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Friday, February 26, 2016

The problem with cognitive and moral psychology

Massimo Pigliucci and K.D. Irani
Plato's Footprint
Originally published February 8, 2016

Here is an excerpt:

The norm of cooperation is again presupposed as the fundamental means for deciding which of our moral intuitions we should heed. When discussing the more stringent moral principles that Peter Singer, for instance, takes to be rationally required of us concerning our duties to distant strangers, Bloom dismisses them as unrealistic in the sense that no plausible evolutionary theory could yield such requirements for human beings.” But of course evolution is what provided us with the very limited moral instinct that Bloom himself concedes needs to be expanded through the use of reason! He seems to want to have it both ways: we ought to build on what nature gave us, so long as what we come up with is compatible with nature’s narrow demands. But why?

Let me quote once more from Shaw, who I think puts her finger precisely where the problem lies: “it is a fallacy to suggest that expertise in psychology, a descriptive natural science, can itself qualify someone to determine what is morally right and wrong. The underlying prescriptive moral standards are always presupposed antecedently to any psychological research … No psychologist has yet developed a method that can be substituted for moral reflection and reasoning, for employing our own intuitions and principles, weighing them against one another and judging as best we can. This is necessary labor for all of us. We cannot delegate it to higher authorities or replace it with handbooks. Humanly created suffering will continue to demand of us not simply new ‘technologies of behavior’ [to use B.F. Skinner’s phrase] but genuine moral understanding. We will certainly not find it in the recent books claiming the superior wisdom of psychology.”

Please note that Shaw isn’t saying that moral philosophers are the high priests to be called on, though I’m sure she would agree that those are the people that have thought longer and harder about the issues in question, and so should certainly get a place at the discussion table. She is saying that good reasoning in general, and good moral reasoning in particular, are something we all need to engage in, for the sake of our own lives and of society at large.

The entire article is here.