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Monday, June 5, 2017

Can Psychologists Tell Us Anything About Morality?

John M. Doris, Edouard Machery and Stephen Stich
Philosopher's Magazine
Originally published May 10, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

Some psychologists accept morally dubious employment. Some psychologists cheat. Some psychology experiments don't replicate. Some. But the inference from some to all is at best invalid, and at worst, invective. There's good psychology and bad psychology, just like there's good and bad everything else, and tarring the entire discipline with the broadest of brushes won’t help us sort that out. It is no more illuminating to disregard the work of psychologists en masse on the grounds that a tiny minority of the American Psychological Association, a very large and diverse professional association, were involved with the Bush administration’s program of torture than it would to disregard the writings of all Nietzsche scholars because some Nazis were Nietzsche enthusiasts! To be sure, there are serious questions about which intellectual disciplines, and which intellectuals, are accorded cultural capital, and why. But we are unlikely to find serious answers by means of innuendo and polemic.

Could there be more substantive reasons to exclude scientific psychology from the study of ethics? The most serious – if ultimately unsuccessful – objection proceeds in the language of “normativity”. For philosophers, normative statements are prescriptive, or “oughty”: in contrast to descriptive statements, which aspire only to say how the world is, normative statements say what ought be done about it. And, some have argued, never the twain shall meet.

While philosophers haven’t enjoyed enviable success in adducing lawlike generalisations, one such achievement is Hume’s Law (we told you the issues are old ones), which prohibits deriving normative statements from descriptive statements. As the slogan goes, “is doesn’t imply ought.”

Many philosophers, ourselves included, suppose that Hume is on to something. There probably exists some sort of “inferential barrier” between the is and the ought, such that there are no strict logical entailments from the descriptive to the normative.

The article is here.
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