Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Jesse J. Prinz

Subject Categories

Ethics and Political Philosophy | Metaphysics | Psychology


Buddhist ethics, metaethics, mindfulness, moral psychology


In cases where two human cultures disagree over fundamental ethical values, metaethical questions about what could make one or the other position correct arise with great force. Philosophers committed to naturalistically plausible accounts of ethics have offered little hope of adjudicating such conflicts, leading some to embrace moral relativism. In my dissertation, I develop an empirically grounded response to moral relativism by turning away from debates over which action types are right and wrong and focusing instead on shared features of human emotional motivation. On my account, being motivated by ill-will is ethically bad (if it is), just because human beings who are fully and accurately aware of how unpleasant it is to be motivated in this way will agree that we ought not to act out of ill-will. Conversely, good-will is ethically good (if it is) just because we ourselves would judge it to be so, if we were fully and accurately aware of how much more ease is present in being motivated in this way. More generally, by appealing to ethical judgments that all members of our human moral community would make if they were alert and unbiased, we can make sense of the idea that individuals and groups sometimes get the normative truth wrong, and that we sometimes get it right. In this way, the experiential ease and unease that is characteristic of various emotional motivations in virtue of our shared human neurobiology can ground a circumscribed set of universal claims about which motivations we ought to act out of, while leaving many other aspects of how we ought to live open to cultural determination.