Mill, sentimentalism and the problem of moral authority

Utilitas 21 (1):22-35 (2009)
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Mill’s aim in chapter 3 of Utilitarianism is to show that his revisionary moral theory can preserve the kind of authority typically and traditionally associated with moral demands. One of his main targets is the idea that if people come to believe that morality is rooted in human sentiment then they will feel less bound by moral obligation. Chapter 3 emphasizes two claims: (1) The main motivation to ethical action comes from feelings and not from beliefs and (2) Ethical feelings are highly malleable. I provide a critical examination of Mill’s use of these claims to support his argument that Utilitarianism can preserve morality’s authority. I show how the two claims, intended to form a significant rebuttal to the worry about Utilitarianism, can in fact be combined to raise powerful skeptical concerns. I explain how Mill evades the skepticism, and why contemporary philosophers who lack Millian optimism about human nature find it harder to avoid the skeptical outcome.
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