Right and Wrong: Psychologists vs. Philosophers

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Moral philosophers, naturally enough, want to make ethics look good. They want to make people look capable and respectable as moral agents. But they are working with difficult material. Humans are not as tidy, as thoughtful, or as disciplined as the moralists would like them to be.

Not only that, but modern ethics builds on foundations established centuries—or, in the case of Aristotle, Moses, and Jesus, millennia—before anyone knew much about the springs and mechanisms of human conduct. Cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary theorists have uncovered quite a bit in the last few decades, and at first sight what they have discovered does not look good for the conventional picture. The traits we call “virtues” do not reliably generate actions of the kinds that we value. The thoughts we call “intuitions” evince emotional responses unhappily skewed by our evolutionary history. The more we learn about the sources of our actions and judgments, the harder the task of connecting these modes of behavioral and sentimental responsiveness with the careful thinking about values and principles that moralists do for a living and that they urge upon everyone else.

How should moral philosophers react to all this? One response is to batten down the hatches and reaffirm the independence of our discipline from psychology. Around the end of the nineteenth century, philosophy thought it could work itself pure through “anti-psychologism”—by distancing itself from psychology. This has been a fruitful dissociation in areas like logic, but should we expect it to be helpful in ethics? Ethics is devoted to the evaluation of actions and motives; not only that, but it tries to construct a system of evaluation that is based upon, but also used to discipline, the way we respond to the dilemmas of ordinary life. Trying to separate all that from psychology seems, in an image used by Kwame Anthony Appiah, “like trying to peel a raspberry.”

Appiah’s new book, Experiments in Ethics , counsels against the insular approach. Professor Appiah is the former director of the Center for Human Values at Princeton and one of our most imaginative writers on topics like culture, values, and individual identity. His previous books include Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (2006), The Ethics of Identity (2005), and In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (1992). He is a philosopher but one not bound by any disciplinary straitjacket; he succeeds in what he does by inviting his readers to stand back with him from the preoccupations of any particular style of theorizing. Experiments in Ethics is based on a set of lectures that Appiah delivered at Bryn Mawr College in 2005. The lightness of his lecture style has been preserved in the book and that, together with his determination to make analytic moral philosophy the topic rather than the method of his study, has given us a wry and engaging account of the challenge that psychology poses to ethics. Whether that lightness of touch is adequate to respond …

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