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Neurosentimentalism and Moral Agency

On What Matters

Jonathan B. Wight

Brad Hooker has an interesting post in The Philosopher’s Magazine on “Ideas of the Century,” focusing on Derek Parfit’s forthcoming book, On What Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011).  Hooker claims that:

The most widely discussed idea in moral philosophy to emerge in the last ten years is Derek Parfit’s conclusion that the best versions of three of the leading moral theories completely coincide in their implications.

 If so, this is partial justification for the view that moral theories are not conflicting, but rather complementary ways of understanding and guiding behavior.  In short, Parfit’s conclusion is that:

Rule-consequentialism is thus argued to be the upshot of the best forms of Kantian and contractualist ethics.

 Is rule consequentialism the version of consequentialism that Adam Smith would endorse?  Where would virtue ethics fit into this mix?  My own view is that in real life rule consequentialism evolves from society’s broad experimentation, not from a philosopher’s pen.  It takes social experiments to winnow out good from bad behaviors and to determine which rules are best.  In short, rule consequentialism is derived inductively rather than deductively. 

At the individual level people follow some rules but emotions give rise to impulses and individual deviations based on moral sentiments that produce new experiments.  Hence, the moral sentiments are essential for the evolution of rule consequentialism. Virtue is needed also to help people develop self control so as to follow the rules. 


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Nice post, Jonathan, but aren't you talking about positive ethics (describing ethical behavior) or moral psychology (explaining ethical behavior) rather than normative ethics (justifying behavior)? Nothing wrong with that, of course, but explaining how people's actual "ethical" norms developed does not imply that they're actually ethical.

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