Monday, September 30, 2013

Symposium on "Elements of Moral Cognition" in Jerusalem Review of Legal Studies

John Mikhail

Some readers might be interested in two new papers on moral psychology I recently posted to the web.  The first is a short review of Patricia Chuchland's book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality, which I wrote for the journal, Ethics.  In this review, I argue that Churchland is mistaken to assume that genetics, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology are the best sources from which to draw to advance the project of constructing a naturalistic theory of human morality.  Ethical naturalism comes in many varieties, and Churchland is hardly alone in thinking that writers like Hume and Darwin were essentially correct in locating the origin of morality in a moral sense or conscience that nature, not God, has made universal in the species.  It does not follow that genetics, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology are the most useful subjects from which to draw to carry forward their central insights.  As these fields are currently conceived, they may be able to contribute relatively little.  Certainly an exclusive reliance on these subjects seems unlikely to accomplish as much as a collective effort by philosophers, cognitive scientists, legal scholars, and other researchers to understand how the mind processes information in the moral domain within a computational-representational framework, and only then to relate that understanding to what is known about genes, brains, and evolution.  The general significance of Braintrust, I thus argue, may rest more on the particular conception of the science of morality it seeks to promote than on its naturalism per se.  For readers interested in learning more about the basic architecture of the brain or the neurobiology of care and attachment, however, Churchland’s book is a good place to start and will serve as a valuable resource.  There is much to learn about these topics, and Churchland is a gifted teacher.

The second and much longer paper is my reply to three terrific commentaries on my book, Elements of Moral Cognition, which were written by Aaron ZimmermanDavid Enoch, and Emmanuel Chemla, Paul Egré, and Philippe Schlenker in connection with a symposium on the book organized by the Jerusalem Review of Legal Studies.  In this paper, I address a number of topics lying at the intersection of law, ethics, and cognitive science that are raised by the commentators and that have been discussed at length in the secondary literature.  These topics include whether the principle of double effect is descriptively adequate; whether this principle or other moral principles are innate; whether my trolley problem data are replicable; whether Rawls was a moral psychologist; the relations among descriptive ethics, normative ethics, and metaethics; the role of idealization and statistical data in moral psychology and cognitive science; the connection between moral grammar and legal theory; the naturalistic foundation of human rights; the role of probabilistic factors in moral judgment; and the relation between moral judgments and causal judgments.  The advance copy of my reply on the JRLS web site contains a few errors, which are in the process of being fixed.  A revised and corrected proof of the article can be found here.

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