Symposium Introduction

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.

Jeremy Fischer


Method in Moral Psychology

“Moral psychology” is a recently-invented term of art with a somewhat disputed reference, which reflects disagreement about its proper method(s).1 Some use the term to designate venerable philosophical inquiry into the nature and moral significance of psychological states. These inquiries are carried out through armchair reflection based in common sense, everyday observation, or intuition about, for instance, what moral responsibility is and whether it requires volitional activity; what emotions are and when, if ever, they are appropriate; and (the old holy grail of ethics) what happiness is and whether ethical virtue always delivers it. The Socratic paradoxes—such as that virtue is knowledge, that weakness of the will is impossible, that a good person cannot be harmed—comprise perhaps the earliest recorded instances of this style of moral psychology in European philosophy.

Some recent practitioners—dissatisfied with the impoverished results of what we might call reflective moral psychology—have instead carried out their inquiries largely through humanistic study, using historical, literary, and sociological results and the interpretative methods of those disciplines. We may call this humanistic moral psychology. In this category we find Bernard Williams’s use of Sophocles’s Ajax to provide an account of shame and moral incapacity,2 Martha Nussbaum’s interpretation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia in service of her accounts of anger and forgiveness,3 Gabriele Taylor’s analysis of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in her monograph on vice,4 and Charles Mills’s study of John Hearne’s Voices Under the Window5 in aid of his analysis of the phenomenology of race and class, all of which make use of hermeneutical and analogical reasoning to help illuminate moral experience via these artworks.

Still other philosophers use “moral psychology” to refer to the scientific study of the determinants of well-being and moral life, often aiming to validate or falsify the presuppositions of reflective and humanistic moral psychology. The spectacular advances of the last fifty years in the cognitive and behavioral sciences fuel this work, which we might call experimental moral psychology. There is also ample historical precedent for it in the work of Hobbes, Hume, and Dewey, who all introduce experimental methods of reasoning into moral philosophy. Proponents of experimental moral psychology often can be found enlivening the question-and-answer period of reflective and humanistic conference presentations with pointed questions about the empirical adequacy of various assumptions. (After one recent talk of mine on the topic of emotional self-knowledge, a prominent proponent of this methodology raised his hand to ask, simply, “You know that your conclusion contradicts the science on this matter, right?”)

These approaches are, on the whole, largely complementary. Nussbaum’s work on emotion, for example, appeals alternatingly to Aeschylus and to neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux. Likewise, Nietzsche combines literary and historical reflection on Greek tragedy, Christianity, and Wagner with appeals to contemporary (nineteenth-century) psychology, physiology, and race theory (though he rejects certain tendencies of British empirical psychology).

Alfano’s introductory text for advanced undergraduate students brings experimental moral psychology into the classroom. It has many virtues. For example, it sketches solutions to numerous controversies in the field, including: (1) whether empirical findings about the indeterminacy and instability of preferences undermine assessments of rightness and well-being, (2) whether findings in neuroscience related to the “dual-process theory” of cognition undermine assessments of rightness that depend on the doctrine of double effect, (3) whether “situationist” findings in social psychology undermine character-based assessments of moral worth and rightness, and (4) whether anthropological findings about the extent of ethical disagreement undermine some versions of moral realism. It also serves as an excellent annotated bibliography of recent experimental moral psychology.

Alfano insists, and I agree, that interdisciplinary confrontation is necessary for doing moral psychology well, since “moral philosophy without psychological content is empty, whereas psychological investigation without philosophical insight is blind” (1). From where should moral philosophers source our psychological content? One answer, which we might call the broad experimental view, prioritizes equally the results of all relevant natural and social sciences, including sociology, criminology, anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. Even though Alfano does not discuss most of these fields—and it would be practically impossible for any short introductory text to do so—he mentions all of them, at least in passing, in a way that makes clear that he endorses broad experimentalism. Elsewhere Alfano has outlined a research program that is “naturalistic” in the sense that it aims to “employ only methods consonant with those used in the [‘hard’ and ‘soft’] sciences and refer only to entities countenanced by the sciences.”6 Alternately, we might accept a humanistic view, according to which one necessary component of the psychological content needed for moral philosophy can be acquired only by humanistic study. Such study involves making sense of (for instance) our relation to the past, our aesthetic practices, and our membership in political communities, where the project of sense-making depends crucially—in ways that distinguish it from some scientific projects—on our distinctive cultural, ethical, political, and aesthetic experiences and values.

One point in favor of the humanistic view, it seems to me, is that the study of moral psychology must attend to what our moral experience is like, shaped as it is by our interpretations of that experience. Much moral psychology aims to help us to make sense of our moral experience by using interpretive methods proper to humanistic study, not merely to diagnose the network of causes that make morality “work” (1) or not. Alfano’s exclusion of humanistic moral psychology makes me wonder about the place of such reflection in the work of experimental moral psychologists. In their view, must we deny that humanistic reflection provides necessary psychological content to moral philosophy? Or must humanistic reflection proceed by methods consonant with those of the sciences?

I worry that by ignoring humanistic moral psychology, this introductory text erases much interesting research in moral psychology in that it encourages students to think that there’s nothing to see there. Perhaps this is an inadvertent result of, say, marketing pressures from the publisher. Alfano does suggest, though, that the text’s design is to offer “a comprehensive survey of contemporary moral psychology” (ix). If so, then Alfano has concealed from the introductory student the fruitful pluralism of the field.

Perhaps Alfano will respond that the book doesn’t need to “give the other side,” because it is the other side. Or perhaps Alfano denies that humanistic moral psychology is intellectually reputable. I look forward to his clarification on this matter.

Implicit Bias

Let’s consider one of the many stimulating discussions in Alfano’s text—a discussion about blaming people for being implicitly biased that is representative of the mix of empirical and conceptual claims offered in the text. In anti-racist communities there has long been a suspicion, to say the least, that even individuals who sincerely disavow racism might still harbor racial bias. Recent empirical research seems to confirm this suspicion, and there is a burgeoning philosophical literature about how to understand moral responsibility for implicit bias, which Alfano ably highlights.7 How should we react to people with implicit biases who sincerely avow a commitment to the moral and political equality of all? There are numerous dimensions of analysis that are relevant to answering this question, including (1) whether holding one responsible would be useful (the pragmatic factors), (2) whether the biased person is in a position to know about their bias (the epistemic factors), and (3) whether the biased person is in a position to control their bias (the control factors). Alfano discusses them all, but let us focus on the pragmatic factors.

Alfano presents the following argument that we should not think of implicitly biased though explicitly egalitarian persons as racist or sexist. Studies suggest that one’s self-conception is often self-confirming: if I conceive of myself as a racist, say, then I am more likely to act like a racist than I would otherwise be. Likewise, accusing others of racism risks making them even more likely to act like a racist. Alfano takes these claims to support what he calls “the factitious, interactionist framework” (132) of virtue, according to which behavior is explained in terms of, among other things, “the ongoing feedback between the individual and environment” (187). On this view, social expectation-signaling and one’s self-conception help to bring about and sustain dispositions to think, feel, and act that are similar to traditional Aristotelian virtues or vices. Therefore, conceiving of people as racist is “dangerous” (71). Instead, Alfano suggests, perhaps one should think of such a person “as someone who strives to be fair to targets of negative stereotypes but who suffers in his human, all-too-human, way from various biases” (71). In doing so, one would ascribe lack of ill will (or perhaps even good will) to the implicitly biased person, which might help to bring about personal improvement. Lest one think that Alfano is urging emotional calm in the face of injustice, he adds that there is reason for victims of implicit bias to “angrily denounce people who are trying their best, despite implicit biases. . . . Even if it ruffles a few feathers” (78). For implicit bias can cause “immense harm” (78).

Several aspects of this argument would make for interesting classroom debate. First, there is some tension between the claims that (a) we should treat such implicitly biased people as if they have genuinely good will (or, at least lack ill will) towards the targets of their bias and (b) we should sometimes angrily denounce such people. For anger and blame are, plausibly, responses to ill will. Pragmatic arguments to be angry in such cases then seem to counsel emotional dishonesty or confusion. Perhaps, as Nussbaum has recently argued, other emotional attitudes are both more fitting and more productive (though perhaps not).8

Second, if even angry denunciation is compatible with constructive efforts to improve the offender, then I see no reason why the same cannot be said of calm and supportive communication that the offender embodies some form of racism. Indeed, George Yancy has recently hypothesized that bringing a person’s racism to their attention might be crucial for facilitating improvement.9 Yancy urges well-intentioned whites to consider themselves precisely as people who harbor racism despite their anti-racist intentions, beliefs, and actions. He conceives of such direct communication as a kind of gift, designed to help well-intentioned whites escape from the racist lies and self-deceptions that cloud their minds. No doubt such a direct intervention requires tact and perhaps even, as Yancy insists, a kind of love. So, on what empirical grounds should we reject Yancy’s model of direct anti-racist (and anti-sexist) intervention in favor of Alfano’s model?

This question leads to a third concern. It is not clear from the text what empirical support, if any, there is for the claim that the relevant virtue of justice is best characterized as factitious and interactionist. Alfano states that there is some evidence that the virtues of tidiness, charity, cooperativeness and competitiveness, helpfulness, eco-friendliness, and scholastic motivation can be understood in this way. In general, though, “we currently lack evidence one way or the other about which virtues” (132) can be thought of in this interactionist way. So, it seems, we don’t know whether the virtue of justice at issue is among those that can be inculcated “by fine-tuning your self-concept and the social expectations directed at you” (132). Given this lack evidence, the status of these pragmatic claims about redressing bias is unclear. Does Alfano present them as hypotheses or as justified by particular empirical research? I worry that the reader will receive the false impression that it is a robust finding that we should not call (merely) implicitly biased people “racist” or “sexist,” and that such a reader will be motivated to adjust their behavior in a problematic direction, for instance away from Yancy’s proposal, because of an inadequately supported claim.

Alfano’s discussion of the pragmatics of blaming implicitly biased people would make for stimulating classroom debate. That said, this text would work best when supplemented by secondary literature that addresses Alfano’s conceptual and empirical assumptions. To this end, Alfano helpfully provides suggested further readings at the end of each chapter. With respect to the discussion about implicit bias, supplemental readings might engage assumptions about the nature of good and ill will, the ethics of expressing anger and blame, the nature of racism, and the empirical status of Alfano’s interactionist theory of virtue.10

  1. According to the following Google Ngram, “moral psychology” rapidly rose in popularity starting in the late 1970s:

  2. Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity; Williams, “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline”; Williams, “Nietzsche’s Naturalistic Moral Psychology.”

  3. Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

  4. Gabriele Taylor, Deadly Vices (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  5. Charles Mills, “Better Dread (if Still Dead) than Red: High-Brown Passing in John Hearne’s Voices Under the Window,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 34 (2017) 519–40.

  6. Character as Moral Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 5.

  7. I should note that the psychological theory of implicit bias and the evidential import of Implicit Association Tests (IATs) to dispositions to discrimination are controversial. See Oswald, Mitchell, Blanton, Jaccard, and Tetlock, “Predicting Ethnic and Racial Discrimination: A Meta-analysis of IAT Criterion Studies,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 105 (2013) 171–92; and Greenwald, Uhlmann, Poehlman, and Banaji, “Understanding and Using the Implicit Association Test: III. Meta-Analysis of Predictive Validity,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 97 (2009) 17–41.

  8. Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

  9. George Yancy, “Dear White America,” New York Times, December 24, 2015,

  10. Thanks to Rachel Fredericks for her valuable comments on a previous draft.

  • Mark Alfano

    Mark Alfano


    Reply to Fischer

    Thanks to Jeremy Fischer for his thought-provoking comments on Moral Psychology: An Introduction. I welcome this opportunity to reflect on the methodology of moral psychology.

    Fischer distinguishes three methodologies in moral psychology, which he dubs reflective, humanistic, and experimental. Each of these provides its own perspective on the topic. Reflective moral psychology employs armchair pondering of everyday experience, supplemented by common sense. As Fischer notes, reflective moral psychology faces several challenges, and we could easily add more challenges to his list. Which everyday experiences should one reflect on, and why? How universal is common sense? Whose experiences are liable to be ignored in this process? If someone disagrees with you about a philosophical intuition, does that mean at least one of you lacks common sense?

    These are age-old questions, and they have rightly prompted philosophers to seek a wider, more diverse range of experiences on which to reflect and a process that is—in the ideal case, at least—reproducible and intersubjectively valid. This leads us to humanistic and experimental moral psychology. In the former, the range of experience is broadened by going back in time to exemplary historical and literary cases, which furnish rich portraits of people’s conduct and inner lives. In this connection, Fischer points to examples such as Bernard Williams’s interpretation of Ajax and Martha Nussbaum’s interpretation of Oresteia.

    By contrast, experimental moral psychology works with data to seek out trends, identify effects both weak and strong, and construct causal or computational models of moral psychological processes. Instead of uncovering the deep meanings embedded in great historical and mythical exemplars, experimental moral psychology aggregates and analyzes data from ordinary human animals. Fischer questions whether this approach is sufficient. Can an experimental moral psychology reveal everything that a humanistic approach would illuminate? To get a firmer grip on this question, it’s helpful to ask what, exactly, distinguishes the humanistic approach. Fischer primarily associates it with interpretation or sense-making. Science can tell us what there is and how it works, but humanistic inquiry excels in telling us (or helping us tell ourselves) what it means. I would add that, in engaging our imaginative capacities, humanistic inquiry may also prompt us to consider possibilities and prospects that have hitherto remained unrealized. Reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s stories, for example, is likely to lead to this phenomenon.

    Because it can be hard to engage fully with the statistics, humanistic inquiry can be uniquely instructive. Humanistic interpretation explores stylized exemplars, even as it elides the full range of variance in people’s psychologies. This has the advantage of focusing our attention on particular cases that make various processes, experiences, and attitudes salient. Just as it is often pedagogically, cognitively, or communicatively helpful to do geometry with drawings on paper, chalkboards, or computer screens, so it is often pedagogically, cognitively, or communicatively helpful to do moral psychology with narratives from books and film. As Andy Clark (2002) has argued, human minds operate best when they are able to iteratively alternate between cognitive processes such as deciding, inferring, and evaluating and perceptual and agential processes such as seeing, feeling, and manipulating. Shifting back and forth between the analysis of data and artistic or hermeneutical representations of idealized types enables us to take advantages of both our cognitive powers and our perceptual and storytelling capacities.

    I hope that these irenic remarks go some way to reducing the distance between Fischer and me. However, I don’t want to pretend that we agree about everything, for I also see two substantial dangers in the kind of humanistic moral psychology he enjoins. First, the range of exemplars on which to reflect is liable to be at least as cramped as one’s own experience. The store of literary and historical exemplars is almost laughably narrow. In works of humanistic moral psychology, how often does one encounter exemplars who are not “the ancients,” characters in Jane Austen or George Eliot novels, or Huckleberry Finn? If one of the deficiencies of reflective moral psychology is that it does not draw on a sufficiently diverse range of actual and possible experience, then humanistic moral psychology is liable to exacerbate the problem. This is not essential to humanistic moral psychology, but one is hard-pressed to find counterexamples. Experimental moral psychology does better on this score (if and only if it uses large and diverse samples of participants—a desideratum that is sometimes neglected).

    In addition to (typically) providing a worm’s-eye view of a very small number of exemplars, humanistic moral psychology unconstrained by data is prone to lead to misimagination. As Adam Morton (2006) points out, it’s only possible to learn from our imaginings if they have the possibility of being either correct or incorrect. Fictional, mythical, and idealized historical exemplars are, in this context “an invitation to illusion . . . because when we respond to fiction we react to the characters in many of the ways we do to real people, and so if a way of reacting makes sense with respect to a fiction we tend to think that it makes sense with respect to real people.” As Morton goes on to argue, this can lead us to think that the characters, motives, and experiences we attribute to fictional characters are possible (perhaps even desirable) characters, motives, and experiences in real life. It can also lead us to expect causal or conceptual connections in real life that only exist in fiction.

    To illustrate: Bernard Williams moves from shame in Sophocles’s Ajax to shame in actual human communities. Martha Nussbaum moves from anger and forgiveness in Aeschylus’s Oresteia to anger and forgiveness in real human encounters. Gabriele Taylor moves from vice in Coriolanus to vice in everyday life. And Charles Mills moves from the experience of class and race in Hearne’s Voices Under the Window to the experience of class and race in contemporary society. We must ask, though: does shame really work that way? Can real people forgive in the way Nussbaum imagines forgiveness to work in the Oresteia? What is vice like for the fancy apes that we are, and how similar is it to the vice of fictional characters in Shakespeare’s plays? Do victims of our current racist and classist society experience their own lives as Mills imagines the characters in Hearne’s novel to experience them? Maybe. But then again, maybe not. The only way to answer these questions is to employ the methods of science. If my arguments here are on the right track, then humanistic moral psychology may help us make sense of our experience, but it may also help us make nonsense of it. That does not make humanistic moral psychology useless. It does, though, show that the truth-values of the insights it promises need to be corroborated by science. Or, as I put it in the book, “moral philosophy without psychological content is empty, whereas psychological investigation without philosophical insight is blind.”

    I turn now to Fischer’s remarks about bias and responsibility (about which I have more to say in my responses to Trujillo and Radke). Fischer points out that there is a prima facie tension between treating people who embody implicit but not explicit bias as if they have good will, on the one hand, and sometimes angrily denouncing them, on the other hand. I believe that this tension can be resolved by appealing to the distinction I articulate in more detail in chapter 4 between ascriptions of traits (e.g., “You are such a sexist pig!”) and evaluations of actions (e.g., “That was a sexist thing to do!”). The former, but not the latter, tend to function as self-fulfilling prophecies. For this reason, it can be dangerous to accuse other people of harboring biases (even if the accusation is correct), but it is still perfectly possible to get angry and express that anger by calling out bad behavior. Fischer rightly points out that the extant evidence for self-fulfilling prophecies relates to ascriptions of traits other than being a racist or being a sexist. So my tactical advice here and in the book is based on the speculation that the same effect is liable to crop up in this context as well. Further research could corroborate or falsify this speculation. Further research could also shed light on whether my precautionary advice is better tailored to the case than George Yancy’s suggestion.

    I conclude by noting that all of this may turn out to be moot if the implicit bias paradigm is overthrown. The implicit association test itself may be unreliable and not useful for predicting behavior. I raised this possibility in a tentative way on page 66 of Moral Psychology, but recent research has made me even more worried (e.g., Forscher et al. 2017). If implicit bias turns out not to exist or not to have a serious influence on people’s conduct, then the conversation we need to have is not about the unicorns who embody implicit-but-not-explicit bias, but about individuals who harbor and express good old-fashioned explicit bias. Indeed, we need to have that conversation no matter what.



    Alfano, M. 2016. Moral Psychology: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Polity.

    Clark, A. 2002. “Towards a Science of the Bio-Technological Mind.” International Journal of Cognition and Technology 1: 21–33.

    Forscher, P., et al. 2017. “A Meta-Analysis of Change in Implicit Bias.” Open Science Framework, October 5. Retrieved from

    Morton, A. 2006. “Imagination and Mmisimagination.” In The Architecture of the Imagination: New Essays on Pretence, Possibility, and Fiction, edited by S. Nichols. Clarendon.

G. M. Trujillo, Jr.


The Backfire Effect and Political Psychology

Mark Alfano’s Moral Psychology: An Introduction palatably samples topics in moral psychology. It could naturally accompany systematic works like Walter Sinnott-Armstrong’s multivolume edited series on moral psychology or John Doris’s Moral Psychology Handbook. Alfano’s book, though, sets itself apart in its accessibility. Students and non-academics will gravitate toward his examples—police brutality, workplace discrimination, mundane monstrosities, and cross-cultural disagreements; he makes philosophy and social science relevant to everyday life. Philosophers and psychologists will marvel at how effortlessly he integrates research from centuries of philosophy and decades of social science. He’s just as comfortable glossing Plato, Aristotle, and Kant as Daniel Kahneman, Anthony Greenwald, and Paul Ekman. Throughout, Alfano resists obvious conclusions and extravagant claims, thus exhibiting a calm, fluid confidence in his restrained theses. This book is as smooth as academic introductions get.

I want to criticize Alfano’s book; critique is the highest form of praise for our peculiar profession of philosophy. But I found his arguments expertly qualified and well-situated in contemporary ethics and psychology. Even as someone who disagrees with his conclusions, I know by the structure of his arguments that Alfano listened carefully to his opposition. I also realize the task of an introductory book isn’t to shore up every argument. So, here I’ll offer expansions on Alfano’s arguments. Specifically, I’ll argue that recent literature on the “backfire effect” complicates some of Alfano’s practical advice. But if we apply Alfano’s ideas to his own solutions, we might surmount their practical shortcomings.

In Moral Psychology, Alfano advocates that a person who is oppressed (or speaking up for the oppressed) should directly confront explicit or complicit oppressors. For example, he advises that people can combat implicit biases by confronting whoever has the bias (74, 78). Also, when discussing emotion, he highlights Lisa Tessman’s observation that people sometimes face a dilemma when regulating injustice-responsive anger: they can (a) recognize any injustice and get angry at it, which leads to all-consuming anger in an unjust world, or (b) get angry in a more measured way, but risk enduring degradation (2005, 124–25; cited by Alfano, 91). He extends this point in his chapter on character to take a dig at Aristotle. Aristotle argues that a virtue of mildness helps us to regulate our anger (2002, 1108a5ff.). But Alfano, following the work of feminist and anti-racist scholars like Macalester Bell and Zac Cogley, argues that anger responds to harms; it’s about more than mere temper. Alfano writes:

Aristotle restricts his theory to adult male citizens in a polity built around satisfying their and only their needs. For such people, injustices are bound to be rarer than for people in oppressed groups. When such privileged citizens do experience an offense, they are likely to have the power and perceived authority to make their anger acknowledged and the fault redressed. They have the luxury to be good-tempered. Someone who systematically faces injustices and whose anger about them is ignored, dismissed, or met with further injustice is in a very different position. For them, being or appearing good-tempered may even contribute to their oppression since it suggests that nothing is seriously wrong. (117)

Alfano’s point on Aristotle is well-taken, even though I think he should also have discussed Aristotle’s treatment of righteous indignation (1108b1ff.), and nowhere does Alfano explain that virtues and vices are inextricably linked to the lifelong project of human flourishing in a community. I even think Aristotle would agree with this advice in the abstract. But the devils of injustice lurk in the details. It matters which person confronts the other and how. It also matters what results from such confrontations, as confrontations aren’t intrinsically good.

An unfortunate truth for academics is that social justice isn’t only about epistemic, moral, or political justification. If it were, history wouldn’t be a “slaughter-bench,” as Hegel once called it (1988, 24). Bad, vicious, and evil people would yield to overwhelming justification against wrongdoings if it were only about reasons. Instead, we must also confront the empirical realities. And if we’re empirical about moral psychology and social justice, then we must admit what works and what doesn’t. I can’t help but hear Aristotle replying to Alfano with something like: “Virtues must be nested within a framework for human flourishing, as we need to consider the effects of emotions and character traits on the overall well-being of a person and community. After all, Nicomachean Ethics and Politics are a continuous project because ethics and politics are inseparable.” In other words, social justice shouldn’t exclusively focus on means or ends, and it shouldn’t separate moral psychology from political psychology. Rather, to actualize justice, we must scrutinize both the goals we want to reach and the winding, forked paths we take to get there.

One recently explored area in politics and psychology is the “backfire effect.” Many experiments document a curious phenomenon when some people are presented with new information that undermines their extant beliefs. Rather than change their minds, some people believe their original opinions more deeply. The backfire effect turns humans reasoning ironic; people in its grip believe more firmly their original opinions in the face of strong countervailing evidence (see Nyhan and Reifler; Trevors et al.; Chong and Druckman; Lewandowsky et al.). American politics has demonstrated this since the 2016 primary elections. Trump boasted that he could shoot somebody and not lose voters, and nineteen women alleged sexual misconduct suffered through interactions with Trump. Yet in November 2017, among Republicans, Trump had an approval rating as high as 85 percent (Marcin 2017). And this is not a single-party problem. Democrats failed to confront Hillary Clinton’s career moves that exacerbated American poverty and extended campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan that murdered (and still murder) civilians. Note, the backfire effect is different from and more insidious than Alfano’s mention of confirmation bias (cf. 119).

Why does the backfire effect matter? Sometimes experience gives counterintuitive results. And academics should yield to this experience in ethical and political matters rather than save theoretical integrity in systematic projects. This is especially the case when academics don’t come from the backgrounds of the people they’re talking about. A recent study by Justin P. Brienza and Igor Grossmann suggests that people from higher social classes are less wise than people from lower classes; they’re worse at finding solutions to practical problems. Additionally, philosophers have long understood how slaves can have deeper philosophical understanding than their masters (see Hegel 1977, §§178–96), and when people live in this world as a person of color, their consciousness splits into self-conception, awareness of how others perceive them, and the complex interplay between the two (see DuBois 1986, 364ff.). Social justice is more than mere academic curiosity and deserves as much rigor as any reputable science or philosophical discipline. For these reasons, any academic should read widely before weighing in on the philosophy of race, gender, or sexuality, and they shouldn’t be surprised that theory might not work out in practice.

So, what do we do with research on the backfire effect, and what can we learn from the recent election in America? I don’t know. But if scholars like Alfano (and me) want to combat biases, psychological distress, and social injustice, then we must offer smarter advice than mere confrontation of the oppressor. Alfano does this for biases; his systemic recommendations—such as reforming application procedures, disarming most police, and getting healthcare workers to treat diverse populations—deserve praise (74–79). But we don’t see this level of informed practicality in discussions on emotion, character traits, or disagreement. That is, how can we regulate emotions (and which ones?), how can we train character (selecting for which traits?), and how should we argue with other cultures, especially when we can’t agree on a policy where one side will be harmed? Even leaving these questions aside, we can complicate Alfano’s explicit advice of confrontation of oppressors. It should be emphasized that, when considering confrontation, we must regard who’s doing the confronting and in what ways. Confrontation might not only be unhelpful; it might actually make things worse for the oppressed or victims of violence (see McKiernan 2016, 150–51). We need to be suspicious of proceeding unstrategically or without tried and tested methods of organizing (perhaps by expanding our catalogue of psychological evidence to include historical accounts of resistance). This is especially the case if we garner any form of privilege or power.

Alfano deserves praise for confronting these issues in his book. But he (and I) need to be more aware of counterintuitive results in the public sphere. Sometimes we intend well and act earnestly on behalf of others, but sometimes it backfires, inflicting the burns of the backfire on the groups that academics advocate for. Maybe we face another Tessmanian dilemma: (1) we combat oppression vociferously, albeit with the risk of worsening conditions, or (2) we quietly resist but face the inevitable cruelty of public indifference to suffering and squandered opportunities to improve. Maybe part of the messiness of politics is that sometimes we need both strategies, and in either case, single solutions won’t work in all contexts. Maybe we also sense imagination’s unfortunate absence in political strategy. Alfano confesses that character—due to its complex interactions with patiency, agency, reflexivity, sociality, temporality, preferences, responsibility assessments, and emotions—is the most complicated phenomenon he investigates (136–37). This can’t be overemphasized, especially since he should include political character traits and group dynamics in the discussion.

As Alfano repeatedly implores, researchers of the moral psychology of biases, emotions, and character traits need to take sociality more seriously. And, as much as anything, this means finding psychological tools to combat oppression, even if they diverge from contemporary academic or political strategies. Academics should also shun overly simplified advice that obscures detail crucial to solutions, and we must acknowledge our privilege in writing pieces that almost no one in public policy or the general public reads. And at some point, we must deal with ugly realities that Aristotle observed two millennia ago: “For the person who lives according to emotion will not listen to talk that tries to turn him away from it, nor again will he comprehend such talk; how will it be possible to persuade someone like this to change? And in general it is not talk that makes emotion yield but force” (1179b26–29). He goes on to add, “And perhaps if someone wishes to make people better—whether in large numbers or in small—by exercising supervision over them, he too should attempt to become an expert in legislation, if it’s through laws that we become good” (1180b23–25). That is, if academics want to change harsh realities, we can’t stay exclusively on manicured campuses. Politics, and maybe force, may be our best means, and both will soil our oxfords.

Alfano already does much of what I advised. For example, he confronts counterintuitive results. He shows how preferences aren’t completely stable or determinate, but how they can nonetheless inform behavioral science (ch. 1). He argues that lack of control and knowledge undermine responsibility, but how we nonetheless can be culpable for certain forms of non-capacity or ignorance (ch. 2). He exhibits how emotions and reasons aren’t completely separable but that some emotions, like disgust, can nonetheless be discounted as providing good reasons (ch. 3). He reveals that it can be good to tell people they’re virtuous because they’ll act virtuously, but cautions us on the dangers of attributing vices (ch. 4). And he explains how cross-cultural studies oversimplify values both when they ascribe to different cultures fundamental disagreement on deep values and when they erase important differences in the ways people value (ch. 5). My cautionary note only extends this pattern to the solutions we find to facing social problems. Alfano has gifted us with a lucid exploration of the effects of agency, patiency, reflexivity, sociality, and temporality on moral psychology. But there is more work to be done to apply the same lucidity and rigor to the practical upshots that Alfano suggests and to the psychological problems in politics, which are inseparable from the lessons Alfano presents in Moral Psychology.



Alfano, Mark. 2016. Moral Psychology: An Introduction. Cambridge: Polity.

Aristotle. 2002. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Christopher Rowe. Commentary by Sarah Broadie. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brienza, Justin P., and Igor Grossman. 2017. “Social class and wise reasoning about interpersonal conflicts across regions, persons and situations.” Proceedings from the Royal Society B. December.

Chong, Dennis, and James N. Druckman. 2007. “Framing Public Opinion in Competitive Democracies.” American Political Science Review 101: 637–55.

DuBois, W. E. B. 1986. The Souls of Black Folk. In Writings: The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade, The Souls of Black Folk, Dusk of Dawn, Essays and Articles, 357–547. New York: Library of America.

Hegel, G. W. F. 1977. Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 1988. Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Translated by Leo Rauch. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Nyhan, Brendan, and Jason Reifler. 2010. “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32: 303–30.

Lewandowsky, Stephan, et al. 2012. “Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13: 106–31.

Marcin, Tim. 2017. “Do Republicans Like Trump? Latest Poll Shows Least Popular President Ever Is Starting to Lose His Base.” Newsweek, November 18.

McKiernan, Amy L. 2016. “Standing Conditions and Blame.” Southwest Philosophy Review 32: 145–51.

Tessman, Lisa. 2005. Burdened Virtues: Virtue Ethics for Liberatory Struggles. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Trevors, Gregory J., et al. 2016. Discourse Processes 53: 339–70.

  • Mark Alfano

    Mark Alfano


    Reply to Trujillo

    Thanks to G. M. Trujillo for his forceful commentary on Moral Psychology: An Introduction. Trujillo builds a case for complicating the ways in which people confront the individuals and systems that contribute to oppression. Like Fischer, he is skeptical of the details of my recommendation to approach such confrontation with caution. Whereas Fischer suggests that it may be tactically or strategically better to follow Yancy’s advice, offering biased people knowledge about themselves as a gift of love, Trujillo worries that any direct confrontation is liable to induce a “backfire effect.”

    The basic idea behind the backfire effect is that, sometimes, directly telling someone that they’re mistaken can lead them to become even more confident, rather than reversing their opinion. To illustrate with an example from my own life: in 2011 I spent several hours walking my father through the evidence demonstrating that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, not Kenya. He had jumped aboard the “birther” bandwagon and approached the conversation with absolute certainty. By the end of our heated exchange, I had cornered him into admitting that maybe Obama was really an American citizen, but within a week he had reverted to the racist canard. In 2016, he voted for Donald Trump in Pennsylvania. Clearly, my provision of evidence and arguments did not have the intended effect. I sometimes worry that I may have made things worse by arguing my case. Perhaps if I had failed to rise to the bait, things would have played out differently.

    To better understand this worry, let’s review the backfire effect. The phenomenon has been the object of scientific fascination for over a decade.1 Imagine someone who accepts proposition p. Now imagine this person is confronted with the counter-claim, ~p. Simple contradiction of this sort, if it comes from a trusted source, might lead them to change their mind. If I think the time is 7 p.m. and you tell me that it’s actually 6 p.m., as long as I have no reason to distrust you I’ll probably just update my belief. It would be strange to become even more convinced of my preexisting opinion by your counterclaim. But we can imagine ways in which this might happen. For instance, you tell me that it’s 6 p.m.; I find this puzzling; I look at my phone, check my watch, and jump on my computer to Google “current time Melbourne.” All three sources of information indicate that the current time is 7 p.m. Your disagreement thus leads me to review the evidence, which in this case confirms my extant belief, which leads me to become more confident in it.

    Plausibly, the backfire effect tends to play out in this way: a belief is challenged; the challenge is reviewed (perhaps in a biased or self-protective way) and rejected; the agent becomes more confident in the original belief (Prasad et al. 2009). Note that, unless the review of the evidence is egregiously unfair, none of this is unreasonable. We cannot accuse people who go through this process of having done anything irrational. Indeed, the similarity to the dogmatism paradox is striking (Kripke 2011; Harman 1973, 1986). If I believe that p, then I take myself to know that p. And if I really do know that p, then any evidence against p must be misleading. Since it is epistemically permissible to disregard misleading evidence, I am justified in disregarding evidence against p.

    An additional mechanism at work in the backfire effect may relate to social trust and the (re)wiring of epistemic networks. If you tell me things I know to be false, that gives me a good epistemic reason not to trust what you say on this topic—both now and in the future. So if I believe that p and you challenge my belief, I may review and reject your challenge, then conclude that you are either a liar or epistemically incompetent in this domain (or generally). If I know that p, then any testifier who contradicts p is disposed to mislead me. Since it is epistemically permissible to disregard misleading testifiers, I am justified in distrusting testifiers who contradict or offer evidence against p. Indeed, this is precisely what happened when I tried to tell my father in October 2016 that Donald Trump was an anti-Semite and a xenophobe. He wrote in an email response, “Don’t know where you get your info on him being anti Jewish, and not wanting immigration, he wants legal immigration.” I contradicted his beliefs; he chose to trust sources such as Fox News and Breitbart and to distrust me. My confrontational intervention didn’t help and may have backfired.

    What to do about this? In my recent research, I’ve tried to better understand the ways in which epistemic trust works in social networks (Alfano 2016b). In light of the dogmatism paradox and the backfire effect, how should people distribute their trust and distrust? What are the best ways to practice intellectual humility and avoid getting trapped in dogmatism, epistemic insouciance, and a variety of other epistemic vices (Alfano 2015; Cassam 2015, 2017; Sherman 2015)? Turning these questions around, we can also ask: in light of the dogmatism paradox and the backfire effect, how should people confront, cajole, and coax each other to redistribute their trust and distrust? What are the best ways to extricate people from filter bubbles (Pariser 2011) and the dogmatism, epistemic insouciance, and other epistemic vices that they foster? Trujillo is exactly right that we need to think in more nuanced and creative ways about these questions.

    In the meantime, I would be remiss not to note that the backfire effect has recently come under criticism for failing to replicate or generalize (e.g., Wood & Porter forthcoming). However, even this new research should not make us epistemically sanguine. While failing in some contexts to find an outright backfire, these researchers showed that correcting false beliefs often has no effect at all. And they did not investigate whether, as I suggest might happen, people who face corrections or contradictions redistribute their trust and distrust in problematic ways in future testimonial exchanges. Clearly, more interdisciplinary research in this domain is called for.



    Alfano, M. 2015. “Becoming Less Unreasonable: A Reply to Sherman.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4: 59–62.

    ———. 2016a. Moral Psychology: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Polity.

    ———. 2016b. “The Topology of Communities of Trust.” Russian Sociological Review 15: 30–56.

    Cassam, Q. 2015. “Stealthy Vices.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 4: 19–25.

    ———. 2017. “Epistemic Insouciance.” Journal of Philosophical Research.

    Harman, G. 1973. Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    ———.1986. Change in View. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Kripke, S. 2011. “Two Paradoxes of Knowledge.” In Philosophical Troubles: Collected Papers, edited by S. Kripke, vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Nyhan, B., and J. Reifler. 2010. “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32: 303–30.

    Pariser, E. 2011. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin.

    Prasad, M., et al. 2009. “‘There Must Be a Reason’: Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification.” Sociological Inquiry 79: 142–62.

    Schwartz, N., et al. 2007. “Metacognitive Experiences and the Intricacies of Setting People Straight: Implications for Debiasing and Public Information Campaigns.” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 39: 127–61.

    Sherman, B. 2015. “There’s No (Testimonial) Justice: Why Pursuit of a Virtue Is Not the Solution to Epistemic Injustice.” Social Epistemology, 1–22.

    Skurnik, I., et al. 2005. “How Warnings about False Claims Become Recommendations.” Journal of Consumer Research 31: 713–24.

    Weaver, K., et al. 2007. “Inferring the Popularity of an Opinion from Its Familiarity: A Repetitive Voice Sounds like a Chorus.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92: 821–33.

    Wood, T., & Porter, E. Forthcoming. “The Elusive Backfire Effect: Mass Attitudes’ Steadfast Factual Adherence.” Political Behavior.

    1. For details, see Skurnik et al. (2005), Weaver et al. (2007), Schwartz et al. (2007), and Nyhan & Reifler (2010).

Lyn Radke


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May 1, 2018, 1:00 am