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Agency and Values (completed)

Are moral and prudential values real in any robust sense of the term? Do they have a place in nature? We pursued two different strategies for answering these questions in the affirmative.

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?

The ‘buck-passing’ strategy

With respect to the ‘buck-passing’ strategy, we addressed 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. We explored whether this challenge can be met by analysing moral reasons for action in terms of things which naturally deserve to be valued by human beings. One central question was 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? 

The ‘proper-emotions’ analysis of values

With respect to the ‘proper-emotions’ analysis of values, we focused 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 explored 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 considered how normative moral theory should be informed by the findings of developmental psychology and neurophysiology.

    In this context, we had to address certain methodological questions: 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 was set up might depend on tacit normative assumptions about what is morally good or bad. We brought together psychologists, neuroscientists and moral philosophers to address these issues. We also focused on the analysis of reactive attitudes such as resentment, gratitude and related emotional responses.


The project was hosted by the completed Centre for the Study of Mind in Nature (CSMN). 

Published Oct. 9, 2020 10:44 AM - Last modified Nov. 27, 2020 9:33 AM