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Moral Theories part 3: Moral Sense Theory

[See note on venue change below.]

Moral Sense theory (or theories) is more controversial as a first order normative theory, that is, a theory that purports to offer recommendations about what to do in practical moral situations (as opposed to a "second order" theory or metatheory which attempts to describe something about theories themselves). Moral sense theorists claim that feeling---emotion, affect, sentiment, etc. and/or the capacity for it---is fundamental to any notion of morality. Some say it is not a theory of ethics at all but a naturalistic hypothesis since it verges on making no normative recommendations. It seems to describe rather than prescribe. And, at first glance, it seems consistent with all the other theories. It does not appear to directly oppose any of them: Virtue theory presupposes that we are affectively inclined to want to belong to a community. Utilitarianism takes it for granted that some feel for egalitarianism is widespread and does not require arguing for, and that somehow we are naturally inclined to give a damn about the well-being of the greatest number. Even Kantianism insists that we be moved by a feeling of awe at the singularity that goes with being a member of a rare class of rationally capable agents. Feeling of some sort is involved in all normativity from the get go. So  moral sense theory seems to be saying the obvious: that without any affective element involved we are not talking about morality.

And if you truly feel nothing for anyone but yourself and cannot even imagine feeling it, you are not good raw material for moral evaluation. You are amoral, strictly speaking, not a "player" in the moral game. (Not to be confused with immoral---a "cheater" in the game.) You are incapable of being either good or bad. You might be a pain to others rather like the weather or a natural calamity, but not a proper object of moral judgment. The pure Humean "sensible knave" or psychopath, as we call him today, illustrates the type.

Moral sense theory, perhaps, is only a second order theory, a theory of metaethics, which pretends to describe how morality is even possible, not what specific form it should take or how implemented. But is this all it asserts? Maybe it is making demands on us, not just informing us of facts that we can take or leave?

I think that someone who dwells on the radical significance of sentiment to morality may say that normative implications do, in fact, arise from admitting the necessity of sentiment to moral aims. The implications may well trump the purely rational dictates of the other theories. If creating, or at least fostering, the right feelings is essential to morality and the other theories get in the way---something may have to give and it cannot be feeling. This is the thrust of David Hume's famous line, "Reason Is and Ought Only to Be the Slave of the Passions".

This view has appealed to many feminist moral theorists, sometimes flying under the banner of "Care Theory" or "Ethics of Care." "Moral Sentimentalism," another name it goes by, has roots in the moral sense theories of 18th century England and Scotland. It was favored by Frances Hutcheson, Lord Shaftesbury, Adam Smith (author of The Wealth of Nations, see note below), and, most famously, Hume. At the core of these accounts is the conviction that most normal human beings are naturally endowed with some degree of fellow-feeling, a sense of benevolence toward or concern for the wellbeing of others, that altruism is real and that ethics should be about fostering this feeling wherever it exists. The fact that we care about one another at least in the normal case creates relationships. Ethics is about managing feeling-fostered relationships.

As an illustration of moral sentimentalism in action, in the philosophy of law there has long been a debate about the proper purpose or function of "punishment" (or, more neutrally, what should be done with miscreants in the aftermath of their conviction). The standard motives for punishment are:

1. deterrence (discourage others from similar behavior)

2. detention or incapacitation (stop the immediate perpetrator, i.e, quarantine the problem)

3. retribution (restore an abstract or cosmic moral balance, "an eye for an eye" or lex talionis---the law of the talon, social vengeance; this view entails honoring free agency)

4. rehabilitation or reform (criminality is like an illness or medical disorder and should be treated as such: cure, treat, manage, or quarantine: there is no moral excuse for any other approach).

These motives for punishment are not all consistent with each other. Not surprisingly the ones that get most attention are also most closely associated with the dominant moral theories: deontology and consequentialism, that is, retribution and deterrence, respectively.

The motive of rehabilitation follows most directly from moral sense theory, care theory, or any view that is not embarrassed to place sentiment in the driver seat when it comes to how we ought to view each other when we fail as social beings. If someone does wrong, our first thought should not be to use the individual to set an example for others. It should not be to redress some cosmic imbalance of fairness. It should not be to lock them away and forget they ever existed.

The goal should be to re-construct malefactors, to compensate them for the conditions that led to delinquency in the first place. If we didn't prevent the conditions that initially brought about or were conducive to this behavior, at least now let's try to find a remedy after the fact for the failings that led to it (and we have to assume there were such seen through the lens of compassion): improper role models, poor living environments, health and educational deficits, plain old poverty and lack of opportunity, etc... may have been the causes we did not address. But now that we have the effect, let's see what can be done to improve the criminal from compassion for him or her (usually him) and for potential future victims, if not also from a sense of our responsibility for what happened. If post-conviction treatment does not address the reclamation of the criminal by society, the act of treatment is in effect immoral. Deterrence and retribution are questionable goals by this standard. Deterrence is not effective (except for relatively minor crimes) and retribution is barbaric. And that should taint the moral theories that recommend them...

The idea that deontology and consequentialism do not provide adequate grounding for moral action is a theme that runs through the writing of many thinkers with moral sense intuitions, notably women.

Jean Hampton [masked]) was a distinguished philosopher who held a view similar to the one just sketched on the moral importance of rehabilitation. She did not think there is no place for deterrence or retributivism in criminal law, rather that these ends should not inform our only---or necessarily first---responses. She was both a Christian and a feminist, and both views informed her position.

Ayn Rand [masked]), neither Christian nor feminist, decried the dominant principlist theories, calling them "ethics of emergencies" and Kant "a monster." They may be useful when all moral hell breaks loose, but the fact is that does not and, more importantly, cannot describe what we look for in the way of moral guidance day to day. Shouldn't the point of morality be to avoid human-caused crisis situations in the first place?

People quite different otherwise but with moral sense affinities seem to agree on this: The kinds of actual situations that resemble the dire dilemmas (trolley problems, lying to a murderer at the door, ticking time bomb cases, etc.) which exercise principlist theories are too exceptional. And were they to become commonplace, any semblance of moral stability would be hanging by a thread. The creation and fostering of human relationships before anything else ought to be the primary goal of moral education and social management. Feelings make human relationships possible. Such feelings do the lion's share of moral work. If we have to start thinking too hard about why we ought to treat people with consideration, things have reached a pretty pass. The game may already be  lost.

So it seems to me that moral sense theory (or moral sentimentalism, as it is sometimes misleadingly called) does make normative recommendations. No, it doesn't tell us what to do in the dilemmas the principlist theories are fond of hurtling at each other. Rather it focuses attention on the background that makes any kind of morality possible at all. It says our first priority should be to do everything possible to make our world conducive to moral behavior... or so a believer in the centrality of fellow-feeling to the justifications we offer for our judgment and treatment of others may argue in the face of overwhelming resistance from the dominant theories.


But are we naturally equipped with sufficient concern for others to solely rely on it for basing all of morality?

Is it possible for morality to exist in the absence of any fellow-feeling whatsoever? If the answer is yes, wouldn't that undermine the necessity of feeling. But, in that case, do we not risk stretching the concept of morality to the breaking point? Maybe then we should stop calling it "morality"? Maybe we should call it "human resource management"? Or maybe just drop the "human" part? (The predicate would lose its normativity, its "loadedness,"  absent affect.)


Note on Adam Smith

Moral sense theory and the optimism about human nature that accompanies it is a seldom noted critical assumption of Western liberal economic theory---capitalism. It was none other than the author of the bible of capitalism, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith who also wrote The Moral Sentiments---in his own estimation, his most important work and one of the founding statements of moral sense theory. Smith was very sanguine about the human capacity for fellow-feeling. Behind the famous "invisible hand" of Smith's economic theory is the conviction that we all would be made better off left the freedom to indulge our natural acquisitiveness because once we secured our own material comfort we would naturally seek to share wealth with others. In fact, a major motivation for wealth acquisition in the first place, he assumed, was precisely to improve the well-being of humanity at large. This would happen naturally if the driving force to pursue our own material ends was given full reign. The assumption behind the proposal is that human beings are so constructed that they naturally care for others, almost as much as they care for themselves, and that once their own material condition was secured they would make that of others their priority... And thus, everyone would be elevated---by the so-called "invisible hand."

Again, once I have more money than I know what to do with, I will make sure no one around me lacks at least basic necessities. Precisely to be in this position largely motivates my effort. This is the fundamental moral justification of laissez-faire capitalism. Smith most definitely felt institutionalized selfishness needed moral grounding, and the basic goodness of people was that moral grounding... So something like moral sense theory underpins our economic system which takes many of its cues from Smith.

Smith was not propounding his economic theory in a moral vacuum. There was a moral theory behind it. But, again, is the assumption of a sufficient natural human beneficence correct?

While moral sense theory is the least discussed of the ethical theories in circulation today, a close examination of it is especially relevant.


Oddly enough, Karl Marx suffered from a similar optimism about the human capacity to feel solidarity with others... Strange bedfellows.


Reading: Moral Sentimentalism

Podcast: Moral Sense Theory: Hume and Smith --- An excellent informal panel discussion.


The weather is looking good this Thursday so we will have the meetup at Gasworks Park, on the south view side of the big hill. There are a couple of benches behind which is a small, amphitheater-like, grassed hollow. I will supply soft drinks and snacks. Please feel free to add to the food and drink store. You might want to bring a blanket or something to sit on if you mind the grass.

Join or login to comment.

  • Christi A.

    Is anyone here, I think I'm at the right place

    August 14, 2014

    • Victor M.

      Sorry Ashley we missed you! We were over in the bricked and paved area between the gas works and the water. The hillside was too wet and pooped on by Canadian Geese.

      August 14, 2014

  • Gene L

    Passing due to possible rain

    August 14, 2014

    • A former member
      A former member

      Me too. :(

      August 14, 2014

  • Victor M.

    Don't have time to read? A podcast on moral sense theory, Hume, and Smith:

    August 11, 2014

  • Victor M.

    We will probably have this meetup at Gasworks Park (with the Zoka venue as backup in case of weather). I don't think the sun will be a problem. It will be near sunset and we'll pick a spot with shade available if necessary. (Some people, I know, are sun freaks but I'm with the shade ones.) Unless there's some big event (which I think won't be the case), Gasworks is usually quiet and has wonderful views. I am thinking a potluck? At least, there will be drinks and snacks. I will insure that. Others are welcome to bring things too. Bring something to sit on unless you don't mind the grass. More information as the date approaches...

    July 16, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Has anyone read Michael Huemer's work on ethical intuitionism? See

    July 13, 2014

  • Gene L


    As I've mentioned before, moral sense theory is not generally considered a first order moral theory. Nor is "care theory" or "ethics of care" considered comparable to moral sense theory. In fact, ethics of care is a form of virtue theory where care is the primary virtue.

    July 11, 2014

    • Victor M.

      I agree that moral sense theory is not widely considered a first order moral theory. But I will try to make the case that it should be regarded as such because it has normative implications and very distinct essential features.

      I would argue that care theory is best understood as falling under the larger class of moral sense theories loosely defined as those that reverse the priority of reason over affect characteristic of principlist theories.

      As you say, I suppose you could view care theory as a species of virtue theory with care as the primary virtue. But virtue theory proper has many other features that are not characteristic of care theory. If care theory can be made into virtue theory that easily, consequentialism can be made into virtue theory with prudential thinking as the primary virtue and deontology with respect for rational autonomy as the primary virtue.

      July 12, 2014

    • Victor M.

      All moral theories posit virtues, but what is characteristic about Virtue Theory is not actually virtue but where where it derives value from. It is essentially a social theory of value---not focused like consequentialism or deontology on one or a few monolithic principles so abstracted from social practice that when re-imposed on it they may seem alien.

      In some ways, moral sense theory is the most naturalistic of ethical theories in the sense that it posits the near universal capacity for a behavior that has near obvious group survival utility.

      (Of course, I'll be the first to say moral sense theory has serious problems, as all the theories do, but I see it as capable of holding its own at least as well as the others.)

      July 12, 2014

  • Robert L.

    Does having a moral sense require having a sense organ for perceiving oo sensing moral properties of alternative courses of action?

    July 2, 2014

    • Victor M.

      Moral sense theorists do not suggest we have a special sense organ that passively picks up signals from the outside that result in moral judgments in quite the way eyes and ears do for sight and sound judgments.

      The "sense" in moral sense is closer to the sense in "sense of beauty" or when something makes "logical sense." It is not a passive faculty; quite the opposite, it actively colorizes reality, gives it value one way or another, structures, organizes it,... all things that reality does not have in itself. Moral value, like aesthetic and logical, is an imposition on reality, not a thing waiting to be passively perceived. The moral sense theorists suggest the capacity for making such impositions is usually built-in to us. The direction of development of the ability is very much contingent on environment, however. Certain environments allow the faculty to develop better than others. We have an obligation to promote those environments.

      July 2, 2014

    • Victor M.

      Moral evaluations clearly don't happen at the edge of our senses. They require practically all the machinery of the mind to pull off.

      July 2, 2014

  • A former member
    A former member

    Tiny correction: Adam Smith's first book was _The Theory of Moral Sentiments_.

    Also, George H. Smith (author of _Atheism: The Case Against God_) no relation AFAIK) wrote a piece a Adam Smith that might be of interest:

    July 1, 2014

    • Victor M.

      Yes, Adam Smith's first book was The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Some of the ideas in The Wealth of Nations actally only make sense in light the first book.

      July 1, 2014

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