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The past decade has seen many moral philosophers take an interest in psychological research, to the point that some are even doing it, under the label of "experimental philosophy." Why have these scholars forsaken their armchairs for laboratories? What will become of traditional philosophical analysis? Should any of this affect the ethical choices that we make in everyday life? These are the questions that motivated Kwame Anthony Appiah's Experiments in Ethics, a book based on a series of lectures delivered by Appiah in 2005 at Bryn Mawr College.
To see the general importance of these questions, consider an experimental study conducted by Thalia Wheatley and Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia. Wheatley and Haidt asked college students to judge the moral wrongness of various actions. But beforehand, the subjects were hypnotized so that they would feel disgust at certain words, such as often. When the subjects heard a vignette about a certain action, and the vignette contained the "disgust word," the subjects made reliably harsher judgments. Even when the action could not be reasonably viewed as morally objectionable, the subjects disapproved; asked about a high school student who ran for student council president, disgusted subjects described the act as morally wrong--one said "it just seems like he's up to something." If moral intuitions are affected by such irrelevant information as a pang of disgust at someone's word choice, how can we take moral intuitions as the starting point for discussions about ethics?
Appiah's initial chapter preempts concerns that there is something inappropriate about philosophers examining (or conducting) empirical research. His method of argument here is historical, pointing out the many important philosophers who did not perceive the now-prominent gap between philosophy and the sciences. Aristotle is known today as a philosopher, but he wrote about physics as well as metaphysics, and some of his work on animal physiology was unsurpassed until just a couple of centuries ago. David Hume and other Enlightenment philosophers made references to "the moral sciences," even though the term might sound like an oxymoron to us today. Appiah shows that the cleaving of philosophy from the sciences is hardly a century old, and so experimental approaches to philosophy merely return philosophers to their roots.
The next chapter is a case study in the relationship between moral philosophy and scientific research: the issue of whether we have stable personality traits, and the bearing this has on the concept of moral character. "Virtue ethics" is an approach to morality dating back at least to Aristotle, but it has regained popularity in the past few decades, due to dissatisfaction with competing approaches such as utilitarianism. Since virtue ethicists propose that good actions are defined as those done by people with the proper virtues (e.g., honesty, compassion), virtue ethics requires that virtues exist as part of individuals' character structures. Unfortunately, a variety of social psychological studies cast doubt on this proposition. For instance, many people are familiar with the famous Milgram obedience study, in which the majority of participating subjects followed orders to give (what they thought were) powerful electric shocks to an innocent man in the next room. To take a less extreme example, social psychologists have shown that people are far more likely to help someone else when they are in an environment with a pleasant smell, or when they have just gotten a small piece of luck (e.g., finding a dime in a pay phone). Appiah takes this research to rule out certain strong forms of virtue ethics, which require that people who are morally good with respect to a certain virtue always act in accordance with it, but he notes that virtue ethics can still serve as a guide to life, defining the ideals that should serve as our aims, even if we rarely live up to them.
The third chapter generalizes Appiah's approach from a specific issue (character traits) to the general issue of philosophical methodology--whether intuitions are a valid place to start doing moral philosophy. Just as with his reaction to the character traits debate, Appiah acknowledges empirical research that casts doubt on traditional philosophical assumptions, but he argues that small modifications to our use of those assumptions are sufficient to deal with the research. Here the research consists of studies like that of Wheatley and Haidt, as well as studies on topics other than morality. To take one from the latter category, the cognitive psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have shown that people give different answers in emergency decision-making tasks, depending on whether the options are framed in terms of the number of people who will live or framed in terms of deaths. These studies make us doubt human rationality generally, but especially as a guide to decisions about complex issues. Appiah wisely notes, however, that the results of these studies are often explained by psychologists as showing the influence of general rules of thumb (heuristics) for problem solving that usually work quite well and are far more efficient than time-consuming algorithms. Appiah goes on to suggest that our moral intuitions can be viewed, similarly, as based on general principles that usually yield optimal results, even if the new experimental philosophers can come up with strange cases in which our intuitions fail. If we view our intuitions more humbly, as the product of heuristics, we can choose to reject them in individual cases and use the empirical research to learn when these cases are likely to arise.
Appiah's final chapter is his most meditative and speculative. He tries to connect the preceding chapters with more general concerns about how life should be lived, by connecting morality to happiness. Unfortunately, his rhetorical strategy presumes that readers share his intuitions about a variety of topics. For instance, Appiah points out that we want our loved ones to be happy, but not if that happiness is due to immoral behaviors. Appiah's example, of a man who would not want his daughter to be happy only because her boyfriend pretended to love her, is an interesting one. Certainly, I would agree that it would be preferable if her boyfriend really did love her sincerely, but that's not the proper comparison. I'm not sure whether I would prefer the boyfriend to be honest at the expense of the daughter's happiness--I'd have to know more about the concrete situation. A few pages later, Appiah tells us that happiness can't be merely a subjective feeling because none of us would want to plug into the "experience machine"--a supercomputer that could make us feel as if great things were happening to us--just for the immediate pleasure. I doubt that I would plug in, but I can't really speak for others, especially for those who don't have much to lose in their present lives. The experimental philosophers would at least conduct a survey to see if Appiah's intuitions are shared, but despite the topic of the book, this doesn't seem to have crossed his mind.
At times, Appiah's final speculative pages seem to show a thoughtless moralism. Appiah borrows an example from Elizabeth Anscombe (a famously moralistic philosopher), claiming that it is not enough to have things in life that you value--you must value the right things. As Appiah puts it, "You cannot give a saucer of mud significance in your life simply by announcing that you want it; and, indeed, if you find you do want it for no purpose, this is not a reason to go looking for a saucer of mud, but rather a reason to seek clinical help." I have no interest in saucers of mud, but I do like books, and there are occasionally books that I like to acquire for no reason other than to have them. I may have already read someone else's copy, and I may never refer back to the book, so acquiring it doesn't really have the specific purpose that Appiah demands. Hopefully, I do not require clinical services! Of course, whether my interest in books is inappropriate is a question best answered, again, through empirical work, in which we could find out whether an interest in acquiring books leads to impairment in everyday life.
Appiah, then, is best in this book when he makes small points--critiquing an experiment, noting an error in logic, etc.--while his bolder ideas often fall flat. Still, his summaries of the new experimental moral philosophy and its supporting research are valuable. Books on the topic keep coming out--Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, Jon Haidt's Happiness Hypothesis, and most recently, three volumes of Moral Psychology edited by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong--and Appiah's gentle criticisms are useful correctives to the current excitement. Of course, as Appiah's parochial speculations about the good life show, there's a reason for the excitement about empirical work's corrective abilities as well.
© 2008 Benjamin J. Lovett
Benjamin J. Lovett, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Elmira College, where he teaches classes on a variety of topics in applied psychology. His research focuses on the conceptual and psychometric foundations of psychoeducational assessment and psychiatric diagnosis.
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