Metaethics and Mental Time Travel: a Reply to Gerrans and Kennett


In “Neurosentimentalism and Moral Agency” (Mind 2010), Philip Gerrans and Jeanette Kennett argue that prominent versions of metaethical sentimentalism and moral realism ignore the importance, for moral agency and moral judgment, of the capacity to experientially project oneself into the past and possible futures – to engage in ‘mental time travel’ (MTT). They contend that such views are committed to taking subjects with impaired capacities for MTT to be moral judgers, and thus confront a dilemma: either allow that these subjects are moral agents, or deny that moral agency is required for moral judgment. In reply, we argue for two main claims. First, it is implausible that moral agency is required for moral judgment, and Gerrans and Kennett give us no good reason for thinking it is. Second, at least some of the subjects in question seem able to make moral judgments, and Gerrans and Kennett give us no good reason to doubt that they can. We conclude that they have not shown a problem for any of the metaethical views in question.

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  1. 1.

    Philip Gerrans and Jeanette Kennett, “Neurosentimentalism and Moral Agency,” Mind 119 (2010): 585–614.

  2. 2.

    We say more about MTT in section one. For helpful recent discussions of MTT and related capacities see Kurt Stocker, “The Time Machine in Our Mind,” Cognitive Science 36, 3 (2012): 385–420; Thomas Suddendorf and Michael Corballis, “The Evolution of Foresight: What is Mental Time Travel, and is it Unique to Humans?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30 (2007): 299–351 (with commentaries); Colin Klein, “The Dual Track Theory of Moral Decision-Making: A Critique of Neuroimaging Evidence,” Neuroethics 4 (2011): 143–162; and Stan Klein and Shaun Nichols, “Memory and the Sense of Personal Identity,” Mind 121 (2012): 677–702.

  3. 3.

    Mark Wheeler, Donald Stuss, and Endel Tulving, “Toward a Theory of Episodic Memory: The Frontal Lobes and Autonoetic Consciousness,” Psychological Bulletin 121, 3 (1997): 331–354, 331.

  4. 4.

    Gerrans and Kennett, “Neurosentimentalism,” 601–2.

  5. 5.

    The most famous judgment internalist thesis is that genuinely judging that one morally ought to A entails being motivated to A, at least to some extent. But on a broader construal, judgment internalism is the idea that there are some (supranomically) necessary pro/con-attitudinal conditions on moral judgment. On this broader construal, the diachronicity constraint is actually a form of internalism, as MTT is motivated activity (see the first of the features of MTT discussed in section one).

  6. 6.

    Note that our terminology isn’t quite theirs. First, they speak of neurosentimentalism, by which they mean sentimentalist views defended by appeals to neuroscience. Since their criticism isn’t actually limited to views thus supported, we drop the “neuro” modifier. Second, they speak of “rationalist externalism” rather than simply “externalism.” But it is evidently the latter that they have in mind. Indeed, of the two references to “rationalist externalist” views they give, one is to Philippa Foot’s “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” Philosophical Review 81 (1972): 305–315 – one of the most prominent challenges to rationalism in modern moral philosophy.

  7. 7.

    Gerrans and Kennett, “Neurosentmentalism,” 589.

  8. 8.

    Jonathan Haidt, “The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” Philosophical Review 114 (2001): 814–834.

  9. 9.

    The Foot paper they have in mind is “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives.” They also cite Adina Roskies, “Are Ethical Judgments Intrinsically Motivational? Lessons from ‘Acquired Sociopathy,” Philosophical Psychology, 16 (2003): 51–66 and “Internalism and the Evidence from Pathology” in Moral Psychology, Volume 3: The Neuroscience of Morality, ed. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007): 191–206.

  10. 10.

    See, e.g., Richard Boyd, “How to Be a Moral Realist,” in Essays on Moral Realism, ed. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (Cornell University Press, 1988), 181–228, especially section 4.7; and David Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), especially Ch. 3.

  11. 11.

    G&K sometimes obscure this point by speaking of MTT as the capacity “to conceive of [one]self as temporally extended,” Gerrans and Kennett, “Neurosentimentalism,” 589; Cf. 588, 601, 602, 603 and the abstract.

  12. 12.

    The meaning of “mental time travel” isn’t perfectly uniform in the literature; we here follow G&K.

  13. 13.

    The third might as well, though we are less sure of this.

  14. 14.

    Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Björklund. “Social Intuitionists Reason, in Conversation” in Moral Psychology, Volume 2: The Cognitive Science of Morality: Intuitions and Diversity, ed. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 241–254, 250–1.

  15. 15.

    Jonathan Haidt and Selin Kesebir, “Morality” in Handbook of Social Psychology, 5th Edition, eds. Susan Fiske et al. (Hobeken, NJ: Wiley, 2010), 797–832, 800.

  16. 16.

    Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic; See Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, “The Weirdest People in the World,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33, 2–3 (2010): 61–83.

  17. 17.

    See Haidt and Kesebir, “Morality” & Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Pantheon, 2012).

  18. 18.

    Functionalism is an account of what it is to be moral: relevantly, that it involves relations to “sentiments” (pro/con-attitudes). Since the attitudes must exist for the relations to hold, the attitudes must exist for anything to be moral. It follows from functionalism, then, that there are supranomically necessary pro/con-attitudinal conditions on moral judgment. And that is internalism, at least broadly construed (see note 5).

  19. 19.

    Jesse Prinz, Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 191–196.

  20. 20.

    Prinz, The Emotional Construction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 95–96. (italics ours)

  21. 21.

    It is natural to associate dispositions with cross-temporal existence, so we wish to clarify why the mere fact that on Prinz’s view dispositions are necessary for a capacity for moral judgment isn’t enough to make him a diachronic theorist. First, even if a disposition’s manifesting requires that it exist over time – e.g., because it must exist both when activated and during the subsequent manifestation – it doesn’t follow that dispositions must exist over time in principle. Perhaps, unmanifested dispositions can exist at an instant. Second, and more importantly, even if it is true that either dispositions in general or the sorts of sentimental dispositions Prinz deems necessary for moral judgment must exist over time, it doesn’t follow that Prinz is a diachronic theorist in the current sense. For to be a diachronic theorist, one must take MTT in particular – and not just having dispositions that exist over time – as necessary for moral judgment. In order to probe the issue further and determine whether Prinz is committed to the view that MTT is necessary for moral judgment, we must look more closely at what’s involved in the manifestation of the sentimental dispositions he takes as necessary for moral judgment. The question is: is an exercise of an MTT capacity necessary for the manifestation of a sentimental disposition and thus, for moral judgment, according to Prinz? If the answer is “yes,” then the capacity for MTT itself will be necessary (since you can only exercise a capacity you possess). However, the answer is “no”: Prinz does not treat the exercise of a capacity for MTT as necessary for the manifestation of a sentimental disposition. We thus conclude that he is a synchronic theorist. We thank an anonymous referee for pressing us on this point. We also note that even if we are wrong about this and Prinz is not a synchronicist, all that would follow is that Gerrans and Kennett have wrongly taken Prinz as a target. Since we argue that their criticism of synchronic theories fails, it does not matter whether the criticism is also misguided when applied to one of the target theories because that theory isn’t really synchronic. (If there are no synchronic theories, then the whole issue would be moot, but externalism is clearly synchronic.)

  22. 22.

    Prinz, The Emotional Construction, 96.

  23. 23.

    Gerrans and Kennett, “Neurosentmentalism,” 605.

  24. 24.

    Following G&K, we use “third-personal” to include judgments about action-types with unspecified agents (e.g., “killing is wrong”).

  25. 25.

    Paul Eslinger and Antonio Damasio, “Severe Disturbance of Higher Cognition After Bilateral Frontal Lobe Ablation: Patient E.V.R.,” Neurology 35 (1985): 1731–1741 call the judgments “social” rather than “moral,” but the examples they give, as the reader can see, are examples of moral judgments.

  26. 26.

    Eslinger and Damasio, “Patient E.V.R.,” 1733.

  27. 27.

    Eslinger and Damasio, “Patient E.V.R.”; Donald Stuss, “‘No Longer Gage’: Frontal Lobe Dysfunction and Emotional Changes,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 60 (1992): 349–359; Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error (New York, Putnam, 1994); Robert Blair and Lisa Cipolotti, “Impaired Social Response Reversal: A Case of ‘Acquired Sociopathy,’” Brain 123 (2000): 1122-11tt41.

  28. 28.

    Gerrans and Kennett, “Neurosentimentalism,” 605, quoting Jeffrey Saver and Antonio Damasio, “Preserved Access and Processing of Social Knowledge in a Patient with Acquired Sociopathy Due to Ventromedial Frontal Damage,” Neuropsychologia 29 (1991): 1241–1249, 1246. There is an extensive discussion in the literature on E.V.R.’s capacity for moral judgment. See, e.g., Roskies’s “Acquired Sociopathy” and “Internalism”; Michael Cholbi, “Moral Belief Attribution: A Reply to Roskies,” Philosophical Psychology 19 (2006): 629:638; and Jeanette Kennett and Cordelia Fine, “Internalism and the Evidence from Psychopaths and Acquired Psychopaths” in Moral Psychology, Volume 3: The Neuroscience of Moralty, ed. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 173–190. The main issue in this literature is whether vmPFC patients such as E.V.R. constitute counterexamples to motivational internalism. Two questions are thus discussed: whether they display an incapacity to make moral judgments, and whether they truly lack moral motivation. We think the latter is where the main action is, so far as implications for internalism go, but the former is what’s currently relevant.

  29. 29.

    Moreover, Saver and Damasio report that when presented with the famous Heinz dilemma (involving a man who faces a choice between stealing an overpriced drug or letting his wife die of cancer), E.V.R. was “reluctant to choose [for Heinz] and needed to be pressed to do so” (Saver and Damasio, “Preserved Access,” 1246), suggesting again that his difficulties may not be distinctively first-personal.

  30. 30.

    Elisa Ciaramelli et al., “Selective Deficit in Personal Moral Judgment Following Damage to the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex,” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 2 (2007): 84–92. Ciaramelli at al. report having administered the developed by Greene battery of tests. The complete battery developed by Greene at al. can be viewed at:

  31. 31.

    Gerrans and Kennett, “Neurosentimentalism,” 604.

  32. 32.

    Gerrans and Kennett, “Neurosentimentalism,” 605.

  33. 33.

    Donald Stuss, “Self, Awareness and Frontal Lobes: A Neuropsychological Perspective” in The Self: A Neuropsychological Perspective, eds. Jaine Strauss and George Goethals (New York: Springer Verlag, 1991), 255–278, 272.

  34. 34.

    Stuss, “Self, Awareness, and Frontal Lobes,” 272.

  35. 35.

    Endel Tulving, “Memory and Consciousness,” Canadian Psychologist 26 (1985): 1–12. Gerrans and Kennett discuss the case of M.L.

  36. 36.

    On the side, his damage has to do not with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex but with the hippocampus.

  37. 37.

    Suzanne Corkin, “What’s New with the Amnesiac Patient H.M.?” Nature Reviews: Neuroscience 3 (2002): 158.

  38. 38.

    We are grateful to an anonymous referee for pointing out the relevance of this sort of reply and of Boyd’s account in particular.

  39. 39.

    Boyd, “How to Be,” 215–216.

  40. 40.

    First-personal moral judgments are judgments about the moral status of one’s own actions, actual or possible. The category to which MTT might be distinctively relevant in the ways described in the text would actually be broader, that of judgments about actions involving the self, not only as agent, but also merely as affected (e.g., as victim of another’s action).

  41. 41.

    Or the outcomes of others’ actions for us, in cases of self-involving but not first-personal moral judgments.

  42. 42.

    Or in whom, at least, it is severely impaired. The film Memento provides a vivid illustration of the exercise of moral agency in an anterograde amnesiac (remember, “moral agent” doesn’t mean “morally good agent”). Sallie Baxendale singles out Memento as “an honourable exception” to the misportrayal of amnesia in films, saying it “accurately describes the problems faced by someone with severe anterograde amnesia,” “Memories Aren’t Made of This: Amnesia at the Movies,” British Medical Journal 329 (2004): 1480–1483, accessed January 3, 2015,

  43. 43.

    Gerrans and Kennett, “Neurosentimentalism,” 586.

  44. 44.

    Russ Shafer-Landau, The Fundamentals of Ethics, 3rd edition (Oxford University Press, 2014), G-5.

  45. 45.

    Korsgaard presents the most developed version of normative rationalism; see, e.g., Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (Oxford University Press, 2009).

  46. 46.

    Unfortunately G&K’s case for (2) is vague and sketchy. Our interpretation is what seems to us both most likely and most charitable; see, especially, pp. 595–596 for MR, and pp. 601–602 for NR. We can think of no plausible interpretation on which they turn out not to rely on controversial, undefended assumptions.

  47. 47.

    Gerrans and Kennett, “Neurosentimentalism, 601–2 (our bracketed letters).

  48. 48.

    We take [b] to be or presuppose an identity claim: that for demands to be normative for a person is for that person to have reasons of the sort mentioned. This claim would yield an entailment: necessarily, demands are normative for S only if S has those reasons. Nevertheless, [b] may not strictly entail NR, as it speaks of normative demands in particular and not normative things in general; e.g., it doesn’t mention normative judgments. But it’s clear that G&K think the account of normativity generalizes.

  49. 49.

    For these see, respectively, Derek Parfit, On What Matters, Vol. 2 (Oxford University Press, 2011), 308 and Stephen Finlay, “Recent Work on Normativity,” Analysis 70, 2 (2010): 332. To see why these facts wouldn’t count as normative in these ways consider Parfit: “Facts are normative in the rule-implying sense when these facts are about what is correct or incorrect, or allowed or disallowed, by some rule or requirement in some practice or institution” (308; italics ours). What would be normative in the rule-implying sense would thus be facts such as “standing 2–4 feet apart is correct according to the rules of American socializing.” But we’re suggesting that “normative” is sometimes used in an even weaker sense, whereby standing 2–4 feet apart in socializing would itself count as “normative for Americans”.

  50. 50.

    He adopts an attitudinal account of moral normativity: “moral rules [are] binding only relative to current response dispositions”, and so “get their normative force … contingent on current dispositions of the population,” Emotional Construction, 162.

  51. 51.

    In “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” which they cite (see note 6).

  52. 52.

    See, e.g., Stephen Finlay, Confusion of Tongues: A Theory of Normative Language (Oxford University Press, 2014); David Copp, “Toward a Pluralist and Teleological Theory of Normativity,” Philosophical Issues 19, 1 (2009): 21–37; and Judith Jarvis Thomson, Normativity (Open Court, 2008).

  53. 53.

    Jeanette Kennett, “What’s Required for Motivation by Principle?” in Motivational Internalism, ed. Gunnar Björnsson et al. (Oxford University Press, 2015), 108–130.

  54. 54.

    For views along these lines, see Uriah Kriegel, “Moral Motivation, Moral Phenomenology, and the Alief/Belief Distinction,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 90, 3 (2012): 1–18; and Antti Kauppinen, “Intuition and Belief in Moral Motivation,” in Motivational Internalism, ed. Björnsson et al., 237–259.

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Fileva, I., Tresan, J. Metaethics and Mental Time Travel: a Reply to Gerrans and Kennett. Philosophia 47, 1457–1474 (2019).

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  • Neurosentimentalism
  • Mental time travel
  • Moral judgment
  • Moral agency
  • Rationalist internalism