Empathy and Moral Psychology: A Critique of Shaun Nichols's Neo-Sentimentalism

In Carla Bagnoli (ed.), Morality and the Emotions. Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press. pp. 170-193 (2011)
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Nichols’s view of empathy (in Sentimental Rules) in light of experimental moral psychology suffers from several deficiencies: (1) It operates with an impoverished view of the altruistic emotions (empathy, sympathy, concern, compassion, etc.) as mere short-term, affective states of mind, lacking any essential connection to intentionality, perception, cognition, and expressiveness. (2) It fails to keep in focus the moral distinction between two very different kinds of emotional response to the distress and suffering of others—other-directed, altruistic, emotions that have moral value, and self-directed emotional responses, such as personal distress, that do not. (3) Nichols is correct to see morality as requiring affectivity, and the capability of emotional response to others; but his incorrect view of altruistic emotions (and of emotions in general) leads him to misstate the connection between morality and emotion. (4) Nichols’s specific attempt to ground moral judgment in emotion fails, but the argument he provides for it is part of the explanation of point (2), his failure to sustain the distinction between egoistic and altruistic emotions. (5) Without in any way denying that moral philosophy is strengthened by knowledge of empirical psychology, I suggest that the foregoing failures of Nichols’s argument are partly due to his misuse of particular empirical results and findings, and possibly in part to a weakened commitment to the distinctive contribution the humanistic methods of philosophy make to our understanding of the moral dimension of life.


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