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Moral Naturalism is Back! And so am I! August 22, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature.
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Vacation’s over, and I’m back after having been out of town all summer. Thanks to Dwight for keeping the blog hot, even with jury duty! Ever the optimist, I hope to weigh in on topics close to my heart, and mind (for I believe in the importance of both) with shorter intervals than last semester.

First, welcome to the new academic year, everyone—for I assume that most of you are involved in Academia in some form or other.  Next, let’s dig into the pile of saved articles I’ve accumulated over the past months where I haven’t had regular Internet access (and I survived!). Here’s a story that caught my eye, from New York Times July 22: A conference was held in Connecticut in which a new breed of moral philosophers (ethicists working with evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists) confirmed the philosophical presence, and importance, of moral naturalism. A quick recap: Moral naturalism is the philosophy that morality is a natural occurrence in the human mind—not (primarily) a matter of acculturation, or selfish/unselfish choices based on rationality. In the 20th century moral naturalism was crowded out by psychoanalysis, behaviorism, logical positivism, and other approaches which all have merit, but the idea that ethics could be founded in our emotional apparatus wasn’t getting much attention except for a few thinkers such as Richard Taylor and Philip Hallie. (You’ll recognize some themes here from many of my previous posts.)

But something started happening in the late 1980s—interestingly, paralleling the development of narrative ethics, the idea that moral values find expression, and may be developed through storytelling. From one direction came the new findings of neuroscientists: that an area of the brain seems to be devoted to moral considerations. From another came the evolutionary psychologists, connecting morals to our long history of evolution. Add to that experimental philosophy, with its (sometimes a mite oversimplified, but intriguing) “What if” questions such as the famous Trolley Problem, introduced by Philippa Foot. Combine that with narrative ethics, and you get a new form of moral naturalism (and that description is also oversimplified, but I’m just trying to paint a general picture): human emotions have developed certain built-in features that enable us, even as babies, to recognize right from wrong, from the perspective of being social animals; as adults, these features are still fundamental, but can be overridden—by experience, cultural pressures, and/or reason; and the stories we hear, and tell, about right and wrong, will combine our moral emotions with a sense of causality, and teach/explain the moral dos and don’ts that will provide either compliance with societal rules or rebellion against them. So here, moving into the second decade of the new millennium, we have a moral philosophy that is actually on fairly firm ground, working with science as well as recognizing the common human experience of moral feelings. This is exciting, folks. So doesn’t anyone see a downside to this? Yes, some ethicists question the loss of the exalted state of reason as the foundation and instigator of moral choices and values. And we may have to do yet another reevaluation down the line, reinstating reason as a fundamental element of ethics. I often argue that we’ll have to, because moral emotions are error-prone.

So here are some tidbits from the conference, reported by David Brooks:

Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia argues that this moral sense is like our sense of taste. We have natural receptors that help us pick up sweetness and saltiness. In the same way, we have natural receptors that help us recognize fairness and cruelty. Just as a few universal tastes can grow into many different cuisines, a few moral senses can grow into many different moral cultures.

Paul Bloom of Yale noted that this moral sense can be observed early in life. Bloom and his colleagues conducted an experiment in which they showed babies a scene featuring one figure struggling to climb a hill, another figure trying to help it, and a third trying to hinder it.

At as early as six months, the babies showed a preference for the helper over the hinderer. In some plays, there is a second act. The hindering figure is either punished or rewarded. In this case, 8-month-olds preferred a character who was punishing the hinderer over ones being nice to it.

This illustrates, Bloom says, that people have a rudimentary sense of justice from a very early age. This doesn’t make people naturally good. If you give a 3-year-old two pieces of candy and ask him if he wants to share one of them, he will almost certainly say no. It’s not until age 7 or 8 that even half the children are willing to share. But it does mean that social norms fall upon prepared ground. We come equipped to learn fairness and other virtues.

Brooks comments that the conference left alone the question of transcendence and the sacred, and that is a valid complaint, since so many people are convinced that the entire idea of ethics is founded in religion, and we can’t just disregard that conviction and throw it under the trolley—that’s as bad as 20th century ethicists disregarding the role of emotions. But my overriding concern is that the moral naturalists of the 21st century (to which I suppose I belong) are losing sight of the role of reason, and that the new moral naturalism will become another fad, a radical “ism” that will, in time, be replaced by a counter-theory, in good Hegelian fashion.  We’re not quite at the pinnacle yet, where we understand everything about ethics.


The “Folk” are Relativists November 5, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Ethics, Philosophy.
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The folks at Experimental Philosophy have some new data supporting the claim that most non-philosophers are ethical relativists, i.e. they believe that standards of rightness and wrongness are determined by cultural norms.

For example, we asked subjects to interpret disagreement on the morality of the following action: “Dylan buys an expensive new knife and tests its sharpness by randomly stabbing a passerby on the street.” When asked whether disagreeing Americans could both be correct in their judgments about the morality of this action, the folk were predictably objectivist.

Things began to shift, though, when the disagreeing individuals were depicted as belonging to different cultural groups. When the disagreement was between an American and a member of an Amazonian warrior culture, or a member of an extraterrestrial species called the Pentars, objectivity levels dropped in turn. It seems as though subjects think that there could be objectively correct moral judgments within cultures, but not between them. The greater the disparity of the cultural groups, the more the folk started to embrace a relativistic conception of morality.

The experimenters express some surprise at these results, but I’m not sure why. Among my students, moral objectivists are rather rare.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


Ethicists Are Not Ethical June 18, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy Profession, Teaching.
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Via Inside Higher Ed:

According to a paper written by two philosophy professors, Eric Schwitzgebel of the University of California at Riverside and Joshua Rust of Stetson University, a college professorship in ethics does not necessary translate into moral behavior. At least, that’s what the people who work with ethicists say.

Their results:

Most of the 277 survey respondents reported no positive correlation between a professional focus on ethics and actual moral behavior. Respondents who were ethicists themselves shied away from saying that ethicists behave worse than those outside the discipline – generally reporting that ethicists behave either the same or better – but non-ethicists were mostly split between reporting that ethicists behave the same as or worse than others. Even those ethicists who did rank their peers’ behavior as better than average said their moral behavior is just barely better than average – hardly a ringing endorsement.

I don’t find this surprising. Why think that people who study ethics are morally superior to people who don’t. Are psychologists more mentally stable than non-psychologists? Are chemists better cooks?

One of the paper’s authors goes on to express some doubt about whether ethics courses improve student’s behavior:

“People do sometimes justify ethics courses on the assumption that taking ethics courses will improve students’ behavior down the road,” Schwitzgebel said, noting legal and business ethics as examples, although they are separate from ethics courses in the philosophy department. “I think there is a potential this line of research could undercut the justification for those classes.”

But, as Schwitzgebel was quick to point out, his study does not imply that. The jump from ethics professors’ immoral behavior to students’ benefiting (or not) from ethics courses is a long one to make, he said.

I think there is some confusion here.  People who behave well tend to be well-motivated. But theorizing about ethics probably has little influence on motivational states. People who lack moral motives because they are narcissistic, excessively selfish, authoritarian, etc. will not acquire moral motives through theoretical reasoning. (My Kantian friends might disagree.)

However, if a person is well-motivated, studying ethical theory can give her the tools to think more clearly and consistently about ethical behavior. Studying ethics makes well-motivated people better; scoundrels will need more than a finely-honed argument to get well.

For an entertaining debate about this, head over to Crooked Timber.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com


Contradictions: Everybody’s Doing It June 4, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Here is a interesting result from the folks at Experimental Philosophy.

Apparently, most people think that contradictions can be true.

Consider the sentence:

(1) The circle is near the square, and it isn’t near the square.

This sentence appears to be a contradiction, and it therefore seems that defenders of classical logic would have to say that it was false. However, there are other logics — Graham Priest’s dialetheist logic LP, for example — in which sentences like this one can turn out to be true.

A question now arises as to what ordinary folks think of sentences like (1). Do people take the apparently classical view that such sentences have to be false, or do they think that sentences like (1) can actually turn out to be true?

In a surprising new paper, David Ripley shows that people are actually extremely willing to express agreement with apparently contradictory sentences like this one. In cases at the vague borderline between ‘near’ and ‘not near,’ people felt that it was perfectly acceptable to consider an object ‘both near and not near.’ In fact, they were just as willing to say that an object was ‘both near and not near’ as they were to say that it was ‘neither near nor not near.’

The paper explores various hypotheses about what people are actually thinking when they assert the truth of a contradictory statement. My uninformed intuition is that people contextualize the contradictory statements—the circle is near the square in one sense, but not near the square in some different sense of “near”.


book-section-book-cover2Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com


Overselling Experimental Philosophy March 3, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Science.
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This article on Experimental Philosophy (X-Phi) is overselling its capacity for innovation. Experimental Philosophy uses the techniques of empirical psychology (MRI scans, subject interviews and questionnaires, observations of behavior, etc.) to determine how ordinary people respond to philosophically interesting situations.

The authors rave about its revolutionary potential:

A dynamic new school of thought is emerging that wants to kick down the walls of recent philosophy and place experimentation back at its centre. It has a name to delight an advertising executive: x-phi. It has blogs and books devoted to it, and boasts an expanding body of researchers in elite universities. It even has an icon: an armchair in flames.

They proclaim that it has the potential to settle philosophical debates and is taking philosophy back to its roots in empirical research

…for the x-phi fan, empirical research is not a mere prop to philosophy, it is philosophy.

But this hype is mostly nonsense. X-phi is interesting because it might help philosophers do one part of their job. But it cannot solve philosophical problems.

Philosophers have always been concerned to describe our “untutored” beliefs about the world, the reasons or lack thereof for holding those beliefs, and to suggest how those untutored beliefs can be made more intelligible, coherent, or in touch with reality. That first task—to describe our “intuitions”—can be controversial. Too often, when philosophers describe what “we” believe, they are describing their own allegedly “untutored” intuitions. But there is no reason to think that philosophers’ “untutored” intuitions are shared by ordinary people. (not to mention the cultural biases that might come into play)

Experimental philosophy may help us determine what people believe and how they respond to various situations. Thus, it can act as a check against unreflectively assuming our intuitions are shared. But brain scans can’t tell us much about why people think as they do, and tracking blood flow or electrical activity is not going to reveal very much about patterns of reasoning. Furthermore, questionnaires and observations of behavior are notoriously unreliable in explaining the motives behind our actions, and are hardly revolutionary.

Most importantly, X-phi could not begin to tell us how we ought to think about reality. It is rooted in what is, not what should be. It can be critical of philosopher’s pretensions but not of the beliefs it purports to describe. It will not be making philosophical discoveries.

The real problem with some contemporary philosophy is not the absence of scientific data but the use of odd and fanciful scenarios like the Trolley Problem to unearth how we reason. Most people are not trained or accustomed to  thinking philosophically about wild, hypothetical scenarios that they have never encountered. I’m not at all sure that discovering what their brains do when confronted with such hypotheses is revealing.

To invoke Nietzsche (or Aristotle for that matter) in such an enterprise is a bit rich. Although both were interested in psychology, they were interested in how people responded to the realities of life—not the daydreams of professors.