What can experimental ethics do?

Below is a draft of a section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Experimental Moral Philosophy.”  Comments welcome.  Apologies for typos and missing citations.


Which tasks are appropriate to experimental ethics?  The answer to this question depends on which aspects of ethics are under investigation.  Experimentalists investigate moral intuition, moral judgments, moral emotions, and moral behaviors, among other things.  The most thoroughly investigated is moral judgment, which we discuss now.


One project for the experimental ethics of moral judgment, associated with Stephen Stich[1] and Jonathan Weinberg, is to determine the extent to which philosophical intuitions are shared by both philosophers and ordinary people.  (The distinction between moral intuitions and moral judgments is fraught, but for the sake of this discussion, we’ll treat moral intuitions as moral seemings and moral judgments as considered moral beliefs.)  As Stich, Weinberg, and their fellow travelers are fond of pointing out, many philosophers appeal to intuitions as evidence or use their content as premises in arguments.  They often say such things as, “as everyone would agree, p,” “the common man thinks that p,” or simply, “intuitively, p.”  But would everyone agree that p?  Does the common man think that p?  Is p genuinely intuitive?  These are empirical questions, and if the early results documented by experimental philosophers are replicated, the answer would often seem to be negative.  This raises the question of how much work the adverb ‘intuitively’ is meant to do when it comes out of a philosopher’s mouth.  If it’s just something she says to clear her throat before she makes an assertion, then the fact that intuitions exhibit a great degree of variance matters little.  If, on the other hand, the claim “intuitively p” is meant to be evidence for p, the philosophers who make such claims should tread carefully.


Furthermore, the factors that predict disagreement about supposedly intuitive philosophical claims are often non-evidential.  Women find p intuitive, whereas men find ~p intuitive (Buckwalter & Stich forthcoming).  Westerners mostly agree that q, but East Asians tend to think ~q (Machery, Mallon, Nichols, & Stich 2004).[2]  People find r plausible if they’re asked about s first, but not otherwise (Nadelhoffer & Feltz 2008; Sinnott-Armstrong 2008; Sinnott-Armstrong, Mallon, McCoy, & Hull 2008).  This leads to the second use of experimental evidence: arguing for the (un)reliability of moral intuitions, and, to the extent that moral judgments are a function of moral intuitions, those as well.  Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (2008) and Eric Schwitzgebel and Fiery Cushman (2012) have recently followed this train of thought, arguing that moral intuitions are subject to normatively irrelevant situational influences (e.g., order effects), while Feltz & Cokely (2009) and Knobe (2011) have demonstrated correlations between moral intuitions and (presumably) normatively irrelevant individual differences (e.g., extroversion).  Such results, if they can be replicated and explained, may warrant skepticism about moral intuition, or at least about some classes of intuitions or intuiters.


Other philosophers are more sanguine about the upshot of experimental ethics.  Joshua Knobe, among others, attempts to use experimental investigations of the determinants of moral judgments to identify the contours of philosophically interesting concepts and the mechanisms or processes that underlie moral judgment.  He has famously argued for the pervasive influence of moral considerations throughout folk psychological concepts (2009, 2010; see also Pettit & Knobe 2009), claiming, among other things, that the concept of an intentional action is sensitive to the moral valence of the consequences of that action (2003, 2004b, 2006).  Others, such as Joshua Greene and his colleagues (2001, 2004, 2008), argue for dual-systems approaches to moral judgment.  On their view, a slower, more deliberative, system tends to issue in utilitarian judgments, whereas a quicker, more automatic system tends to produce Kantian judgments.  Which system is engaged by a given moral reasoning task is determined in part by personal style and in part by situational factors.[3]


A related approach favored by Chandra Sripada (2011) aims to identify the features to which philosophically important intuitions are sensitive.  Sripada thinks that the proper role of experimental ethics is not to identify the mechanisms underlying moral intuitions – such knowledge, it is claimed, contributes little of relevance to philosophical theorizing.  It is rather to investigate, on a case by case basis, the features to which people are responding when they have such intuitions.  On this view, people (philosophers included) can readily identify whether they have a given intuition, but not why they have it.  An example: “manipulation cases” have been thought to undermine compatibilist notions of free will.  In such a case, an unwitting person is surreptitiously manipulated into having and reflectively endorsing a motivation to j.  Critics of compatibilism say that such a case satisfies compatibilist criteria for free will, and yet, intuitively, the actor is not free.  Sripada showed, however, through both mediation analysis and structural equation modeling, that to the extent that people feel the manipulee not to be free, they do so because they judge him in fact not to satisfy the compatibilist criteria.  Thus, by determining which aspects of the case philosophical intuitions are responding to, it may be possible to resolve otherwise intractable questions of interpretation.

[1] See Doris & Stich (2006) and Stich & Weinberg (2001).

[2] Though for incisive criticisms of this claim, see Banerjee, Huebner, & Hauser (2010), Sytsma & Livengood (2011), and Lam (2010).

[3] Fiery Cushman and Liane Young (2009, 2011) have developed an alternative dual-process model for moral (and non-moral reasoning), as has Daniel Kahneman (2011).

7 thoughts on “What can experimental ethics do?

  1. Hello Mark,

    Posting a few sections of the entry you’re preparing for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a great idea, and I appreciate your looking for feedback. Would it be possible for you to post a *draft* outline / table of contents for the entry?


    • Thanks, Joe. Here’s a (very) tentative TOC:

      1. Introduction, with a focus on the demarcation problem (what makes it experimental, what makes it philosophy, what makes it ethics?)
      2. Historical precedents, including Bacon, Hume, Bentham, and Brandt
      3. Meta-ethics
      a. relativism & realism
      b. internalism & externalism
      c. moral epistemology
      4. normative ethics
      a. happiness & flourishing
      b. character & virtue
      5. moral attitudes
      a. intentionality & responsibility
      b. emotion & affect
      6. Other areas (covered only briefly, if at all, mostly due to word limit)
      a. free will
      b. the linguistic analogy
      c. public policy (e.g., the “nudge” theory)
      d. neuroethics
      e. biomedical ethics (e.g., stem cells, placebo, nocebo)

  2. Thanks Mark. I appreciate your posting the proposed/draft TOC. You and Don are undertaking quite a Herculean task to write the entry. Here are a few comments, without having reviewed the rest of the entry.

    1) I believe that you should footnote Starmans and Friedman’s work [“SF”] (“The Folk Conception of Knowledge” forthcoming in Cognition) when you introduce Buckwalter and Stich’s [“BS”] finding gender differences in knowledge attributions. There’s a rumor circulating that SF have sworn off the gender differences they reported in the poster that BS used to support their view. Moreover, Jennifer Nagel has shown in her experimental work that there are no gender differences in knowledge attributions. At the very least, I believe it deserves a footnote.

    2) I’m surprised that the Linguistic Analogy seems like an after-thought (again, based strictly upon what I’ve seen from the TOC; please don’t take what I say here as a harsh judgment). Mikhail (2011) has spelled out very carefully (perhaps too carefully, see Phelan’s NDPR review of Mikhail) how central Rawls’ Linguistic Analogy is in understanding experimental moral philosophy.

    Regardless, good work, and I look forward to reading more sections of the forthcoming piece.

    • Joe:

      1) Thanks for the Starmans & Friedman reference, and the Nagel one. We’re trying to restrict ourselves to experimental moral philosophy, so I’m not sure that Jennifer’s work will be relevant to this paper, but it would be odd if there were gender differences in ethics but not epistemology.

      2) We’ll have to think about promoting the linguistic analogy to its own section. Man… there’s so much good stuff to cover!

  3. Hey Mark. Thanks for sharing this.

    I think there is something else that experimental ethics can do: from the point of view of a pragmatic philosophy, it can inform normative ethics regarding the best ways of convincing people of certain moral arguments. I’m writing my QP about that, using the case of Pogge and Singer’s arguments concerning poverty as an example. Some colleagues and I have carried out a study that has tried to figure out which of the two arguments are more effective in convincing people to fulfill their moral duties towards the poor and why. We can use that information to learn how to get to people, how to more effectively change their views, feelings, and behaviors. This approach, of course, carries with it many ethical concerns (i.e. doesn’t this amount to manipulating people?), but I think that in some cases, such as global poverty, this use of experimental philosophy is justifiable.

    • Thanks, Carissa. What an interesting suggestion! Do you think this use of the data would still count as experimental philosophy, or would it be more an exercise in rhetoric? I can also see a link between your suggestion and Sripada’s ideas: the idea would be not just to determine which of two arguments people find more persuasive, but which features of the arguments they’re sensitive to.

      • I would argue that this still counts as experimental philosophy. For example, in the case of our study, we first asked participants whether they agreed with an argument or not on a scale of 0-6. Then we parsed up the argument into premises and conclusions and asked them to rate their level of agreement with each premise. We also have the control group only premises, without the argument. We wanted to know which part of the argument made them uncomfortable and why. We wanted to figure out if their rejection of the argument was rational (as in ‘I think this premise does not really lead to the conclusion’) or emotional (as in ‘I can see that the argument is flawless but I find it aversive because its implications are uncomfortable to my lifestyle’). I think all this is philosophical inquiry. Once you come apply the results and decide that argument A is best suited for personality X, and argument B for personality Y, and you choose the precise words to use, etc., then you might call it a rhetoric exercise. But I think the whole research behind it is philosophical and normatively oriented.

Leave a Reply