In the long Philosophical Perspectives thread there was very little discussion of the actual papers in the volume, so I thought it might be time for an ethics post around here to move the discussions back to philosophy. In particular, I wanted to note one possible complication arising out of the paper Andy and I contributed.
A lot of people think that the way to do ethical epistemology is to systematise intuitions about a range of cases. One of the points Andy and I were making was that if you’re playing this game, it really might matter just which cases you focus on. Focus on life-and-death cases and you might get a different theory to if you focus on cases of everyday morality. This probably isn’t too surprising – I imagine a lot of people think consequentialism is at least extensionally correct for everyday matters, while some kind of deontological theory is needed for life-and-death cases. That is, I imagine there are lots of people who are happy with consequentialism plus rights as trumps, and the rights in question are only in danger of being violated in life-and-death cases. This is hardly a majority view, but it’s not a surprising view. What was odd about our position was we went the other way, arguing that a form of consequentialism (and maybe even of Consequentialism) was extensionally adequate in life-and-death cases, but failed to give the right answers when thinking about some everyday pranksters. (Actually we were neutral on whether this consequentialist theory was extensionally adequate, since the counterexamples we had in mind might not be actual. But it failed to be extensionally adequate in a nearby world.)
Bracketing the details of the cases for now, it’s worthwhile to stop back and reflect on what this should tell us about methodology. In particular, I want to think about what would happen if we found out the following things were true.
- Systematising intuitions about life-and-death cases supported moral theory X
- Systematising intuitions about everyday cases supported moral theory Y, which is inconsistent with X
- The reason for the divergence is that different parts of the brain are involved with forming moral intuitions about everyday cases as compared to life-and-death cases; everyday cases are handled by a part of the brain generally associated with cognition, life-and-death cases by a part of the brain generally associated with emotional response
The third point is an enormous oversimplification of the neurology – it’s not really true there’s a part of the brain for cognition I guess, and the divide between emotionally loaded cases and non-loaded cases doesn’t exactly track the everyday/life-and-death distinction – but from what I’m told it’s not entirely off base. There are different parts of the brain that are at work in different moral cases. (Thanks to Tamar for pointing me to the studies showing this.) And the different parts are differentially correlated with emotional response. So figuring out what to do in such a case might be of some practical import.
As I see it there are four possible responses.
First, we might take this kind of result to be evidence that we were wrong all along in thinking moral epistemology should be based around intuitions in this way. There’s something to be said for that view, though I won’t have anything useful to say about it here.
Second, we could adopt a relatively weak form of particularism, one which said not that there are necessarily no general moral principles, but there are no general principles that you can support from one kind of case that have application in a different kind of case. The idea would be that whatever we learn about life-and-death cases tells us about life-and-death cases and nothing more, so the possibility that theories X and Y above could be genuinely inconsistent vanishes. I think this is a reasonable view to take I guess.
Third and fourth, we could come up with arguments for one of other of X and Y being more firmly supported by the intuitions. Which way we go here will depend, I think, on how great a role we think emotional response should play in moral epistemology. On the one hand, it is odd to think our sober reasoned judgments could have to be corrected by the judgments we make under emotional duress. (And I take it part of the point of the neurological studies is that even considering some of the cases ethicists work with does constitute at least a mild form of emotional duress.) On the other hand, it seems a moral theory coldly detached from our emotional bond with the world is somehow deficient, that moral judgments at some level are meant to carry emotional commitment with them.
I don’t have any ideas for how we should proceed at this point, I think it is just a hard question. But if the neurological data suggests that moral intuitions are radically diverse in their origins, it is a question that we intuition-synthesisers will have to address sooner rather than later.