How does learning about the psychological causes of our beliefs affect our self-understanding as autonomous moral beings? According to a long tradition in the humanities, which rose to prominence with Freudian psychoanalysis, sub-conscious processes control our thoughts and behaviour, and therefore we are really strangers to ourselves. On this view, morality understood as willful, rule-guided behaviour is but a charade at best and a self-serving mirage at worst.
Recent findings in cognitive- and moral psychology seem to corroborate the view. In a well-known experimental setup, subjects have to decide, for example, whether or not to redirect a trolley that threatens to kill five workers on a railroad track so that it kills a single worker instead. A consistent finding is that seemingly irrelevant influences sway people's moral judgments, such as the order in which different cases are presented.
Elizabeth Anderson's book Psyche and Ethos is an ambitious and emphatic attempt to rebut the challenge to morality and to defend morality's relevance to our self-understanding. Remarkably, Anderson makes her case via two intertwined routes, crisscrossing moral psychology and literary studies. Throughout the four chapters, the reader will find analyses and criticism of literary studies as a field of research, discussion of the psychoanalytic underpinnings of the field, as well as literary criticism in its own right. At the heart of the book, however, is the defence against the challenge to morality, which will be the focus of this review.
The challenge to morality is based on three claims: (1) Much of our thinking takes place automatically, often primed by situational factors. (2) Moral thinking often proceeds automatically and intuitively. (3) People use self-serving methods of justification to resolve cognitive dissonances (pp. 21-3). In effect, the challenge goes, a traditional understanding of moral reasoning and moral character is undermined (p. 24).
Anderson argues that the challenge fails because it does not adequately capture morality as a phenomenon extended in time: some moral judgments in brief experimental episodes might be automatic and fast, but that does not mean that moral judgments, in general, are unreasonable and uncontrolled (pp. 31, 51). She helpfully illustrates this with a literary example in chapter 2. When John Marcher, the main character in Henry James' The Beast in the Jungle, visits the grave of a friend who loved him, he suddenly realises that "what would have allowed him to live instead of merely waiting to live would have been to love her" (p. 44). His realisation comes to him fast and immediately, but it is not deviant or unfit to be called a moral judgment, argues Anderson, because the process that caused the judgment was "very slow" and "proceeded through an elusive dynamic between conscious thought and unaware gestation" (pp. 51). It is, in some sense, properly his moral judgment – his experiences with his late friend, and reflections about them, contributed to the insight that ultimately came to him in a pang of sudden realisation. Therefore, the fact that moral thinking sometimes occurs automatically should not lead us to conclude that morality is a mirage.
One might quibble with Anderson's characterisation of Marcher's judgment as a moral one since his primary concern seems to be his own unfulfilled life and not some failing towards his late lover, but this should not obscure the main point of her argument. In essence, Anderson's rebuttal of the challenge to morality depends on the claim existing experiments in moral psychology are not broad enough in scope to put into doubt the reasonability of all sub-conscious influences on moral judgment. So, though a moral judgment may be automatic, it may be still attributable to agents, rather than purely situational factors. Her argument makes a relevant point, insofar as shows how agents can be seen as in control of their moral judgments even though they do not arrive at their judgments through a series of conscious, explicit reasoning steps.
However, the challenge to morality cuts deeper than Anderson acknowledges. The challenge is to show why moral judgments, given the pervasive influence of the seemingly irrelevant situational factors documented by moral psychology, can be expected to be true or at least reasonable. Why, for example, should we expect John Marcher's judgment that he morally failed himself (or his late lover) to be reasonable or true? Anderson might suggest that Marcher's judgment is reasonable or likely to be true because it is based on an accumulation of correct judgments: accurately picking up on his late lover's signals here, a reasonable reflection there, and so on. However, this does not help much, because some of these judgments will have to be moral judgments. For example, Marcher must surely, at some point, have realised that he just now ought to have returned the affection of his lover. Many of such individual judgments might then, conscious or not, lead to the realisation described above. However, that we are reliable judges in such situations, unaffected by irrelevant situational factors, is precisely what the challenge to morality puts into question. Unfortunately, Anderson's argument does not address the challenge thus understood.
Nonetheless, Anderson's argumentative strategy is promising and in broad outline compatible with some other recent defences against the challenge to morality (e.g. Sauer 2017). The way she puts literary sources to work in her argument is novel, refreshing, and illustrative; it shows how discussing the challenge to morality can benefit from novel, interdisciplinary perspectives on morality itself. Of course, many other aspects of the book deserve further attention, most pertinently the parts where she connects the discussion of the challenge to morality with an analysis of literary studies as a field.
Sauer, Hanno (2017): Moral judgments as educated intuitions. Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: The MIT Press.
© 2018 Michael Klenk
Michael Klenk, Lecturer in Ethics and Philosophy of Technology, Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands