Tasks for Dreaming: The Somatic Cognition of Emotions in Moral Judgment


The paper presents an introduction to a model of philosophical counseling which is based on somatized, embodied emotions as key informative blocks of moral decision-making. Theoretically, the model rests on a broadly sentimentalist virtue ethics. Practically, it connects the ideas of sentimentalism (based on the assumption that emotions as much as rational arguments govern our moral life and decision-making) with everyday bodily movements and practices. The approach presented here attempts to use the everyday motions and exercises to elucidate the connections between our authentic emotions about moral dilemmas and our conscious narrative that determines our concrete decision-making with regard to these dilemmas.

The sentimentalist perspective on virtue ethics

By my lights, sentimentalism in ethics is best understood when contrasted with Kantianism in ethics. While Kantianism is a sort of “rationalist extremism” as I would call it, sentimentalism is a more holistic approach that tries to realistically interpret the way we make moral judgments and moral decisions. To do this, sentimentalism tends to discuss first of all ordinary, everyday situations and moral challenges. In this it differs starkly from Kantianism, which, because of its extremism and intuitive problems when applied to ordinary situations, tends to base its arguments on extreme examples (Kant, Metaphysics of Morals 6:331; Kant, Metaphysics of Morals Vigilantius, 27: 552–553). Where Kantianism insists on the ethics of duty which is ultimately grounded in what are essentially anthropological views about human nature (man as a moral creature whose “essence” is compromised when the categorical moral principles are forsaken), sentimental-ism favors an ethics of virtue which arises from developing a propensity to act morally correctly which has both rational and emotional roots. While for Kant and the Kantians it is fundamentally irrelevant whether or not one finds joy in acting morally correctly (in fact for Kant himself acting morally right in situations where this brings pleasure or satisfaction to the agent is “less noble” than doing so at the cost of suffering and sacrifice), it is essential for the moral sentimentalist that acting rightly comes from the heart as much as from the mind: the perfectly moral actor is one who both does the right thing and enjoys it. While discipline and repetition may be required to cultivate the sensibilities that will later give rise to pleasure when certain virtues are exercised, just as discipline and repetition do in physical training until the training itself becomes a source of pleasure, the ultimate measure of the virtue is spontaneous action that is morally correct. Hume, as arguably the first moral sentimentalist in the Western philosophical tradition, for his part, believed that training the virtuous sensibility was possible for anyone with a “tolerably virtuous character” to start with (Hume 1963: 174).

Read the entire paper on Academia.

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