Mental Inertia
A Game for the Summer

Moral Stupefaction

Daniel Jacobson of the University of Michigan has an excellent paper responding to issues raised within moral psychology in Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, which I found on his university site. It’s called “Moral Dumbfounding and Moral Stupefaction”. His basic claim, which I agree with, is that both Joshua Greene (who I bitched about here) and Jonathan Haidt (who I bitched about here) are rather foolish in the conclusions they draw from their thought experiments. This is a theme I develop into a chapter of Chaos Ethics, using Allen Wood’s critique of the Trolley Problem to reveal the lack of caution surrounding moral thought experiments in both philosophy and psychology.

Here’s the best quote from Jacobson’s paper:

…the subjects are not dumbfounded by these cases so much as certain (extremely intelligent) psychologists and philosophers are, rather, stupefied by their moral theories. To be morally stupefied in this fashion is to be rendered unable to see obviously good reasons, because you are in the grip of a theory too narrow-minded to accommodate them.

Much of his criticism focuses on the way that Haidt makes wild assumptions (mostly along positivist lines), embeds these assumptions as stipulations in his thought experiments, and then draws implausible conclusions from undergraduates’ inability to reason their way out of a paper bag. As Jacobson develops within his argument, Haidt uses an extremely narrow conception of harm, and in particular ignores a great deal of salient facts about how people relate to the world symbolically, which is very different from what Haidt accuses as ‘magical thinking’.

I am disappointed with Haidt, since there was much to admire in his early work, but I have to say that the wealth of pushback his theory has produced has almost made it worthwhile. I should like to see Haidt questioned on whether (as I suspect) he had a bad experience with a professor while he was a philosophy undergraduate at Yale, and this has lead to him having a chip on his shoulder about moral philosophy. It is not a requirement that moral psychologists engage with moral philosophy (although the reverse is less defensible), but if they do choose to engage they ought to know what they are talking about. Otherwise, it is no surprise that you will end up being accused of being morally stupefied by your pet theories.


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