Category Archives: Shaftesbury

Problems with Shaftesbury’s analogies between the five senses and ‘moral sense’


People don’t want to think that we are simply brutes, educated or trained only by treats and beatings. We like to think our minds have a lot to do with the process. Even during the original heyday of mechanistic philosophy, most 17th and 18th century thinkers argued that there was a real role, a fundamental role, for the soul and the mind to play in our daily lives, our education, and our choices in behavior.

Moral Sense Theory, often called Sentimentalism fit perfectly in that climate. It allows a person to check off both the ‘mechanistic’ box and the ‘soul serves a serious purpose’ box. Because its fundamental proposition is that the soul has a sense that is able to tell, immediately – without consciously analyzing or judging – right from wrong. Just like hearing allows us to process audible data immediately. And so this moral sense is effectively the motor of the body, the instigator of actions, because it is tied to pleasure and pain.

Cooper clarifies Cartesianism

Shaftesbury’s Moral Sense Theory does a huge service to Cartesian-inspired philosophy. It helps us see how a machine body coupled with a weakened ‘soul-mind’ could work together in practice. Though the soul is mostly unnecessary day-to-day because the body can handle itself very well, and though the emotions don’t “answer to” the soul, the soul does have sort of an ability, a sense, that works like the body’s senses: it is responsive to pleasurable and painful stimuli, and thus can effect physical responses and behavior much like the screech of a car wreck or a beautiful song can.

But it also clarifies something else about the Cartesian philosophy for us: Moral Sense Theory and Cartesianism share the same fundamental confusion as to whether emotions are judgments or not. Though it might seem clear that on Shaftesbury’s theory emotions are not judgments, he also makes a decent case for why they are. (This of course would undermine his moral sense theory.

Objects of emotion

Think about your favorite painting, or an Instagram picture you think is beautiful. When you look at something like that, you respond to a number of variables, such as color, proportion, and motion. You take all that in and it you are struck with the appreciation of beauty. Do you feel it is beautiful? Do you judge it beautiful? Whatever it is, it seems to happen immediately. Shaftesbury thinks these types of attributes don’t only immediately show the beauty (or ugliness) of objects to us – we are struck by it – but they do so necessarily. And he thinks there is a very close analog between seeing the beauty of that Instagram and capturing the motives, the nuances of another person’s behavior in a particular context. So we should and do see good and bad behavior necessarily and immediately.

That’s because the mind has its own sort of “eyes and ears” to perform the same sort of function, but relative to other minds. It watches and judges actions by seeing their proportion, by “scanning each sentiment or thought.”

So it is that if we a stranger helping a fragile old man to cross the street, we immediately appreciate that she did it out of benevolence and a good character. Though someone perhaps more cynical than Shaftesbury might advise you to turn your head before you see the young aide pick the old man’s pocket, Shaftesbury is convinced that the moral sense is excellent at feeling the “soft and harsh, the agreeable and disagreeable, in the affections” and perceives “foul and fair” harmony in actions just as it does in music.

The problem is that Shaftesbury finds it impossible to remain coherent and consistent in this view.

Understanding Shaftesbury’s problem

Just like Descartes, Shaftesbury thinks that the mind is under constant bombardment from “forms and images” notably for us, including the “moral and intellectual kind”. These forms or objects press on the mind the same way images of bodies, colors and sounds press on our senses. They press so hard that our sentiments, our heart, simply cannot remain neutral regarding these “pictures of manners” that the mind “imagines to itself.”

These moral forms, pictures of manners come not just from what our senses show us, but even the things that happen in our body when he have emotions and the emotions themselves. All these things, even our own being aware of ourselves having these thoughts, are objects that our mind and moral sense can ‘observe’ are objects of emotions.

All this passes the sniff test; I would agree that not only what I see with my eyes and hear with my ears lead me to have emotions and make judgments about good or bad behavior, but also my thinking about the things I see and how they make me feel cause me to have emotions and make judgments on behavior too. But it doesn’t really work the way Shaftesbury wants it to and Cartesian-type thinkers need it to.

The problems come out when we think about the analogy between you admiring your favorite painting or picture and you observing a person behaving in a moral situation. Think about; even when you are ‘observing’ the behavior of a mind you know well, a friend, a partner, do we really ‘immediately’ and ‘necessarily’ see the good or evil in what they do the way we see the beauty or ugliness in a picture or painting? What about when observing a stranger, an unknown person, acting in a context, in circumstances we don’t know or understand?

Any act can appear ‘proportionate’ or ‘morally beautiful’ when taken out of context, when motives are not transparent. But we don’t assign moral praise or blame in matters of right and wrong based on the outside appearance of things, without taking motives and contexts into consideration. In fact, even a person’s literal good looks can be magnified or diminished by a “better look” at the person overall.

Shaftesbury is convinced that the inclinations, passions and behavior of every person gets represented correctly, immediately in the mind of the observer, forcing the heart into a “trial or exercise” where it must choose between positive or negative emotional reactions, it must have a positive emotional reaction to what is right and just, and have a negative reaction to what is bad.

I think we’ve given a lot of reason to think something more than just ‘observation’ is going on in Shaftesbury’s moral sense. I think he’s allowing judgment in without crediting it. But let’s pick up next time with this ‘trial of the heart’ analogy and wrap up Shaftesbury.

The Flip Side

Before beginning in earnest, I want to note one more thing. The flip side to moral realism is basically that there is no actual right or wrong, but that instead morality is relative. Closely tied to this view is
non-cognitivism, a family of views which hold that because moral claims, e.g. “murder is wrong” can’t really be right or wrong, saying something like “murder is wrong” is really just saying “boo murder”. That is, non-cognitivists think of moral claims as being merely emotional expressions of attitudes towards behaviors or people; you don’t like how killing, or drinking, or atheists, or polygamy, or what-have-you make you feel and so you express your anger/fear/disgust by saying it is “bad’ or “wrong”. Someone else who likes how these things make her feel will say they are “good” and “right”. And neither person can really claim to be “correct” any more than the other.

I think that non-cognitivism is ridiculous and trying to discredit it was the number one motivation for me writing the dissertation I wrote. As there are different versions of non-cognitivism, however, the task is quite complicated. So I settled on doing my best to see how I could undermine one of the most influential non-cognitive theories, David Hume’s sentimentalism or moral sense theory.

The thing is, David Hume is one of the greatest philosophers of all time, and his theories are still very influential, so in order to do a good job of undermining his view, I needed to be thorough. My hope was that if I did a good enough job on this, I could be in a position to undermine any similar ethical theory, maybe even all non-cognitivist theories. I decided the way to go about doing this was to focus on the emotions. Like any ethical theory, sentimentalism has a view on what the emotions are and what they do (we’ll get to that later). I charted out a likely story on how sentimentalism got its position on the emotions and the impact of that view on the credibility of sentimentalism.

In fact, I did this for several specific ethical philosophers, who I grouped into three camps based on their views on the emotions. Here’s a cheat sheet for later: I found that Plato, Aristotle and Lucretius were Pluralists, philosophers such as the Stoics and Descartes were Cognitivists, and philosophers and thinkers such as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume and William James were Non-cognitivists. These views on the emotions, which I’ll explain as we go along, lead these thinkers to conclusions about morality. So to the extent they are right or wrong about the emotions will determine how right or wrong they are about morality. In the next post I will begin from the beginning.