behavior as a continuum of instincts and intelligence from the lower to the higher forms of life.

Some of the sentimentalists exaggerated the role of the moral sense by implying that it is a way of directly perceiving things, similar to our senses of smell, taste, hearing, seeing, and feeling. They implied that we perceive right and wrong through our moral sense like we perceive visual images through our eyes or tactile impressions through our skin. This upset the rationalists, because it implied that our reasoning ability is no more involved in our determinations of right and wrong than it is in our determinations of light and dark, loud and quiet, or hot and cold.

If the moral sense were like the sense of smell or eyesight or hearing, we could replace ethics with ethobiology. But the moral sense is more like our capacity to see mathematical relationships than it is like our capacity to smell roses.

Imagine that someone proposed eliminating the study of mathematics, and replacing it with the systematic study of the biological basis of mathematical thinking. They might argue that, after all, our mathematical beliefs are the products of our brains working certain ways, and an evolutionary account might explain why we developed the mathematical capacities we have. Thus "mathobiology" could replace mathematics. Why would this proposal sound so strange? It is not because our mathematical capacities have no biological basis; nor is it because it would not be interesting to know more about that basis. Rather, the proposal is strange because mathematics is an autonomous subject with its own internal standards of proof and discovery. Consider the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra, which we know to be true because of Gauss's proof. "Mathobiology", if it existed, could add nothing to our understanding of the theorem or the proof. It would be irrelevant to determining whether the proof is valid or invalid, because that is something that can only be established within the framework of mathematics itself.22
The way to study ethics is to use logic and our sense of morality to analyze moral concepts.
The deep reason for resisting the substitution of sociobiology for ethics is the conviction that ethics, like mathematics, is (as Thomas Nagel puts it) 'a theoretical inquiry that can be approached by rational methods, and that has internal standards of justification and criticism.' This means, first, that the observation that our moral capacities are connected with the operation of the hypothalamus and the limbic system is irrelevant to ethics in the same way that the observation that our mathematical capacities are connected with other parts of the brain is irrelevant to mathematics. Moreover, it means that particular ethical issues—such as whether male-dominated social arrangements are desirable or undesirable—are to be determined by the application of rational methods, and standards of criticism and justification, that are internal to ethics itself. That is why sociobiology can no more tell us whether sexist practices are a good thing than mathobiology could tell us whether Gauss's proof is valid. Although it might make significant contributions to our understanding of moral phenomena, the idea that sociobiology can explain ethics "at all depths" is, for this reason, mistaken.23
Although the sentimentalists sometimes exaggerated the role of the moral sense, they did not claim that virtue consists of blindly following our moral instincts.24 Reason is as essential to the sentimentalist philosophy as it is to the various rationalist or consequentialist philosophies.25

The rationalists were correct is saying that we must use reason to learn and to apply moral principles. The sentimentalists agreed with the rationalists on the necessity of reason, but they stressed the equal necessity of moral sentiments to provide us with the motive to act on moral principles.

The sentimentalists exaggerated the role of the moral sense as a source of knowledge. The rationalists response to this changed the focus of the debate from ethics to epistemology. After the rationalists took center stage, moral philosophy got been bogged down in a morass of linguistic analysis and mumbo jumbo.

8. Bonus Question: Isn't it contradictory to use utilitarian arguments to support the moral sense?

My moral-sense philosophy differs from utilitarianism in two major ways: (1) It recognizes a different motive for moral action, and (2) it does not employ the criterion of maximum utility to discover what is right and what is wrong.

Among humans, who happen to be the only moral agents that I know about, moral arguments presuppose the moral sense. However, if we seek to explain the existence of our moral sense itself, we must leave the field of ethics and use arguments from biology and other nonmoral sciences. In this nonmoral context, it is appropriate to consider the utility of the moral sense.

To defend the moral sense against the charge that it is arbitrary, I used the theory of natural selection to show that our moral sense is compatible enough with the natural world to have allowed us to survive as a social species. If the moral sense were arbitrary, if it had no basis in reality, our species could not have survived with it. This argument explains the existence of the moral sense. It does not provide a motive for acting on it. The moral sense itself is a motivator.

The theory of natural selection assumes that our natural instincts have survived because they either promote our survival or, at least, they do not significantly harm our chances of survival. I slipped utility into the argument, but I slipped it in as part of the explanation for the existence of the moral sense rather than as a moral argument for the moral sense.

Utility also showed up in Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 where I listed the criteria for rights. Rights have to be compatible with the nature of moral agents. A moral agent must be able to make moral decisions, which means he must be able to live in society and have the freedom to act. Any proposed right that is so impractical that it would make it impossible for a moral agent to act as a moral agent, must be rejected. However, we reject such rights, not because they fail to maximize utility, but because they are so totally unworkable that they are incompatible with moral agency. A right must be at least minimally useful, so that when it is not violated, moral actions are possible.


The objections to the moral sense theory are not sound. Our possession of the moral sense does not mean that we can do no wrong, nor does it mean that we naturally agree on what is right and wrong. The fact that we are not familiar with the term moral sense does not mean we lack the faculty itself. The moral sense is no more arbitrary than any of our other natural endowments, including reason itself. When the moral sense conflicts with other natural values and emotions, we cannot justify immoral behavior on the grounds that these other natural urges have proven their worth by having survived the process of natural selection, because the moral sense is the ultimate source of morality and it trumps all other natural values when they conflict. It is no more degrading for us to have a moral sense than it is for us to have any other natural capacity. None of the arguments against the moral sense can overrule our direct experience of it. It comprises a great part of our emotional life, and it influences our actions.

Go to Appendix B. What good is punishment?

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