Empirical Assumptions and Philosophical Ethics: On Mark Alfano’s Moral Psychology
Mark Alfano’s Moral Psychology is written with the hopes of “putting empirical flesh on the conceptual bones” of normative moral theories (21). Normative ethics, in its various forms, is posited on empirical assumptions about how human beings work. In particular, most theories depend on truths about how we manage our preferences, whether our disagreements are as fundamental as we sometimes feel, whether we have stable moral characters, and how we identify responsibly performed actions. The findings of empirical psychology are relevant to those assumptions, because they can identify how demanding a norm is and what means we have to live up to it, and they can identify whether some of our moral concepts track how we actually make decisions. Alfano modifies the synthetic Kantian dictum, then, to show the mutual relevance of psychology and moral philosophy: “Moral philosophy without psychological content is empty; whereas psychological investigation without philosophical content is blind” (1).
Alfano considers five central components of moral life in light of current psychological literature: preferences, responsibility, emotion, character, and disagreement. In each of these domains, Alfano makes the case that the research in empirical psychology shows that some revision of our normative theories is in order. The issue, then, is the extent of the revision. Alfano’s defaults are to make minimally invasive changes, but these vary depending on the domain and the findings from psychology.
In some cases Alfano suggests minimal revision. For example, with preferences, Alfano’s review of the literature of choice blindness and preference reversals shows that our ordinal rankings of what we take to be goods can be influenced by factors irrelevant to the choice. This has significant consequences for moral theories if the good life and what we owe to each other depends on ensuring preferences and their ordering is respected—that is, if we assume good lives depend on one’s preferences being met or that we respect the preferences of others. But this variance phenomenon has relatively limited scope, as there is only a “penumbra of indeterminacy and instability” (39). (For example, preference reversals can happen between owning a nice book and having $50, but it won’t happen between the book and $50,000.) In similar fashion, Alfano holds that facts about how we can be subject to implicit biases should influence our assessments of responsibility, and features of emotional responses to particulars of situations can influence our moral judgments.
In other cases, Alfano proposes more significant revisions to our ethical concepts. With regard to moral character, Alfano argues that experiments such as the Good Samaritan Study and examples of unresponsive bystanders show that our notions of stable and substantial character traits (like virtues and vices in particular) are more situational than we are tempted to think. That is, what is more predictive of people’s good behavior in the Good Samaritan Situation is whether they are in a hurry, and with bystanders, whether there are others who could help. In light of these findings, Alfano holds that “character should be recast in interactionist terms, as partly due to features of the agent, partly due to features of the situation, and partly due to the interaction of the two” (130–31).
Additionally, Alfano proposes that findings in contemporary social science yield revision to a widely held thought that there are truly fundamental moral disagreements between cultures that exhibit psychological depth, are not defusable, and are sincere. Most are cases of different weightings of shared values or are cases where one party merely is ignorant of non-moral facts of the situation.
While superficial moral disagreements are fairly easy to identify, modally robust fundamental disagreements between epistemically responsible agents are much harder to pinpoint (173)
As a result, the worries about deep disagreement and clashes of intelligibility between cultures are, as Alfano takes it, not well supported by the data about convergent values.
Mark Alfano’s Moral Psychology is an exciting and challenging introduction to the interface between philosophical ethics and the empirical sciences that bear on the assumptions about humans that programs in ethics must make. Given that Alfano’s proposals are all modest (to various degrees), both sides to these debates will have things to say. Traditional ethicists will insist on considerably less revision, and others will call for greater divergence from the older programs. But it is in the arguments that we find were we must go, and so I am pleased to open this symposium on this important book.