Review of Philosophy and Psychology

, Volume 6, Issue 4, pp 665–682 | Cite as

Cognitive Penetrability and Ethical Perception

  • Robert Cowan


In recent years there has been renewed philosophical interest in the thesis that perceptual experience is cognitively penetrable, i.e., roughly, the view that the contents and/or character of a subject’s perceptual experience can be modified by what a subject believes and desires. As has been widely noted, it is plausible that cognitive penetration has implications for perception’s epistemic role. On the one hand, penetration could make agents insensitive to the world in a way which epistemically ‘downgrades’ their experience. On the other hand, cognitive penetration may sometimes be epistemically beneficial by making agents more sensitive to the way the world is, i.e., by enabling them to see things that others cannot. For example, penetration could ground a ‘high-level’ view of perceptual content, according to which agents can have experiences as of ‘complex’ properties, e.g., natural kind and aesthetic properties. Relatedly, it could elucidate the view that agents can gain perceptual expertise by learning. A type of sophisticated perception (and associated ‘perceptual expertise’) which has hitherto received little attention in relation to cognitive penetration is ethical perception. In this paper I examine the significance of cognitive penetration for ‘Perceptualist’ views in ethics which appeal to a notion of ‘ethical perception’. Although cognitive penetration could ground a literalist model of Ethical Perception according to which agents can have perceptual experiences of the instantiation of ethical properties, the results are otherwise somewhat mixed: cognitive penetrability does not support Perceptual Intuitionism, although it may provide some limited support for Virtue Ethics and Cornell Realism. However, as I stress, the significance of cognitive penetration for Perceptualism should not be overstated.


Perceptual Experience Virtue Ethicist Ethical Judgment Phenomenal Character Ethical Property 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of WarwickCoventryUK

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