Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, philosophy and health care

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Person as Scientist, Person as Moralist

By Joshua Knobe
Upcoming in Brain and Brain Sciences


It has often been suggested that people’s ordinary capacities for folk psychology and causal cognition make use of much the same methods one might find in a formal scientific investigation. A series of recent experimental results offer a challenge to this widely-held view, suggesting that people’s moral judgments can influence the intuitions they hold both in folk psychology and in moral cognition. The present target article argues that these effects are best explained on a model according to which moral considerations actually figure in the fundamental competencies people use to make sense of the world.


Consider the way research is conducted in a typical modern university. There are departments for theology, drama, philosophy… and then there are departments specifically devoted to the practice of science. Faculty members in these science departments generally have quite specific responsibilities. They are not supposed to make use of all the various methods and approaches one finds in other parts of the university.

Now consider the way the human mind ordinarily makes sense of the world. One plausible view would be that the human mind works something like a modern university.   There are psychological processes devoted to religion (the mind’s theology department), to aesthetics (the mind’s art department), to morality (the mind’s philosophy department) … and then there are processes specifically devoted to questions that have a roughly ‘scientific’ character. These processes work quite differently from the ones we use in thinking about, say, moral or aesthetic questions. They proceed using more or less the
same sorts of methods we find in university science departments.

This metaphor is a powerful one, and it has shaped research programs in many different areas of cognitive science. Take the study of folk psychology. Ordinary people have a capacity to ascribe mental states (beliefs, desires, etc.), and researchers have sometimes suggested that people acquire this capacity in much the same way that scientists develop theoretical frameworks (e.g., Gopnik & Wellman 1992). Or take causal cognition. Ordinary people have an ability to determine whether one event caused another, and it has been suggested that they do so by looking at the same sorts of statistical information scientists normally consult (e.g., Kelley 1967). Numerous other fields have taken a similar path. In each case, the basic strategy is to look at the methods used by professional research scientists and then to hypothesize that people actually use similar methods in their ordinary understanding. This strategy has clearly led to many important advances.

The entire article is here.
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