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Sense Perception, Emotion, and the Foundation of Ethics


Admission requirements

This course is first and foremost intended for MA students of philosophy, since it addresses rather abstract matters at the interplay of ethics and epistemology. It might also be of interest for students of psychology, who are considering doing research on perception and emotion and wish to critically reflect some of the basic concepts of their discipline. In any case, students from other departments should contact me to assess whether they may profit from participation. Otherwise, basic knowledge of metaethics, epistemology, especially the philosophy of sense perception will be helpful, but is not a requirement for participation.


According to the early Logical Empiricists, as well as many later theorists, moral thinking cannot be based on sense perception but must have its foundations in the emotions. Under this assumption, skeptical conclusions for ethics seem due. On the one hand, moral thought would lack the empirical testability against a reality outside itself, a feature that we predominantly associate with theorizing in the natural sciences. On the other hand, moral thought would have too intimate a relationship with the passions, mental phenomena that count as paradigms of irrationality in the eyes of many.

But is this presupposition true? What might actually be the deeper reason for the broken link between moral thinking and empirical experience and how can we hold those mental states that we call the emotions to be different from empirical experience so that we can vindicate the above contrast? These are the two main issues that I wish to explore in my seminar.

For this purpose, we will discuss some canonical and some more recent pieces of literature about the foundations of ethics, moral perception and the philosophy of emotion. In the course of the seminar, we will first try to find out about the relevance of the problem of moral experience for metaethics in general and its relations to other questions in moral psychology, epistemology, and metaphysics. We will then discuss at length the possibility of moral sense perception, by considering the scope of perceptual content and standard ways of reconstructing perceptual entitlement. The third part of the seminar will be devoted to the psychological question, what is an emotion and how might it be different from other mental states, a question that we will try to adjudicate after studying examples of judgment theories, ‘sui-generis-theories’, feeling theories and perceptual theories of emotion.

Course objectives

Course objectives will be posted on Blackboard by the start of the course.


See Collegeroosters Wijsbegeerte 2012-2013, MA Philosophy.
See Timetables Philosophy 2012-2013, MA Philosophy.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars

Assessment method

  • Weekly response papers and/or assignments (which combined amount to 20% of the final grade)

  • Two essays of 3000-4000 words (40% each of the final grade)


Announcements, reading list, course plan, additional course material and a good deal of the required readings will be made available through Blackboard.

Reading list

The following text will form the basis of our discussion on the first seminar session.

  • Mackie, John Leslie (1977): ‘The Subjectivity of Values’. In: Ethics. Inventing Right and Wrong. New York [u.a.]: Penguin Books, Ch. 1.

All participants are therefore required to have read this text beforehand. The exact reading list for the entire seminar will be presented in the beginning of the seminar. All mandatory readings will be made available either through Blackboard or as a paper version through the secretariat.


Please register for this course on uSis.
See Inschrijven voor cursussen en tentamens

Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.
See also Registration for courses and examinations

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Aanmelden voor Contractonderwijs via:
Na aanmelding ook inschrijven voor cursus en tentamen via uSis

Contact information

Dr. D. Badenhop


This course replaces the earlier announced course on Rationality and Irrationality.