Genealogy and evidence: Prinz on the history of morals

Analysis 69 (4):704-713 (2009)
Abstract
Jesse Prinz’s The Emotional Construction of Morals is among the most significant of illuminations of human morality to appear in recent years. This embarrassment of riches presents the space-starved commentator with a dilemma: survey the book’s extraordinary sweep, and slight the textured argumentation, or engage a fraction of the argumentation, and slight the sweep. I’ll fall on the second horn, and focus mostly on Chapter 7, ‘The Genealogy of Morals’. Like Prinz , 1 I think that genealogical arguments have not, despite their frequent appearance, received enough self-conscious discussion in ethical theorizing; I’ll try to extend Prinz’s amelioration of this neglect, by making some recurring themes explicit. In so doing, I indulge myself in a bit of therapy. I’ve always regarded genealogical arguments with certain ambivalence: genealogies frequently make a beguiling first impression, but just as often, when one gets to know them, their appeal turns out to be superficial. In articulating the contrasting uses to which genealogical arguments might be put, I hope to distinguish uses that deliver real substance from uses where the promise is not realized in the practice.Genealogical arguments are indelibly associated with Nietzsche, so it is unsurprising that Prinz in this chapter parts company with Hume, his usual muse, 2 and takes up, somewhat ambivalently , a Nietzschean torch. I won’t fret the historical details, nor will I trouble myself over where Nietzsche ends and Prinz begins; I’ll simply raise some general issues about genealogy and ethics. 3The Nietzschean insight, according to Prinz , is that ‘the values we currently cherish have a history’ and this history ‘may not be pretty’. Notoriously, Nietzsche was a bit grumpy about Christianity, and he supposed that tracing morality through the dark and labyrinthine history of the Church would unmask the attendant values …
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