Ethical Reflection

One of the better ways I go about updating my knowledge is by making sweeping assertions and getting called on them. Yesterday, for instance:

Katherine: I’m not really sure if dogs have consciousness.

Me: What? Of course they have consciousness. It would be crazy to say otherwise!

Katherine: Well, why do we have to talk that way?

Me: Well, you see..*sputter*

I don’t have an answer to that one, but there’s another topic where I can usefully try to articulate some of my inchoate thoughts. Namely, I think that recent moral psychology has problematized our idea of ethical reflection. What I mean by ‘ethical reflection’ is our idea of ourselves as beings who think about what moral rules to follow, engage in a project of justification for those rules, and take the outcome of that project as a basis for action. In stating the idea that’s being undermined, I’m trying to be as neutral as possible between different ways we might conceive ethical reflection. I want to suggest that the natural moral psychologies of not just deontological ethics, but also utilitarianism and virtue ethics are affected by this train of thought. Explicitly acknowledging the relevant differences is beyond what I can do right now, so I’ll rely on the reader to give me the benefit of the doubt there.

I’ve encountered a lot of different philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists whose work is relevant to this issue. Not all of what they say is consistent, nor do they necessarily share the same theoretical goals. It’s not as if there’s a movement to undermine our ordinary moral thought. Nonetheless, I do perceive a trend. That trend suggests that we acquire our moral sense beginning at a very early age, that it is heavily tied to emotion, and that there is a limited and/or unclear role for the sort of ethical reflection which we typically attend to in philosophy.

Working within Piaget and Kohlberg’s theoretical framework, which emphasizes ethical reflection and the provision of reasoned foundations for moral judgment, Elliot Turiel nevertheless created what I see as a problem for that framework. His work indicated that children begin to understand a distinction between socially imposed rules and moral rules in early childhood. This is despite the fact that according to Kohlberg’s theory, these children should have been operating at a preconventional level in which they viewed right and wrong as determined by the sanctions of their parents and teachers. Indeed, when asked to explain why an action was wrong, the children mentioned the fact that they would be punished for it. This disconnect is a common thread in the work I’m interested in, and it points to a theoretical commitment. If the scientific story about how people understand morality and their self-description come into conflict, while that self-description is an important piece of data, the scientific attempt to understand moral experience is privileged.

Another work which I like is Shaun Nichol’s “Sentimental Rules.” Nichols’ goal is to explain core moral judgment, which is the special category of moral judgments pertaining to harm based injuries. Nichols thinks that the special status of core moral judgment arises from the fact that it is both sustained by cognitively represented rules about what is right and wrong (i.e. “it’s wrong to kill”) and emotional responses brought about by representations of human suffering (Nichols explicitly cites Hume as an influence).

Again, Nichols’ work relates because it presents a relatively simple picture of how the core portion of human moral motivation works. It does not purport to explain everything about morality, either in our culture or in any other, so it certainly doesn’t remove all logical possibility that ethical reflection plays an important role. In particular, perhaps it plays a role in the temporal change of rules. Nevertheless, as far as Nichols’ work indicates that a crucial portion of our ethics is subserved by relatively dumb mechanisms, which are not the mechanisms implicit in our ordinary moral discourse, it raises questions about the role that ethical reflection plays.

The two most radical pieces of work that I know of are Jonathan Haidt’s “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail” and Josh Knobe and Brian Leiter’s “The Case for Nietzschean Moral Psychology.” Haidt’s view has our moral reactions arising out of quick, emotion based intuitive responses with our moral reasoning appearing as almost completely post-hoc rationalizations. Knobe and Leiter posit ‘type-facts’ about peoples’ personalities, determined by genetics rather than socialization, which are the primary determinants of the sort of moral lives we live.

Another thing which is also clearly absent from these accounts is anything at all about the good life. Clearly, the materials discussed above are not sufficient to give an account of the good life, but they should give pause to anyone who wants to both tie the good life to considerations of morality, and assume that ethical reflection plays a crucial role.

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