Learning the psychological origins of our moral judgments can lead us to lose confidence in them. In this paper I explain why. I consider two explanations drawn from existing literature—regarding epistemic unreliability and automaticity—and argue that neither is fully adequate. I then propose a new explanation, according to which psychological research reveals the extent to which we are disturbingly disunified as moral agents.
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By ‘phenomenological’ I do not mean perceptual phenomenology; I am not talking about colors or smells. What I will describe might be better called intellectual phenomenology: it pertains to the experience of a certain sequence of beliefs and emotions. To call this phenomenological is merely to stress that the immediate interest is about what it is like to go through this experience.
Peter Singer thinks so as well, judging by his rhetoric: “[W]hat is the moral salience of the fact that I have killed someone in a way that was possible a million years ago, rather than in a way that became possible only two hundred years ago? I would answer: none.” (Singer 2005, 348). This does not appear to be an argument, unless Singer expects his reader to share his reaction.
There are also general epistemic reasons, not restricted to the moral domain, to resist causal debunking of our beliefs (White 2010). However, since it is not universally agreed that moral judgment does or should obey the same epistemic standards as other reasoning domains, I will restrict my discussion to distinctively moral judgment.
Elsewhere I do, in effect, defend the rationality of some cases of doxastic embarrassment (Rini 2013). But the argument of this paper does not rely on that one.
Sinnott-Armstrong’s mention of inferential connection here is meant to narrow the target of his skeptical argument. He does not aim to debunk moral intuitions completely, but only to claim that they cannot be treated as free-standing sources of justification; they must be embedded in a broader coherentist framework. In effect, Sinnott-Armstrong is attacking Intuitionist views in moral epistemology (e.g. Audi 2008). He does mount a more generally skeptical challenge to moral intuition in Sinnott-Armstrong (2006).
There are some very sophisticated forms of non-cognitivism that seek to preserve truth-related language, even the standard operations of moral epistemology, while denying that moral judgments are semantically truth-evaluable. See for instance Blackburn (1996).
Another reason is that there may be logical problems with psychological debunking arguments. In this paper I have left their internal logic unchallenged, but elsewhere I point out a problem (Rini 2016). If, for whatever reason, you doubt that this sort of argument works, and yet you experience doxastic embarrassment, then that seems sufficient reason to keep reading.
What would be shocking is the discovery that reflection never plays a role in generating, revising, or sustaining moral beliefs. But not even Haidt claims this—his model allows a role for explicit moral reasoning, albeit “hypothesized to occur somewhat rarely outside of highly specialized subcultures such as that of philosophy, which provides years of training in unnatural modes of thought” (Haidt and Bjorklund 2008, 193).
Here there is the complicated counterfactual matter of what I would have done if the adrenaline shot had not been present. Presumably (as per the first case) I would have automatically acted from my commitments and saved you—so my movement seems to be overdetermined, in a way that complicates analysis of moral responsibility (Frankfurt 1971). But I am trying to sidestep issues of responsibility here; the point of the case is just to clarify what is involved in agency. For discussion of consciousness and moral responsibility, see Sie (2009) and Levy (2014).
This case parallels a regular source of interpersonal drama in fiction—the mistake that is maybe not entirely an accident. See, for example, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, or Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.
Anyway, I think that it is bad to be agentially disunified. But I should admit that not everyone thinks this, especially not those spared a Kantian intellectual upbringing. Many Buddhists hold that conceiving of oneself as a single unified agent is not only mistaken but is the root of suffering. It may be that my analysis does not apply to people with radically different conceptions of the self and human agency. I would be interested to know whether people raised in this tradition experience doxastic embarrassment at all; if they do, then that is a problem for my theory. Thanks to Nic Bommarito for this point (and for the phrase ‘Kantian intellectual upbringing’).
This is not too far off from Allan Gibbard’s claim that when I judge what is to be done in a particular circumstance, I am making a plan for what I would do were I ever in that circumstance. See Gibbard (2003, 48–53).
Indeed, that is Greene’s point: he says that the up-close-and-personal mechanism explains my deontological moral intuitions, and that deontological moral philosophy is a rationalization of my primate psychology (Greene 2008, 68).
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This paper has extensively benefited from discussion by conference audiences at Oxford and NYU, especially a set of superb comments by Nic Bommarito. It was also greatly improved by participants in the 2015 Mentoring Workshop for Women in Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, including Dana Howard, Julia Nefsky, Tina Rulli, and most especially Amelia Hicks and Karen Stohr. I also owe thanks to Nomy Arpaly, Nora Heinzelmann, Guy Kahane, David Kaspar, Hanno Sauer, Amia Srinivasan, and an anonymous reviewer for Philosophical Studies for very helpful comments and discussion.
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Rini, R.A. Why moral psychology is disturbing. Philos Stud 174, 1439–1458 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-016-0766-4
- Moral judgment
- Moral intuition
- Moral psychology
- Doxastic embarrassment