Draft chapters of moral psychology textbook

I’m writing a textbook on moral psychology for Polity.  Some of the material was piloted in an undergraduate honors seminar I taught this winter.  Much of it is new material (though related to my other work and drawing as carefully as I can on others’).  I’m going to be putting draft chapters up on this blog.  I’d be extremely grateful for comments, suggestions, questions, and criticisms.

Here’s a tentative table of contents:


1. Preferences

2. Agency

3. Emotion

4. Virtue

5. Intuition

6. Moral disagreement

7. Altruism

8. Development

Coda: The future of moral psychology

This post is a draft of the intro.

1 Setting the stage


Moral psychology is the systematic inquiry into how morality works (when it does work) and breaks down (when it doesn’t work).  The field therefore incorporates questions, insights, models, and methods from various parts of psychology (personality psychology, social psychology, cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology), sociology, anthropology, criminology, and of course philosophy (applied ethics, normative ethics, metaethics).  These fields are – or at least can be – mutually informative.  Indeed, one guiding theme of this book is that moral philosophy without psychological content is empty, whereas psychological investigation without philosophical insight is blind.  Given their characteristically synoptic perspective, philosophers are ideally situated to organize and moderate a productive conversation among these sciences.  Nevertheless, there is always the risk that investigators with different training and expertise may misinterpret, misconstrue, or misunderstand one another.  In this book, I attempt to put the relevant disciplines in dialogue.  They sometimes speak with different accents, jargons, vocabularies, even grammars.  My aim is to make their conversation intelligible to the reader, even if they cannot all be brought to speak exactly the same language in the same way.

Systematic inquiry depends on systematic questions.  Science is not just a collection of facts.  It’s not even a collection of facts about the same thing or class of things.  Imagine how stupid it would be to conduct moral psychology by assembling all and only the motives that every person has ever had while responding to a moral problem (assuming this to be possible in the first place).  This would be an utterly disorganized, uninformative, overwhelming mess.  In the annals of the illustrious British Royal Society, you find descriptions of “experiments” like this: “A circle was made with powder of unicorne’s horn, and a spider set in the middle of it, but it immediately ran out severall times repeated.  The spider once made some stay upon the powder” (Weld 1848, p. 113).  This would be a caricature of bad science if it hadn’t happened.  We might call this empiricism run amok.  Science doesn’t just ask what happens, as if this were a question that, when completely answered, would satisfy human inquirers.  Science asks questions systematically.  It asks, for instance, what the effect of X on Y is.  It asks whether that effect is mediated by M.  It asks whether the effect is moderated by Z.[1]  It attempts to determine which small set of variables, organized in what configuration, accounts for the variability observed and experimentally induced in the field of inquiry.

In this endeavor, science is guided by insightful identification of relevant variables, careful distinction between similar phenomena, creative elaboration of alternative models, and skeptically imaginative construction of potential counterexamples.  As the economist Paul Krugman put it recently on his blog, you can’t just let “the data speak for itself — because it never does. You use data to inform your analysis, you let it tell you that your pet hypothesis is wrong, but data are never a substitute for hard thinking.  If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming).”[2]  One way to help make theorizing explicit rather than implicit is asking systematic questions.

Unfortunately, in universities and in the contemporary education system more broadly (especially, to my chagrin, in the United States) we typically spend far too much time answering (and learning to answer) questions and far too little asking (and learning to ask) questions.  So, in this introduction, I’ll try to show how questions are asked, how they become more nuanced and complicated, and how conditions of adequacy for answers are (tentatively) established.

Here’s a moral question I’ve asked myself:

What should I do to him for her?

Picture this: I’m headed to work on a downtown subway car at 8:30 AM.  Two seats to my right, a 20-something woman is intently reading a magazine, obviously somewhat tense because a man is standing over her, leaning in a bit too close, leering slightly, and alternating between asking her name and telling her to smile.  She’s presumably on her way to work and obviously uninterested in his conversation.  She rolls her eyes and sighs.  He seems obnoxious but mostly harmless.  She casts about from time to time.  Is she looking for help? for someone to share a moment of derisive eye contact with? for reassurance that, if her unwelcome interlocutor escalates to insulting or assaulting her, fellow passengers will not remain apathetic bystanders?


2 Patiency


What should I do to him for her?  This question presupposes an immense amount.

First, it presupposes patiency[3] – that is, the fact that things happen to people.  My fellow commuter can be made uncomfortable.  She can feel threatened.  She can be threatened.  She can be assaulted.  Things – some of them good and some of them quite bad – can happen to her.  Some of them might be done by that jerk who keeps insinuating himself on her attention.  The fact that good and bad things can happen to her – that she is, in technical terms, a patient – is presupposed by my question.

Things can also happen to him.  He can be ignored and accommodated.  He can be egged on.  He can, alternatively, be confronted and challenged.  He can be distracted or redirected.  The fact that good, bad, and neutral things can happen to him – that he too is a patient – is also presupposed by my question.

Finally, things can happen to me.  One reason I might do nothing is that I’m afraid of what might happen to me if I confront or even merely accost him.  Probably nothing – but I’m useless in a fight, and strangers can be unpredictable.  She might express gratitude to me for intervening.  Alternatively, she might be annoyed that a second stranger has made her business his business.  I aim to be helpful, which among other things includes stymieing creeps, but I also aim to avoid trampling through strangers’ lives uninvited.  As I decide what to do, her patiency, his patiency, and my patiency are all quite salient.

Things happen to people.  When they do, we have an example of patiency.  In other words, when something happens to someone, she is the patient of (is passive with respect to) that event or action.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us patients, and how our patiency figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, characters, and institutions.  Several chapters of this book are directly related to patiency.  For instance, in chapter 1 on preferences, we will see that some philosophers argue that your life goes well to the extent that your preferences are satisfied.  In other words, your life is better when you get what you want than when you don’t get it.  If you, like most people, want to be healthy, but you end up contracting influenza, your life goes worse.  Something happens to you that contravenes your preferences.  On the flipside, if you, like most people, prefer temperate weather to frigid cold, and the weather where you are is temperate, then your life goes better.  Something happens to you that satisfies your preferences.  In chapter 4, on virtue, we will see that benevolence is typically considered a virtue.  What makes someone benevolent?  Wishing others well, and at least sometimes acting successfully on those wishes.  If a benevolent person helps you in some way, you are the patient of her action.  An extreme version of benevolence – altruism – will be discussed in chapter 7.  An altruist doesn’t just wish others well and do things for their sake; she does so at significant cost to herself.  Finally, in chapter 8, we will consider moral development.  None of us grows up in a social vacuum.  We are all raised by someone, such as a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle.  We are all patients of the myriad interventions our caretakers make in our lives, which lead us to cultivate good (or bad, or mixed) character.

Thus, patiency is a crucial concept in moral psychology.  When I ask what I should do to him for her, I’m asking what follows from her patiency, his patiency, and my own patiency.  This is an example of how questions are asked: we start with something seemingly simple and comprehensible (“What should I do to him for her?”) and parse out some of the deeper questions and concepts it presupposes.


3 Agency


What should I do to him for her?

This question presupposes agency.  Things don’t just happen to people: sometimes people do things.

Return to the example of the woman on the train.  She might do something.  She might stand up and walk to the next train car.  She might lean back and hold her magazine up in front of her face, blocking the stranger’s attempt to make eye contact and muffling his voice.  She might tell him off.  She might scream.  She might kick him in the shin.

Likewise, he might do something.  He might continue to bug her until she escapes the train car.  He might sit down next to her.  He might call her a bitch.  He might throw his hands in the air and walk away.  He might switch to bothering someone else.  He might grow bored and start playing with his smartphone.

I, too, might do something.  (There’d be little point in asking myself what I should do if I couldn’t!)  If my usual wariness of strangers holds up, I might cautiously eye the situation and hope impotently that nothing too bad happens.  I might instead stride over and command him to stop bothering her.  More helpfully, I might stroll over and ask her a nonchalant question that lets her redirect her attention without seeming to be too rude to him.

People do things.  When they do, we have an example of agency.  In other words, some person is the agent of (is active with respect to) some event or action.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us agents, and how our agency figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, character, and institutions.

Several chapters of this book are directly related to agency.  Chapter 1 discusses how our preferences affect our choices, and hence our actions.  It’s tempting to assume that our preferences are fairly stable, at least once we reach adulthood.  Empirical research suggests otherwise.  It’s even more tempting to assume that our preferences are transitive: if I prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla and prefer vanilla to strawberry, then I’d better prefer chocolate to strawberry.  Again, empirical research suggests that, at least in some cases, transitivity breaks down.  To what extent can we be the authors of our own actions if our preferences are unstable and inconsistent?  Chapter 2 is about the relation between deliberative agency on the one hand and implicit biases on the other hand.  The vast majority of people in the developed world would, if asked, reject racist and sexist beliefs.  But social psychologists have demonstrated that most of us nevertheless implicitly accept and even act on racist and sexist associations.  When we do, are we really expressing our own agency?  If we aren’t, what’s going on?  Chapter 3 asks whether we are more or less agentic when we are motivated by emotions.  Particularly intense emotions seem to come over us like a hurricane, swamping our planning, deliberation, and even our agency.  But deficits in emotion have been shown to correlate with demonstrably bad decision-making.  Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the Kantian rejection of emotions on the one hand and the Humean embrace of them on the other.  Chapter 4 connects agency with virtue, which for many theorists is a matter of acting in accordance with practical reason.  Psychological research over the last several decades has demonstrated that the human capacity for slow, careful, deliberative reasoning is much more limited than most philosophers have presupposed.  The vast majority of our decision-making relies on quick, unconscious, vaguely emotional mental shortcuts.  Does this undermine our agency (as many suppose), or does it instead enable us to expand our agentic engagement with the world and each other?

If people were incapable of agency, if they were entirely passive beings, the contours of whose lives were completely determined by outside forces, there wouldn’t be much for moral psychologists to think about.  We could construct theories about what it meant for one person to have a better life than another, what it meant for one person to have as good a life as possible for such an impoverished creature, what it meant for such a life to improve or deteriorate.  But that would be about it.  The introduction of agency greatly complicates moral psychology.  Now, things don’t just happen to us; we do things.  Some of those things turn out as we want or intend them to.  Others don’t.  This imposes some constraints on what it means to act well, to be a successful agent.  Sometimes we do what we want, but then we are disappointed by the result.  This suggests that we need a better understanding of our own preferences, a topic of chapter 1.  Sometimes we accomplish one goal but in so doing thwart our striving for a second goal.  This suggests that we need to understand agency holistically, so that it involves progress towards a complete set of goals without too much self-undermining.

Thus, agency, like patiency, is a crucial concept in moral psychology, and it’s a concept that complicates the inquiry.  When I ask what I should do to him for her, I’m asking what follows from her agency, his agency, and my own agency.  This is a further example of how questions are asked: we start with something seemingly simple and comprehensible (“What should I do to him for her?”) and parse out some of the deeper questions and concepts it presupposes.


4 Sociality


What should I do to him for her?

This question presupposes sociality.  Things happen to people: they get sick, they enjoy pleasant weather, they endure the many small indignities of youth and the even more numerous small indignities of aging.  People do things: they stand up and walk away, they shrink into their seats, they write books.  In many interesting cases, though, one person does something to someone else.  Indeed, some of the examples I gave above had this flavor.  The only reason I asked myself what I should do to him for her was that he was doing something to her in the first place: he was harassing her.  As I deliberated about what to do, I considered the fact that there were things she might do to him, such as pointedly ignoring him, additional things he might do to her, such as insulting her, and various things I might do to him on her behalf, such as confronting him for harassing her.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us social, and how our sociality figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, character, and institutions.


Y is a patient. Y is not a patient.
X is an agent. X harasses Y.X kicks Y in the shin.X confronts Y. X stands up.X shrinks into his seat.X writes a book.
X is not an agent. Y gets sick.Y enjoys pleasant weather.Y grows old.

Table 1: agency x patiency examples

As table 1 illustrates, people can be simple patients, to whom things just happen; they can be simple agents, who just do things; but they can also be complex agents and patients: they can do things to each other.  In such cases, agency and patiency are inextricably intertwined.  One person’s agency is the cause or even a constitutive part of another person’s patiency.  One person’s patiency is the effect of another person’s agency.  When asked, “What happened to you?” my fellow commuter would be giving an incomplete answer if she responded, “I was harassed.”  Being harassed is not like enjoying pleasant weather; it’s not something that can happen to someone all on their own.  A more complete answer would be, “I was harassed by a stranger.”  Likewise, if someone later asked the creep, “What did you do on the train?” he would be giving an incomplete response if he answered, “I harassed.”  Harassing isn’t like standing up; it’s not something someone can do all on their own.

We can represent these relations with the following schematic diagram.[4]

 agent-patient 1x

Figure 1: agent-patient relation


In this diagram (and others of its sort that I’ll use below), a dot represents a person.  An arrow proceeding away from a dot represents that person exercising agency.  An arrow pointing at a dot represents that person enduring patiency (good, bad, or neutral).  I’ll put a box around each such relation.

Figure 1 represents the simplest sort of sociality: one agent does something to another agent.  A more complex form of sociality occurs when two people are agents and patients with respect to each other at the same time: you do something to me while I do something to you.  For instance, we dance together, each making suggestions to the other through subtle bodily movement, gestures, glances, and words. Call this interactivity.  Figure 2 represents interactive sociality of this sort.


agent-patient 1x interactive


Figure 2: agent-patient relation


Things happen to people; people do things; sometimes, these are the same event.  But sociality is often more complicated than that.  Interactivity is one source of complexity, but a minor one.  Another source of complexity is the possibility – indeed, the prevalence – of recursively embedded agent-patient relations.  This might sound frighteningly technical, but don’t worry.  Recursion is all over the place, and I’m certain that you’re already familiar with it, if only informally.  Recursion is a process in which objects of a given type are generated by or defined in terms of other objects of the same type.  For instance, think of your ancestors.  What makes someone an ancestor of yours?  The answer to this question relies on recursion: the parents of X are ancestors of X (that’s the non-recursive step) and ancestors of ancestors of X are ancestors of X (that’s the recursive step).  Your grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the parents of your parents.  Your great-grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the parents of the parents of your parents.  Your great-great-grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the parents of the parents of the parents of your parents.  The great-great-grandparents of your great-great-grandparents are your ancestors because they’re the ancestors of your ancestors.  And so on.

Social agent-patient relations can also be recursively embedded.  The majority – probably the vast majority – of the complexity of moral psychology derives from such embedding.  In fact, the example I started off with has a recursive structure.  When I asked myself what I should do to him for her, I was thinking of myself as an agent who acts on a preexisting agent-patient relationship.  After all, I would have had no reason to intervene if he hadn’t been harassing her in the first place.

 agent-patient 2x

Figure 3: recursively embedded agent-patient relations


Figure 3 illustrates the situation in which one person acts on a second person acting on a third person.  Since this relation is recursive, it can be expanded yet another step (and another, and another…), as illustrated in figure 4.

agent-patient 3x

Figure 4: doubly recursively embedded agent-patient relations


Although figure 4 might seem complicated, I think we can pretty easily conjure up a situation that it characterizes.  For instance, imagine that I decide to stride over to the creep and tell him to cut it out.  As I move towards him, my friend, who realizes what a foolhardy thing I’m about to do, grabs me by the wrist and whispers “no no NO!”  My friend acts on me acting on him acting on her.  This sort of thing happens, I suggest, all the time.  And, as you can see, the more recursion there is, the most complicated the situation becomes.

Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us social, and how our sociality figures in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, characters, and institutions.  Sociality is what makes moral psychology so complicated but also so interesting.  In a way, it’s the underlying theme of every chapter of this book but it features most prominently in chapters 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8.  In chapter 3 on emotion, we will see that emotions often function as signaling devices.  When I display anger, I signal to you that I am prepared and committed to reacting aggressively to offenses.  When you display disgust, you signal to me that the object of your disgust is contaminated and to-be-avoided.  Emotional signaling fits well into the recursive embedding structure discussed here.  When I display anger towards you, I also often signal to other people that they should be indignant over the offense you’ve caused me (a relationship like the one in figure 3).  When you display contempt towards my behavior, you also often signal to other people that they should feel superior to me.  Chapter 4 on virtue focuses primarily on the interlocking virtues of trustingness and trustworthiness.  Chapter 6 on moral disagreement investigates the ways in which sociality influences agreement on moral values, norms, heuristics, and decisions.  Chapter 7 on altruism is especially concerned with the potential tension between evolutionary theory and altruistic norms.  Chapter 8 explores the ways in which interlocking, recursively-structured agent-patient relations influence moral development.

Thus, sociality, like patiency and agency, is a crucial concept in moral psychology, and it’s a concept that greatly complicates the inquiry.  When I ask what I should do to him for her, I’m asking what follows from our sociality, that is, from the fact that I can act on him acting on her.  This is another example of how questions are asked: we start with something seemingly simple and comprehensible (“What should I do to him for her?”) and parse out some of the deeper questions and concepts it presupposes.


5 Reflexivity and temporality


What should I do to him for her?

This question presupposes reflexivity.  People do things; things happen to people; people do things to people.  In some cases, the agent and the patient are the same person.  In other words, people can do things to themselves.  This is easiest to see if we also introduce the last main conceptual presupposition of my question: temporality.  As I decide what to do to him for her, here are some considerations that might cross my mind:

If I don’t intercede somehow, I’ll feel guilty all day.

If I manage to distract him without starting a fight, I’ll be proud.

If I act like a coward now, I’ll be cultivating bad habits.

All of these considerations involve thinking of my future self as the patient of my current self as agent.  Another way of putting the same point is that I’m taking a social perspective on myself: on the one hand, me-now is the agent who does something to a patient; on the other hand, me-in-the-future is the patient to whom something is done by that agent.  These concepts also interact with sociality and the recursive embedding of agent-patient relations.  For instance, suppose I make a bad decision on Monday (agent) that leads me to make an even worse decision on Tuesday (patient-to-Monday-me) that leads me to suffer immensely on Wednesday (patient-to-Tuesday-me).  This is the sort of structure represented in figure 3, except that all three nodes represent me – just at different stages of my life.

Whenever we engage in long-term projects – especially long-term projects that are meant to have some effects on our future selves – patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality are all involved.  Moral psychology asks what it is about us that makes us reflexive and temporal, and how our reflexivity and temporality figure in our own and other people’s moral perception, behavior, decision-making, emotions, characters, and institutions.

Several chapters of this book are directly related to reflexivity and temporality.  The instability of preferences discussed in chapter 1 is a temporal instability, and it threatens agency because human agency as we normally conceive of it is meant to be temporally extended.  I don’t just do things now.  I do things now so that I can do and experience things later.  If my preferences change in the meantime, then setting myself up to do or experience something later seems pointless: what if I no longer want to do or experience that?  What if I’ve just wasted my effort?  The interaction between deliberative agency and implicit biases discussed in chapter 2 concerns, among other things, whether I’m able to reflectively endorse my own choices.  Emotions, discussed in chapter 3, can function as social signals; they can also function as commitment devices.  If I have a particular emotion, I’m committing myself (if only unconsciously and tentatively) to a plan of action in the future.  If I act wrongly, one of the things that may happen to my future self is the suffering of remorse.  Virtue, discussed in chapter 4, is acquired (according to Aristotle and many who follow in his footsteps) through long-term, goal-directed cultivation; I have a plan for my own life over time, which I proceed to carry out, making me both the agent and the patient of myself over the course of months, years, and even decades.  Intuitions, discussed in chapter 5, are arguably the automatic deliverances of capacities that have been built up over time through exposure to various theories, considerations, and arguments.

Reflexivity and temporality complicate moral psychology in various ways.  This is easiest to see if we imagine creatures that are just like humans in other ways but who have no long-term memory, no sense of self, and no capability to plan, to feel proud of their accomplishments, or to experience remorse.  Although such creatures would be patients (things would happen to them) and agents (they would do things) who were in some ways social (they would do things to each other), they would be very unlike us insofar as they could not intentionally do things to and for themselves, could not be grateful to or disappointed with their past selves, could not engage in long-term projects, and could not enjoy long-term friendships.  Clearly, these are crucial aspects of human moral psychology.

Thus far, we have explored five crucial concepts in moral psychology: patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality.  I don’t want to suggest that these are the only concepts moral psychologists find worth studying, but I do think they are among the most central.  Other important concepts will crop up throughout this book.  Some, such as emotion and intuition, will be treated at greater length.  Others, such as imagination and mindfulness, will receive less attention.  I encourage you to follow up on any and all of the concepts that capture your interest, and will provide lists of secondary sources at the end of each chapter to help direct and slake your curiosity.  In the remainder of this introduction, I will characterize some of the major normative theories that you might already be aware of in terms of their emphases on patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality.  After that, I’ll conclude by considering objections to moral psychology that might be raised because of the ever-fraught relationships among contingency, necessity, and normativity.  In particular, I’ll focus the truism that one can never deduce an ought from an is.


6 Comparing emphases of major moral theories


In the history of Western philosophy, four major moral theories have emerged: utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, and care ethics.  Since it’s likely that you’ve encountered at least some of these views before reading this book, in this section, I compare how they relate to the five main concepts in moral psychology


6.1 Utilitarianism


Utilitarianism is the best-known variety of a family of views known as consequentialism.  According to consequentialism, the goodness of an act is determined solely by the goodness of the consequent state of affairs.  This view is typically combined with positions on what makes a state of affairs good and a theory of right action.  For instance, hedonist act utilitarianism says that the only thing that contributes to the goodness of a state of affairs is pleasure, that the only thing that detracts from the goodness of a state of affairs is pain, and that an action is right just in case it maximizes the amount of goodness in the consequent state of affairs.

Pleasure and pain are mental states that humans and other animals enjoy and suffer.  Thus, utilitarians and other consequentialists place their primary emphasis on patiency.  Jeremy Bentham, one of the foremost utilitarian thinkers in philosophical history, put the point well while asking what determines whether a creature has moral worth and bears moral consideration:


Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse?  But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old.  But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail?  the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? (1823, chapter 17, footnote)


For someone like Bentham, it doesn’t matter whether you can engage in reasoning (including the practical reasoning required for agency and the reflexivity required for long-term planning).  It doesn’t matter whether you can talk.  The main moral question for him is whether you can suffer, whether things can happen to you – in particular, bad and painful things.

Utilitarianism thus gives pride of place to patiency and de-emphasizes agency and reflexivity.  Bentham’s lack of concern for talking might lead one to think that he and other utilitarians have no regard for sociality.  In one sense, that’s correct.  However, utilitarians and other consequentialists also tend to think that every being capable of suffering matters equally.  And they recognize that people are capable of both inflicting suffering on one another and alleviating one another’s suffering.  For this reason, utilitarians put a great deal of emphasis on sociality, though deriving that emphasis from its relation to patiency and suffering.

Lastly, utilitarians tend to put great emphasis on temporality.  What I have in mind here is the fact that the consequences of an action are typically construed not just as what happens immediately afterwards but as everything that flows from the action.  Everything, for all time?  At the very least, everything that could be foreseen by a very intelligent and dedicated investigator.  Utilitarians care so much about such long-term consequences that they have debates about population ethics, asking questions such as “How many people should there be?” (Blackorby, Bossert, & Donaldson 1995)


6.2 Kantian ethics


Kantian ethics, also sometimes called ‘deontological ethics’, puts most emphasis on the two concepts that utilitarianism deemphasizes (agency and reflexivity) while according less weight to the concepts utilitarianism emphasizes (patiency, sociality, and temporality).  Kant thought that an account of moral obligation could be derived from the structure of agency itself.  He called this the categorical imperative because it applies to every agent in every action they undertake regardless of their desires, preferences, and values.  The best-known formulation of the categorical imperative states that you must “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (4:421).  This book is not an introduction to major moral theories, let alone the history of philosophy, so I will not go into much detail interpreting the categorical imperative.  Kant’s idea, though, is that simply in virtue of being an agent you are constrained to act from some motives rather than others.  Clearly, then, agency figures importantly in Kantian ethics.

The other core concept that receives primary emphasis in Kantian ethics is reflexivity.  This is already somewhat evident from the first formulation of the categorical imperative, which requires you to reflect on and extrapolate from your own motives, but it comes into focus if we consider the third formulation: act as if you were through your maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends (4:439).  On this view, a moral act is one that can be self-legislated, i.e., an act that is in accordance with a law one could give not only to others but also to oneself.

Agency and reflexivity have pride of place in Kantian ethics, but the other three concepts receive some attention.  Patiency and sociality get their due in the second formulation of the categorical imperative: treat humanity – whether your own or someone else’s – never merely as the means to some end but always as an end in its own right.  In this formulation, we can see that Kant cares not only about agency but also about what’s done to people.  He thinks it’s always wrong to treat someone as a mere means to your own end.  However, patiency matters for Kant only derivatively because he thinks that what’s wrong about treating someone as a mere means is that, in so doing, you don’t respect their agency.  Thus, the importance of what happens to us and what we do to each other depends on the antecedent importance of agency.

Finally, Kantian ethics doesn’t totally discount temporality (Kant argues that we have an imperfect duty to develop our own talents, for instance), but it also doesn’t place primary emphasis on it.


6.3 Virtue ethics


Virtue ethics is a family of views that focuses less on what it’s right to do and more on what sort of person it’s good to be.  A good person is someone with many virtues (compassion, courage, honesty, trustworthiness) and few vices (selfishness, laziness, unfairness, rashness).  Ancient Greek philosophers were basically all virtue ethicists of one kind or another.  Plato emphasized the virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice.  Aristotle famously thought that every virtue was a middle state between a pair of vices.  For instance, courage is the disposition to fear neither too many things nor too few things, to fear them neither too intensely nor not intensely enough, to fear them neither for too long nor for too short a period, and so on.

Utilitarian ethics focuses primarily on patiency, sociality, and temporality; Kantian ethics focuses primarily on agency and reflexivity.  Virtue ethics has a more balanced approach (this isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing – it’s just a matter of emphasis), putting moderate emphasis on all five central concepts.  A virtuous person is characteristically active, doing things for reasons.  A virtuous person is also quite social.  Aristotle, for instance, devotes two whole chapters (out of ten) of the Nicomachean Ethics to friendship and another to justice.  Additionally, because virtue ethicists are concerned with the shape of a person’s whole life and the slow acquisition of virtuous traits, they pay more attention to temporality and moral development than utilitarians and Kantians.  They place slightly less emphasis on patiency and reflexivity, though these too figure in the account.


6.4 Care ethics


The other three views surveyed in this section are venerable, traditional approaches to morality.  The ethics of care is much more recent.  The dawn of care ethics can be dated with some precision to the publication, in 1982, of Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development.  In her book, Gilligan explored the ways in which women (at least the women she interviewed) tend to talk in terms of care, emphasizing personal relationships and attachments (motherhood, siblinghood, friendship, etc.) and the special responsibilities that flow from these.  She accused existing moral theories, such as Lawrence Kohlberg’s (1971) Kantian approach to moral psychology, with ignoring and even sometimes denigrating such caring relationships in favor of a completely impartial, legalistic notion of rights and justice.  Although this criticism is somewhat overstated (as I mentioned above, Aristotle devotes twice as much attention to friendship as he does to justice), popular versions of both utilitarian and Kantian ethics clearly deserve Gilligan’s rebuke.  Since 1971, various philosophers, including Kittay, Noddings, and Slote, have formulated moral theories in the wake of Gilligan’s critique.

Like the other theories canvassed here, care ethics is actually a family of views.  What unites them is their emphasis on personal, face-to-face relationships and attachments, as well as their recognition that we all come into this world as completely helpless, dependent, screaming, fragile lumps of flesh.  Care ethicists therefore focus primarily on human sociality and patiency, with derivative interest in agency (someone has to do the caring, in addition to being cared for, after all) and temporality.  Reflexivity receives little attention in the care tradition.

major moral theories

Figure 5: Emphases of the four major moral theories


These differences in emphasis are illustrated graphically in figure 5.


7 Is and ought


To some people, the idea of combining scientific psychology with philosophical ethics to investigate moral psychology will seem only natural.  Philosophy helps to set the terms of the investigation (in this case, patiency, agency, sociality, reflexivity, and temporality), proposes questions and models, dreams up potential counterexamples; psychology empirically determines whether the terms refer to anything in the world, answers the questions, tests the models, and determines whether the potential counterexamples can be realized.  Psychology as an academic discipline split off from philosophy less than two centuries ago; it’s unsurprising that the two fields would sometimes collaborate.  To other people, though, this project might seem to be doomed from the start.  Science studies how things are, whereas philosophy studies how things ought to be and how they must be.  Science can never, even in principle, help to answer philosophical questions.

As you’ve probably guessed, I disagree, and for several reasons.  First, science can investigate modal reality (how things not only are but can and can’t be).  To the extent that we accept the truism that people can’t be morally required to do things or be ways that are impossible, scientific investigation of moral psychology constraints moral theory.  Second, scientific psychology can also investigate not just whether various kinds of behavior, character, and attachments are possible but also how demanding it would be for people to act, be, and relate in those ways.  The harder it is to live up to a moral theory’s requirements, the more suspicious we should be of that theory.  This is not to say that morality can’t make legitimate demands on us, just that the more extravagant those demands grow, the more suspicious we should be of the theory that generated them.  Third, even if we decide to hold onto very demanding norms, psychological science can help us to see how to live up to those norms.  In the same way, even if we hold onto extremely idealized norms of physical health, biological science can help us to see how to approximate those norms in our own lives.

Finally, morality is an important part of human behavior and cognition; as such, it’s something psychologists want to study, even if their investigations never end up suggesting revisions to moral norms.  The idea that this aspect of psychology is simply off-limits, as if philosophers could somehow call “dibs” on it, is preposterous.  As Levitin put it, those who think that science cannot study values typically commit a fallacy: “they seem to have confused making value judgments, which is incompatible with scientific objectivity, with studying objectively how other people make them – a phenomenon as amenable to psychology study, in principle, as other forms of human learning and choice” (1973, p. 491).  Moral psychology doesn’t aim to replace utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, or the ethics of care.  In the case of care, this should be especially obvious: the entire edifice of care ethics was inspired by empirical research on moral psychology!  Instead of taking their ball and going home, philosophers need to learn to share their insights, theories, and models with their scientist neighbors.

It’s not all good news for traditional normative ethics, though.  Moral theories have empirical presuppositions.  Moral psychology can investigate those presuppositions.  Sometimes, to the moral theorist’s delight, they turn out to be well-supported.  Sometimes their foundations look pretty shaky.  The relation between philosophy and psychology doesn’t need to involve confrontation or scorn, though.  A better attitude for both sides to take, I contend is one of curiosity and intellectual humility.  A curious investigator is tentatively committed to her views, but she’s also delighted to find out that she’s wrong because that spurs her to construct a better model, a stronger theory, a more nuanced hypothesis.  There’s no part of reality that’s specially marked off for philosophers and only philosophers to investigate.  By the same token, there’s no part of reality that’s specially marked off for psychologists and only psychologists to investigate.  If you don’t believe me now, perhaps you will when you finish this book.

[1] For more on mediation and moderation see Baron & Kenny (1986).

[2] Paul Krugman, March 17, 2014, on his blog, “The Conscience of a Liberal,” in a post titled “Sergeant Friday was not a Fox”

[3] When a term appears for the first time in boldface, it is a technical term that is defined in the glossary at the end of the book.

[4] I am here indebted to James Wilk.

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