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Moral Psychology, Volume 2Review - Moral Psychology, Volume 2
The Cognitive Science of Morality: Intuition and Diversity
by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Editor)
MIT Press, 2008
Review by Neil Levy, Ph.D.
Dec 9th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 50)

This is the second volume in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong's three volume collection of the best recent work in empirically oriented moral psychology. Like the other two, it consists of substantive essays by important thinkers, often summarizing the contribution they have made to the topic, followed by briefer responses from others, and finally a response to the commentators. Like the other volumes, it is hugely impressive, and will serve as a benchmark and essential reference point for years to come.

I cannot hope to do justice to all these impressive contributions. I limit myself to some remarks on some of the essays I found interesting or challenging; other readers might have other preference.

The first contribution is by Gerd Gigerenzer. Gigerenzer is well known for arguing that the heuristics -- cognitive short cuts or rules of thumb -- are often reliable means of making decisions or solving problems; indeed, often more reliable than more effortful and apparently more rational procedures. Thus subjects will sometimes make better decisions if they consider only some of the relevant information, and not more. Here he argues (a) that moral intuitions are themselves the product of heuristics and (b) that knowing that fact enables us to develop ways of making moral intuitions more reliable. This second claim follows from the first because heuristics are triggered by features of the environment: if we know that an intuition is the product of a heuristic, we know how to go about supporting it, or preventing it in cases in which it proves unreliable.

These claims seem plausible, especially the second one (Gigerenzer claims that a heuristic is a different kind of thing to the intuitions studied by psychologists like Jonathan Haidt, because heuristics are the expression of unconscious reasons, and not mere emotions. But I do not find the contrast very useful: the claim that an intuition is an emotion is a claim about the output -- that it is nonconceptual -- and not about the processes that generate it, which are content-responsive on anyone's view). Less plausible are the normative claims Gigerenzer thinks follow from these.

Gigerenzer thinks that it follows from the claim that heuristics generate moral intuitions that consequentialism, or any other theory that holds that we ought to maximize along some dimension, is false. We ought to satisfice, not maximize. But this is badly confused. The fact, if it is a fact, that moral intuitions are based on heuristics gives consequentialists a reason to harness them in the service of maximization, not to abandon maximization. Gigerenzer argues that the idea of maximization cannot be action-guiding, because it is computationally intractable: given the combinatorial explosion we confront when we try to work out the consequences of our actions, we cannot know what action is best, and must therefore choose the action that is good enough. But the intractability argument is equally a problem for everyone who thinks (like Gigerenzer) that consequences matter: if it is intractable which action is best, it is also intractable which actions are satisfactory. In fact, we are not so badly off: the world is often relatively predictable, and we can be confident enough. Some of these points are made by Julia Driver and Don Loeb in their response to Gigerenzer, but he remains deaf to them, claiming in reply, bizarrely, that we ought to satisfice because satisficing produces better consequences than maximizing. This is bizarre, because if it is true that a procedure produces better outcomes than another, then that is the procedure a mazimizer should choose.

The second major paper is by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and is concerned with moral epistemology. Sinnott-Armstrong's target are moral intuitionists: philosophers who argue that some of our moral intuitions with regard to particular cases are non-inferentially justified. Sinnott-Armstrong claims that the empirical evidence shows that moral intuitions are subject to framing effects, which occur when the same case is presented using different words, and order effects, when intuitions alter depending upon the order in which cases are presented; these facts, he argues, shows that moral intuitions are not non-inferentially justified.

It is open to the intuitionist to argue that there are some individuals -- moral experts -- whose intuitions are non-inferentially justified. Of course, that is an empirical claim,­and it must be demonstrated. But if it were demonstrated, the intuitionist would not be able to use it to justify their own intuitions without ceasing to be an intuitionist, as Sinnott-Armstrong defines it: showing that their own intuitions are reliable would be giving them a partially inferential justification.

While Sinnott-Armstrong seems to succeed in his aim in this paper, this aim is limited. Most moral philosophers are not intuitionists, but intuition is central to their way of proceeding. The standard methodology in normative ethics is reflective equilibrium, in which coherence between particular case intuitions and principles is sought. It seems that this large class of philosophers must also take account of the framing effects Sinnott-Armstrong discusses, but it is not clear what the implications are for the justification of their views.

With Fiery Cushman and Liane Young, Marc Hauser sets out his theory of moral judgment. Hauser models morality on language: just as the child comes into the world predisposed to learn a language, and with the principles of universal grammar already wired in, so she comes with a morality acquisition device. Just as the principles innate in the human mind tightly constrain the grammar of any possible human language, so the innate moral principles constrain -- without determining -- the content of any possible moral system.

On Hauser's view, the moral faculty is triggered by the perception of an action or omission, and automatically produces a judgment that is sensitive to its causes, consequences, and to whether the consequences were intended or foreseen. Actions are perceived to be more morally significant than omissions and intended harms are seen to be morally worse than foreseen harms.  Hauser's ongoing web-based surveys have amassed an enormous amount of evidence that shows that these distinctions are made in the same way in all cultures, across all educational levels and by both genders. But subjects are typically unable to articulate adequate justifications for their judgments. Hauser takes this inability to be evidence for his view that we have a moral faculty that operates below the level of conscious awareness. Once again, as Hauser points out, the parallels to linguistic competence are clear. Just as we are able effortlessly and automatically to judge whether a sentence is grammatical, but our ability to justify our judgments is typically small, so we are able automatically to judge the permissibility of an action but we can't explain our judgments.

Together with Fredrik Bjorjklund, Jonathan Haidt sets out and defends his social intuitionist model of moral judgment, according to which the perception of a moral stimulus (a real case or a thought experiment) generates an intuition of rightness or wrongness that normally causes a corresponding judgment, with explicit reasoning playing little role in most judgment. Haidt claims that explicit reasoning usually enters the picture only when the judgment is challenged, and then its role is post hoc: it looks for likely justifications of the judgment, justifications which often have little to do with the causal processes that actually generated it.

In this overview of the social intuitionist model, Haidt and Bjorklund are keen to dispel the impression that reason is causally epiphenomenal in moral judgment. Rather, they insist that though intrapersonal reasoning is almost always confabulation, interpersonal reasoning is more frequently efficacious. People are social animals, and the attitudes of others matter to them; moreover, the reasons and justifications others offer quite often affect what we judge. This is a welcome clarification of the view, but its implications go further than Haidt and Bjorklund acknowledge. Haidt has often stressed that because people have little insight into the causal processes that lead to moral judgment, they are likely to offer justifications that do not reflect these processes. But if the reason giving of others, in the socially distributed process of moral deliberation, is causally efficacious then subjects should frequently be able to cite some of the genuine causes of their judgments. This raises suspicions over the ecological validity of some of the key evidence for the model: perhaps the moral 'dumbfounding' which Haidt cites as evidence for it -- that is, the inability for subjects to justify their judgments -- are simply an artifact of carefully designed and selected moral problems, and not genuinely representative of ordinary moral judgments.

In his recent work, summarized here, Haidt has sought to extend the social intuitionist model into a general theory of morality, according to which it has five components, not all of which are emphasized by all moral systems, but none of which is reducible or criticizable on grounds that are not question-begging. The five foundations are the following pairs: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect and purity/sanctity. Liberals are concerned only with the first two, but there are no grounds upon which to criticize conservatives who emphasize one or more of the other three. This last claim commits Haidt and Bjorklund to cultural relativism, as they recognize, but I doubt they are entitled to their relativism. First, they have not established that some of these categories cannot be reduced to others (intuitions about purity have their source, as they recognize, in the potential of impurities, like contaminants and bacteria, to cause harm; of course distal and proximate causes need to be distinguished, but it may be that intuitions about purity have as their content notions of harm). Second, some of the claims of conservative individuals and cultures rest on false empirical beliefs, for concerning what some god demands. If these beliefs cannot be criticized rationally, nothing can.

These rich essays represent less than half of this volume; the other contributions are equally stimulating. This is essential reading for anyone who cares about moral theory, cognitive science, and their intersection.

© 2008 Neil Levy

Neil Levy, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow Program Manager, Ethical Issues in Biotechnology, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne


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Metapsychology Online Reviews
ISSN 1931-5716