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A tale of two cities: emotion and reason in the formation of moral judgement and possible metaethical implications

Abstract

The project of naturalizing ethics has multiple contributions, from cognitive and moral psychology to primatology, neuroscience or evolutionary theory. One of the strategies for naturalizing ethics has been to argue that moral norms and values can be explained away if we focus on their causal history, if it is possible to offer both an ultimate and proximate causal explanation for them. In this article, I will focus on the contribution of cognitive and moral psychology as a way of offering a proximate causal explanation for moral judgments. I am mostly interested in understanding to what extent these cognitive and psychological questions have some bearing in the fields of ethics and meta-ethics. Does this research programme put at stake the contention that ethics is a manifestation of human rationality? Is it true that finding the cognitive underpinnings of some of our moral judgments vindicates some meta-ethical position, namely some kind of reductionist naturalism? In the end, I will argue that even if scientific disciplines such as cognitive psychology give us a naturalized picture of the moral agent, there seem to be no reasons to think that from a naturalized perspective of the agent capable of perceiving value it must follow the naturalization of value itself.

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Notes

  1. Thanks to the pioneering work of Marr (1982).

  2. See Caplan (2002) and Hirschfeld and Gelman (1994) for an overview on this topic. Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar also intended to explain how language works on a cognitive and sub-personal level. He was the first to put forward the hypothesis according to which language is an independent cognitive ability specialized to handle a specific task. See Chomsky (1965) and Hauser et al. (2002) for an update on the theory.

  3. See Barkow et al. (1992) and Buss (2019) for a psychological and cognitive approach; see Sober (1994) and Sober and Wilson (1998) for a philosophical discussion about the same issues.

  4. See, for instance, Wynn (2008), Olson and Spelke (2008), Bloom (2013) and Hamlin et al. (2007).

  5. See de Waal (1996, 2000, 2006), Preston and de Waal (2002), and Brosnan and de Waal (2003).

  6. See, for instance, Damásio (1994), Bechara et al. (1994), Greene (2005) and Moll et al. (2003).

  7. See Kohlberg (1969, 1983) and also Piaget (1965).

  8. See Kohlberg (1968).

  9. Elliott Turiel’s Moral Domain Theory continues this line of research. He formulated a theory of domains of social development according to which individuals use distinct domains of reasoning to reason about their moral or social/conventional decisions. Moral judgments are based on concepts of welfare, justice, and rights, whose rudimentary notions are acquired early in childhood and then developed into adulthood. See Turiel (1983).

  10. See Haidt (2001, 2008, 2013).

  11. See Prinz (2007).

  12. See Greene et al. (2001) and Greene (2008, 2014).

  13. See Cosmides and Tooby (1992), Richerson and Boyd (2005), Tomasello (2009).

  14. Nagel (1986).

  15. See for instance Haidt (2013).

  16. The heuristics program was first developed by Tversky and Kahneman. See Kahneman et al. (1982), Kahneman (2003).

  17. See Frankish (2010) for a review on dual processing and dual systems theories, and Cushman et al. (2010) for an update.

  18. In fact, a growing body of evidence has consistently showed that the image provided by neo-classical economics—the perfectly rational (with a consistent, coherent, and transparent body of beliefs) and purely self-interested agent—is an illusion. See for instance Gigerenzer and Selten (2001) and Kahneman (2011).

  19. Berger et al. (2008).

  20. Bateson et al. (2006).

  21. See for instance Baron (1994) and Sunstein (2005). Gigerenzer also argues that the same heuristics that guide judgements, decisions and actions in the non-moral domain also affect specifically moral judgements, decisions and actions: “Heuristics that underlie moral actions are largely the same as those for underlying behaviour that is not morally tinged. They are constructed from the same building blocks in the adaptive toolbox. That is, one and the same heuristic can solve both problems that we call moral and those we do not.” (Gigerenzer 2008: 9).

  22. See Petrinovich and O’Neill (1996).

  23. See Schwitzgebel and Cushman (2011).

  24. See Schnall et al. (2008).

  25. See Helzer and Pizarro (2011).

  26. For philosophical assessments of this empirical literature, see, for instance, Horowitz (1998), Doris and Stich (2005) and Sinnott-Armstrong (2005). For overviews of the relevant empirical literature, see Kahneman (2011), Nisbett and Ross (1980), and Gilovich et al. (2002).

  27. See, for instance, Parfit (2011) and Scanlon (2014).

  28. See for instance Harman (1986).

  29. See for instance Hieronymi (2013).

  30. See Smith (1994).

  31. See Railton (1986).

  32. Let’s not forget about R.M. Hare’s famous rational “archangels” (1981), the ones who conduct a critical type of moral thinking, making use of the right arguments and principles.

  33. “The minds of living systems should be understood relative to the environment in which they evolved rather than to the tenets of classical rationality.” (Gigerenzer and Goldstein 1996: 651).

  34. See also Gigerenzer et al. (2000) and Samuels et al. (1999).

  35. See, for instance, Lai et al. (2014) and Devine et al. (2012), and see also Fitzgerald et al. (2019) for an overview.

  36. See, again, Kahneman (2011).

  37. See Haidt (2001, 2008, 2013).

  38. Slovic et al. (2002).

  39. Small et al (2007) and Jenni and Loewenstein (1997).

  40. Hauser et al. (2007).

  41. See Greene et al. (2001) and Greene and Haidt (2002).

  42. Cf. Wheatley and Haidt (2005).

  43. Cf. Haidt et al. (1993); see also Haidt (2001).

  44. Bargh and Chartrand (1999).

  45. See for instance Darley and Batson (1973) and Mathews and Cannon (1975). Darley and Batson were responsible for the famous The Good Samaritan Study, where hurried passersby were 6 times less likely than unhurried passersby to help someone in need (even if the reason why they are in a hurry is that they are late for a lecture on the parable of the Good Samaritan…).

  46. This is the so-called Phone Booth Study, which showed that people who had found a dime in a phone booth’s coin return were 22 times more likely to help a woman in need than those who did not find it. See Isen and Levin (1972).

  47. Related to this point, there is an interesting philosophical discussion about whether the canonical theories of rationality (logic, or rational decision theory) can be empirically challenged. Some consider that the psychological results in no way undermine the principles of rationality, because when we interpret the data obtained through these experiments to try to understand whether they respect the principles of decision theory, for example, the framework in which this interpretation occurs is still the theoretical framework provided by decision theory itself. In other words, to interpret this data we make use of the very principles that would be being tested, so there would be no way to empirically revoke their validity. If the theory of rationality that is being tested is the theory that is used to interpret the results, then such a theory cannot be subject to empirical or experimental confirmation or revocability. For if we say that agents are being irrational, it is by relation to that theory. See Cohen (1981), and see also Davidson (1995) and Putnam (1982).

  48. See Kelly and Roedder (2008) and Madva (2019) for an interesting ethical discussion on this issue and see Kelly et al. (2010) for an overview of the relevant empirical literature.

  49. Singer (2011).

  50. Bloom (2013).

  51. See Casebeer (2003, 2008) and Harris (2011), but also Flanagan (1996) and Rottschaefer (1997).

  52. Haidt (2013).

  53. Here are some (different) examples of reductionist proposals at the meta-ethical level: Casebeer (2003), Railton (1986), Flanagan et al. (2016), Rottschaefer and Martinsen (1990).

  54. This is how John McDowell (1998), for instance, reads Aristotle. For an analysis of the concept of second nature see also McDowell (1994) and De Caro and Macarthur (2004).

  55. Ruse (1986).

  56. Reasons need not be strange or metaphysically bizarre entities, unless one supposes a reductionist physicalism that we are not obliged to accept. Moreover, if the invocation of reasons constitutes a problem for naturalism, then not only ethics but science itself is in trouble.

  57. Putnam's work is very relevant to this point. See Putnam (2005) for further discussion on this matter.

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This research work is supported by national funds through FCT - Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, I.P., in the context of the celebration of the program contract foreseen in the numbers 4, 5 and 6 of article 23.º of D.L. no. 57/2016 of 29 August, as amended by Law no. 57/2017 of 19 July.

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Cadilha, S. A tale of two cities: emotion and reason in the formation of moral judgement and possible metaethical implications. HPLS 44, 35 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40656-022-00503-0

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Keywords

  • Naturalism
  • Ethics
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Value
  • Rationality