About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Studying folk morality: philosophy, psychology, or what?

by Massimo Pigliucci
My colleague Joshua Knobe at Yale University recently published an intriguing article in The Philosopher’s Magazine about the experimental philosophy of moral decision making. Joshua and I have had a nice chat during a recent Rationally Speaking podcast dedicated to experimental philosophy, but I’m still not convinced about the whole enterprise.
There is no doubt in my mind that what Knobe and his colleagues are doing is valuable, but I wonder in what sense. For instance, in the magazine article Joshua mentions several studies of “folk morality,” i.e. of how ordinary people think about moral problems. The results are fascinating. It turns out that people’s views are correlated with personality traits, with subjects who score high on “openness to experience” being reliably more relativists than objectivists about morality (I am not using the latter term in the infamous Randyan meaning here, but as Knobe does, to indicate the idea that morality has objective bases).
Other studies show that people who are capable of considering multiple options in solving mathematical puzzles also tend to be moral relativists, and — in a study co-authored by Knobe himself — the very same situation (infanticide) was judged along a sliding scale from objectivism to relativism depending on whether the hypothetical scenario involved a fellow American (presumably sharing our same general moral values), the member of an imaginary Amazonian tribe (for which infanticide was acceptable), and an alien from the planet Pentar (belonging to a race whose only goal in life is to turn everything into equilateral pentagons, and killing individuals that might get in the way of that lofty objective is a duty). Oh, and related research also shows that young children tend to be objectivists, while young adults are usually relativists — but that later in life one’s primordial objectivism apparently experiences a comeback.
This is all very interesting social science, but is it philosophy? Granted, the differences between various disciplines are often not clear cut, and of course whenever people engage in truly inter-disciplinary work we should simply applaud the effort and encourage further work. But I do wonder in what sense, if any, the kinds of results that Joshua and his colleagues find have much to do with moral philosophy.
First off, there seems to me the potential danger of confusing various categories of moral discourse. For instance, are the “folks” studied in these cases actually relativist, or perhaps adherents to one of several versions of moral anti-realism? The two are definitely not the same, but I doubt that the subjects in question could tell the difference (and I wouldn’t expect them to, after all they are not philosophers).
Secondly, and more to the point, why do we expect philosophers to learn from “folk morality” when we do not expect, say, physicists to learn from folk physics (which tends to be Aristotelian in nature), or statisticians from people’s understanding of probability theory (which is generally remarkably poor, as casino owners know very well)? Or even, while I’m at it, why not ask literary critics to discuss Shakespeare in light of what common folks think about the bard (making sure, perhaps, that they have at least read his works, and not just watched the movies)?
Joshua himself doesn’t seem to be quite so sure of where this is going. He starts out the article by quoting a couple of philosophers who mention the alleged folk endorsement of objectivism as playing some part in their (the philosophers’) thinking, but if you actually read much of the primary literature in moral philosophy it is hard to imagine what exactly this part might be. At the end of the piece, Joshua concludes with a most unhelpful “how can we then use this information to address the deeper philosophical issues about the true nature of morality? The answer here is in one way very complex and in another very simple,” neglecting to give us even a hint of what that answer might turn out to be.
But, you might reasonably counter, surely Massimo isn’t arguing that moral philosophy is like physics? No, I’m not (though if you are Sam Harris, you would be arguing precisely that.) Hence, my other examples of stat (i.e., math) and literary criticism. I conceive of philosophy in general, and moral philosophy in particular, as more akin to a (science-informed, to be sure) mix between logic and criticism. Some moral philosophy consists in engaging an “if ... then” sort of scenario, akin to logical-mathematical thinking, where one begins with certain axioms and attempts to derive the consequences of such axioms. In other respects, moral philosophers exercise reflective criticism concerning those consequences as they might be relevant to practical problems.
For instance, we may write philosophically about abortion, and begin our discussion from a comparison of different conceptions of “person.” We might conclude that “if” one adopts conception X of what a person is, “then” abortion is justifiable under such and such conditions; while “if” one adopts conception Y of a person, “then” abortion is justifiable under a different set of conditions, or not justifiable at all. We could, of course, back up even further and engage in a discussion of what “personhood” is, thus moving from moral philosophy to metaphysics.
Nowhere in the above are we going to ask “folks” what they think a person is, or how they think their implicit conception of personhood informs their views on abortion. Of course people’s actual views on abortion are crucial — especially for public policy — and they are intrinsically interesting to social scientists. But they don’t seem to me to make much more contact with philosophy than the above mentioned popular opinions on Shakespeare make contact with serious literary criticism. And please, let’s not play the cheap card of “elitism,” unless we are willing to apply the label to just about any intellectual endeavor, in any discipline.
There is one area in which experimental philosophy can potentially contribute to philosophy proper (as opposed to social science). Once we have a more empirically grounded understanding of what people’s moral reasoning actually is, then we can analyze the likely consequences of that reasoning for a variety of societal issues. But now we would be doing something more akin to political than moral philosophy.


  1. In the Joshua paper, an area of reality (in this case so-called folk morality) is investigated in a scientific manner, just like any other aspects of human thinking or behavior can be studied by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, behavioral economists and the like, and just as natural scientists study their own matters (the physical, chemical or biological dimensions of reality, at any scale from subatomic to intergalactic).
    Framed this way, there is in principle nothing special about this particular study on folk morality. From the point of view of philosophers, it is information fed to them by scientists, that should be taken into account by said philosophers for a number of purposes. One is to examine the logical or epistemological worthiness of the said empirical studies. Another is about the implications of such data for the philosophical treatment of related problems, be it the nature of morality, the nature of the primary stuff of the universe, the place of humankind in the universe or whatever is considered a "philosophical" problem.
    I do not know what can a philosopher deduce from the "folk morality" as presented by Joshua; but I can imagine a series of interesting questions that may be motivated by such information. Examples:
    1. What parts of folk morality are common among human cultures, and which are not? (this may speak to the age-old problem of the unity of human nature, the universality of moral values, or even the rather old-fashioned concept of "natural law" morality supposedly enshrined in human nature). Perhaps incestuous relations with your mother are universally forbidden whereas killing your wife is not. Perhaps some cultures enforce private property rights (exclusive access to some land or objects) and some do not. And so on.
    2. Are there aspects on which people tend to be more absolutist and other aspects where more relativism abounds? (e.g. people may be more adamant in rejecting maternal child neglect but not so much on paternal child neglect).
    3. Apparently cheating is (I get this from other readings) universally frowned upon when it refers to one's family and peers. Moreover, this rejection is apparently shared also by our close relatives the apes. But which kinds of cheating are more universally rejected, and which are more easily tolerated? (e.g. cheating at school may be more tolerable than cheating on husbands, and the latter may be more or less tolerable than cheating on wives).
    4. What are the objective factors empirically associated with these variations in folk morality, and which each observed "moral orientation"? Examples of possible factors: economic structure of society, one's position in the economic structure, age (as noted by Joshua), gender, culture or ethnic group, historical era, extent of cultural diversity in society, etc. What can be learned from these associations? Are moral choices "conditioned" by objective factors? Are societal characteristics affected by moral choices? (e.g. a more equitable society may be either the result of prevailing folk morality, or the reverse; or both may be mutually influencing each other).

    (to be continued; character limit encountered)

  2. (continuation)

    Returning to my first paragraph, I think that back in the Middle Ages or in Aristotle's times objective information might has been often conceived of as a kind of "ancilla philosophiae", a servant to philosophy. Observations made in everyday life, or introspected ideas you think yourself from your armchair, become the raw material for philosophical reflection.
    But nowadays one increasingly sees philosophy as "ancilla scientiae", with philosophers required to think on problems previously defined by scientific information and scientific theories.
    There is a passage in Dewey about this, where the pragmatist philosopher associates the former state of affairs to the role of thinkers and practical men in Antiquity and in Modern times. In ancient Greece, any discovery made by a sailor or carpenter entailed no epistemic value unless used by a philosopher and incorporated into a field of philosophical thought; but, Dewey says, in modern times it is science ("the practical man of science") who leads the way, and philosophers are reduced to the role of an ancillary discipline linking those empirical discoveries to wider issues not yet grasped by empirical science.
    What gives?

  3. We do not ask "folks" what they think subatomic particles are like: we actually "ask" Nature about that. But on what is "good" or "permissible", we may find asking ordinary people a worthy endeavor: in the end, what is the alternative? Perhaps asking ourselves, or other un-ordinary people? In what sense asking my own mind about what is "good" is better than asking other minds, albeit "lesser" ones (if I can correctly determine which minds are lesser or greater than mine in that regard)? Or should we perhaps be asking Nature, as we do about subatomic particles, as if moral behavior were somehow "written in the genes", or otherwise similar to subatomic particles?

  4. I'd be interested to read the correlations between religious beliefs and various philosophical positions in ethics. I've always wondered if morality actually had anything to do with religion or not. That assumption always seemed to be a given in most discussions, whether you are for or against religion -- it bothered me that I had no basis for knowing whether that assumption holds.

  5. Hector, well, if you buy into Harris' view of ethics you should "ask nature" about moral questions too. I don't, of course, but my point was that ethical reasoning is more akin to logical / mathematical reasoning, so that asking lay people what they think does not advance our understanding of it. It does, of course, tell us what people think about moral problems, but that is a different issue.

  6. I do not know whether what ought to be is something that should be deduced from first principles (which ought to be the first principles in this matter, to beg a question). Unless you hold some sort of Platonic or Hegelian view of reality as the imperfect realization of ideas, I do not know how that could be accomplished.

    Moreover, history tells us that oftentimes people have been fooled in this regard: they adopt certain principles, and deduce moral precepts that we, for instance, find abhorrent, but they didn't (e.g. slavery, or genital mutilation of women, or suicide bombing, or what not). Probably some of those people find some of our logically deduced moral precepts abhorrent as well. Aristotle, for instance (and apparently apostle St Paul as well) thought slavery was something acceptable and perhaps "natural", as did many of the Founding Fathers of the US. Many of them offered elaborate philosophical explanations why that was so. Other philosophers (and scientists, and politicians, and lay people) thought otherwise, and some of them would also offer elaborate deductions of why that was so.
    You can study logic and mathematics, and then go about deducing moral principles and norms, but beware that others may be doing the same in other places, and reaching different conclusions. Who is to tell the twine apart?

    I am not a "moral relativist" in a philosophical sense. However, I do not think morals are "there", ready to be deduced from first and undoubtable principles. I'd suggest we find other grounds to think about morality.

    As anything else, moral beliefs and norms must exist because they have evolved (not necessarily in a genetic way: cultural evolution is also included in this idea). Why some moral precepts evolve more easily than others, why some are shared by all humanity at all times and some are not, those (and other similar issues) are the questions to be asked first. Otherwise, we do not have even the slightest clue about "morality" or "moral philosophy", except as fodder for idle thought, or for translating into "philosophical clothing" what is probably just the set of prejudices we (in various countries and times) are or have been accustomed to see as "natural" and "good".

  7. Hector, if you check some of my other writings on ethics here you'll see that we pretty much agree. Yes, a basic sense of morality obviously is the result of evolution.

    And I don't think one can derive morality from first principles. But one can engage in moral reasoning on the basis of a given set of axioms, just like it's done in math (or, more broadly, logic). Then I wouldn't expect laypeople to do well for the same reasons that I don't expect them to wield logic very well.

  8. Suppose,Massimo, that you engage in some math-like chain of reasoning based on a set of axioms, and come out with the moral precept that killing "inferior" people is "good", either for the good of the species, or for the good of "superior" people, or for any other "logical" reason your chain of reasoning contains and justifies. Would that make such behavior moral? (Beware that actual philosophers, and great ones to wit, have gone into such chains of reasoning to justify slavery, "just war", the burning of witches, the superiority of celibacy over marriage, eugenics, and many other weird ideas, so there is nothing implausible about coming to such sort of conclusions.
    Now, if the mere fact of being deduced from your axioms does not make those norms "moral", what does? And by the way, where your axioms come from, and why your axioms are superior to my axioms or those of someone else? Once you agree on axioms, of course, "the rest is algebra" and not worth discussing, but agreeing on axioms after all know their logical implications is quite difficult in practice.

  9. Hector, I've had this discussion several times over on this blog. First off, "the rest is only algebra" is a bit simplistic. See Michael Sandel's Justice for excellent examples on how it is done.

    Axioms: these can in turn be discussed and questioned, just like in logic and math. And no, do not ask for foundations, since no foundational project has ever succeeded, including in the case of math, logic and science.

    Essentially you seem to be arguing that there is no such thing as moral philosophy. I guess I beg to differ and remind you to good introductions to the field, such as the above mentioned Sandel book.

  10. Except that with regard to Sandel's book, at least one prominent critic's written, "The main thing missing from this book is an appreciation for the science of human morality."

  11. What I argue, Massimo, is that developments in (empirical) science are the basis for legitimate philosophical reasoning, ever since the Scientific Revolution. You can philosophize about evolution because there is Evolutionary Science, and on its terms. You can also philosophize on human morality after social scientists tell you facts about human morality on which your philosophical thought should be based (2500 years ago, and perhaps even 300-400 years ago, it could have been based on your own everyday observations, but nowadays one needs systematic scientific facts and theories, on which old philosophical problems are re-framed and re-formulated. Some of the supposedly philosophical problems that troubled the Greek philosophers (especially about Nature) have long been solved by science (elements composing matter, shape of the planetary-solar system, existence of dragons, nature of gravity or movement, age of the Earth, and so on); other judgments of philosophers have also been superseded by scientific developments (e.g. Bergson's élan vital), and also in the human sphere (e.g. typologies of political regimes, organization of the economy, structure of personality, processes of perception, formation of memories in the brain, universal principles of evolved morality, etc.). Developments in science force philosophical thinking to shift and redefine its problems. In particular, one cannot do any philosophical reasoning on morality without digesting first what science has to say in that regard, from evolutionary biology to (perish the word) evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology, economics and more. You agree on that, I know, but in this particular post you did not seem to: I see a temptation to keep doing philosophical work on morality without explicit basis on the empirical science of what humans regard as good or not good, and what is the degree of variation of those views of humans across cultures, epochs, economic systems, and how/why that variation may arise and be sustained.
    I am especially intrigued at the idea that a norm may be "moral" to the philosopher even if ordinary guys do not see the point (a point that is too sophisticated for them to deduce, let us say). It could of course be so, but what makes the philosopher's view worthier than the view of the next grocer or peasant? (especially in moral conundrums involving opposite effects of the same or alternative actions, or involving conflicting values, that have to be balanced in some way to achieve a decision). My take would not be "what is the best deduction from this set of generally accepted axioms" but "what most people would do (or would think one should do)" and "why some people would do or think otherwise". If morality evolves, it is probably evolving right now: our values (yours not necessarily equal to mine or someone else's) are historically evolved values, and they are there for the simple reason that the have evolved to the point of being there. In this sense, they are not intrinsically "right" or "better", any more than having five fingers or toes is not intrinsically more "right" or "better" than having three or seven (or having one brain instead of having two or three working as intertwined "parallel processors").

  12. Massimo: ""the rest is only algebra" is a bit simplistic", of course: it is an Einstein quip for something he wrote on the blackboard, like saying "obtain A, and from A we obtain B: the rest is algebra that you can do yourselves". So there was a bit of irony in my quotation of that phrase. Anyway, difficult as the "algebra" might be, it is always algebra, logical deduction all the way down, and thus intrinsically tautological.

  13. Whether it's philosophy or not, having philosophically-informed people doing studies such as this one surely is a good thing.

  14. Baron, in my opinion that reviewer missed the point of Sandel's book.

    Hector, I see the ugly head of scientism rearing up again here. No, I disagree that "developments in (empirical) science are the basis for legitimate philosophical reasoning, ever since the Scientific Revolution." That s definitely the case for what used to be called natural philosophy, and no philosopher would argue that.

    But science itself is full of value judgment and philosophical assumptions that cannot be justified empirically, so it's not quite as simple as that.

    And yes, I do think that moral philosophers are experts at moral reasoning, and that the moral opinions of laypeople tend to be poorly thought out. Which is why they are interesting sociologically, but close to irrelevant philosophically.

    If you don't like my parallel with science or math, then take the one with literary criticism: are you going to suggest that someone interested in Shakespeare is going to learn a lot about the bard by asking laypeople what they thought of Hamlet?

  15. Massimo, your Shakespeare example is just the same as the physics and math examples. If I don't like the first two, I shouldn't like the third either. After all, I don't need to ask anyone what Shakespeare actually wrote. I have the words on the page as axioms on which to make my reasonings/criticism. What do we have as far as agreed upon axioms in moral philosophy? As Knobe pointed out, we can't even agree if morality has an objective basis or not. But if we take the view that our morality is somehow tied to our attributes as a culture/society/species/whatever, then a systematic study trying to get at some basic perceptions of individuals across the spectrum would seem a useful starting point, if nothing else.
    I did not read Knobe's work to mean that he was trying to understand how laypeople would logically reason their moral choices. Rather, he seemed to be asking specific questions aimed at getting at the axioms used by those people.

  16. Eric, I'm sorry but if you are really arguing that you can get as much from Shakespeare as a scholar of Elizabethan theater can, that is a pretty straightforward anti-intellectual claim. That means you simply do not recognize academic expertise, which is a bizarre position to take.

    As for axioms from which to start moral reasoning, I refer again to Sandel's and similar books, they make for really instructive examples of how serious moral reasoning proceeds.

  17. >people who are capable of considering multiple options in solving mathematical puzzles also tend to be moral relativists

    I remember hearing Knobe say that on the podcast and feeling uneasy about it. It seems plausible there is a hidden factor in there driving both the relativism and the mental flexibility.

  18. "Nowhere in the above are we going to ask “folks” what they think a person is..."


    "And please, let’s not play the cheap card of “elitism,” unless we are willing to apply the label to just about any intellectual endeavor, in any discipline."

    Aw, damn, you pre-emptively killed the bad joke I was preparing to make! ;-P

    But yeah, experimental philosophy sounds pretty oxymoronic to my (philosophically) lay ears.

  19. Well, this sort of empirical study can't tell you whether or not moral objectivism (whatever it actually amounts to) is actually true. But what if it's false - and we conclude this on some other basis? What if it then turns out, from this sort of empirical study, that the folk think it's true? You can infer from the combination of these two findings that the folk are mistaken about the authority or character of morality. We've now found out something (arguably important) about the phenomenon of morality.

    And I suppose this theoretically also goes the other way, though I can't quite see how that would work.

    If we conclude that the folk are (let's say pervasively) mistaken about the character or authority of morality, isn't that a conclusion that belongs to moral philosophy? I don't think of it as part of political philosophy, which I see as the philosophical investigation of more overt kinds of social power - governments, hierarchies, etc., the kinds of things that constitute the phenomenon of political power - whereas moral philosophy is the philosophical investigation of the phenomenon of morality, i.e. the phenomenon that societies impose deontic constraints on their members.

    In any event, the phenomena of morality and social power surely shade into each other and may often be indistinguishable in smaller, more isolated societies. So the boundary between moral and political philosophy is rather vague in any event.

  20. First, I am reminded of Dennett's "folk psychology." No, we can't learn from it how to do psychology, nor what psychology is, but, we can learn about how people think about matters psychological. I think "folk philosophy" is pretty much the same, ergo, it's primarily sociology that's being studies, along with some psychology, and perhaps some statistical cognitive science.

    Second, to the degree there are "axioms" in moral philosophy, the analogy with math is partial, since, to the degree ev psych properly done informs morals, that's not exact, either.

    That said, per Hector's first post, how broadly do different people define in group vs out grou8p in applications of moral subjectivism? That would be a question I'd want to know. How malleable is that?

    That all said, Massimo, if we can, via research like this, develop new understanding in cognitive science about how people think about morals, we will get to moral philosophy, eventually, by some back door.

  21. Massimo, No I was not making that claim. Not anything like that, so please don't accuse me of anti-intellectualism. Perhaps it would make more sense if I said, "One doesn't need to ask anyone what Shakespeare actually wrote. One has the words on the page as axioms on which to make reasonings or criticism." Specifically, the scholar doesn't base his work on the opinions of laypeople because he doesn't have to. He's got the plays in front of him.
    What do we have when it comes to moral reasoning? We can certainly propose assumptions to start from and work from those to determine the consequences. Sandel's book gives a good overview of various lines of thought, certainly. (I already read it, on your recommendation actually). But how do we determine which of those assumptions are right?

  22. Damn this philosophism, expanding philosophy into domains that are clearly the realm of social science.


  23. Gadfly, well, I don't see where that backdoor could possibly open, or where it leads...

    Russell, re you suggesting that the realism / anti-realism debate can be settled by empirical data? That seems quite an extraordinary hope. Yes, philosophers probably have something to consider about the results of these kinds of studies, though as I said it seems to me that that something would be more in the realm of political philosophy or philosophy of social science than moral philosophy. (I know you don't like very much distinctions between fields, but despite fuzzy areas and overlaps, I think they are there for good reasons.)

  24. Eric, I need to be more careful here, apologies. What I meant was that IF that's what you meant, THEN that would be a fairly anti-intellectual argument to make. But now I think you misunderstood the way I intended my example: of course the words of Shakespeare are there for anyone to see, no scholarship needed. But *understanding* Shakespeare, both from a literary and a historical perspective, requires scholarship. The same, I think, for moral philosophy.

    Axioms: we make them up according to our nature, test them and their consequences and they revise them. Just like we do with any other assumption that goes into anything else we do.

  25. Massimo, Thanks. I get what you are saying about the Shakespeare scholar, but I think what the mathematician, the physicist, and the Shakespeare scholar all have in common is that they have a very clear and objective (or at least near-univerally accepted) basis for their reasonings. Physics equations can be derived from observation. Math equations are derived from axioms not only obvious, but matching reality. And of course, we all agree (mostly) that the works of Shakespeare really are the works of Shakespeare. The scholar has no need to guess what Shakespeare wrote when trying to interpret him.
    This doesn't seem to be the case for moral philosophy, in that we don't have near universal acceptance of any one set of assumptions (which is probably why it's a philosophy rather than a science). That's why I'm not keen on the examples.

    As to the question of whether these experiments should be considered philosophy or not, well, sure, they probably are better named psychology or sociology, but "experimental philosophy" just sounds cooler.

  26. What about folk economics, which almost everyone believes:


    A lot of really stupid ideas come about because people believe in folk economics. It doesn't help that Keynes mathematized it.

  27. Ian Pollock,

    I concur, and largely because, upon review of Knobe's statistical treatments of the data, and because of the various experimental designs employed by Knobe et al., it seems probable that the identified statistically significant findings are not statistically significant at all. In nuce, experimental philosophy has the appearance of bad social scientific research and continues to employ dubious classical statistical methods despite mounting critical evidence as their soundnes. With respect to the latter claim, Massimo has done well to highlight in previous posts and podcasts the superiority of Bayesian statistical methods vis-a-vis classical methods.

  28. @Massimo: We have to, I think, include as part of moral philosophy information about how real people think. If I want to know that, I have to ... ask real people. I can then ask experts WHY real people think that way, but I first have to have the actual data.

    There's the back door.

  29. Don't buy it. Again, do we learn anything about Shakespearian scholarship from asking casual playgoers?

  30. @Massimo:
    If not confusing apples and oranges, at the least, you're trying to force your analogy on mine without listening to it independently.

    So, what if we wanted to know average Shakespeare devotees' opinions of and thoughts about Shakespeare? We would ask them first, and only then, would we ask experts on Shakespeare about how and why such opinions developed.

    Again, to know what real people think about moral issues, you have to have data to analyze before you can start analyzing. This isn't "expert disparagement" so don't lump me in with that.

    And, it's not just "folk philosophy." Back to my first comment on this post about "folk psychology," the same holds true there. We have to have real data about how people think bout psychological issues before we can analyze how and why people think the way they do about psychological issues.

  31. More on Massimo's analogy:

    The "folk physics" part doesn't fly for me, with further reading. Physics and philosphy, or social sciences, just don't analogize well in this particular area. I said in my last post that, vis-a-vis Shakespeare, I would present the analogy of wanting to know what average Shakespeare partisans thought of the Bard and why, as a better analogy for why what Knobe is doing is at least a step toward philosophy.

    Broader issue: One's choice of analogy frames a discussion. If people on different sides of a discussion cannot, after a period of time, come to a common analogy, whether be rejecting one for another, or synthesizing both into a new one, then the discussion has petered out.

    So, question for Massimo: How strongly do you stand behind your analogy?

  32. Let me explain my thoughts further from my previous post.

    Our brains didn't evolve to think about quantum physics or relativity. Pre-1900, even, they didn't evolve to think about invisible force fields. Or differential calculus. Or the difference between mass and weight. So, there's no reason to ask people questions about folk physics to understand the real deal.

    But, we DID evolve to think about issues of morals. And connections between items, even if we often falsely impute causation. And intentionality (to overlap with folk psychology), even as this potentially leads toward gods and religion.

    Also with folk psychology. We evolved to impute intentionality and to think about other minds, intentional stances, etc. We evolved to see how altruism might be gamed, and gamed more consciously than other animals do.

    So, we would want to find out average people's thoughts on folk philosophy and psychology.

    Now, we didn't evolve to think about Shakespeare in particular, or written language in general. But, we have evolved to think about language and communication in general, including concepts it conveys. That's why analogizing folk philosophy to Shakespearean scholars, rather than asking average Shakespeare fans what they think about Shakespeare (or, even better, asking punsters what they think about Groucho Marx or Hawkeye Pierce) is the wrong analogy, at least from where I stand.

  33. Gadfly, I don't disagree with most of what you say, but your analogy breaks down right at the end. Yes, we evolved the ability for language, but that is a very minimal requirement for thinking about Shakespeare. Similarly, we evolved the ability to make moral judgment, but that doesn't begin to equip us for professional-level moral reasoning - as a look at any paper from the primary literature in moral philosophy will clearly show.

    That doesn't mean I'm not interested in how people make moral judgments; just as I'm interested in people's literacy. But they are different, and to me obviously non philosophical, questions.

  34. Massimo said: "That doesn't mean I'm not interested in how people make moral judgments; just as I'm interested in people's literacy. But they are different, and to me obviously non philosophical, questions."

    My question, then, is if those examples fall under the domain of the social sciences, how can you, as a non-social-scientist, approach them without the academic background that social scientists have? In other words, you're a lay person when it comes to those questions, no?

    Or do you simply throw the word "philosophy" behind it (e.g., social philosophy) and claim domain? ;)

    In cultural anthropology, what "folks" think and do is our data. It's extremely important to us and it tells us a lot about human behavior and culture. I understand why it may not be that relevant to moral philosophy, though. It just seems like you feel that people not academically trained in philosophy have nothing important to say about that topic. Am I reading into this or is that how you feel? If so, does that feeling apply to other disciplines as well?

  35. Will, you are reading too much into what I wrote. I'm certainly not saying that only people not formally trained in a given discipline can say anything about it, but I am saying that expertise counts.

    I do not understand your accusation that I'm overreaching into the social sciences. I find those data interesting, but as a lay person in that domain, that's where I stop. I just don't think that sort of data is terribly useful to philosophers.

  36. Got it. Thanks Massimo. =)

  37. @Massimo: I cringe at the phrase "professional moral reasoning." Agreed that professional philosophers can teach us how to think better, but, even if I set aside the Shakespeare part of my analogy, I think the parallel to folk psychology is a strong one ... and stronger than yours.

    Kind of riffing on Shakespeare, though ... let's pull in Wittgenstein.

    Did he, in ordinary language, talk about "professional linguistic reasoning"?

    Of course not. He analyzed ordinary language, which is how the philosophical movement got its name. He then looked at linguistic deep structures, etc.

    In short, I think you're putting the cart of analysis before the horse of data. But, per your response to Will, also, it's clear you're not likely to change that stance.

    Even my mythic mentor started with hoi polloi, it is said.

  38. To frame my thoughts further:
    1. Some New Atheists (Harris above all, but arguably Myers and Stenger as well) stand guilty of "scientism." I'm totally with Massimo on that; said so in my Amazon review of Harris before I saw his review.
    2. That said, in an area of philosophy (as more and more areas are) amenable to social science research, to say that such research not only isn't philosophy but ... won't lead to philosophy, either ... arguably could be called "philosophism," if I am invent a neologism. To take this another way, what would philosophy of mind be like today if it ignored findings in cognitive science and neuroscience and simply continued to rely on pronouncements of experts? While the results might not be like Aristotle's pronouncements on anatomy ...

  39. Gadfly, you are treating different areas of philosophy as if they were in the same relationship with science. They aren't. Philosophy of mind has deep and mutual interactions with cognitive science, ethics is much further away from science. Epistemology has little do to with it, though some cognitive science is relevant. Metaphysics is pretty remote, except from some parts of fundamental physics. Logic is entirely independent. And so on.

  40. Different areas of philosophy have differing degrees of connection with the natural sciences, to be sure.

    That said, per the case at hand, a lot of philosophy has connections with various social sciences.

  41. I think the objections to the physics, math, and literature analogies are occuring because Massimo is intending to use the analogy in a narrow sense.

    Sure, the opinion of lay people on technical subjects does not usually impact the intellectual endeavours of people in a given field (be it science, math or philosphy). But unlike science, math, and literature, the public's opinion on moral questions matters because it impacts society directly. If the average person doesn't believe in conservation of mass/energy it doesn't change that fact, but if the average person thinks that a given action is not moral, you will have trouble doing that particular action (and may be imprisoned).

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Massimo's point is that this importance (to the extent that it is important) has little/ nothing to do with philosophy.

  42. cc, yes you are correct, I intend the analogy in the narrow sense (though something between logic and criticism actually is the type of activity that philosophers engage in, unlike, of course, physics).

    Also, consider that people's beliefs about things other than moral matters as well. People's opinions aren't going to determine whether global warming occurs, but they do determine whether we'll do something about it. People's opinions about Shakespeare won't make a dent into scholars' discussions, but they may mean that no plays by the bard are going to be performed if not enough people are interested, etc.

  43. "'Folk' Philosophy" in this instance can be described as "Sociology for use by philosophers". If I were a "lay" person observing a disagreement in the philosophical community pertaining to this practice, I would invariably formulate the opinion, "Each philosopher should feel free to approach philosophy in their own way."

  44. Massimo, your analogy does somewhat depend on what someone believes about morality.

    If you believe that there are moral truths, facts that can be known independent of the people who believe them, then the analogy holds. If, however, one doesn't believe that there are moral truths, but that, say, morality is merely an aggregate of human judgements, then the analogy doesn't hold. Of course, the nature of this distinction would be something you would talk to an expert (a philosopher) about, but if that expert advised the later, then the details of morality would have to be uncovered through an activity along the lines of experimental philosophy.

    I take it that you believe that there are moral facts.

  45. James, not necessarily. My point holds for moral anti-realists too (since even if there are no absolute moral truths that doesn't mean there is nothing non-arbitrary to say about morality). It only fails for pure relativists, but in that case it doesn't matter what people say, because anything goes anyway and there simply is no moral philosophy to speak of.

  46. FWIW (I've skimed only parts of the comments), I agree with Massimo except for that last bit where he says it could be relevant for political but not moral philosophy - assuming applied ethics is part of the latter rather than the former. I just don't see how people think these experiments are themselves philosophy.

  47. Philosophy, Psychology or What? I'd have to add a fourth: So What? Knobe seems like a smart guy who is whipping up a lot of foam. He reminds me of the Freakonomics hype-masters.

    I guess there is value in starting a dialogue of sorts, but this is a little ho-hum. The "folks" grow increasingly relativistic as the person to be judged grows more alien? So what? A strong component of morality is empathy? Mirror neurons are necessary to model and predict behavior in the social group? That's so obviously not just the origin of morality (normative modeling of agents including yourself) but also consciousness itself. If Experimental Philosophy wants to cut its teeth, it needs to show us a little more than these baby gums.

  48. In the old days, miners would sift through hundreds of tons of dirt looking for a few flakes of gold, and the occasional nugget. Upon finding the nugget, not understanding its true potential, the miners would take it to town and fetter it away on prostitutes and booze. In the end, what they had left over went to the general store who in turn gave them the supplies they needed to continue their work. After changing hands many times, eventually the gold nugget would find its way to the craftsman, who perceiving its true potential, turned it into something containing both value and beauty.
    Thus can be the nature of our societal analysts. They sift through hundreds of thousands of people looking for a few flakes of interesting data. Occasionally they stumble upon a useful nugget of knowledge, and not perceiving its true potential, they fetter it away on marketing firms and drug companies. In the end, what they have left over goes to psychologists who in turn give them the supplies they need to continue their work. After changing hands many times, the information makes its way into the hands of the philosopher, who perceiving its true potential, turns it into something containing both value and beauty.
    I have to admit that on the face of it seems absurd for a miner to try and make a diamond ring out of a nugget of gold. The miner not understanding the ways of the craftsman, would likely destroy the nugget in the process. It also seems absurd for a craftsman to go digging through hundreds of tons of dirt. Since the craftsman does not understand the ways of the miner, he would likely come up empty handed. This would not be entirely arbitrary if a greater respect and perspective for each others field were attained. However, expecting the dirt to do anything with regard to mining or crafting is... preposterous.

  49. "Upon finding the nugget, not understanding its true potential, the miners would take it to town and fetter it away on prostitutes and booze."

    The miners' "finding" of the nugget was not some lucky accident while digging in the dirt for the pure fun of it. The knowledge of its future value (which is where potential finds its truth) was the motivating force that allowed them to take the more immediate advantage of the values found in booze and prostitutes. (And some of these miners went into politics accordingly where the gold to booze to prostitute potential comes full circle.)

  50. Massimo, Ethicists constantly talk about their intuitions and about "what we think". They take "what we think" as some sort of an indicator of what is morally true (with various different rationales) The truth is, though, they don't have good data on "what we think." X-Phi seeks this data. You could ask your psychologist friends to find the data for you, but they're not likely to design exactly the experiments you want. One very nice effect of X-Phi is to make philosophers hesitate the next time they write about "our" intuitions. Are those really our intuitions? It's becoming harder to take for granted what "our" intuitions are--thanks to this research. I say--who cares what you call it (philosophy, psychology, whatever), this research tells us things we need to know.

  51. Jean, I take philosophers to be largely talking about *their* (not the general public's) intuitions. Intuition, as I argued here recently, is a domain specific trait, so that people who are familiar wit domain X have reliable (though certainly not infallible) intuitions about X. Regardless, much moral philosophy is about moral reasoning, not about intuitions. For instance, discussions on the morality of abortion hinge greatly on concepts of personhood, and I seriously doubt that one can learn much about personhood from asking Joe in the street.

  52. If I understood the point correctly, this is really about what should be considered philosophy and what is not philosophy but instead, social sciences, or psychology, or cognitive neuroscience, etc. I have to confess that the first time I heard about Experimental Philosophy, it sounded like a contradiction in terms, but once I started reading about it, it made perfect sense. I think it is inevitable that in this day and age, the demarcation between different branches of science, as well as the demarcation between science and philosophy, is becoming less clear because these intellectual endeavors are becoming more intertwined. We are coming back to the original meaning of "scientia", I think. I'm liking it.

  53. Massimo, I think the phrase "what we think" is very, very common. It really is often "we"--not "I". Or actually, sometimes it's "you"--for example (since you mention abortion), here's how Thompson argues in her famous abortion article: "I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago." So--the reader's finding something outrageous counts, for her. For writers who proceed that way it's important to have the facts about how the reader, or "the average Joe," really does react to moral questions. At the very least, it's a corrective. But yes--there's a difference between Joes who have and haven't thought about the problem domain. All intuitions might not deserve the same weight.

  54. Adriana, I'm all in favor of Scientia, but one actually has to do the work to show in what precise sense input from discipline X is pertinent to questions in discipline Y, which I don't think Knobe has done. Moreover, areas of overlap do not mean that there aren't distinct disciplinary cores. It's not all one intellectual mush.

    Jean, Thompson was talking to other philosophers, so again this has nothing to do with Joe's in the street intuitions about morality. Read any science, or literary criticism, paper and you will find similar language, but nobody would therefore think that the intended audience is laypeople.

  55. Massimo, I believe most ethicists think of an "intuition" as a quick, untutored thing that anyone would have, not just people with advanced philosophy degrees. For example, Peter Unger (in Living High and Letting die) talks about what "most would say" and what "folks say." I really don't think he means most philosophers, and folks are folks. But this is really yet another empirical issue--who do ethicists mean by "we"? Some x-phi-ers are empirically studying ethicists (e.g. Eric Schwitzgebel).

  56. Massimo, I was not suggesting that it's all a big intellectual mush, only that the borders are becoming blurred, the demarcation less precise. I may be biased because I see this in my field of genomics. I've only recently started to become interested in Knobe's stuff, so I can't really judge whether he has explained in which precise sense his experimental questions and answer fit into moral philosophy. But I do find his premise intriguing and interesting. I'm not a philosopher, though. I'm a scientist who is interested in philosophy, like I think all scientists should be. Plus I love how "scientia" rolls off the tongue :-)

  57. Massimo said: "I seriously doubt that one can learn much about personhood from asking Joe in the street."

    That's quite a bold statement. Do you mean that a philosopher can't learn much about the strictly philosophical ideas of personhood from the average Joe, or do you mean the average Joe has literally nothing to teach us about personhood?

    Just looking for a bit of clarification on your position.

  58. Adriana, I think we agree more than disagree. And I love saying "scientia" too...

    Will, [Do you mean that a philosopher can't learn much about the strictly philosophical ideas of personhood from the average Joe, or do you mean the average Joe has literally nothing to teach us about personhood?]

    I'm referring to the philosophical ideas, as usual. We can certainly learn a lot (from social science) about what people think about personhood - though I suspect that bringing up the term will largely get you blank stares.

    Jean, [I believe most ethicists think of an "intuition" as a quick, untutored thing that anyone would have, not just people with advanced philosophy degrees.]

    Perhaps, but my point is that most of the time those are just rhetorical flourishes, and that whatever argument the ethicist is doing doesn't depend on what most people think is ethical or not.

  59. Expanding on OneDayMore comments, the evolutionary moral unit is the tribe. From a tribe's standpoint morality consists of rubbing blue mud in one's navel just like everybody else or be shunned. Until very recently a solitary human was a dead human. Any modern moral philosophy that ignores the tribe, or its modern expression the Social Support Group (SSG) is a useless intellectual game. The SSG may be a church, an industry, a sport team, media complex consumers, or in our case a group of highly educated and rationally thinking (ERSSG) people interacting mostly in electronic print in these days.

    Face time, while individually important is almost insignificant in defining the moral standards governing that face time. ERSSG face time is in Panera Bread©, other SSG face time may be in bars or churches.

    Please note that each group considers itself to be a moral elite, with the only absolute moral standards that can work and should work for everybody. These moral standards are applicable in all walks of life in particular mating morality. In some SSGs male dominated early mating is the norm, and female virginity is a moral imperative for marriage. In the ERSSG female reproductive choice is the moral imperative and reproduction is typically much later. Virginity for either partner is less important than prophylactic sex prior to pair bonding.

    So what is a modern moral philosopher supposed to delineate as proper with respect to breeding behavior, if hesh does not spend some time with Joe and Samantha and their SSGs to extract a moral standard from breeding habits that may be different enough to constitute a ring speciation in Homo Sapiens.


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