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  • Sentimental Education: Critical Common Sense and the Social Intuitionist Model in Psychology
  • Kory Sorrell

This essay develops Peirce’s doctrine of Critical Common Sense in light of Jonathan Haidt’s Social Intuitionist Model of moral judgment. Peirce’s Common Sense account both thoroughly anticipates Haidt’s model and benefits considerably from the recent empirical research supporting it. More importantly, Peirce’s critical, or Pragmaticist, approach provides a compelling alternative to this model’s diminished conception of rationality in relation to sentiment. Peirce heartily agrees with Haidt that criticism is difficult and, particularly where morals are concerned, elusive, but rather than foreclosing deliberate moral progress, Critical Common Sense both shows how it is possible and provides tools necessary to secure it. The Pragmaticist’s goal is not to have reason rule over sentiment—both Peirce and Haidt agree that this is a misleading and pernicious description of the relation between the two—but rather to render them continuous in a process that results in what I call ongoing sentimental education. The first two sections below briefly recall Peirce’s view and explain Haidt’s model to illustrate areas of convergence. The third develops Critical Common Sense as a form of deliberate moral inquiry to indicate how genuine criticism, and therefore moral progress, remains possible even in light of the recent empirical findings of Haidt and others regarding our intuitive moral sense.

I. Sentiment, Common Sense, and the Need for Criticism

“Western philosophy,” according to Haidt, “has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years” (Haidt, Righteous Mind 34). If so, then Peirce is surely an exception. He sides with the passions, or what he calls sentiment, and distrusts the worshippers of reason. Peirce considers reason a poor substitute for sentiment in practical matters, and he [End Page 11] thinks little of persons who are easily persuaded by abstract arguments that run contrary to sentiment:

We do not say that sentiment is never to be influenced by reason, nor that under no circumstances would we advocate radical reforms. We only say that the man who would allow his religious life to be wounded by any sudden acceptance of a philosophy of religion or who would precipitately change his code of morals at the dictate of a philosophy of ethics—who would, let us say, hastily practice incest—is a man whom we should consider unwise.

(CP 1.633)1

As Peirce sees it, sentiment comprises a suite of instincts that have grown up over time, have been thoroughly tested by experience, and have been passed from one generation to the next (CP 1.654).2 “Sentiment,” Peirce writes, “is an instinctive induction” that, while not absolutely infallible is, practically speaking from the perspective of the individual, nearly so (1.633). “[I]nstinct seldom errs, while reason goes wrong nearly half the time, if not more frequently” (5.445). Peirce trusts sentiment over reason precisely because reason is so unreliable in matters of practical, especially moral, concern.

Moreover, in Peirce’s view, moral reasoning is itself ineluctably grounded in sentiment, in man’s “occult nature,” which provides a common or shared moral sense that is embodied in the members of a community. “Conscience,” according to Peirce, “really belongs to the subconscious man, to that part of the soul which is hardly distinct in different individuals, a sort of community-consciousness, or public spirit, not absolutely one and the same in different citizens, and yet not by any means independent of them” (CP 1.56; cf. Liszka 76). Morality is therefore fundamentally conservative in nature (CP 1.50). “To be a moral man is to obey the traditional maxims of your community without hesitation or discussion” (1.666). “[I]t is behaving as you were brought up to behave, that is, to think you ought to be punished for not behaving” (1.666). According to Peirce, “[s]entimentalism implies conservatism; and it is of the essence of conservativism to refuse to push any practical principle to its extreme limits—including the principle of conservativism itself” (1.633). Commonsense beliefs form traditions that usually change little, though they may be somewhat modified in a short period of time, and on ocassion dramatically...


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