By Chris Zarpentine

Chris Zarpentine, Florida State University

Moral rationalism has proved seductive for a number of contemporary ethicists. 1  The claim that moral requirements are rational requirements offers a firm and ‘ontologically cheap’ foundation for moral objectivity. In The Moral Problem, Michael Smith does a fine job of sorting through and distinguishing a number of claims that the rationalist might make. Ultimately he argues for three such claims: the rationalists’ conceptual claim, the rationalists’ substantive claim, and the practicality requirement. Here, on the basis of psychological research on psychopaths, I will argue against the rationalists’ substantive claim. In the process I will discuss some of the implications of these arguments, and then I will consider some responses on Smith’s behalf. First, however, I will introduce the three claims and discuss the subtle relations between them.

  1. The Logical Terrain

Some philosophers have explicitly distinguished between conceptual claims and substantive or empirical claims that a moral rationalist might make. 2 Smith lays out the rationalists’ claims as follows:

rationalists’ conceptual claim: “our concept of a moral requirement is the concept of a reason for action; a requirement of rationality or reason.”

rationalists’ substantive claim: “there are requirements of rationality or reason corresponding to the various moral requirements.” 3

Smith rightly distinguishes these two claims and points out:

Even if we accept the rationalists’ conceptual claim, we must still go on to defend the rationalists’ substantive claim. And, conversely, even if we deny the rationalists’ substantive claim, we must still engage with the rationalists’ conceptual claim. 4

The rationalists’ conceptual claim simply falls out of the proper analysis of moral terms. On the other hand, the rationalists’ substantive claim is, he says, “about the deliverances of the theory of rational action.” 5

As Smith sets up the distinction, it seems that the truth of the conceptual claim is necessary for the truth of the substantive claim. It is not clear that this is correct. For it might be the case that the rationalists’ substantive claim is true, and there are rational requirements corresponding to moral requirements, but at the same time the rationalists’ conceptual claim is false, and such correspondence is not required for the truth of moral facts. 6  In any event, I think we would do well to keep these two rationalist claims at least logically independent. Later, I will argue that there is a weaker link between these two claims.

Smith argues for both claims. For the conceptual claim, he thinks his arguments are decisive. The substantive claim, however, he maintains, is still an open question, because we do not know if we will (or can) come to a moral consensus. But, Smith is optimistic.

The third claim under consideration, the practicality requirement, is entailed by the rationalists’ conceptual claim. Smith defines the former as follows:

practicality requirement: “If an agent judges that it is right for her to φ in circumstances C, then either she is motivated to φ in C or she is practically irrational.” 7

To further clarify this, we will need to know what ‘practical irrationality’ means. It is clear that Smith intends ‘practical irrationality’ to include “weakness of the will and other forms of practical unreason.” 8For, an agent who judges that it is right for her to φ, just does judge that she would be motivated to φif she were rational. Thus, if she judges so, and still fails to be motivated, she is irrational ‘by her own lights’. 9

Though I have argued that the rationalists’ conceptual claim and their substantive claim are logically independent, I will argue that there is a defeasible link between them. Before I can present this argument, I should say a little more about how Smith cashes out the substantive claim in his anti-Humean theory of normative reasons. Smith argues that these substantive requirements of reason are normative reasons. An agent has a normative reason to φin circumstances C, just in case

she would φ in C if she were fully rational. 10 Something is desirable if we would desire it if we were fully rational. This theory explains Smith’s platitude:

C2: If an agent believes that she has a normative reason to φ, then she rationally should desire to φ.

Now, we should say something about what “fully rational” means. In explicating, Smith follows Bernard Williams’ three conditions of “full rationality,” with one qualification on the third condition. On Williams’ view, an agent is fully rational if and only if:

(1) The agent has no false beliefs.
(2) The agent has all relevant true beliefs. (3) The agent deliberates correctly. 11

Smith argues that the third condition fails to capture the role of deliberation in the destruction of old desires and the creation of new desires. On Smith’s view, the fully rational agent must deliberate in an attempt to determine whether her desires are systematically justifiable. 12

Smith has in mind a process of “reflective equilibrium” in which we “try to decide whether or not some particular underived desire that we have or might have is a desire to do something that is itself non- derivatively desirable.” 13 Smith adds this condition because the truth of normative reasons claims, i.e., of substantive claims, depends on the convergence of the hypothetical desires of fully rational agents in the various circumstances in which they might find themselves. 14

However, rational amoralists seem to threaten this. They are (apparently) not suffering from any rational defect, and yet they simply do not care about the (alleged) requirements of morality. Thus, we cannot expect their desires to converge with the desires of other fully rational individuals. This would threaten the rationalists’ substantive claim that there are normative reasons which are rational requirements.

Now, if it can be shown that the rationalists’ substantive claim is false, then we have a defeasible reason for rejecting the rationalists’ conceptual claim as well. My argument, then, is this. It is a platitude that many, or perhaps most, adult humans are moral agents, and that there are genuine moral requirements. Thus, our rejection of the substantive claim would seem to lead us toward the view that there are no substantive truths of morality and toward skepticism about human moral agency. Of course, we should allow the possibility that J. L. Mackie may be right; however, we should not accept his conclusion lightly. 15The platitudes that many humans are capable of moral agency and that there are genuine moral requirements, are at least as plausible as the theoretical platitudes which lead to the rationalists’ two claims. If we must choose, then we should take seriously the possibility that we need to reject moral rationalism in order to save morality and our status as moral agents. Thus, if the arguments presented here against the rationalists’ substantive claim are sound, then it will put pressure on us to reject the conceptual claim as well. We would do well to consider alternatives to moral rationalism in order to preserve morality.

With these preliminaries out of the way, I will now turn my attention to arguing against the rationalists’ substantive claim. As I stated, the existence of rational amoralists would seem to threaten the rationalists’ substantive claim. Contemporary examples of such individuals often include psychopaths. Of course, whether we should think of these individuals as actual rational amoralists depends on giving the proper description of such individuals. Thus, it is issues in moral psychology to which we now turn.

  1. Moral Psychology and Psychopathy

It is plausible, as Smith states, that it is a platitude that there is an important link between moral judgment or evaluation and motivation. This is captured by Smith’s statement:

What is at issue is thus the very coherence of the idea that deliberation on the basis of our values is practical in its issue to just the extent that it is. As is perhaps evident, this is just the moral problem all over again, redescribed so as to make it explicit that what is at issue is the connection between reason and motivation. 16

In 1979, Michael Stocker argued that this problem is due to inadequate theories of moral psychologyandanunderappreciationofcommonpsychologicalconditions. 17 Hearguesthat:

motivation and evaluation do not stand in a simple and direct relation to each other, as so often supposed. Rather, they are interrelated in various and complex ways, and their interrelations are mediated by large arrays of complex psychic structures, such as mood, energy, and interest. 18

Stocker lists a number of “depressions” which can interrupt the normal connection between evaluation and motivation, including “spiritual or physical tiredness,” “general apathy,” “accidie,” “thorough despair,” and so on. Another strain of individuals which demonstrate an abnormal connection between evaluation and motivation involve conditions like psychopathy. There is a similar condition, so-called “acquired sociopathy” which involves damage to the prefrontal cortex, and produces similar behaviors as psychopathy. See A. Bechara, H. Damasio, and A. R. Damasio, “Emotion, Decision Making and the Orbirofrontal Cortex,” Cerebral Cortex 10 (2000): 295-307; R. James Blair and L. Cipolotti, “Impaired Social Response Reversal: A Case of ‘Acquired Sociopathy’.” Brain 123 (2000): 1122-1141; A. R. Damasio, D. Tranel, and H. Damasio, “Individuals with Sociopathic Behavior Caused by Frontal Damage Fail to Respond Autonomically to Social Stimuli.” Behavior and Brain Research 41 (1990): 81-94; and A. R. Damasio Descartes’ Error. (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1994) for more on this condition, which itself presents interesting and relevant empirical results to contemporary moral psychology. See Adina Roskies, “Are Ethical Judgments Intrinsically Motivational? Lessons from ‘Acquired Sociopathy’,” Philosophical Psychology 16 (2003): 51-66, for one application of these results to ‘belief-internalism’.

Recent psychological research has helped to shed some light on these psychological phenomena. What is particularly interesting about all of these conditions is that such individuals are notably disaffected, i.e., they lack normal emotional responses in certain circumstances. In this section, I will argue that a proper understanding of psychopathy, and specifically the role of affect in mediating the relation between evaluation and motivation, undermines the rationalists’ substantive claim. 19

Psychopaths are problematic because they apparently suffer from no rational defect, and yet they seem to be morally lacking in an important sense. One immediate response is that psychopaths do not make real moral judgments, but only make judgments in the “inverted commas” sense. 20To see that this response misses the point, we must appreciate that this is a conceptual claim. Thus, it must be evaluated by the standards of Smith’s conceptual claim. 21Recall that Smith’s conceptual claim falls out of the proper analysis of moral terms. This analysis is based on the set of platitudes that we accept when we come to have mastery of a concept. 22However, it does seem to be a platitude that psychopaths do make moral judgments, in the full sense. Recent research seems to support this. 23

Despite the fact that we think psychopaths make moral judgments, it should be clear that their judgments do differ in some important ways from the judgments of normals. If such divergence is not due to any rational defect, then the moral rationalist is in trouble. The fact that the moral behavior and motivation of psychopaths often diverges so radically from that of normals suggests that their moral judgments are significantly different from ours. Understanding what is wrong with psychopaths will help us to understand the relation between moral judgment and motivation. As I suggested above, this relation is mediated by an affective mechanism.

There has been recent research by R. James Blair and others on psychopathic criminals in English prisons. 24  As a control group, Blair studied non-psychopathic criminals. Blair utilized R.D. Hare’s Revised Psychopathy Checklist to distinguish psychopathic from non-psychopathic criminals. 25 His research presents interesting findings. Blair finds that psychopaths fail to distinguish between moral transgressions and conventional transgressions. Other research, demonstrates that psychopaths have deficientaffective responses to thoughts or images of distress in other individuals. 26I suggest that this deficiency in affective responses explains the failure of psychopaths to appreciate the moral/conventional distinction, and furthermore that this affective mechanism explains the link between moral judgment and motivation in normal individuals. First, we should explain these two findings in a little more detail.

Blair explains the moral/conventional distinction as follows:

Moral transgressions have been defined by their consequences for the rights and welfare of others, and social conventional transgressions have been defined as violations of behavioral uniformities that structure social interactions within social systems. 27

Subjects in Blair’s study were presented with scenarios of transgressions, and then asked to judge on three conditions: permissibility, seriousness, and authority jurisdiction. Blair’s study concluded that “while non-psychopaths made the moral/conventional distinction, the psychopaths did not.” 28  This finding suggests that despite the fact that psychopaths make moral judgments, they are unable to appreciate the distinct nature of moral judgments as opposed to conventional judgments.

This could be explained by the fact that psychopaths lack normal affective responses to distressing situations, such as those involved in moral transgressions. Blair et al. reports that “studies have shown that psychopaths do not show arousal responses to the distress of others.” 29This is measured in part by their physiological responses to distressing images or thoughts, but can also be measured indirectly by examining their behavioral tendencies. Thus, it would seem that that an affective deficiency—not a rational one—is responsible for the distinct nature of psychopathic moral judgments. This in turn gives rise to their peculiarly amoral behavior.

It is interesting that Philippa Foot, in arguing against the view that moral considerations have “automatic reason-giving force,” asks:

Why cannot the indifferent amoral man say that for him [the moral “should”] gives no reason for acting, treating [the moral “should”] as most of us treat [the “should” of etiquette]? 30

This seems to be precisely how psychopaths do think of the moral “should,” simply as a kind of conventional “should.” In attempting to explain how exactly the moral “should” differs from the “should” of etiquette she hypothesizes that it might have to do with the fact that moral rules are enforced more strictly than rules of etiquette. 31 We do, however, have good evidence that affect is very important in mediating the relation between moral judgment and motivation.

What is important at present is that the deficiency of psychopaths is not due to any rational defect. It is due to an affective deficiency. Thus, some psychopaths may be fully rational, and yet their moral judgments do not (and will not) converge on the same normative reasons as the rest of us. The truth, however, of the rationalists’ substantive claim depends on the agreement of all fully rational individuals on the same set of normative reasons. The existence of rational psychopaths seems to demonstrate the falsity of the rationalists’ substantive claim. As long as there are rational amoralists like the psychopath, there will not be convergence.

  1. Replieson Behalf of Smith

There are a number of responses Smith might make, two of which I will consider here. I will argue that neither is successful. First, Smith might argue that psychopaths fail to have systematically justifiable desires. Remember that Smith added this qualification to Williams’ analysis of “fully rational.” Here we have been assuming that at least some psychopaths are capable of being fully rational, in the sense of having no false beliefs, all relevant true beliefs, and deliberating correctly. Remember, also, that to have a set of systematically justifiable desires, we must undergo a process of reflective equilibrium in which we see if “our specific value judgments would be more satisfyingly justified and explained by seeing them as all falling under a more general principle.” 32This may, in turn, give rise to new desires. “For,” as Smith says, “an evaluative belief is simply a belief about what would be desired if we were fully rational, and the new desire is acquired precisely because it is believed to be required for us to be rational.” 33

However, we need to keep in mind that having systematically justifiable desires is part of Smith’s analysis of what it is to be “fully rational.” Thus, full rationality cannot require having all the relevant true evaluative beliefs, for that would make his account viciously circular. Such an account would presuppose exactly what is at issue: whether there are, in fact, any true beliefs of the form “φ would be desired if S were fully rational.” Such beliefs are supposed to be generated by Smith’s account of “full rationality”; they cannot be presupposed by it. Thus, Smith cannot argue that the desires of psychopaths fail to be systematically justified, for they very well may be, even if they diverge from the desires of normals.

Now if this is correct, then on what basis may the psychopaths’ desires be rationally criticized? This leads us to Smith’s second response. In response to similar arguments by Philippa Foot and Gilbert Harman involving rational amoralists, Smith levels the charge of intellectual arrogance. 34Smith might allege that the psychopath “can give no account of why his own opinion about what fully rational creatures would want should be privileged over the opinion of others; he can give no account of why his opinion should be right, others’ opinions should be wrong.” 35Smith’s point is not that the psychopath is wrong because he disagrees with us, but rather that “he rejects the very idea that the folk possess between them a stock of wisdom about such matters… And yet, ultimately, this is the only court of appeal there is for claims about what we have normative reason to do.” 36 The psychopath “sticks with this opinion despite the fact that virtually everyone disagrees with him” and “he does so without good reason.” 37

This response, however, seems to suppose that convergence is forthcoming. But as Smith himself states:

The mere fact that a convergence in the hypothetical desires of fully rational creatures is required for the truth of normative reason claims does nothing to guarantee that such a convergence is forthcoming… 38

Smith grants that it is a logical possibility that “no systematic justification of our desires is forthcoming,” but that “it seems more reasonable to think that such a justification is forthcoming.” 39 But neither does it seem irrational orunreasonable to think that a systematic justification which would lead to convergence is not forthcoming. If this is the case, then the psychopath is not “without good reason.”

Furthermore, even if there were such a convergence, it would not be clear that this would be sufficient to establish the objectivity of morality in rational requirements. Such a convergence might be due to the influence of non-rational factors. 40 As Richard Rorty put it:

If it seems that most of the work of changing moral intuitions is being done by manipulating our feelings rather than by increasing our knowledge, that is a reason to think there is no knowledge of the sort that philosophers like Plato, Aquinas, and Kant hoped to get. 41

Smith makes much of the resolution of disagreement over “slavery, worker’s rights, women’s rights, democracy and the like.” 42 He sees this as the triumph of reason: “We must not forget that there has been considerable moral progress.” 43 But to call these resolutions “moral progress” is to assume that convergence is always progressive, something we may not be entitled to assume. Rorty concludes that the past two hundred years of moral progress:

are more easily understood not as a period of deepening understanding of the nature of rationality or of morality, but rather as one in which there occurred an astonishingly rapid progress of sentiments, in which it has become much easier for us to be moved to action by sad and sentimental stories. 44

Thus, the rational amoralist may have good reason to think that either convergence is not forthcoming, or that it is not indicative of progress and objectivity. 45 Certainly such considerations give reasonable weight to the rational amoralists’ skepticism about normative reasons. As long as such skepticism is indeed reasonable, then Smith cannot level the charge of intellectual arrogance.

  1. Conclusion

I have argued that the rationalists’ substantive claim is flawed. If these arguments are sound, this puts pressure on us to reject the rationalists’ conceptual claim, or else accept the view that there are no substantive truths of morality. In addition, since the practicality requirement is itself entailed by the rationalists’ conceptual claim, if we wish to maintain it, we will need to find an independent argument for it. However, it seems that similar evidence relating to psychopaths would undermine the practicality requirement as well. Perhaps we do not need to reject moral rationalism outright; perhaps a weaker version of the thesis may be defended. Nevertheless, as I have suggested earlier, we may do well to look elsewhere for a foundation in ethics. And any plausible moral theory will have to take into consideration the kind of issues in moral psychology which I have discussed here. 46


Works Cited

Aniskiewicz, A.S. “Autonomic Components of Vicarious Conditioning and Psychopathy.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 35 (1979): 60-67.

Bechara, A., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. R. “Emotion, Decision Making and the Orbirofrontal Cortex.” Cerebral Cortex 10 (2000): 295-307.

Blair, R. James. “A Cognitive Developmental Approach to Morality: Investigating the Psychopath.” Cognition57 (1995): 1-29.

Blair, R. James, L. Jones F. Clark, and M. Smith. “Is the Psychopath ‘Morally Insane?’’’ Personality and Individual Differences 27 (1995): 135-145.

Blair, R. James and L. Cipolotti. “Impaired Social Response Reversal: A Case of ‘Acquired Sociopathy’.” Brain 123 (2000): 1122-1141.

Brink, David O. Moral Realism and the Foundation of Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.
Cahn, Steven M. and Joram G. Haber. 20th Century Ethical Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice

Hall, 1995.

Damasio, A. R., Tranel, D. & Damasio, H. “Individuals with Sociopathic Behavior Caused by Frontal Damage Fail to Respond Autonomically to Social Stimuli.” Behavior and Brain Research 41 (1990): 81-94.

Damasio, A. R. Descartes’ Error. New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1994.
Foot, Philippa. “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives.” Philosophical Review 81 (1972):

305-316; revised version reprinted in Cahn and Haber, eds. 20th Century Ethical Theory. Hare, R.D. The Hare Psychopathy Checklist—Revised. Toronto: Multi-Health Systems, 1991.

Hare, R.M. The Language of Morals. Oxford: Oxford UP , 1952.
Harman, Gilbert. “Is There a Single True Morality?” In Morality, Reason and Truth. David Copp and

David Zimmerman, eds. Totowa: Rowman and Allanheld, 1985.
House, T.H. and W.L. Milligan. “Autonomic responses to modeled distress in prison psychopaths.”

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34 (1976): 556-560.

Hume, David. A Treatise ofHuman Nature. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1968.

Mackie, John L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. London: Penguin, 1977.

Nagel, Thomas. The Possibility of Altruism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.

Nichols, Shaun. Sentimental Rules. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004.

Rorty, Richard. “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality.” In Truth and Progress: Philosophical papers, vol. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Roskies, Adina. “Are Ethical Judgments Intrinsically Motivational? Lessons from ‘Acquired Sociopathy’.” Philosophical Psychology 16 (2003): 51-66.

Singer, Peter. How Are We to Live. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1995. Smith, Michael. The Moral Problem. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1994.

Stocker, Michael. “Desiring the Bad: An Essay in Moral Psychology.” Journal of Philosophy, 76 (1979): 738-753.

Williams, Bernard. “Internal and External Reasons.” Reprinted in Moral Luck Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981.


  1. For example: Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970); Peter Singer, How Are We to Live (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1995); and Michael Smith, The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1994).
  2. For example: Shaun Nichols, Sentimental Rules (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004) and Smith, op. cit.
  3. Smith 64-5.
  4. Smith 64.
  5. Smith 65. It is precisely this distinction which allows J. L. Mackie to argue for his ‘error theory’; see his Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (London: Penguin, 1977). Roughly speaking, his argument consists of the conjunction of a hypothetical form of the rationalists’ conceptual claim and the negation of the rationalists’ substantive claim. His conclusion is thus that there are no such moral requirements.
  6. For example, a Platonic conception of morality seems to be consistent with the rationalists’ substantive claim. On this view, moral facts are eternal truths in some supernatural realm. Nevertheless, a plausible moral epistemology might maintain that reason is the process by which we become aware of such truths.
  7. Smith 61
  8. Smith 61
  9. Smith 62. It should be noted that one way of arguing against the rationalist is to deny the practicality requirement. Doing so would undermine the rationalists’ conceptual claim, and thus—at least on Smith’s view—would undermine the substantial claim, though I have argued that it is not clear that the substantive claim requires the truth of the conceptual claim, even for the former to be an interesting claim in its own right. David O. Brink and other ‘externalists’ take up this strategy, and Smith attempts to defuse these criticisms. I think that a better strategy—and the one I will pursue here—is to attack the rationalists’ substantive claim directly. See David O. Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundation ofEthics (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989).
  10. Smith 151.
  11. Smith 156. For Williams’ view see his “Internal and External Reasons,” reprinted in Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980).
  12. Smith 158-9.
  13. Smith 159.
  14. Smith 173.
  15. Mackie, op. cit.
  16. Smith 137.
  17. Michael Stocker, “Desiring the Bad: An Essay in Moral Psychology,” Journal of Philosophy 76 (1979): 738-753.
  18. Stocker 739.
  19. We could use a hypothetical rational amoralist, like Hume’s sensible knave or Gilbert Harman’s “successful criminal” to argue against the rationalists’ substantive claim, see David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1968) and Harman, “Is there a Single True Morality?” in David Copp and David Zimmerman, eds., Morality, Reason and Truth (Totowa: Rowman and Allanheld, 1985). However, the use of actual individuals makes the problem more pressing for the rationalist. Furthermore, it highlights the crucial role that affect plays in moral psychology, a fact that any successful moral theory will have to account for.

  20. See R.M. Hare, The Language ofMorals (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1952).
  21. This point is made nicely by Nichols op. cit.
  22. Smith 31.
  23. Nichols op. cit. notes: “If it is a platitude that psychopaths really make moral judgments, it will be difficult to prove that conceptual rationalism captures the folk platitudes surrounding moral judgment” (75). He continues that the “inverted-commas enthusiast” might “maintain that a process of reflective equilibrium would lead people to reject the platitude about psychopathic moral judgment” (75). But this claim is an empirical one, and at present an unsubstantiated one. Since I am primarily interested in addressing the rationalists’ substantive claim, I will have to leave this issue as it stands.
  24. See R. James Blair, “A Cognitive Developmental Approach to Morality: Investigating the Psychopath” Cognition 57 (1995): 1-29; and R. James Blair, J. Jones, F. Clark, and M. Smith, “Is the Psychopath ‘Morally Insane?’’’ Personality and Individual Differences 27 (1995): 135-145.
  25. R.D. Hare, The Hare Psychopathy Checklist—Revised (Toronto: Multi-Health Systems, 1991).
  26. A.S. Aniskiewicz, “Autonomic Components of Vicarious Conditioning and Psychopathy” Journal of Clinical Psychology 35 (1979): 60-67; and T.H. House and W.L. Milligan, “Autonomic responses to modeled distress in prison psychopaths,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34 (1976): 556-560.
  27. Blair 5.
  28. Blair 20.
  29. Blair et al., 750. They cite Aniskiewicz and House and Milligan op. cit.
  30. Philippa Foot, “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” Philosophical Review 81 (1972): 305-316. This quotation does not appear in the original published version. It is an addition to a footnote published in a slightly revised version of the paper in Steven M. Cahn and Joram G. Haber, eds., 20th Century Ethical Theory (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1995).
  31. Foot asks, rhetorically:

    But are we then to say that there is nothing behind the idea that moral judgments are categorical imperatives but the relative stringency of our moral teaching? I believe that this may have more to with the matter than the defenders of the categorical imperative would like to admit. For if we look at the kind of thing that is said in its defense we may find ourselves puzzled about what the words can even mean unless we connect them with the feelings that this stringent teaching implants (310, emphasis added).

    Indeed, Foot seems to be on the right track. It does seem to be the feelings that we associate with moral judgments which makes them distinct. And it is precisely these feelings which psychopaths are missing as a result of their affective deficiency. Certainly teaching has a lot to do with the proper development of this faculty; however, psychopaths seem to be deficient in a way that precludes the proper development of this capacity. Of course, moral development plays an important part in the mediation of moral judgment and motivation, but such an investigation at present would take us too far a field.

  32. Smith 160.
  33. Smith 160.
  34. See Foot and Harman op. cit.
  35. Smith 195.
  36. Smith 195-6.
  37. Smith 195.
  38. Smith 173.
  39. Smith 201.
  40. A related worry might be that any putative convergence of normative reasons is not due to rationality, but systematically biased human intuitions. We may indeed converge in our desires, but such convergence does not guarantee objectivity. Such convergence may be a product of our systematically biased faculties, much the same way in which our prima facie judgments of optical illusions converge but are nonetheless flawed. Smith could respond that reason allows us to correct such systematic biases, just as further investigation leads us to correct our judgments about optical illusions. However, even this cannot guarantee that our judgments about our moral obligations to the distant needy or to non-human animals will converge on the true normative reasons.
  41. Richard Rorty, “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality,” in his Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 172.
  42. Smith 188.
  43. Smith 188.
  44. Rorty 185.
  45. Indeed, if I am right about the role of affect in moral judgment, this provides yet another reason to think that convergence needn’t indicate objectivity.
  46. Special thanks to David McNaughton and Clifford Sosis for helpful discussion.

Chris Zarpentine

Chris Zarpentine is a graduate student at the Florida State University, where he recently received his Masters in Philosophy. His philosophical interests are broad, but his research focuses mostly on the intersection of empirical science and philosophy, especially issues in moral [email protected]