Naturalism and the Normative Domain: Accounting for Normativity with the Help of 18th Century Empathy-Sentimentalism

Karsten Stueber
College of the Holy Cross
Moral sentimentalism has seen a tremendous rise in popularity in recent years within contemporary meta-ethical theory, since it promises to delineate the normative domain in a naturalistically unobjectionable manner. After showing that both Michael Slote and Jesse Prinz’s sentimentalist positions fall short of fulfilling this promise, this essay argues that contemporary sentimentalists are advised to take their clues from Adam Smith rather than David Hume. While Hume was absolutely right in emphasizing the importance of empathy in the moral context, his official description of the mechanisms of empathy as articulated in the Treatise falls fundamentally short for this purpose. Adam Smith’s conception of empathy, a conception that in fact is closer to some of Hume’ remarks in the Enquiry rather than the Treatise, as essentially involving perspective taking and his appeal to the impartial spectator perspective proves to be more fertile. Only in this manner do sentimentalists have any hope of accounting for the intersubjective normative and obligatory dimension of moral judgments.
Keywords Moral Sentimentalism   Empathy   Adam Smith   David Hume   Michael Slote   Jesse Prinz
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DOI 10.4453/rifp.2015.0003
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