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Consequently, we must turn from biological to cultural evolution. Our

values are cultural artefacts, and various psychological, material and histor-
ical factors can be implicated in explaining how each came about. This
perspective echoes Nietzsche, and he noticed that genealogical analysis do
not merely account for our values; they can be also used as a form of moral
criticism. When we delve into the genealogy of morals, we discover that some
of our most deeply cherished values emerged for reasons that we may find
repellent today. Nietzsche’s account of Christian values can be faulted on
historical grounds, but other cases (e.g. the role of the Church in spreading

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monogamy norms) help to illustrate the power of his technique.
Genealogy tells us where our values come from, but we can also ask where
morality is going – or better, where shall we take it? Such a normative
question is challenging for the relativist, because no set of moral values has
a special claim to truth. This implies that there is no progress in morality, just
change. In response, I argue that progress can be assessed from within a set of
values, and we can, by our own standards, improve. To do this, we must ask
ourselves what we want out of morality, and that question calls on non-
moral values concerning what kinds of lives we want to lead. Moral progress
consists in revising current values to better achieve these extra-moral aims.
Normative ethics is often pursued as a study of what morality demands from
us, and this collapses into a kind of auto-anthropology – an implicit deriva-
tion of what one ought to do, from what is, by historical happenstance, the
set of values we currently embrace. Normative ethics might be more fruitfully
pursued as the search for new values that would help us live more fulfilling

Genealogy and Evidence: Prinz on the History of


Jesse Prinz’s The Emotional Construction of Morals is among the most sig-
nificant of illuminations of human morality to appear in recent years. This
embarrassment of riches presents the space-starved commentator with a
dilemma: survey the book’s extraordinary sweep, and slight the textured
argumentation, or engage a fraction of the argumentation, and slight the
sweep. I’ll fall on the second horn, and focus mostly on Chapter 7,

Analysis Reviews Vol 69 | Number 4 | October 2009 | pp. 704–713 doi:10.1093/analys/anp116

ß The Author 2009. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Analysis Trust. All rights reserved.
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book symposium | 705

‘The Genealogy of Morals’. Like Prinz (215),1 I think that genealogical argu-
ments have not, despite their frequent appearance, received enough self-con-
scious discussion in ethical theorizing; I’ll try to extend Prinz’s amelioration
of this neglect, by making some recurring themes explicit. In so doing, I
indulge myself in a bit of therapy. I’ve always regarded genealogical argu-
ments with certain ambivalence: genealogies frequently make a beguiling first
impression, but just as often, when one gets to know them, their appeal turns
out to be superficial. In articulating the contrasting uses to which genealogi-
cal arguments might be put, I hope to distinguish uses that deliver real sub-

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stance from uses where the promise is not realized in the practice.
Genealogical arguments are indelibly associated with Nietzsche, so it is
unsurprising that Prinz in this chapter parts company with Hume, his
usual muse,2 and takes up, somewhat ambivalently (217), a Nietzschean
torch. I won’t fret the historical details, nor will I trouble myself over
where Nietzsche ends and Prinz begins; I’ll simply raise some general issues
about genealogy and ethics.3
The Nietzschean insight, according to Prinz (217), is that ‘the values we
currently cherish have a history’ and this history ‘may not be pretty’.
Notoriously, Nietzsche was a bit grumpy about Christianity, and he sup-
posed that tracing (certain strains of Western) morality through the dark
and labyrinthine history of the Church would unmask the attendant values
as implements in power struggles rather than objective truths (or so Prinz
(216–17) has it, more or less). Whatever one concludes about Nietzsche’s
genealogy of Christian morals, Prinz (219) thinks the method there embodied
generalizes: one ‘should regard every moral value as a cultural artifact with a
history just waiting to be discovered.’ Prinz proposes to vivify this methodo-
logical conviction by exploiting resources limed from the human sciences; in
this, he ably embodies the ‘bare-knuckle’ interdisciplinary naturalism that
has increasingly flavoured recent ethical theory and moral psychology
(e.g. Doris and Stich 2005; Doris et al. forthcoming; Sinnott-Armstrong
2007a, b, c; Knobe and Nichols 2008).
What exactly is a genealogical argument? Prinz is chiefly concerned with
historical variants, where Nietzsche’s treatment of Christian values is
the archetype. But one might speak broadly – with a certain etymological
authority – of genealogical arguments as concerning the ancestry of values.4
A value is a child with many parents, and establishing a value’s pedigree may
involve, inter alia, biological considerations (such as those drawn from evo-
lutionary theory), social considerations (such as those drawn from economic

1 Except where otherwise noted, all parenthetical references are to Jesse J. Prinz (2007), The
Emotional Construction of Morals.
2 The Emotional Construction of Morals is the final instalment of Prinz’s remarkable
Humean trilogy (the predecessors are Prinz 2002, 2004).
3 For valuable discussion of Nietzsche on genealogy, see Leiter (2002: 165–92).
4 Genealogical arguments may have targets other than values, but I’ll stick to Prinz’s topic.
706 | book symposium

thought), and psychological considerations (such as those drawn from cog-

nitive science), as much as historical considerations.
Genealogical arguments are often cast as debunking arguments, which
appeal to ancestry as a way of undermining some value (or belief, theory,
etc.): a value’s origins may seem to discommend the value itself. Of course,
one needs to tread cautiously here, on pain of the ‘genetic fallacy’. Even if a
value comes about ‘in a bad way’ it may be the case that ‘it stuck around for
good reason’ (Prinz: 236): so what if it’s the machinations of Priests that got
us turning the other cheek, if the occasional sacrificing of a cheek prevents

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senseless violence? Unfortunately, genealogical argument has a habit of inces-
santly reasserting itself: perhaps I’d not be averse to senseless violence, were I
not a sickly member of the ignoble herd. If historicity is sufficient for scepti-
cism, scepticism seems to cut in every direction (Prinz: 237): perhaps you’d be
more averse to senseless violence, if you’d not been seduced by philosophical
However, genealogical arguments are not exclusively debunking.
Vindicating arguments appeal to ancestry as a way of supporting some
value (or belief, theory, etc.): a value’s origins may seem to commend the
value itself. The ethics literature, I’ve often thought, presents a curious asym-
metry: debunking arguments appear to be substantially more prominent than
vindicating arguments.6 In my view, this asymmetry is undermotivated,
because both forms have comparable potency, or impotency: if it’s a mistake
to suppose that nobility will have exalted progeny, it’s also unwise to assume
that children must inherit the sins of their parents.
That said, vindicating genealogies often seem flatfooted, and Prinz (246)
finds a particularly lame rendition in Spencer’s ‘Social Darwinism’, where
moral values are justified when they accord with natural selection, which is
‘intrinsically progressive’. But if something being the product of natural selec-
tion makes it morally justified, a lot of nastiness looks to be morally justified.
There may be compelling evolutionary explanations for the so-called
‘Cinderella Effect’ – increased rates of child mistreatment, including lethal
mistreatment, by stepparents as compared to biological parents (Daly and
Wilson 1996, 2007). But I rather doubt such explanations should be treated
as justifications: the laws of fur and fang make unobvious candidates for

5 As Prinz (295) is aware, genealogical arguments might be thought to impact the moral
sentiments out of which he constructs his sentimentalism, no less than other moral
responses. I suspect, however, that Prinz would consider this a characterization of,
rather than an objection to, his view. (In words I’ve heard attributed to Paul Grice,
‘that’s not an objection to the theory, that’s the theory’.) For Prinz (138–72) embraces
moral relativism, and can therefore happily allow that genealogy presses relativism about
the moral sentiments. To what extent such relativism lapses into full blown scepticism is a
delicate question for Prinz, as it is for other relativists, but space precludes my developing
his views on the topic.
6 This asymmetry is present in Prinz (234–43): the five versions of genealogical arguments
he focuses on in Chapter 7 are debunking.
book symposium | 707

moral laws. Of course, if natural selection were ‘intrinsically progressive’ in

some moral sense, this might be legitimately appealed to as a justification.
But what would be doing the justificatory work? Not so much the ancestry
itself, but the further fact that the ancestry is progressive. This suggests a
general presumption: genealogy lacks independent justificatory force.
The point is especially clear when we turn from nature to God. On my
relaxed construal, genealogical arguments figure centrally in divine command
morality. Suppose Smith is wondering why she shouldn’t covet her neigh-
bour’s wife, and suppose further that the answer proffered is that such covet-

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ousness violates God’s commandments. ‘It’s wrong because God declares it
so’ might be cashed genealogically: it is the origin of the commandment in the
will of God that justifies it. But if Smith read the Euthyphro in Philosophy
101, she’ll immediately object: ‘Why does God’s word justify?’ The answer
‘Because God said it justifies’ is singularly unsatisfying; what seems to be
needed, as MacIntyre (2007: 44–5) notes in an elegant diagnosis of the
problem, is reason independent of God’s word to take God’s word as justi-
ficatory. But then it starts looking as though the word of God is justifica-
tionally superfluous (although it might play an epistemic role). On its own,
even divine genealogy doesn’t seem to do much work.
Getting back to nature, we find the same limitation in familiar debunking
genealogies. Philosophers such as Ruse (1991) and Joyce (2001, 2006) have
argued that the evolutionary source of moral norms militates for moral
scepticism. If moral norms have evolutionary origins, this may press scepti-
cism about certain accounts of how moral norms are imbued with authority,
such as divine command theories. But scepticism about the norms themselves
does not neatly follow. This is evident when one considers prudential norms
(Machery and Mallon forthcoming): presumably prudential norms are no
less candidates for evolutionary explanation than are moral norms, but it
is not obvious that this should undermine our allegiance to them.7 Should I
be more inclined to hack at my kneecap with a chainsaw when I learn that
my disinclination to do so has evolutionary origins? ‘That would cause
excruciating pain’ looks like pretty compelling material out of which to
build a practical reason, whatever the material’s history.
Then the apparent limitation of genealogical arguments emerges in con-
sideration of both debunking and vindicating forms: they don’t appear to
impact the status of norms and values, without being augmented with inde-
pendent normative considerations. And in that case, how much work have
they done? The worry takes a familiar form: even if a complete genealogical
account of a value has been determined, its normative status is not thereby

7 I’ve here benefitted from discussion with Edouard Machery. A similar observation appears
applicable, as Jacob Beck has pointed out to me, to theoretical reasoning. Note that
evolutionary debunking arguments applied to theoretical reasoning may be self-defeating,
supposing such arguments are themselves evolutionary products.
708 | book symposium

determined. We’ve now got something like a Moorean question: I know

that’s where it came from, but is it good (or bad)? Does this mean that, in
ethics at least, every deployment of a genetic argument is an instance of the
‘genetic fallacy’? The genetic fallacy may now seem to look like a relative of
the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ (a fallacy, perhaps, of suspiciously Moorean ances-
try) but the point I have in mind is one that can be pressed by even rudely
naturalistic philosophers (e.g. Doris 2002: 113): even after all the genealogi-
cal facts are in, the question as to what normative conclusions should be
drawn is contestable.

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The genealogical arguments considered to date, be they vindicating or
debunking, are justificational genealogies: they purport to show, by consid-
eration of origins, that some value (or system of values) is justified, or lacks
justification. If the above remarks are correct, justificational genealogies
don’t do the advertised work: they are insufficient to secure normative con-
clusions. Prinz (234–9) himself is clear on this: he is careful to observe that
historical origins, however ignoble, do not straightforwardly entail that a
value or norm is false, unwarranted, or should be abandoned. As Leiter
(2004: 104) says, when beliefs are accounted for by debunking genealogies,
we have ‘reason to be suspicious – nothing more – of their veritistic proper-
ties’. Such results, while limited, are not trivial; genealogy can be a ‘powerful
critical tool’ (Prinz: 242). And so far as I can see, critical genealogies don’t
encounter the difficulties faced by their justificational variants; as instigations
of evaluative discussion, they provoke scrutiny of values, but do not purport
to show values unjustified.
Consider a poisoned fruit argument against exploiting (possible) discov-
eries made by Nazi ‘medical science’. It should at this point be evident that
prescriptive conclusions don’t directly follow from the genealogy: if good
medicine results from moral depravity, perhaps we should eschew clean
hands and help those who might be helped. Nevertheless, the origins
compel discussion: medical progress must be weighed against other values,
like appropriately honouring those victimized by morally repugnant medical
practice (Angel 1992). Furthermore, the genealogy in this case tells for
greater scrutiny of the science itself, in as much as Nazi medical research
was informed by racist ideology masquerading as scientific theory. Similarly,
while identifying the evolutionary origins of a moral norm cannot itself
debunk or vindicate that norm, it can help one to see why such a norm
might make good sense, or fail to make good sense, in current circumstances.
Then critical genealogies have a substantial role in ethical reflection. But
given the prominence of genealogical considerations, one might at this junc-
ture feel a certain disappointment. On the one hand, justificational genealo-
gies fail their impressive ambitions, while on the other; critical genealogies
seemingly eschew impressive ambitions. Fortunately, there is an important
deployment of genealogical arguments we have not yet considered, one that
book symposium | 709

aspires to more than the role of ‘suspicion generator’ without lapsing into
genetic fallacy.
Until now, I’ve been wondering about notions in the vicinity of the truth,
warrant, or authority of moral norms and judgements – the sort of issues that
arise in connection with justificational genealogies. But moral norms and
judgements can also have an evidential role: the fact that people hold this
norm or make that judgement might be thought to indicate that the moral
facts (if such facts there be) turn out one way rather than another, or that one
moral theory is more likely true than another. This notion is embodied in the

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‘method of cases’ typifying much work in philosophical ethics; for instance,
strong negative responses to scenarios depicting the judicial execution of the
innocent might be thought to undermine consequentialism (Anscombe 1958).8
To see where I’m going, think for a minute of Professor Harman’s long-
suffering cat, whose agonies instigated any number of papers in metaethics:
If you round a corner and see a group of young hoodlums pour gasoline
on a cat and ignite it, you do not need to conclude that what they are
doing is wrong, you do not need to figure anything out, you can see that
it is wrong. (Harman 1977: 4)
On one interpretation, observers’ ethical perceptions of this unfortunate
scene might be evidence about the moral facts, much as observers’ visual
perceptions of a happier feline lounging on a rug is evidence that the cat is,
in fact, on the mat. Famously, Harman had doubts:
But is your reaction due to the actual wrongness of what you see or is it
simply a reflection of your moral ‘sense,’ a ‘sense’ you have acquired
perhaps as a result of your moral upbringing? (Harman 1977: 4)
This intimates an abductive argument against moral realism: moral observa-
tions can be perspicuously explained by appeal to culture, without appealing
to moral facts, so moral facts are explanatorily superfluous. However that
argument turns out,9 there’s the makings of a genealogical argument here: if
people’s moral responses (be they observations, emotions, intuitions, judge-
ments, or what have you) are the product of culture, their evidential status is
Careful. As Harman (1977: 4) notes, all observation is ‘theory-laden’.
Therefore, all observation is at least partly the product of culture (if we
assume, plausibly, that theories are in some measure cultural artefacts). But
not all cultural products are epistemically suspect; it takes robust argument,
at least, to generate mistrust of observations based on venerable artefacts like

8 For some difficulties with Anscombe’s remarkably imperial edict on this case, see Doris
and Plakias (2007: 322–7).
9 The argument is disputed by Sturgeon (1985) and Pust (2001). For further discussion, see
Harman (1986) and Sturgeon (2006).
710 | book symposium

microscopes and telescopes. Evidently, much turns on the details of the par-
ticular cultural story at issue. To take an example speculatively entertained
by Prinz (241–2), suppose one has opposed abortion because it is prohibited
by the Church, and then learns that ‘the abortion ban was actually intro-
duced as a deliberate tool in the campaign against women’s suffrage’, instead
of being based, as one had thought, in ‘an authoritative version of holy texts’.
Now if I’m right, nothing immediately follows about the moral rightness or
wrongness of the ban; the ban is not debunked by the genealogy. But suppose
one had always had a strong feeling that abortion is wrong, and took this as

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evidence that abortion was wrong. If the feeling was induced by Church
teaching, and that teaching turns out to reflect a cynical and morally suspect
political ploy, the evidential value of that feeling seems to be vitiated. The
provenance of evidence matters: an unreliable instrument may sometimes
give true readings, just as an unreliable witness may sometimes give true
testimony, but if the instrument or witness is unreliable, we cannot take
their output as good evidence. (A stopped clock is right twice a day, but its
reading is not good evidence of the time.)
This evidential form of genealogical argument looks to be potent. Suppose
Freud (1961/1927: 23) is right that religious belief is derived from a human
desire to make our ‘helplessness tolerable’. Beliefs in such things as divine
justice and an afterlife are ‘motivationally attractive’ (Nichols 2004), and so
it is possible that these beliefs are widespread not because they ‘track reality’
but because that they are comforting to believe. The argument is not that
such religious beliefs are shown false by the genealogy; that would be an
instance of genetic fallacy. Rather, the argument is that given the motiva-
tional attractiveness of religious beliefs, people would be approximately as
likely to have the religious beliefs they do in the case those beliefs are false as
they would be in the case where those beliefs are true. Therefore, the fact that
religious beliefs are widespread does not help to decide between a realist and
a Freudian theory of religion, and arguments for religious credulity based on
the pervasiveness of religious belief are seriously undermined. Discussion
here will be heated, and I’ve no stake in how the dispute comes out.10 The
point is just that if the Freudian genealogical argument goes through, it earns
an impressive result.
Genealogical argument based in cognitive science may generate similarly
striking consequences. For example, Haidt and colleagues (1993) found that
socio-economic status (SES) influences how people respond to norm viola-
tions: in their study, lower SES people were more likely to think ‘harmless yet
offensive’ violations, such as having sex with a dead chicken before cooking
and eating it, should be punished. This intimates a debunking genealogy: SES
is a morally irrelevant consideration (money may make you a better mate

10 For a sympathetic reconstruction of the Freudian argument, backed by suggestive empirical

evidence, see Nichols (2004), whom I’ve relied on in this paragraph.
book symposium | 711

choice, but it doesn’t make you morally better), so in as much as moral

responses are sourced in SES, their evidential heft is eroded. One might
also try a vindicating argument here, and assert that SES is associated with
morally relevant considerations: perhaps the responses of the rich are more
sophisticated (or the responses of the poor less pretentious). Here again, the
point for my purposes is not who is likely to win this debate, but that when
one engages in this sort of genealogical discussion, one is engaging in argu-
ment that is highly relevant to the evidential status of moral responses.
If the case of SES seems unduly contentious, one might instead consider the

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enormous literature on ‘heuristics and biases’, which apparently indicates
that moral judgements are influenced by a range of factors that are plausibly
thought to be morally irrelevant, such as how cases are ‘framed’ (e.g. Tversky
and Khaneman 1981). If there is reason to believe that such phenomena are
widespread, numerous philosophers have argued, and we lack the materials
to rule out the possibility that they obtain, the evidential value of responses to
philosophical thought experiments is suspect (e.g. Horowitz 1998; Doris and
Stich 2005: 138–41; Sinnott-Armstrong 2005, 2007; Sunstein 2005; Appiah
2008). Once again, vindicatory argument remains an option: the defender of
thought experiments may attempt the needed ruling out, and show why
responses to particular thought experiments are not subject to ethically irre-
levant taint – perhaps by showing that the circumstances of judgement in
question approximated something like ideal epistemic conditions. But the
point I again wish to stress is this: genealogical argument can be more
than a suspicion generator; it might reveal provenance sufficiently tainted
to seriously undermine the evidential value of a moral response.
Such argument does not directly tell for the truth or falsity of the associated
moral judgements. As I stressed with regard to justificational forms, genea-
logical arguments do not seem to have veritistic implications. But this
requires qualification. For the evidence one has for a hypothesis should
certainly affect degrees of credence; if an important category of evidence
for a hypothesis is undermined (or supported) one might reasonably be less
(or more) inclined to think it true. What consideration of the evidential form
indicates, then, is that while genealogical arguments may not have direct
veritistic implications, they may have indirect veritistic implications. Some
of these results may, for all I’ve said, be quite substantial; how substantial
depends on considerations regarding the totality of available evidence, the
importance of the evidence impacted by the genealogy in question, and so on.
Genealogical arguments may advert to a range of considerations, from the
historical to the psychological. Although debunking genealogical arguments
appear more common in the literature, genealogical arguments can also have
vindicatory ambitions, and there is no general reason, so far as I can see, to
prefer one form over the other. In both cases, however, it seems that genea-
logical considerations lack independent justificational force, and at most
serve a critical function. However, there may be cases where genealogical
712 | book symposium

arguments can have considerably more impact, when they involve the pro-
venance of evidence. Here, as elsewhere, we make more progress when we
consider individual arguments and their empirical suppositions in full and
messy detail, and we are fortunate to have Prinz’s admirable example of how
this difficult and necessary work can proceed. For this reason, among many
others, The Emotional Construction of Morals is an uncommonly rich and
probing contribution to ethical theory and moral psychology.11

Washington University in St. Louis

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St. Louis, MO 63130, USA

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11 Warm thanks to Jacob Beck, Brian Leiter, Edouard Machery, Shaun Nichols, Jesse Prinz,
Valerie Tiberius, and – especially – Ric Otte for discussion of earlier drafts.
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