Moral Phenomenology and Normative Ethics

Below is Uriah Kriegel’s first official post for PEA Soup (cross-posted with Desert Landscapes, the University of Arizona philosophy blog).  Uriah is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona, and we’re happy to welcome him aboard.

One of the issues that loomed large in the moral phenomenology workshop at the beginning of the month was what bearing, if any, moral phenomenology – the study of the experiential aspect of moral life – may have on traditional questions in ethics.

There seems to be a straightforward case for relevance to moral psychology. This is to be expected, given that phenomenology is a component of psychology. Consider, for instance, the traditional debate over cognitivism, centered on the question whether moral judgments are cognitive, or rather conative, in nature. Traditional approaches to this question focused on the functional and representational (syntactic and semantic) aspects of moral judgments, asking whether they resemble more the functional and representational character of paradigmatically cognitive, or of paradigmatically conative, states. For instance, the Geach-Frege problem for non-cognitivism can be cast as the point that the inferential role (syntax) of moral judgments is akin to that of cognitive states. The claim that there are no mind-independent truthmakers for moral judgments is a claim about their representational content (semantics), namely, that they don’t have the kind of truth-conditional content paradigmatically cognitive states do. But it is also fair to ask whether the phenomenological character of moral judgments is rather like the one we typically find in cognitive states or conative states. A cognitive phenomenology would count as evidence for cognitivism, a non-cognitive phenomenology as evidence for non-cognitivism. And the only way to find out which it is is to engage in moral phenomenology.

Through its consequences for moral psychology, moral phenomenology also bears on meta-ethical issues of more metaphysical nature. Since there are familiar argumentative routes from cognitivism to realism and from non-cognitivism to anti-realism (and back!), moral phenomenology also enters the web of considerations we take into account as we seek a meta-ethical reflective equilibrium.

One area in which it’s less clear what moral phenomenology can contribute is normative ethics. One conference participant voiced the worry particularly poignantly by asking what moral phenomenology could possibly tell him about what to do in particular situations (or for that matter at all). At the time, I thought it might be true that there is no significant contact between moral phenomenology and normative ethics, although Julia Annas’ paper, which discussed the phenomenology of the virtuous person, clearly did manage to create such contact. It occurred to me today that there might be another issue where some contact is natural.

This is the issue of what I called in an old blog post “internalism about the good life.” This is the claim is, roughly, that everything that makes a life good for the one who lives it is internal to the one who lives it. Any consideration relevant to the evaluation of a life must on this view have to do with some psychological fact about the person whose life it is. The point is brought out by Thomas Nagel’s story about the guy who was under the impression that he was having a great life when in reality his wife was cheating on him, his children despised him, his friends envied him and schemed to hurt him – all without him ever becoming aware of any of it. Nagel himself claimed that the guy’s life is not a good one – not even good for him. That’s what I call externalism about the good life. My intuition is that the guy’s life is a good one, at least for him. That’s internalism.

It seems to me that arguments drawing on moral phenomenology bear on this issue pretty straightforwardly. The original situation supposes that Tim and Tom are experiential Twins, but Tim’s external life corresponds more or less to how he experiences it, whereas Tom’s doesn’t, and the question is whether Tim’s life is better than Tom’s. The externalist says Yes, the internalist No. From my field research (which involved asking like 5 people…), it seems that more people get the externalist intuition here. Suppose, however, that we introduce the following twist: Tim and Tom are both zombies. Tim is a beloved zombie, adored by his faithful and admiring (non-zombie) wife and children etc. Tom is a despised zombie whose resentful and scheming (non-zombie) wife and children can’t stand etc. Question: Is Tim’s life better than Tom’s? My intuition is clearly No. The two lives are completely indistinguishable in terms of their goodness for the one who lives them, since neither has any value (positive or negative) to the one who lives it. In a way, this is just an expression of Chalmers’ dictum: qualia are what makes life worth living. But if that is the case, then there seems to be an illusion involved when we intuit that Tim’s life is better than Tom’s in the original story, and more generally in the idea that the non-experienced aspects of one’s life can make a difference to how good one’s life is (for one).

Now, we can argue about the zombie argument for good-life internalism, but my point here is that such arguing would involve engaging in moral phenomenology, and the issue we would try to settle, or at least influence, by doing so would be an issue in normative ethics. We make contact here between the experiential and the normative.

7 Replies to “Moral Phenomenology and Normative Ethics

  1. Uriah,
    I don’t see how the zombie argument for good-life internalism is supposed to work. One very common sort of good-life externalist is the desire-fulfillment theorist, who holds that one’s life goes well in so far as one’s desires are fulfilled. (Note that whether one’s desire that P is fulfilled depends on the external fact of whether or not P is true.) Thus the desire-fulfillment theorist holds that the Tom’s life is much worse than Tim’s life, because, unlike Tim, Tom’s desire to be loved and respected is (unbeknownst to him) unfulfilled. Now zombies don’t have any conscious states. So they don’t have desires, right? And if they don’t have any desires, then a good-life externalist, such as the desire-fulfillment theorist, will agree with you that neither zombie-Tim’s life nor zombie-Tom’s life has any value (positive or negative). But the fact that zombie-Tom’s life is not worse than zombie-Tim’s life doesn’t support the internalist’s contention that Tom’s life is not worse than Tim’s life. What am I missing?

  2. Uriah,
    On the particular point (the argument for good-life internalism), I agree with Doug. Let me put it in a general way. It might be true that in order for a person’s life to have any value, she must be a conscious subject (so that the lives of zombies have no value). It does not follow from this that the value of a person’s life can only be determined by her experiences (which is what internalism requires). Being a conscious subject might simply be a minimal condition; but if you are a conscious subject, it might be that other things matter too. Thus, whether a person’s wife really loves him might make a great difference to the value of a conscious person’s life, but no difference at all to the value of a zombie’s life, since that value of the second life is zero no matter how other people feel about him.
    On your larger point, though, I completely agree. In fact I find the very idea that moral phenomenology might not be relevant to normative ethics to be deeply puzzling. Surely a great deal of our knowledge about values comes through our experience of valuable things. Imagine trying to explain what is wrong with torture to someone who had never experienced pain. I would maintain that such a person could never really grasp the moral reasons that count against torture, even if she could learn to mimic the behavior of those who do. Of course, a lot of this gets taken for granted because so much of what we learn this way is basic, and common ground between various contending normative ethical theories (any plausible theory will recognize that torture is bad, and that there is, at least typically, at least some reason not to inflict torture on others). But we should not conclude from this that moral phenomenology is irrelevant to whatever knowledge of normative ethics we might manage to attain; indeed, the opposite is closer to the truth.

  3. Doug:
    That’s an interesting proposal on behalf of the GL extenalist, but it does depend on denying that zombies have desires. The natural view is that zombies do have desires, just not conscious ones. They have unconscious desires, and moreover unconscious desires that are physically and functionally just like ours. On this picture, Zombie-Tim and Zombie-Tom both have unconscious desires to be loved by their respective wives, one’s satisfied and one’s is not, and yet their lives are the same.
    There are some moves that can be made here by the externalist, such as retreating to a *conscious*-desire-fulfillment theory, or denying that there are unconscious desires. But both moves are problematic, I think.
    Troy:
    That’s a fair move you’re suggesting here, but I think it (i) represents already some concession to internalism and (ii) puts some strain on externalism. Let me explain.
    (i) One way to conceive of the theory of GL is as confronted with two questions:
    1. What makes a life have any degree of goodness (be goodness-eligible, if you will)?
    2. What makes a given life with some degree of goodness have the specific degree of goodness it does (what determine the goodness of a goodness-eligible life)?
    If the externalist takes the route you propose, she concedes an internalist answer to 1, which is not unimportant.
    (ii) Our externalist seems to owe us a story as to why it is that, for any non-experiential factor X, X is insufficient for giving any goodness to a life, but once the life has some goodness, it can make a difference to how much goodness the life has. The view that there is such a factor is not incoherent, and there may well be other cases in which factors behave like that. But still it is always more natural to suppose, for any given X, that if X cannot give a degree of goodness to a life, then it cannot make a difference to the degree of goodness that a life has once it has any goodness. This “naturalness” should be thought of, I would think, as an advantage for the internalist position (in particular, for an internalist answer to question 2 above), though certainly not a conclusive one.
    Anyway, as you note, all this is precisely doing moral phenomenology with an eye on normative ethics!

  4. Uriah,
    I guess that I don’t know enough philosophy of mind — actually, I know that I don’t know enough philosophy of mind. Anyway, I thought that a desire was a kind of mental/conscious state. So what exactly is an unconscious desire? I can see how zombies can have physical states (maybe certain brain states) that function just like the desires of conscious subjects do, but I don’t see how zombies can have desires. So I can see how zombie-Tom given his brain states will act like he cares whether he is loved and respected and will do everything that someone with a desire for love and respect would do, but I don’t see how, if he has no conscious states at all, he can care/urn/desire/long for love and respect.

  5. I don’t know the relevant phil of mind either, but some who do tell me that some folks there think they can understand the idea of desires in a zombie. Of course, most of us share the thought that a desire could be subconscious, but I imagine that Doug would say that a desire is the sort of thing that must be potentially conscious or at any rate can only exist in a conscious thing, even if each and every one need not be conscious.
    Michael Smith has an influential account of desires in terms of direction of fit. Roughly, a desire for x is the sort of thing that does not tend to go out of existence when the agent has a perception with the content that not-p, whereas a belief that X does tend to go out of existence in such a situation. If we think one can perceive without consciousness, then Smith’s view makes room for such a possibility.
    The shorter version of this is that I too shared Doug’s assumption that “no phenomenology, no desires” but this is apparently not taken as obvious in some phil mind circles.

  6. Uriah,
    Regarding (2), you write: “Our externalist seems to owe us a story as to why it is that, for any non-experiential factor X, X is insufficient for giving any goodness to life, but once the life has some goodness, it can make a difference to how much goodness the life has.” This is true; but I doubt that it is difficult to give such a story.
    Consider, for instance, the sort of pleasure a person (A) might take in believing that his life is good in some particular way – in believing, for instance, that his wife loves him. If we accept what seems to me the extremely plausible claim that the pleasure A takes in this fact is worth more if, in fact, his wife really does love him – if, that is, A actually knows that she loves him, rather than simply believing that she does – then the externalist has his story. The fact that A really is loved by B is not in itself sufficient to “give goodness” to his life, not only because it does not do so in cases where A is completely non-conscious, but because it might fail to matter in other cases as well (cases, for instance, in which A is conscious but does not care at all how B feels about him, and so takes no pleasure in those states of affairs). But in cases where A does care about how B feels, and in particular cases where A wants B to love him and believes that she does, the fact that A’s belief is true makes the pleasure worth more than it would be worth otherwise (which might not be very much at all). I don’t see anything unnatural about this story. (Note, moreover, that this example may be more problematic for the internalist than the example based in desires, since the claim that a completely non-conscious subject can feel pleasure is [even] less plausible than the claim that such a subject can have desires.)
    Note, also, that the claim that a person must be capable of having experiences in order to have a life of any value at all is not really much of a concession to the internalist, unless we combine it with the claim that having experiences is not just a necessary but also a sufficient condition. I haven’t committed myself to the second claim; and unless I do, I don’t think I can really be construed as giving an “internalist answer” to your question 1 – not entirely internalist, anyway.

  7. I don’t know about this, Troy… The claim that “the pleasure A takes in this fact is worth more if, in fact, his wife really does love” strikes me as obviously false.
    You motivate the idea by saying that knowing that your wife loves you is likely to give you more pleasure than merely believing so. That’s true only on one sense of “know,” the one Ayer attempted to capture in saying that “knowledge is the right to be sure.” Being sure that your wife loves you is indeed more likely to please you than suspecting that she does… But in that sense of knowledge, knowledge may still be non-veridical. You may be sure that your wife loves you when in fact she does not, and if that’s the case, then I submit that you will derive no less pleasure from your certainty than if you were actually right. The point is that this sense of knowledge is not the same as “justified true Gettier-proof belief,” because it doesn’t guarantee that the belief is true.
    If all this is right, then it may still be pretty difficult for the externalist to come up with the requisite story…

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