Morality for Humans
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Morality for Humans

Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science

Mark Johnson

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eBook - ePub

Morality for Humans

Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science

Mark Johnson

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What is the difference between right and wrong? This is no easy question to answer, yet we constantly try to make it so, frequently appealing to some hidden cache of cut-and-dried absolutes, whether drawn from God, universal reason, or societal authority. Combining cognitive science with a pragmatist philosophical framework in Morality for Humans: Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science, Mark Johnson argues that appealing solely to absolute principles and values is not only scientifically unsound but even morally suspect. He shows that the standards for the kinds of people we should be and how we should treat one another—which we often think of as universal—are in fact frequently subject to change. And we should be okay with that. Taking context into consideration, he offers a remarkably nuanced, naturalistic view of ethics that sees us creatively adapt our standards according to given needs, emerging problems, and social interactions.Ethical naturalism is not just a revamped form of relativism. Indeed, Johnson attempts to overcome the absolutist-versus-relativist impasse that has been one of the most intractable problems in the history of philosophy. He does so through a careful and inclusive look at the many ways we reason about right and wrong. Much of our moral thought, he shows, is automatic and intuitive, gut feelings that we follow up and attempt to justify with rational analysis and argument. However, good moral deliberation is not limited merely to intuitive judgments supported after the fact by reasoning. Johnson points out a crucial third element: we imagine how our decisions will play out, how we or the world would change with each action we might take. Plumbing this imaginative dimension of moral reasoning, he provides a psychologically sophisticated view of moral problem solving, one perfectly suited for the embodied, culturally embedded, and ever-developing human creatures that we are.

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Année
2015
ISBN
9780226113548
ONE
Moral Problem-Solving as an Empirical Inquiry
A naturalized ethics has to find moral values in our ordinary physical, interpersonal, and cultural experience, and therefore not in some alleged realm of pure moral norms and principles. One of the biggest obstacles such an ethics must overcome is the widespread cultural assumption that moral reasoning is a totally unique form of judgment, unlike our ordinary processes of problem-solving in daily life. Morality is thought to be special, because it supposedly imposes unconditional values and universally binding principles, whereas mundane problem-solving is merely means-ends reasoning about how best to achieve a given end or desired state of affairs. Consequently, the first task of a naturalized ethics must be to validate the idea of moral reasoning as a form of problem-solving that does not rely on some special, unique realm of moral values.
Why Should Anyone Think that Moral Problem-Solving Requires a Unique Method?
Why is it that the forms of problem-solving that we employ for the ordinary practical situations we face in daily life are thought by many people to be inappropriate and inadequate when we are dealing with moral problems? Why should anyone think that there is some special status for what are known as “moral” or “ethical” judgments that make them fundamentally different in kind from all other types of normative judgments we make in our day-to-day affairs? Why do “moral” problems seem to require for their solution a special kind of method, a special form of reasoning and judgment, a special type of normativity?
One reason that moral strictures are often attributed a unique status is that we tend to believe that moral imperatives trump all our other garden-variety normative judgments, such as appraisals of artworks, claims about the best way to grow good tomatoes, and arguments over what constitutes excellence in medical practice. For example, if your aesthetic preference for veal parmesan conflicts with a perceived moral imperative against the slaughter and consuming of sentient creatures, then your moral obligations are supposed to outweigh any merely aesthetic or prudential values.
I will argue that the existential importance or gravitas of moral considerations—which I do not deny—does not require a unique source of values, a unique kind of experience, or a unique form of judgment. In other words, we can certainly acknowledge the importance and special force of moral imperatives without needing to ground that force on a presumption of a moral faculty that generates distinctly moral imperatives. Nor do we need some special exalted source—beyond our ordinary experience—to generate the moral obligation we experience.
I suspect that what leads many philosophers to think that moral reasoning is a unique and utterly distinct form of thinking is their mistaken belief that moral questions arise from a unique and utterly distinct type of experience—moral experience (as opposed to, say, aesthetic, religious, political, or economic experience). Moral questions, they reason, are questions about norms that generate imperatives about what unconditionally ought to be done—about right action. And the “ought” in such cases is supposed to have a certain overriding force. Moral norms pertain to moral rights, responsibilities, and actions, and they are not merely technical norms specifying what ought to be done to achieve a certain effect or desired state (as in “you ought to fertilize with chicken manure if you want the best flavor in Big Boy tomatoes”). Consequently, these moral norms and principles are thought to have a special normative force that is not present in other types of experiences and other forms of judgment. Those norms, they claim, must come from some pure source: either divine mind, an alleged universal pure practical reason, or perhaps some other transcendent origin—a source that generates commands of reason concerning which actions are morally permissible, which are impermissible, and which are obligatory.
I do not see any need to posit a special transcendent source of normativity to ground the force of moral judgments. Whatever moral “trumping” force there might be is primarily a consequence of the fact that certain things tend to matter more for us because they are thought to be necessary for the well-being of ourselves and others. My contention is that moral deliberation is a process of problem-solving that arises in situations of moral indeterminacy and conflict. I do not see any compelling evidence that we need a special form of normative reasoning that we do not already employ in dealing with other problems in our ordinary experience where values are at stake. We do not need some special moral faculty designed to deal exclusively with moral problems. Instead, moral inquiry involves valuations and appraisals that are similar in kind to judgments about good farming techniques, exemplary medical practices, or aesthetically compelling works. It is past time to get over the mistaken idea that so-called “factual” claims have neither a normative dimension nor normative implications. In this chapter, then, I will criticize the notion that I call the “autonomy (self-legislation) of the morally normative” and the attendant idea that there are distinctly moral experiences or problems that require a distinctly moral form of reasoning or judgment, based on distinctly moral values.
Toward the end of Human Nature and Conduct (1922), John Dewey says that his “foremost conclusion is that morals has to do with all activity into which alternative possibilities enter. For wherever they enter a difference between better and worse arises. Reflection upon action means uncertainty and consequent need of decision as to which course is better” (193). Moral deliberation arises when you are confronted with a problematic situation that calls for a decision about which of the perceived competing possibilities for action are better and which are worse. Dewey famously describes this moral problem-solving as a deliberative process of imaginative exploration of available alternative courses of action:
We begin with a summary assertion that deliberation is a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action. It starts from the blocking of efficient overt action, due to that conflict of prior habit and newly released impulse to which reference has been made. Then each habit, each impulse, involved in the temporary suspension of overt action takes its turn in being tried out. Deliberation is an experiment in finding out what the various lines of possible action are really like. (132)
The view represented in these two statements strikes me as so obvious that it is difficult to imagine anyone taking issue with it. Nevertheless, some version of it has been summarily and stridently rejected again and again over the past two centuries of moral theory. I will later develop my Deweyan view of imaginative moral deliberation, but for now I want to explain and defend the claim that moral reasoning is a form of problem-solving activity that utilizes basic forms of normative judgments of the sort that we employ all the time in our day-to-day experience. I do not imagine that anyone seriously denies that we engage in moral problem-solving, because you would not even need deliberation unless there was at least some prima facie problem facing you about how to act. Therefore, the issue is not whether moral reasoning is a form of problem-solving, but rather what forms of inquiry are appropriate to moral problems. The view I want to challenge is the idea that moral judgments require a unique source of values beyond what is involved in our ordinary problem-solving activities and a unique method of reasoning that is not a component of other basic kinds of inquiry.
Let us begin by considering a very mundane form of problem-solving. Let’s say you want to grow luscious tomatoes for your dinner table. You get advice from experienced, knowledgeable farmers about how to prepare the soil, what varieties of tomatoes grow best under which climate conditions, how to plant the starts, how to tend them, how much and what kind of fertilizer works best, what to do about insects and fungi, how much watering is recommended, and when to harvest the fruits of your labors. Behind all of this expert knowledge is years, perhaps even centuries, of accumulated scientific (especially botanical) knowledge coupled with the know-how of experienced practitioners (farmers).
Farming is what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “practice,” by which he means “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended” (1984, 187). The appropriate ends and goals of farming are established by a long history of expert practitioners (i.e., farmers) who come to understand what good farming is and what it can achieve when it is done well. Given the goods or ends defined internal to the practice of farming, farmers learn to recognize and prize exemplary enactments of their practice. This, in turn, gives rise to catalogues of the virtues that are required to realize the ends appropriate to that particular practice. The virtues (excellences) of good farmers are the traits of body and mind—the physical and mental skills and dispositions—that generally lead to success (i.e., exemplary achievement) in farming.
Practices are dynamic, not static. They can evolve through the creative activities of people who engage in them—that is, through ongoing experimentation with materials and techniques, through the transformation of the ends that define the practice, and through the emergence of extended or wholly new conceptions of ends and excellences. In such a conception of human activity, the values and standards of good practices come from within, and may be modified within, the developing practices. They are not external impositions from outside the practice itself, although there may certainly be “extrinsic” ends, purposes, and values that are manifest across a wide variety of different traditions of practice (e.g., making money, gaining respect, becoming famous, etc.).1
Every practice thus develops at least some recognized processes of inquiry and experimentation for carrying out the practice, and even for reconstructing it when the occasion calls for adaptation. In each of these cases, there is clearly some form of engaged inquiry going on, there is utilization of skills appropriate for excellent performance, there is reliance on empirical (often scientific) knowledge relevant to the solution of particular problems, and occasionally there is innovation in creating new modes of activity that extend or redefine the practice.2
MacIntyre’s notion of practices leads to the idea that living a morally exemplary life requires developing the requisite virtues, employing the appropriate forms of inquiry, and exercising the requisite skills necessary for navigating the sociocultural landscape in which one finds oneself. As Paul Churchland phrases it, moral knowledge is
a set of skills. To begin with, a morally knowledgeable adult has clearly acquired a sophisticated family of perceptual or recognitional skills, which skills allow him a running comprehension of his own social and moral circumstances, and of the social and moral circumstances of the others in his community. Equally clearly, a morally knowledgeable adult has acquired a complex set of behavioral and manipulational skills, which skills make possible his successful social and moral interaction with the others in his community. (2007, 40–41)
An important part of the requisite skill for navigating an extremely complex social landscape is the ability to assume a critical and reconstructive perspective on one’s own inherited moral tradition, so that we do not simply reproduce its values and practices blindly. Without this skill, there can be no intelligent moral growth and transformation. I address this critical and creative dimension later, in my treatment of moral deliberation, but for now I am interested in the idea that moral cultivation is acquiring virtues, skills, and attitudes that allow one to resolve morally problematic situations.3
MacIntyre’s account of practices captures the way in which forms of inquiry and problem-solving, with their own standards of excellence, emerge within the practices themselves, without requiring guidance from some source external to the practice. The question is: Can the methods and standards of moral inquiry emerge out of traditions of practice within moral communities, or do we need some external source of norms to guide our appraisals and behaviors? I will argue later that there are no such external, transcendent, or supernatural sources of moral values and principles, and that even if they did exist, we would not need them for our moral deliberation.
Given the conception of inquiry as embedded in, and emerging from, complex practices, including the ability for the inquiry to turn back on the practice itself to transform it, we can now return to the question with which I began this chapter: namely, why, when it comes to what we call our “moral” problems, would anyone refuse to utilize the same methods of inquiry and experimentation that we have developed through centuries of laborious practical engagement with problem-solving in our everyday lives? Why should so-called “moral” problems be thought of as essentially different in kind from our other garden-variety practical problems? And especially, why would we need a completely different method for solving those problems and a completely different set of standards or values of success and right action?
The answer to this fundamental question is that we have inherited a mistaken view of ethical questions as sui generis and therefore as requiring a unique set of standards, norms, and modes of reasoning that are fundamentally different in kind from our other kinds of mundane problem-solving. This view is an error that arises from our understandable desire for a moral certainty that we think could only come from universal, transcendent, unconditionally binding values and principles that would allow us to assess the relative merits of all moral systems that have ever existed.
My response to this received notion of unique types of experience and their corresponding unique forms of judgment is that (1) we need to abandon the idea that there are distinctive “moral” experiences (or problems) that are radically different in kind from other alleged types of experience (e.g., technical, scientific, aesthetic, religious), and (2) we need to give up the idea that this supposedly unique type of experience requires a corresponding unique type of judgment or reasoning for discerning how we ought to act.
I am going to follow Dewey’s lead in claiming that the possibility of a workable naturalized ethics rests on recognizing moral reasoning as a form of problem-solving that ought to employ the best methods of inquiry and the best experimental procedures available. Unfortunately, we are saddled with centuries-old traditions of moral philosophy that regard the idea of empirically grounded problem-solving as anathema to a proper conception of moral reasoning. Most of the arguments against the viability of a naturalistic ethics rely on some version of the claim that there are distinct moral experiences requiring distinct forms of ethical reasoning that are essentially different from the reasoning involved in other types of reasoning about practical matters. So, it behooves us to understand the reasons why the “autonomy of the ethical” is so deeply rooted in our commonsense and philosophical theories alike. To see how this fundamental differentiation of types of situations and types of judgments arose is to discover where certain kinds of moral philosophy went wrong and why ethical naturalism is still today accused of committing G. E. Moore’s supposedly catastrophic “naturalistic fallacy.”
The Myth of a Uniquely Moral Kind of Experience
Early in his book Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong (2006), Marc Hauser tells a fictionalized story of a young girl who is chastised by her father for two allegedly different kinds of actions, one supposedly moral and the other supposedly practical (what Hauser calls “commonsensical”). In the first case, the girl hits a boy who refuses to let her play in the sandbox. In the second case, she puts sand in her mouth. In both cases, her father expresses his anger and strong disapproval of the action. Hauser claims that the girl experiences the same anger and disapproval from her father regarding the two different cases, but somehow she recognizes that the causes of that disapproval represent two fundamentally different kinds of acts—one moral and the other merely a matter of hygiene (and hence a practical, commonsense issue). Hauser concludes, “Same emotion, different conclusion. Hitting has moral weight. Eating sand does not. How do the child’s emotions send one action to the moral sense and the other to common sense?” (30).4
Hauser’s example captures the widely held intuition that there are several independent kinds of experience, each requiring its own distinctive correlative form of reasoning and evaluation. The basic idea is that human experience comes differentiated into distinct types—theoretical, technical, moral, aesthetic, political, religious, and so forth—and that it is from our parents, teachers, experts, and peers that we learn how to categorize experiences not usually by explicit instruction, but more often simply through life experience. The notion that there are different discrete kinds of experience is a commonplace in many cultures, and there is at least some evidential support for the view. For example, in Western traditions, we tend to classify some actions and judgments as ethical (e.g., abortion, lying, murder, altruism), some as theoretical (e.g., the atomic weight of gold, whether Pluto is a planet, whether tamoxifen can help prevent the recurrence of breast cancer), some as technical (e.g., how to deactivate a bomb, how to make bread, how to cure a disease), some as aesthetic (e.g., whether a symphony manifests more the classical or romantic style, whether a certain sculpture is beautiful, which of Monet’s paintings of the same haystack are better), and so on with other supposed types of experiences. So, it begins to look as if our experiences come preclassified into separate kinds, each with its own special character that is not shared by any other kind.
Moreover, there is an impressive body of research into the way that early in their moral development children across cultures make a distinction between acts that are moral in nature and those that are merely social conventions. Elliot Turiel, a principal researcher in this area, claims that “over a per...

Table des matiĂšres

  1. Cover
  2. Copyright Page
  3. Title Page
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Preface
  7. Introduction: The Need for Ethical Naturalism
  8. 1: Moral Problem-Solving as an Empirical Inquiry
  9. 2: Where Are Our Values Bred?—Sources of Moral Norms
  10. 3: Intuitive Processes of Moral Cognition
  11. 4: Moral Deliberation as Cognition, Imagination, and Feeling
  12. 5: The Nature of “Reasonable” Moral Deliberation
  13. 6: There Is No Moral Faculty
  14. 7: Moral Fundamentalism Is Immoral
  15. 8: The Making of a Moral Self
  16. Acknowledgments
  17. Notes
  18. References
  19. Index