On experiencing moral properties


Do we perceptually experience moral properties like rightness and wrongness? For example, as in Gilbert Harman’s classic case, when we see a group of young hoodlums pour gasoline on a cat and ignite it, can we, in the same robust sense, see the action’s wrongness? (Harman in The nature of morality, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1977). Many philosophers have recently discussed this question, argued for a positive answer and/or discussed its epistemological implications. This paper presents a new case for a negative answer by, first, getting much clearer on how such experience could be possible at all; second, responding the only argument for a positive answer; and, finally, arguing that postulation of such experience is explanatorily redundant.

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  1. 1.

    Two comments. First, the question is about perceptual experience or seeing in a robust sense. Many people would grant that in the above case we can just see that the action is wrong, in the sense of non-inferentially knowing it without knowing how we know it. But our question is whether we can visually experience or see the action’s wrongness in a more substantive way to be established. Second, I will conduct the discussion in terms of seeing wrongness and rightness, even though perhaps it’s more plausible that we experience prima facie wrongness/rightness or reasons for or against actions etc. As far as I can see, nothing in the discussion depends on this.

  2. 2.

    For example, Audi (2013), Cullison (2010), Chudnoff (2015), Crow (2014), Faraci (2014), McBrayer (2010).

  3. 3.

    The term ‘presence as absence’ comes from Alva Nöe (2004, 2006).

  4. 4.

    At least in the case of vision, objectification is closely related to figure-ground separation. In the case of seeing pitch black all around you nothing pops out as a figure against the ground. In contrast, in the case of seeing a red apple on a table both the apple and the table pop out.

  5. 5.

    Something similar can be said about hearing a bird singing where it’s the sound that is objectified and in relation to which we can move, as well as touching the ball where it’s the ball that becomes objectified and which we can tactually explore (Fulkerson 2014: Ch. 6; O’Callaghan 2007: Ch. 3, 6).

  6. 6.

    Cowan also makes two general remarks about the difference between experience of sensory qualities or “presence” and less robust sort of experiences or “presence as absence”. I want to here briefly comment on the first (I will comment on the second a bit later). Namely, that experience of sensory qualities presents us with properties that we are suitably counterfactually sensitive to in the sense that if the property had not been present and the rest of the scene was held constant, then the experience would have changed. For example, if I experience a red apple then I’m presented with a particular shade of redness and it’s true that if the redness had not been present I would have had a different experience. In contrast, experience of completion does not present us with properties we’re counterfactually sensitive to. Even if the apple lacked a backside or we were dealing with undetached cat parts we would still have the same experience (Cowan 2015: pp. 171–172). This is a nice way of elucidating the contrast between experience of sensory qualities and all less robust sort of experiences, but it doesn’t help us any further because it doesn’t tell us which of the less robust sort of experiences that exhibit this feature is a good model for experience of moral properties. As I argued above, experience of completion is not.

  7. 7.

    Cowan follows Siegel in thinking of Matching as involving cognitive penetration. However, this is not mandatory, and, in my opinion, not very plausible. Diachronic perceptual learning does not need to depend on cognitive penetration (for discussion, see Lyons 2005, 2007). However, this won’t really matter for us here.

  8. 8.

    A referee asks whether, even if wrong acts lack a typical look, couldn’t actions that have thick moral properties like being cruel or being selfish have such looks (for more on thick moral concepts and properties see Väyrynen 2016). This is an interesting idea. Nevertheless, it seems false. Suppose a medieval torturer tortures a prisoner and thereby performs a cruel action. Now, suppose your lukewarm lover explicitly flirts with someone else in your presence with the clear intention of causing you emotional pain. S/he thereby also commits a cruel action. Yet, it’s clear that there needs to be nothing visually or otherwise perceptually in common between those actions (especially if we assume that the caused suffering isn’t evident in the second case).

  9. 9.

    Here’s Cowan’s second general remark about the difference between “presence” and “presence as absence”. He again appeals to Macpherson’s work in telling us that experience of objects and their sensory qualities provides a sort of spatial framework into which “presence as absence representation” is added (Cowan 2015: pp. 172–173). This isn’t implausible in the case of completion. Completion plausibly involves mental imagery and thus it makes sense to think that the experience of objects and their sensory qualities provides an iconically represented spatial framework to which some mental imagery is added (Briscoe 2011; Nanay 2010). However, it seems to me a non-starter in the case of experience of kind membership. Cowan writes “e.g. the phenomenal representation of the pine tree property is added to the space occupied by the pine-tree-making low-level properties” (Cowan 2015: p. 172). But what could this even mean? To recognize an object as belonging to a kind is not a matter of having anything added to your phenomenal representation. It’s to have a conceptual, propositional attitude.

  10. 10.

    What they mainly argue over is whether recognitional experience has sensory or perceptual phenomenology or rather the sort of cognitive phenomenology characteristic of concept use (see Reiland 2014 for discussion).

  11. 11.

    Two comments. First, I’ve previously given a parallel Redundancy argument against experience of meanings (see Reiland 2015b). There the claim is that employment of semantic competence explains understanding and its cognitive phenomenology or sensory accompaniments explain the relevant phenomenal contrasts. Thus, the postulation of further penetration of perceptual experience by the employment of semantic competence doesn’t do any work. Second, after having written this paper, I found out that a similar argument is given by Pekka Väyrynen in his paper “Doubts About Moral Perception” (Väyrynen 2018). While I suggest that the phenomenal contrast is explained by Norma’s empathy with its affective phenomenology, he suggests instead that it is explained by the fact that Norma’s seeing the scene together with her emotional response leads her to make a habitual inference to the act’s being wrong. However, he argues, like I do above, that an account that doesn’t postulate a further step on which this inference cognitively penetrates perceptual experience is simpler and more unified than one that does.


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I want to thank Josefa Toribio, audiences at the University of Barcelona and University of Tartu, and three anonymous referees for this journal for their helpful comments and discussion.


Funding was provided by H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (Grant No. 675415).

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Correspondence to Indrek Reiland.

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Reiland, I. On experiencing moral properties. Synthese 198, 315–325 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-018-02004-9

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  • Perceptual experience
  • High-level
  • Moral property
  • Cognitive penetration
  • Contrast argument