Does Moral Action Depend on Reasoning?

Just came across this Templeton Foundation conversation on the role of reason in moral thought and action. Very enlightening. Over time, I have become more of a “Smithian” in acknowledging the role of moral emotion in guiding our intuitions and appropriately establishing moral commitments, though I also see a role for reason in systematizing those intuitions. My own view comes quite close to that expressed by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. The main problem with the compatibilist-determinist view expressed by brain scientists is that the discovery that people give all sorts of reasons for their moral acts doesn’t mean that reason doesn’t play a role in establishing the truth about morality, just as the fact that people come to their understanding of the world (say, color or the laws of physics) in different, imperfect ways doesn’t undermine the validity of experimental induction to discover the truth of the matter.

2 thoughts on “Does Moral Action Depend on Reasoning?

  1. The question is bound to elicit confusingly different answers because it’s a confusingly ambiguous question. Consider six variants, off the top of my head:

    1. Does doing the right thing require thinking about doing the right thing at the time when you’re doing it?
    2. Does doing the right thing require thinking about doing the right thing at some point prior to doing it?
    3. Does doing the right thing require having some specific thoughts when you’re doing it?
    4. Does doing the right thinking require having made some specific judgments in the past?
    5. Does performing an action that can be appraised as either moral or immoral require thinking of some kind?
    6. Does motivation depend, fundamentally, on cognition?

    The Templeton respondents don’t clearly distinguish between those six possibilities, and there may be more than just six.

    I think the fundamental question is some variant of (6). The question is whether adult human motivation depends in some important way on cognition, and I think it’s clear that it does. Emotions depend on prior appraisals about the states of affairs that generate the emotions, and desires depend on prior judgments about what we regard as valuable. There may be exceptions to that rule or borderline cases/anomalies, but they don’t refute the wide application of the core claim.

    One methodological observation: I think psychologists have a bad habit of over-generalizing about what “the psychological literature shows.” It’s rare that there is a single unified literature in psychology that unequivocally “shows” the truth of some one controversial claim. Where that happens (or appears to), what the convergence in opinion reveals is not always that science has converged on one true answer, but that many people’s research programs have, for career reasons, converged on the same questions, answers, and research designs. In other words, what you have is Kuhnian “normal science,” which is vulnerable to a “paradigm shift” the minute someone has the chutzpah to take things in a different direction.

    1. Yes, the question is thoroughly ambiguous… Sometimes I find ambiguous questions are fruitful, though, in that they stimulate broader discussion around an issue. I agree with you that emotions often arise from our prior reflections on moral rules and situations, but those reflections are in turn a mixture of reason and emotion (“how would I feel if that happened to me?”).

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