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Agency and Values

Are moral and prudential values real in any robust sense of the term? Do they have a place in nature? We will pursue two different strategies for answering these questions in the affirmative, relying on previous and ongoing work by Peter Railton and Christel Fricke.

About the project

The first strategy takes as its starting point the well-known and now popular idea suggested by Thomas M. Scanlon, that values (including moral values) are explicable in terms of reasons for pro-attitudes to objects (the so-called ‘buck-passing analysis’ of values). The other strategy starts from the assumption that humans naturally have certain emotional dispositions, which has more recently been put forward by Stephen Darwall and others. It explores whether and to what extent moral values are explicable in terms of proper emotional responses of agents to the naturally, culturally and socially determined circumstances in which they perform an action (the ‘proper-emotions’ analysis of values). Does any of these approaches allow for the justification of universal principles of moral goodness which are both internally consistent and have – or should have – authority for all human agents, whatever their actual circumstances or cultural identities? Or should we understand morality as pluralistic? And, if so, how can we avoid moral relativism?

With respect to the ‘buck-passing’ strategy, we will address the following issues.

  • According to a widespread view, a moral agent responds to moral reasons. The main challenge for this view is how to understand the nature of a moral reason. Can this challenge be met by analysing moral reasons for action in terms of things which naturally deserve to be valued by human beings? One central question will be how moral values relate to the natural properties of the valuable objects.
  • Is the assumption that there are real moral values plausible in the light of moral evolution and moral progress?
  • To what extent (if any) can our pro-attitudes to moral values be understood by analogy to our epistemic concern for truth? And should our practices of belief formation and communication be informed by other values than truth? Should they be informed also by ethical values?

With respect to the ‘proper-emotions’ analysis of values, we shall focus on the following.

  • Is the reality of moral values explicable in terms of emotional dispositions and concerns we naturally have? If so, how can the gap be bridged between our actual emotional concerns (such as feelings of empathy and sympathy for others, which we share with some of the higher animals) and the normative, moral commitments we ought to have? We have started exploring responses to these questions originally proposed by Adam Smith and Edmund Husserl.
  • The moral development of an individual is an object of psychological and neurophysiological research. We will consider how normative moral theory should be informed by the findings of developmental psychology and neurophysiology. In this context, certain methodological questions will have to be addressed: Whereas empirical research in psychology and neurophysiology has normatively relevant phenomena as its object, its aim is descriptive. Normative claims about the right course of development or the morally good brain are not on the research agenda. However, the way the research agenda is set up might depend on tacit normative assumptions about what is morally good or bad. We will bring together psychologists, neuroscientists and moral philosophers to address these issues. We will also focus on the analysis of reactive attitudes such as resentment, gratitude and related emotional responses.
Published Jan. 20, 2012 3:10 PM - Last modified Apr. 9, 2015 1:10 PM