Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Four Accounts of Philosophical Moral Reflection

What happens to your moral behavior and moral attitudes when you reflect philosophically? Philosophers all seem to have opinions about this, but those opinions diverge and there's very little serious research on the issue.

Here are four possibilities:

(1.) The booster view: Philosophical moral reflection leads to the discovery of moral truths – either general moral truths that people tend to not to endorse absent such reflection (such as, perhaps, that eating meat is morally bad) or particular moral truths about specific situations that would not otherwise have been properly morally appreciated (such as that some particular behavior would be objectionably sexist). Such discoveries have a significant positive overall impact on moral behavior – though perhaps only on average, to a moderate extent, and in some areas. Furthermore, since it reveals connections between specific instances of moral behavior and general moral principles, philosophical moral reflection tends to increase the overall consistency between one’s broad moral attitudes and one’s practical moral behavior.

(2.) The epiphenomenalist view: Philosophical moral reflection is virtually powerless to change moral behavior or moral attitudes, either for better or for worse – though it may produce decorative linguistic justifications of what we would have thought and done in any case.

(3.) The rationalization view: Philosophical moral reflection tends to increase the consistency between attitudes and behavior, as the booster suggests, but it does so in the opposite causal direction than the booster suggests: The ethically reflective person’s attitudes shift to match her behavior rather than her behavior shifting to match her attitudes. The philosophically reflective person’s practical behavior may be unaffected by such rationalizations (the inert rationalization view); or the tendency to rationalize may morally worsen philosophically reflective people by freeing them to act on immoral impulses that are superficially but unsatisfactorily justified by their reflections (the toxic rationalization view). On the inert rationalization view, for example, one will either steal or not steal a library book as a result of psychological processes uninfluenced by one’s philosophical reflections, and then one will shape one’s moral attitudes to justify that incipient or recently past behavior. On the toxic rationalization view, one might feel an inclination to steal the book and act on that inclination as a consequence of a spurious moral justification for the theft.

(4.) The inert discovery view: Philosophical moral reflection tends to lead to the discovery of moral truths (as also suggested by the booster view). However, such discoveries have no material consequences for the practical behavior of the person making those discoveries. Philosophical reflection might lead one to discover, for example, that it is morally wrong to eat the meat of factory-farmed mammals, but on this view one would continue to eat factory-farmed meat at virtually the same rate as one would have done absent any philosophical reflection on the matter.

Any wagers?


Jeremy Goodman said...

a mix of (2) and (4).

Unknown said...

If the philosophical "truths" are learned from or by the example of cultural icons (Mandela, Lincoln, et al), then one might attempt to adapt one's behavior accordingly.
If, of course, you feel you have it in you to be worthy of such an icon's trust.
But if your place on the social hierarchy makes that seem less possible, the latter three options will all be more likely to apply.

Anonymous said...

Who lives not as he thinks ends up thinking as he lives.

Philosophy an rational analysis have an impact on moral attitudes and behaviour. What about emotions and experience, could they be even more imporant?

How do people judge war after having gone through one?

J.Vlasits said...

Is it really that plausible that just one of these is true, empirically speaking? I'm inclined to think that the effects of ethical reflection will depend greatly on the character (or if you like, psychological dispositions) of the person doing the reflecting. I can think, for example, of people with whom I've discussed first-order ethical questions and who have been firmly in the rationalization camp. On the other hand, I've equally had conversations with people which ended in something more like the first outcome.

Nick said...

When I think about history, myself, and the people I know, I think 3...definitely 3.

peter kirwan said...

(sadly) My immediate answer on this is completely in accordance with what the studies on naive realism (in the social psych sense of the phrase) would suggest. Specifically, my immediate answer for myself is different than my answer for other people. You'll be surprised to hear that I come off rather well relative to other philosophers ;)

Seriously though: I think it's a great question but (as you'll be the first person to point out i'm sure) this is probably one of the worst things to go to introspection on.

Which leaves going after it empirically. Looking at philosophers on this longitudinally (from start to end of career) would be fascinating but logistically a trifle tricky ...

Daniel said...

I think I would add another option, maybe as a subset of (1): doing philosophy is a kind of moral behaviour. This seems to me to be (at least arguably) the view of Plato and Aristotle, among others.

That option seems important if you want to mount a serious defense of philosophy. So long as you are evaluating the effects of philosophy on some other thing, called moral behaviour, (2),(3) and (4) can seriously call into question the value of doing philosophy at all.

Julie Kaveshnikov said...

I would put all my pennies in 1's jar. Let's look at the example used, people are not born vegetarians. Only after deliberating that eating meat is immoral do they choose to become vegetarian.

Let's just say that your parents are vegetarian, and they taught you that eating meat is just bad. Fine.

It is possible that 1 and 3 coexist. If my parents raised me vegetarian, once I become old and smart enough to understand the moral justifications behind not eating meat, I will either continue to be vegetarian or begin to eat meat. In this way, I guess the behavior comes before the moral rationalization and my attitudes shape to match my behaviors. However, it was a learned behavior to begin with.

We are not TAUGHT to kill, steal, etc. (well, hopefully..)