Nigel DeSouza

Positions held

2008-2009 to 2010-2011 Postdoctoral researcher(s),


Page institutionnelle

There is a broad theme in the history of moral philosophy that has been my abiding interest in its many incarnations: “the good” and “the right”, Sittlichkeit and Moralität, comprehensive doctrines and a (political) conception of justice, lifeworld and the moral point of view. The relationship between the terms in each pair is more often than not conceived of dichotomously and the move from the first to the second as the transition to philosophy proper. It is both this relationship and the transition that I am interested in. This was the impetus behind my doctoral research, the ultimate results of which are now leading me in new directions.

I was drawn to work on Johann Gottfried Herder because of the originality of his particular understanding of the embeddedness of individuals in their cultural and historical contexts and his related critique of Wolffian moral philosophy which focussed on “abstract, dry principles and rules”. Herder favoured a “bottom-up” approach over this “top-down” one, and developed the rudiments of a theory of moral feeling (moralisches Gefal), which differed from Hutcheson’s theory of moral sentiments, through which he sought to give a more ontologically accurate and hence more practically useful account of moral action. On the one hand, moral feelings and their normative capacity depended on their being given form and shape by culture (here Herder drew on Baumgarten’s theory of sensuous knowledge). This is what underlay Herder’s confidence in the power of Bildung. The interesting question here becomes the relationship between the complex of moral feelings, mores or Sitten, and moral duty or obligation. On the other hand, Herder also developed a psycho-physiological account of moral feeling which grew out of his theory of soul-body interaction. Moral feelings were not purely mental or spiritual, but had a firm basis in the human body and its “twitching fibres”. Thus for Herder a proper understanding of the moral nature of human beings requires a study of the relationship between culture and morality and between psychology/physiology and morality.

I pursued two projects simultaneously during my two years at CREUM. The first was to prepare a book manuscript of my doctoral thesis. The second involved returning to contemporary moral philosophy (one of my master’s theses was on the moral philosophy of Charles Taylor) to build on insights from my doctoral thesis. The general area of interest of this project was the relationship between 1) conceptions of the good as culturally derived and as a form of preconceptual but normative knowledge, 2) new research at the meeting point of psychology and moral philosophy, e.g., the emotional construction of morals, and 3) standard procedural moral theories (deontology, consequentialism). In a word, how do (1) and (2) affect our understanding of (3)? E.g., will an increasingly sophisticated account of the cultural and psychological underpinnings of moral agency leave proceduralist models of moral reasoning intact? I worked on developing a specific and manageable research topic within this general area. The envisioned (and very hopeful) practical implications of this research was to help advance human rights discourse, which is often paralyzed by conflicts between the demands of a rationalist conception of morality and the demands of culture, by trying to delineate possible ways such conflicts can be reconceived and such demands potentially reconciled.