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Right and Wrong: Psychologists vs. Philosophers


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 to the challenge is another matter.

How should we think about ethics if we’re not committed to a wall of separation between psychology and moral philosophy? Appiah begins with what he calls the psychologist’s “case against character.” Consider the concept of virtue—a trait of character like honesty, generosity, or courage that is supposed to generate a consistent pattern of conduct across a range of situations. A lot of moral philosophers have invested heavily in this idea: they think that “virtue ethics” is a better bet than either Kantian principles or utilitarian calculations. But Appiah warns that the evidence we have from experimental psychology suggests that the claims made for virtue may be overstated.

Rosalind Hursthouse, for example, one of our leading theorists of virtue in moral philosophy, says this about the virtue of honesty:

We expect [honest people] to disapprove of, to dislike, and to deplore dishonesty,…to choose, where possible, to work with honest people and have honest friends, to be bringing up their children to be honest…. We expect them to be distressed when those near and dear to them are dishonest,… not to be amused by certain tales of chicanery, to despise rather than to envy those who succeed by dishonest means….1

Virtue theorists believe that the disposition to act and react courageously or honestly is deeply entrenched in a person’s character. As Appiah describes their position, a virtue is supposed to be something that “goes all the way down,” enmeshing itself with other aspects of character, equally admirable, and affecting what a person wants out of life, her conception of happiness, and her view of other people.

Are there such virtues? Well, the psychologists that Appiah has read report that character traits do not exhibit the “cross-situational stability” that virtue presupposes. He cites a study of ten thousand American schoolchildren in the 1920s, which showed that they were willing to lie and cheat in school and at play in ways that did not correlate with any measurable personality traits. It is not that the children cheated whenever they could get away with it; they cheated sometimes and in some settings (when they could get away with it) and not other times or in other settings (when they could get away with it). “The child who wouldn’t break the rules at home, even when it seemed nobody was looking, was no less likely [than other children] to cheat on an exam at school.” There was none of the consistent and comprehensive honesty, “all the way down,” that virtue ethics seems to presuppose.

This seems to be true for other virtues too: helpfulness or charity, for example. With respect to them, studies cited by Appiah show that people act in ways that seem vulnerable to odd and unseemly differences in circumstance. If you accidentally drop your papers outside a phone booth, the best predictor of whether people will help you pick them up is whether they have just discovered a dime in the phone’s coin-return slot: six out of seven of the dime-finders will help as opposed to one in twenty-five of everyone else. If you need change for a dollar, stand outside a bakery: the warm smell of fresh-baked bread makes a huge difference to the kindness of strangers. The beneficiaries will probably say of anyone who came to their assistance, “What a helpful person,” little suspecting that tomorrow when the bakery is shut down and there is nary a dime in the phone booth, the selfsame person will be as mean-spirited as everyone else.

What should we make of all this? One objection is that the psychological studies treat virtues and traits of character as though they are reducible to a set of behaviors that can be counted by a psychologist with a clipboard. In the generosity studies, is the only information we want information about who helped and who didn’t? What about what people said to themselves or to each other as they went past the bakery or the phone booth? A virtue is a disposition to think and talk and evaluate in a certain way, not just a disposition to behave. Appiah acknowledges this—“virtues are more than simple dispositions to do the right thing”—but he doesn’t explore its implications for the wider issue he is considering: Are we evaluating the isolation of ethics from an ideal psychology or are we evaluating its isolation from the reductionist behavioral psychology that we actually have?

Also, virtues are supposed to be acquired, not innate, characteristics, acquired (if Aristotle is to be believed) by hard training over decades.2 So what should we infer from the study of the schoolchildren in the 1920s—that there is no such thing as the virtue of honesty or that the virtue of honesty in a child is a rather ragged and sketchy work-in-progress?

I don’t think Appiah is unaware of these points, but he doesn’t credit them as grounds for dismissing the studies. To him, the generosity experiments show that

a lot of what people do is best explained not by traits of char-acter but by systematic human tendencies to respond to features of their situations that nobody previously thought to be crucial at all.

A key question is whether the same result holds for more serious situations. I ask this because the bakery and phone booth studies border on the trivial. It is hardly a moral requirement to help someone make change or pick up papers that have been clumsily dropped: even people who are paragons of generosity might choose to do this on some occasions and not others. It is certainly not surprising that the discharge of a trivial obligation might vary on the basis of trivial circumstances.

Appiah does consider some cases where generosity is more urgently called for. A well-known study reports that Princeton seminary students, coming from a discussion of the Good Samaritan, were six times less likely to stop to help someone “slumped in a doorway, apparently in some sort of distress,” if they’d been told they were late for an appointment. The point here is not just to confirm anecdotal evidence, with which we are all already familiar, about respectable people failing to help others in distress. (There was an incident last year in Hartford, Connecticut, where an old man lay critically injured in the street after a hit-and-run accident and a number of cars drove by him without stopping to help.3 ) Nor is it to show that we are bad, selfish, or self-absorbed. It is to show that in some situations such selflessness as we have is deeply vulnerable to being distracted or displaced.

What about other virtues in cases where the stakes are high? The Stanley Milgram experiments from the 1960s and the Stanford prison experiments from the 1970s showed alarming evidence of people’s willingness, on instructions from the psychologists in charge, to inflict pain in various role-playing experiments.4 But there were some who resisted. Do we know whether the virtues that enabled some to resist the temptation to abuse their authority in the prison experiments, or to refuse compliance with plainly immoral instructions in Milgram’s experiment, exhibit the same haphazardness as generosity and helpfulness did in the more trivial studies? Do the experiments that Appiah describes tell us anything about real-world virtues in situations of great danger like the Oliners’ studies of the attributes of “rescuers” in Europe during the Holocaust (who were more likely than nonrescuers to describe themselves as religious, more likely to have been involved in friendships with a diverse array of people, less likely to be distrustful of outsiders, less likely to be preoccupied with their own autonomy, and so on)?5 If questions like these were pursued, one would come away with a stronger impression that Appiah takes the experimental challenge seriously.

But his discussion turns out to be more lighthearted than that. Appiah wonders whether we might consider moving to an enlarged set of virtues, ones where susceptibility to trivial distractions doesn’t matter so much. “The index for [Rosalind] Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics contains entries for honesty, control, charity, compassion, and wisdom,” says Appiah. “None for humor, wit, conviviality, originality, raconteurship, or love.” The term “experiments in ethics” has a double meaning in Appiah’s book: besides the psychological studies, it refers also to Appiah’s recommendation that we should try on some new and enjoyable virtues and see which ones fit. I am tempted to say that a book that suggests substituting wit and conviviality for honesty and moral courage was perhaps just teasing us with the challenge from psychology in the first place.

  1. 1

    Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 11–12.

  2. 2

    Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics , Books 2 and 10.

  3. 3

    See Steven Goode, Tina A. Brown, and Jeffrey B. Cohen, “‘So Inhumane’: Police Chief Decries City Residents’ Callousness After Hit-and-Run Victim Lies Unaided on Busy Street…,” Hartford Courant , June 5, 2008.

  4. 4

    See Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority; An Experimental View (Harper Collins, 1974) and C. Haney, W.C. Banks, and P.G. Zimbardo, “Interpersonal Dynamics in a Simulated Prison,” International Journal of Criminology and Penology , Vol. 1 (1973).

  5. 5

    Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (Free Press, 1988).

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