By In Applied Ethics, Experimental Philosophy, Ideas, Moral Psychology Comments (20)

What Does it Mean to ‘Normalize’ Trump?

With Donald Trump now president-elect, many people are concerned that something truly precious and fundamental is under threat. Though Americans disagree about many things, we traditionally had a shared national sense of the bounds of normal behavior and a seemingly entrenched understanding that certain kinds of behavior fell completely outside those bounds. There is now a widespread fear that Trump’s recent actions will be ‘normalized’ and that our shared understanding of the normal will then be lost.

I think that this fear is getting at something of deep importance, and it is therefore worth taking a moment to think philosophically about what is at stake here. What exactly does it mean to see certain behavior as normal?


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By In Experimental Philosophy, Ideas Comments (23)

What does the experimental evidence actually say about the stability of moral intuitions?

Suppose you are sitting at your desk, reflecting on a moral question. Now suppose that as you are reflecting on this question, you happen to be looking around at a somewhat disgusting scene. Perhaps there is a half-eaten apple on the desk, or a bad smell in the room, or maybe you just didn’t have an opportunity to wash your hands.

I sometimes encounter the claim that experimental studies have shown that people’s moral intuitions can be pushed around in surprising ways by subtle situational factors like these. It is then sometimes suggested that philosophers need to think more about the deeper philosophical implications of this kind of ‘instability’ in our moral intuitions.
This claim strikes me as a serious misrepresentation of the present state of the empirical literature. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that existing studies provide evidence that these factors do not influence people’s moral intuitions. At the very least, it would be hard to deny that a whole bunch of recent studies suggest that people’s moral intuitions are surprisingly stable.


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By In Moral Psychology Comments (12)

Personal Identity and Moral Change

Many of you are probably familiar with the story of Phineas Gage. He was widely regarded as a kind and generous man, but he suffered from a freak accident during his work on a railroad, and the result was that a railroad spike ended up entering his brain. After the accident was over, the person who remained was not a kind or generous man. He was impulsive, callous, and clearly lacked all of the moral virtues that Phineas had previously shown. 

Now, let's consider this case as a problem of personal identity. In particular, let's ask yourself whether the following sentence is correct: 

  •  The original man named Phineas does not exist anymore; the man after the accident is a different person. 

Many people have the intuition that this sentence is correct. It might seem, then, that our intuitions conform to an approach to personal identity that emphasizes psychological similarity. Since the man after the accident is not sufficiently similar to the original Phineas, we conclude that they are not the same person. 

In a new paper in Analysis, Kevin Tobia make an incisive criticism of this interpretation. As he points out, it is indeed the case that the man after the accident is dissimilar in certain respects from the original Phineas, but there is also another quite salient fact about him. Specifically, he is morally worse than the original Phineas. That is, it is not just that he differs psychologically in some way; he specifically differs by lacking some of the original Phineas's moral virtues. Might that be the explanation of our intuitions here?


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By In Moral Psychology Comments (7)

Recent Work on Motivational Internalism

Imagine a person who is not at all motivated to help others. I don’t just mean a person who doesn’t care about others as much as she should; I mean a person who is literally not motivated at all, not even to the tiniest degree. Now comes the question: Could such a person genuinely believe that she is morally obligated to help other people?

This question lies at the heart of a complex philosophical debate. Motivational externalists (in one sense of the term) argue that it is possible for an agent to hold a moral belief in the absence of any corresponding motivation. It could be that the agent genuinely believes she has this moral obligation but simply doesn’t care at all about what she is morally obligated to do. By contrast, motivational internalists argue that such a belief would be impossible. On this latter view, it is necessarily the case that if an agent believes she is morally obligated to do something, she is at least somewhat motivated to do it.

Although work in this area draws on numerous different kinds of considerations, one important form of argument involves appeals to people’s ordinary intuitions. It is with regard to this one form of argument that we have seen especially impressive progress over the past few years. There has been a real surge of research involving systematic experimental studies about people’s intuitions on this question, and we now know far more about the intuitive view bout these matters than we did even a couple of years ago.

So I was thinking that it might be a good idea to try to put together a summary of some of the key recent findings on this topic. I’ve included a draft of such a summary below. Please write in if you have done some other work that should be added in, or if there is anything I should change in what is already there. (I will be happy to add in further information as it appears.) And more importantly, feel free to write in if you have any thoughts about how these findings might or might not be relevant to the larger philosophical debate.


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By In Uncategorized Comments (37)

Value Judgments and the True Self

Imagine a person who is addicted to heroin but who desperately wants to kick the habit. He has a craving for another hit, but when he reflects, he rejects this craving and wishes he could get rid of it. Now ask yourself: Which part of this person constitutes his true self — his craving for another hit or his desire to quit?

Looking at cases like this one, philosophers have almost universally agreed that it is the desire to quit that constitutes the agent's true self. They have therefore been drawn to a particular picture of the self. On this picture, the true self is constituted in some way by people's more reflective capacities (e.g., their second-order desires) rather than by the urges they are striving to suppress.

But if you stop to think about it, this case isn't exactly a well-controlled experiment. It is not as though the craving for heroin and the desire to quit are exactly the same in all ways except with regard to the question of second-order desire.There is also the conspicuous fact that you yourself — the person evaluating the story — are completely on the side of one of these desires and against the other. 


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By In Moral Psychology Comments (28)

Philosophy of Happiness: The Video

Philosophers have long debated the nature of happiness, with some saying that happiness is just a certain kind of psychological state and others claiming that true happiness is not just a matter of having certain feelings but also requires genuine virtue.

The new field of experimental philosophy may not be able to help us arrive at a definitive resolution of this age-old debate, but at the very least, it does seem to have inspired a very funny interactive video!

(Note: To go through this interactive video, you have to click at the end of each segment to begin the next one.)




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By In Moral Psychology Comments (23)

Moral Dimensions Meets the Empirical Data

Tim Scanlon's new book Moral Dimensions provides an elegant account according to which an agent's mental states are relevant to the question as to whether that agent is blameworthy but not to the question as to whether the agent's behavior itself is morally wrong. 

As the philosopher Kristen Bell points out to me, however, the empirical data indicate that people's actual judgments show exactly the opposite pattern. People's wrongness judgments actually depend more on the agent's mental states than their blame judgments do. 


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