How Neuroscience Can Vindicate Moral Intuition

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    See also Sinnott-Armstrong (2006).

  2. 2.

    For arguments in this spirit, see Berker (2009) and Kamm (2009).

  3. 3.

    For discussions of the trolley problem, see Foot (1967) and Thomson (1976).

  4. 4.

    See Thomson (1985, 1402).

  5. 5.

    For example, similar results were reported for variations on the “crying baby” thought experiment. See Greene (2008, 44).

  6. 6.

    See, e.g., Baron and Ritov (1993).

  7. 7.

    On this idea, see Mackie (1985, 215ff).

  8. 8.

    See Singer (2005) and Greene (2008). See also Sinnott-Armstrong (2006, 351–2). Sinnott-Armstrong stresses that we ought to reserve final judgment pending replication, and further interpretation, of the experimental results.

  9. 9.

    See Greene (2008, 69–70). See also Street (2006) and Joyce (2006, chapter 6).

  10. 10.

    For some reasons to doubt the success of this kind of debunking argument see, e.g., Berker (2009).

  11. 11.

    Indeed, Greene (2013, 63ff) makes comments along these lines.

  12. 12.

    For a discussion of “strong reciprocity” and its role in sustaining cooperation, see Gintis et al. (2006). Greene (2013, 61) offers a discussion of related ideas as well.

  13. 13.

    For more on how collective action problems pose these sorts of difficulties for utilitarian agents, see Harsanyi (1977).

  14. 14.

    I say “most” actors rather than “all” because, as Brad Hooker argues, a consequentialist theory ought to provide guidance for dealing with people who lack moral motivation or follow the wrong moral rules. See Hooker (2002, 83).

  15. 15.

    On this idea see, e.g., Brandt (1979) and Harsanyi (1982).

  16. 16.

    For discussion of this sort of objection see, e.g., Smart (1956), Lyons (1965).

  17. 17.

    The incoherence objection is typically lodged against rule utilitarianism as a criterion of rightness whereas here I am framing it as an objection to the use of rule utilitarianism as a decision procedure intended to satisfy an act utilitarian criterion of rightness. Thanks are due to Dale Miller for emphasizing this point. The incoherence objection still has force in this context because it is, at a minimum, a prima facie problem if a moral theory only avoids self-defeat in the case that its adherents act irrationally.

  18. 18.

    On this idea, see Rawls (1999, 21).

  19. 19.

    For a more complete discussion of modular rationality, see Skyrms (1998, chapter 2).

  20. 20.

    See Skyrms (1998, 39) for a discussion of this point.

  21. 21.

    See Greene (2013, 350).

  22. 22.

    More specifically, Greene (2013, 274) writes that “our taste for justice is a useful illusion.” On the term “righteous indignation,” see Greene (2013, 59).

  23. 23.

    This argument is reminiscent of objections lodged by Bernard Williams (1988) against R.M. Hare’s two-level utilitarianism.

  24. 24.

    On the “self-effacing” question, see e.g., Sidgwick (1981, 489–90), Parfit (1984, chapter 1).

  25. 25.

    For an argument in this spirit, see Hooker (2002, 76).

  26. 26.

    See, e.g., (Fehr et al. 2002).

  27. 27.

    Greene (2013, 15) writes that our moral emotions are “gut-level instincts that enable cooperation within personal relationships and small groups.” But this statement omits mention of their ability to enable cooperation within impersonal relationships and large groups. After all, retributive punishment (or the threat thereof) appears to foster cooperation in the taxi case, where the actors involved are strangers and the interaction takes place within an enormous community. Indeed, the actors can cooperate in this case while also endorsing different answers to the controversial large-scale moral questions that underlie the “Tragedy of Commonsense Morality.”

  28. 28.

    For further discussion of the prudence of “vengeance-seeking,” see Frank (1988, 83), Joyce (2006, 119).

  29. 29.

    For a different perspective on this point, see Frank (2007).

  30. 30.

    Greene (2013, 58) suggests something like this possibility.

  31. 31.

    On the importance of expectation effects for utilitarianism, see, e.g., Harsanyi (1977).

  32. 32.

    For a related discussion of publicity, see Rawls (2005, 66–71).

  33. 33.

    On Greene’s endorsement of Rawls’s publicity condition, see Greene (2002, 326 n.37). See also Rawls (1999, 115). On the publicity condition generally, see Sidgwick (1981, 489–90), Parfit (1984, 40–3), Railton (1984).

  34. 34.

    See Bicchieri (2006, chapter 5). Our deontological intuitions can bring us to a Nash equilibrium even if utilitarian reasoning would be a better coordination point (although, again, my arguments in the previous section cast doubt on this claim). Consider the case of language again: even if we’d all be better off speaking Esperanto, I don’t have a reason to switch unless sufficiently many others switch as well. Similarly, if a useful moral code is one that will help us coordinate our plans and expectations—that is, it will function as a shared decision procedure—then individual moral agents should switch to a new code only if others switch too. Thanks are due to an anonymous referee for helpful questions on this point.

  35. 35.

    An anonymous referee notes that utilitarians are able to coordinate with non-utilitarians in the real world. However, I would predict that this coordination is due to utilitarians’ reliance on intuitive moral judgment for micro-level decisions.

  36. 36.

    Thanks are due to an anonymous referee for raising this objection.

  37. 37.

    For instance, Greene (2013, 114) reports that subjects say that it is wrong to push someone off of a footbridge in the trolley problem.


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Thanks are due to Julia Annas, Nathan Ballantyne, Robyn Bluhm, Thomas Christiano, Gerald Gaus, Josh Gert, Brad Hooker, Dale Miller, David Schmidtz, participants at the 2008 Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, participants at the 2008 Interdisciplinary Approaches to Philosophical Issues conference at the University of South Alabama, and two anonymous refereees for this journal for their helpful comments.

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Freiman, C. How Neuroscience Can Vindicate Moral Intuition. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 18, 1011–1025 (2015).

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  • Utilitarianism
  • Moral psychology
  • Moral intuitions