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.