Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Sentiments Trap

Teaching environmental ethics this summer, I've found a new wrinkle in an old argument.

In a number of early articles in defense of Aldo Leopold's land ethic, the philosopher J. Baird Callicott appeals to a theory of moral sentiments to connect facts and values: from descriptions of ecological relationships he hopes to derive prescriptions as to how we should make decisions about environmental change, with moral sentiments as the middle term.

I've long had doubts about this move, and I've taken up the matter in a number of papers I've had published. The most basic problem is that, while the moral sentiments view introduced by Hume and cultivated by Darwin offers important insight into human moral experience, on its own it seems to undermine the very possibility of ethical deliberation.