I am pleased that PEA Soup will feature an exchange on Hanno Sauer’s book Moral Judgements as Educated Intuitions. Regina Rini reviewed this book in the most recent issue of Ethics. You can find an open access version of that review here.
Now we hear from Sauer in reply. And of course, as always, all are welcome to join in the discussion, ask clarificatory questions, press concerns, etc. Looking forward to a fruitful and thoughtful exchange. Here now is Sauer:
Reason in Nature? A Response to Rini
I tend to be relaxed about it when people engage with my work. Still, book reviews make me nervous. That one paper you wrote may be flawed – even embarassing, a dead end. But a whole book? It would be deeply unpleasant to find out if people thought that years of your toil had been worthless. When I heard that a review of my Moral Judgments as Educated Intuitionswas about to appear in Ethics, I got even more nervous. And the news that Regina Rini was its author really made me worry.
Not because I was afraid that my views would be misrepresented – and indeed, Rini’s review is a model of merciless charity and constructive criticism for which I am tremendously grateful – but because I knew that she would cut to the core of the issue and, rather than get lost in this or that nitpicky complaint, expose the crucial gaps and fundamentally jarring points in my argument.
Rini thinks that I am “too much a rationalist to be a naturalist, and too much a naturalist to be a rationalist”. This tension perfectly characterizes the thrust of my project, which was to take a look at the available empirical evidence regarding the etiology of moral judgment, and to go as rationalist as possible in interpreting it. In doing so, I tried to develop a response to the evidence suggesting a tight link between emotion and moral judgment that takes this evidence more or less at face value. The response is supposed to work even if all the evidence is solid. Actually, since I started working on the topic, a good deal of the data, in particular on incidental affect and moral cognition, essentially fell apart. But it remains plausible that emotions are, in one form or another, deeply involved in moral judgment. The question is how, and what the answer to it means.
Rini would like to see the tension between rationalism and naturalism resolved in favor of the naturalist side. Indeed, Rini thinks the move I am making is a “legerdemain” and a “sleight of hand”. I embrace the former characterization, but want to resist the latter. A trick is a trick; but a trick is legitimate when it actually works, rather than creating the mere illusion of working.
Here is one of my tricks: apparent moral judgments only count as genuine ones when there is a sufficient degree of rationalist contamination. This can be accomplished, I think, in a number of ways: firstly, if the judgment came about in a way that we could reflectively endorse if we could look behind the curtain of its genesis; or if, secondly, in cases where we couldn’t so endorse it, the subject would either give it up or provide further reasons for holding on to it. I think Rini underestimates the latter two conditions. What I mean to suggest is that an apparent moral judgment counts as a genuine one even if it did notin fact come about properly, as long as the judging subject reacts appropriately to this information either by suspending or fortifying her judgment.
The problem with this, Rini argues, is that this account “impl[ies] that we almost never make moral judgments. If I knew the complete causal history of each one of my (apparent) moral judgments—every last turn in the highly contingent, bumptious story of how I came to be disposed to react to certain things in certain ways—and I were ideally rational, could I reflectively endorse all or even most of them? I doubt it. There’s just too much randomness in there, too much sensitivity to morally arbitrary features of my upbringing and experience.“
My response is part bullet-biting, part disagreement: I do think that we make genuine moral judgments much less often than we think, perhaps even only rarely. In my forthcoming Moral Thinking, Fast and Slow, I endorse this line even more explicitly. What I there refer to as rationalist pessimism is the view that the influence of reason on our moral judgments is real, but rare. A normative twist to this, which I also explore, is a form of elitism about moral judgment. Making proper moral judgments is formidably difficult precisely in virtue of the rationalist demands I articulate, so most people should refrain from it most of the time.
It seems clear to me that Rini is right to suggest that the origin of most, perhaps even all, of our moral judgments is “contingent [and] bumptious”. But a process can be haphazard and fragmented without being therefore “morally arbitrary”. At least some of the moral judgments we make pass the test. Inevitably, many won’t. But this is a far cry rom Rini’s suspicion that an “[un]edited encounter with empirical reality” would reveal “my entire pychological history as one absurd accident, not something fit for rational endorsement”. My implicit methodological Hegelianism immunizes me against this angst: if we look at our psychology with reason, it looks back at us with reason.
Many thanks to David Sobel and PEA Soup for hosting this debate and the participants below for their comments.