CPBD 056: Jesse Prinz – Emotions and Moral Judgment

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 18, 2010 in Ethics,Podcast

(Listen to other episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot here.)

Today I interview philosopher Jesse Prinz. Among other things, we discuss:

  • Are moral judgments anything more than emotional responses?
  • If so, what does this mean for what is right and wrong?
  • What about Sam Harris’ TED Talk about morality? Is he right?

Download CPBD episode 056 with Jesse Prinz. Total time is 1:07:16.

Jesse Prinz links:

Links for things we discussed:

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob July 18, 2010 at 4:20 am

Great stuff, Luke. Hope you continue to expand and enrich your — and our — purview to include more folks from experimental philosophy and moral psychology! Looking forward to your interview with Doris.


Steve Maitzen July 18, 2010 at 6:50 am

I found the philosophically most interesting part to be Prinz’s defense of cultural relativism about ethics (toward the end of the interview). The example he used, the treatment of females in Saudi Arabia, is instructive. Much of what passes for deep or intractable moral disagreement may in fact be, or stem from, disagreement over nonmoral issues. Most Saudis believe (or say they do) that there’s a God who created males and females for different purposes, that God decreed the subordination of females to males in important ways, that God designed females mainly to make babies and serve males, etc. Don’t those (including Saudis) who object to Saudi treatment of women and girls tend to deny all of those nonmoral claims, especially the last two? Where there’s agreement on the truth or falsity of those nonmoral claims — and they are, after all, objectively true or false — there tends to be agreement on the moral attitudes. I think this fact bolsters moral objectivism.


lukeprog July 18, 2010 at 7:03 am


I’m tempted to argue against the notion of One True Theory of Morality, and say that there are such a wide variety of uses for moral terms that there is room for more than one true theory of morality. For example, I suspect there is more than one true theory of ‘art’ or ‘love’, each corresponding to a different common use of the term. Jesse can put forward his evidence that a great many people do acknowledge the emotional nature of moral judgments, and he can say that if we then define moral claims in terms of emotional judgments, then his brand of moral relativism is true, given his definitions. In fact, I doubt it would be hard to show that it was true.

In response, I would want to say that there is a ‘more maximal’ sense of morality using a slightly different set of definitions for moral terms that is also true. That is desirism.


Atheist.pig July 18, 2010 at 7:17 am

Great interview, I’ve heard Jesse Prinz talk before and find his ideas persuasive. But I also found his defense of cultural relativism at the end slightly disheartening, although it might depend on whether he was speaking from a “Philosophers” perspective or a “Scientists” perspective.


anon July 18, 2010 at 3:34 pm

If I heard him right, Prinz said something like this:

If we were to discover that an alleged disease was caused by different viruses, we would conclude that it was not a genuine disease, and that there are really two different diseases.

I thought that the received view was exactly the opposite. Hilary Putnam, for example, says this:

Some diseases, for example, have turned out to have no hidden structure (the only thing the paradigm cases have in common is a cluster of symptoms), while others have turned out to have a common hidden structure in the sense of etiology (e.g. tuberculosis). Sometimes we still don’t know; there is a controversy still raging about the case of multiple sclerosis. An interesting case is the case of jade. Although the Chinese do not recognize a difference, the term ‘jade’ applies to two minerals: jadeite and nephrite. Chemically, there is a marked difference. Jadeite is a combination of sodium and aluminum. Nephrite is made of calcium, magnesium, and iron. These two quite different microstructures produce the same unique textual qualities! Coming back to the Twin Earth example, for a moment; if H2O and XYZ had both been plentiful on Earth, then we would have been correct to say that there were two kinds of ‘water’. And instead of saying that ‘the stuff on Twin Earth turned out not to really be water’, we would have to say ‘it turned out to be the XYZ kind of water’. To sum up… the local water, or whatever, may have two or more hidden structures—or so many that ‘hidden structure’ becomes irrelevant and the superficial characteristics become the decisive ones.


Bryan R July 24, 2010 at 8:35 am

Is the download link broken? It brings up an error for me


lukeprog July 24, 2010 at 9:00 am

Weird. Internet archive broke the file somehow. I’m re-uploading now.


Bryan R July 24, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Thanks Luke! It works now.


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