By Joshua Rust and Eric Schwitzgebel
Professional ethicists behave no morally better, on average, than do other professors. At least that’s what we have found in a series of empirical studies that we will summarize below. Our results create a prima facie challenge for a certain picture of the relationship between intellectual reasoning and moral behavior – a picture on which explicit, intellectual cognition has substantial power to change the moral opinions of the reasoner and thereby to change the reasoner’s moral behavior. Call this picture the Power of Reason view. One alternative view has been prominently defended by Jonathan Haidt. We might call it the Weakness of Reason view, or more colorfully the Rational Tail view, after the headline metaphor of Haidt’s seminal 2001 article, “The emotional dog and its rational tail” (in Haidt’s later 2012 book, the emotional dog becomes an “intuitive dog”). According to the Rational Tail view (which comes in different degrees of strength), emotion or intuition drives moral opinion and moral behavior, and explicit forms of intellectual cognition function mainly post-hoc, to justify and socially communicate conclusions that flow from emotion or intuition. Haidt argues that our empirical results favor his view (2012, p. 89). After all, if intellectual styles of moral reasoning don’t detectably improve the behavior even of professional ethicists who build their careers on expertise in such reasoning, how much hope could there be for the rest of us to improve by such means? While we agree with Haidt that our results support the Rational Tail view over some rationalistic rivals, we believe that other models of moral psychology are also consistent with our findings, and some of these models reserve an important role for reasoning in shaping the reasoner’s behavior and attitudes. Part One summarizes our empirical findings. Part Two explores five different theoretical models, including the Rational Tail, more or less consistent with those findings.
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