Tag Archives: Shaun Nichols

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.

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