OPR IV.12: Moral Emotions and Moral Autonomy

My apologies for posting this a little bit late. I came down with something and couldn’t get the comments put together as quickly as I had hoped and then ran into some compatibility issues with Word Press and my browser. Anyway, on to section 12.

If sections 4 – 11 have been primarily descriptive, section 12 is where the book begins to take a distinctly normative turn. Having sketched over the last three sections an account of how his positive and normative projects relate to one another, in section 12 Gaus expands the discussion he left us with at the end of section 11 in order to bring his descriptive work to bear on some of the questions he set out at the beginning of the book.

As I pointed out in my earlier comments, Gaus concludes section 11 with a brief discussion of the relationship between guilt, moral authority, and moral autonomy and as I said above, section 12 is primarily dedicated to developing this discussion further. Gaus emphasizes that guilt is part of the mechanism through which we internalize moral rules and on his view this is important for two closely related reasons:

(i) When an individual feels guilty for violating a moral rule, that guilt carries with it an implicit recognition of the authority of those who make demands on her that she comply with the rules of social morality. In this way, guilt complements resentment and indignation in Gaus’s Strawsonian account of how the moral emotions constitute the practice of social morality; guilt being the mechanism that gives standing to others to make demands on us, whereas resentment and indignation are (among) the mechanisms through which we make the actions of others our business. This is Gaus’s focus in 11.4.

(ii) By facilitating and ultimately manifesting our internalization of moral rules, guilt expresses our moral autonomy. When it is directed at a moral rule (and not simply a taboo), guilt typically indicates that an individual accepts the authority of the rule over her and is capable of appreciating the reasons why the rule applies to her. This, as opposed to (i), is Gaus’s focus in section 12.

Although Gaus spends a lot of time discussing the importance of guilt, he begins section 12 by discussing the moral emotions more generally. In particular he emphasizes that the moral emotions have built in appropriateness conditions, meaning that they typically require (or at least entail) that the person subject to a moral emotion has certain beliefs about the person towards whom her reactive attitude is directed (12.1). As we saw in section 11, on Gaus’s view the moral emotions are a constitutive part of our social morality and in this section he argues that this insight, combined with evidence from moral psychology undermines the rationalistic picture of morality on which reason allows us to overcome our passions. Gaus’s emphasis on the appropriateness conditions of the moral emotions though distinguishes him from ‘the new sentimentalists’ who argue that our moral judgments and practices are grounded primarily in our affect and that our moral emotions do not (and more importantly, need not) carry a substantial amount of cognitive content. On Gaus’s view, both reason and affect are important, and more important still is that our emotions engage our reason in the right sort of way. Ultimately Gaus will argue that it is only when this is true, that our practice of social morality can be consistent with our nature as free and equal moral persons.

In emphasizing the importance of our emotions engaging our reasons, Gaus’s point is not that beliefs about those whom our emotions are directed towards are always prerequisites of the moral emotions, but rather that they are typically required in order for our emotions to be sustained. To illustrate this Gaus directs us towards the concept of responsibility, asking what sorts of beliefs and emotions are required to sustain our practice of holding one another accountable to the demands of social morality. Gaus argues that responsibility requires more than just the ability to identify that a moral rule has been broken and the capacity to blame others for violating those rules. Specifically it requires that the individual being held responsible has certain beliefs and that we know her to have these beliefs. It is hard to sustain blame (and similarly hard to maintain resentment) if we come to doubt that the person we are blaming lacked either the requisite knowledge of the moral rule in question, recognition that the rule applies to her, or an understanding that her actions in fact violated that rule.

As important as the engagement between our emotions and beliefs sketched above is, more important still is that the individual being held responsible is attached to the moral rule in the right sort of way. When we lack this sort of attachment, Gaus argues, we fail to understand the authoritative nature of moral demands and this explains the importance of guilt. As we saw earlier, guilt is the mechanism through which we both internalize moral rules and express that we have internalized them. More importantly though, to commit one’s self to following rules even when doing so does not directly promote one’s interests and to feel guilty for violating these rules is to reconcile one’s freedom to act on her own sense of obligation with the authority of social morality (and so the authoritative demands of others). For a social morality grounded in our reactive attitudes to deserve our allegiance then, it is necessary that individuals commit themselves to the rules of social morality and that our moral emotions be responsive to this commitment.

Gaus doesn’t simply emphasize the normative desirability of our moral emotions engaging with our beliefs about others commitment to social morality though. Rather, he argues that our moral emotions are this way. To illustrate this Gaus draws our attention to the sorts of individuals typically thought to lack full membership in our moral community. Drawing on the studies of children’s understanding of the moral emotions by Nunner-Winkler and Sodian, Gaus points out that young children develop the capacity to recognize moral rules (and to appreciate the reasons why the rules are important) before they begin to internalize these rules. Here Gaus calls our attention to an important difference between his view and the view of the new sentimentalists like Shaun Nichols (12.2). Nichols identifies something he calls Core Moral Judgment which he identifies with the ability of individuals to make the moral-conventional distinction, appreciate the reasons why rules are important, and to blame others for violating rules (a capacity children develop by age 4). As Gaus argues though, because very young children typically do not recognize that individuals normally will (and should) feel guilty for violating moral rules, young children cannot be said to be making full-fledged moral judgments (even if they are on their way to making such judgments).

Where Nichols distinguishes between young children and psychopaths (who lack the ability to make the moral-conventional distinction), Gaus draws our attention to the similarities between them. Both lack the ability to internalize moral rules and so they both lack the ability to appreciate the authority of those rules. As Gaus points out this is why we typically do not hold children responsible for violating rules in the same way we hold adults responsible and it is also why most are comfortable saying that psychopaths simply lie outside of the moral community and so coercion does not need to be justified to them (at least not in the same way).

Having argued that the moral emotions are and should be sensitive to whether persons are attached to moral rules in the right sort of way, Gaus eventually turns his attention to the relationship between reasons and authority (12.3). As important as it is that individuals appreciate the authoritativeness of moral demands, Gaus argues that it is equally important that individuals be able to appreciate the reasons that underscore the authority of moral demands and further, that they also be able to recognize those reasons as applying to themselves. This is reflected in his Principle of Moral Autonomy:

A moral prescription is appropriately addressed to Betty only if she is capable of caring for a moral rule even when it does not promote her wants, ends, or goals and she has sufficient reasons to endorse the relevant rule.

As we saw earlier, Gaus emphasizes that this principle is not merely a normative desiderata, but rather, is true of our practices. Here he points out that it is typically hard to be indignant at someone who violates a rule that we know she accepts for bad reasons (p. 222). This is significant for Gaus because it suggests that our moral emotions typically presuppose that the principle of moral autonomy has been met, and this in turn is important because it suggests that, in Gaus’s words, “our initial assumption that we confront others as free and equal persons turns out not to be an exogenous (external) demand on an acceptable social morality based on some foundational moral intuition but a deep presumption of our social morality with rational reactive attitudes” (p. 223).

Finally, having drawn our attention to the tight connection between autonomy and the capacity to understand the reasons that underscore the authority of morality, Gaus concludes section 12 by exploring this relationship in some detail and drawing out a number of implications for social morality (12.4). Gaus stresses the centrality of the first-person perspective, acknowledging that all of our reasons and the moral demands that both flow from them and incorporate them will necessarily reflect one’s personal perspective. Nevertheless, Gaus emphasizes that the first-person perspective cannot be all there is to social morality. Pointing to a phenomenon Piaget called ‘decentering’, Gaus argues that mature moral agents typically make demands on others that reflect an integration of the perspectives of others into the reasons and moral emotions that generate one’s demands. In this way, our moral emotions are distinctly second-personal.

As was the case with the transition from sections 11 to 12, Gaus’s discussion at the end of section 12 sets the table for the issues that he will address in much greater detail in section 13. As I think we will see that section is one of the most of the important in the book, the rest of Gaus’s theory depending on the account of reasons that he gives there. Because we’re only covering that one section next week, I’ll leave further discussion of the related issues we find in 12.4 to then.


In 12.3 Gaus claims that we typically can’t be indignant at person who violates a rule that we know she accepts for bad reasons. This strikes me as too strong though. Surely an agent’s bad reasoning might partially undermine our reactive attitudes, but at the end of the day she is still acting against a norm that she believes to be justified, and we have often have good reason to be indignant about that. I’d also not e that it sometimes makes sense for us to be indignant towards others when they accept a rule for bad reasons precisely because they’ve accepted a rule for bad reasons. Jerry doesn’t discuss this but it strikes me as important.

The relationship between blame and guilt strikes me as an interesting one that is worth thinking more about. Gaus suggests that the appropriateness of one is often determined by the appropriateness of the other. In particular, he points out that blame is often only appropriate when the agent we are blaming feels guilty or is at least committed to the rules of social morality in the right sort of way. As he also acknowledges though, the capacity to blame develops before the capacity to internalize moral rules. I’d like to hear more about the relationship between the rules of social morality and exactly how they are constructed out of our dispositions to various reactive attitudes.

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One Response to OPR IV.12: Moral Emotions and Moral Autonomy

  1. Mats Volberg says:

    “We still confront the basic problem: I cannot feel morally outraged that she fails to conform to a moral rule that makes no sense to her.” (pp. 220-221)

    I gues that this statement hangs on what we take the phrase “makes no sense” to mean. But it seems that when Adam who is deeply religious is confronted with Jane who is an atheist the she cannot make sense of (some of) the moral rules that Adam thinks apply to her. But at the same time Adam seems to feel morally outraged nevertheless.

    My point is that it is questionable whether this statement is true.

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