Philosophy: Not Dead Yet!

I’ve been off reading John Rawls’ undergraduate thesis, and so I only just realized that David Brooks has announced “The End Of Philosophy“. (Parenthetical note: what is it with these conservatives and their desire to kill off the humanities? Fukuyama and the End of History, now Brooks … can the Death of Inner Asian and Altaic Studies be far behind?) Brooks’ column sounded pretty scary, and it got even scarier once I realized that he wasn’t talking about philosophy in general, but about ethics in particular.

That’s my field! I don’t want it to die!

Luckily, the reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. Here’s Brooks:

“Socrates talked. The assumption behind his approach to philosophy, and the approaches of millions of people since, is that moral thinking is mostly a matter of reason and deliberation: Think through moral problems. Find a just principle. Apply it. (…)

Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.

As Steven Quartz of the California Institute of Technology said during a recent discussion of ethics sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, “Our brain is computing value at every fraction of a second. Everything that we look at, we form an implicit preference. Some of those make it into our awareness; some of them remain at the level of our unconscious, but … what our brain is for, what our brain has evolved for, is to find what is of value in our environment.”

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that. They are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.

In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it. Or as Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia memorably wrote, “The emotions are, in fact, in charge of the temple of morality, and … moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as a high priest.” (…)

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.”

There has been some interesting science recently on the nature of moral decision-making. But the research Brooks cites does not show what he seems to think it does, since the question how we make moral judgments on the fly is not, and does not answer, questions about the role of reasoning in morality.

Consider an analogy: if you’re a good tennis player, you make a lot of judgments about the future trajectories of tennis balls. You are probably not aware of making them: you see your opponent hit the ball, and start running to meet it without thinking. Moreover, it’s very lucky that we have the ability to do this: if we did have to stop and work out the trajectory of each shot our opponents took, we would never manage to hit them at all, and there would be no more tennis.

Suppose that someone took note of this fairly obvious fact, and wrote:

“The rise and now dominance of this perceptual approach to mechanics is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way physics is conceived by most people. It challenges the Einsteinian tradition, with its hyper-rational formulae and equations. It challenges those scientists who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.”

That would be pretty dumb, right? Just because we do not work out the future path of the ball using equations when we are playing tennis does not mean that those equations are pointless, or that there is no role for physics. It just means something we already knew: that whatever the point of physics is, it is not: being used by Venus Williams while she is playing.

The same is true of moral reasoning. It’s one thing (and a very interesting thing) to ask: how, exactly, do we make moral decisions on the fly? But while that’s useful to moral philosophy in a number of ways, it is not directed at the questions moral philosophy tries to answer. Those questions include: which actions should we perform? What kinds of people should we try to be? What principles should we try to live by?

One reason to try to answer those questions is if you find yourself wondering: what, exactly, should I make of all those moral judgments I make every day? Are they just expressions of taste, or artifacts of my upbringing? Or could they be right or wrong? If they can, how exactly would one go about showing that they were? — You don’t have to be in doubt about your ordinary moral judgments to be interested in these questions; you just have to be curious about whether or not it’s possible to say more about them than: they’re the judgments I make.

Moreover, it’s not clear why the facts Brooks cites about how we make moral judgments in normal life imply anything about the role that reason might play in answering these questions. Some of the researchers I’ve read on this topic seem to think that they do because they conflate two very different questions: (a) what role does reasoning play in our everyday moral judgments? and (b) what role does reason play in the justification of those judgments?

But those are two very different questions, just as the question what role reason would play in justifying a claim about where the tennis ball will end up differs from the question what role it plays in Venus Williams’ head when she’s playing. And someone who took the fact that Venus Williams does not (I’m assuming) come up with mathematical solutions to problems in mechanics very very fast when she’s playing tennis to show that physicists and engineers are wrong to use mathematics in their work would be making the same kind of mistake Brooks makes here.

Perhaps we can’t justify moral claims at all. Perhaps we can rule out some as obviously invalid, but cannot settle on one right view. If we can justify them, perhaps it’s on the basis of some quasi-perceptual capacity, or moral feeling, or on the basis of reason alone. The way to find out which of these possibilities is actual is, I think, to try your best to come up with such a justification, and then see what it looks like. It is not to infer its nature from the independent question: how do we make moral judgments on the fly?