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First of all, it is a genuine pleasure to contribute to this forum: I only hope my comments will not lag too far behind the quality of previous posts! Now to Experiments in Ethics . . .

Chapter four is entitled “The Varieties of Moral Experience” and my discussion will follow the sections of this chapter in order in an effort to provide an outline of the argument and substantive points, before concluding with some reflections.

The Beginnings of Ethics
In this section, Appiah begins by noting that the chapter will concern itself with an exploration of “a social-science typology of moral emotions” (123). Our focus will be to see how what the social sciences tell us about moral emotions might “sponsor various strains” in our philosophical understanding of ethics.

For example, Appiah says:

“The more we learn about how the feelings that shape our acts aretriggered, the more we can adjust the environment to make sure they aren’t . . . Discovering what triggers these tendencies can allow us to make desirable behavior more frequent, too. In each case–as we dared to hope in the preceding two chapters–psychology can serve ethics” (124).

At first glance, this might appear like an exercise in understanding how we might manipulate others through triggers to behave in particular ways. If we can discover environments that make people act one way versus another, then we might be able to create contexts that get others to act how we like.

Perhaps information from the social sciences may help us with such a project, but this is alien to the project at hand. Instead, ethics clearly is our central focus. After all, Appiah is concerned with not simply understanding how our environment might make more likely different kinds of behaviour, but “desirable” behaviour. Whatever the social sciences teach us, there remains a very important role for ethical theorizing. However, the social sciences can help us understand how best to bring about ethical conduct and highlight the potential (over-)demandingness of our ethical positions.

The Modularity of Morals
Appiah notes that there are six fundamental kinds of response modes grounding moral sentiments. These six are as follows:

* “to (the avoidance or alleviation of) harm”
* “to fairness and reciprocity”
* “to hierarchy and respect”
* “to purity and pollution”
* “to ingroup/outgroup boundaries” and
* “to awe and elevation” (126).

While this is one suggested list, Appiah proposes a list not dissimilar:

* “compassion”
* “reciprocity”
* “hierarchy”
* “purity”
* “outsiders and saints” (129-45).

Appiah next moves onto a discussion of these responses, now called “modules” (or “evaluative responses”) (129). I will not discuss Appiah’s treatment of all five, but I will say a few words about two of them to both give a flavour of what is at issue and note a worry in passing.

The fourth module (or evaluative response) is “purity” (see 139-42). Appiah notes that the purity module is rooted in notions of both purity and pollution, and linked to “our capacity for disgust” (139). We see disgust everywhere, from the kinds of food we find horrible to sexual taboos. Thus, for example, what is a delicacy in one community may appear wholly disgusting elsewhere: the French may enjoy escargot while the thought of eating snails may make others shudder. Disgust brings out a response from us — whether it be food, sex, or something else — and a response that is evaluative in nature. I then not only shudder at the thought of eating snails, but make an evaluative judgement that eating snails is not an entertaining idea.

A problem with evaluative responses, such as disgust, is that they may simply be no more than “descriptive observations” (140). Why think that evaluative responses of disgust should figure into our account of morality? Appiah proceeds to talk about the ways in which people from different socio-economic backgrounds have reacted to so-called “harmless taboo violations” in experiments, correctly arguing that the claim “. . . and it is disgusting” is not helpful and probably a bad reason even if it might be too much to say that digust should play no role at all in our evaluative judgments.

(As an aside, I am reminded by Martha C. Nussbaum’s treatment of disgust in her Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton University Press, 2004). Here Nussbaum correctly notes that disgust can have a useful role to play in limited contexts. For example, the child has disgust for her faeces—and this is a good thing. However, for Nussbaum, when disgust plays a role in shaping the development of our laws and social institutions it can yield any number of damaging effects. Thus, considerations of disgust should be excised from the law. Appiah’s views are not as spelled out as Nussbaum’s, although the two do not yet seem to be in a relationship of any tension.)

Now a brief discussion of a worry before moving on. Appiah notes a fifth, final module of “outsiders and saints” (see 142-45). Here we find that we have more positive evaluations of those who are like us versus those who are not like us. For example:

“And social scientists have done studies to confirm that victims who are familiar and resemble us are more likely to arouse our empathy” (143).

Furthermore, those we disparage may be characterized as “cockroaches or germs” (144). This is all clearly true to some extent. That is, some studies suggest that juries are more favourable to witnesses, defendants, etc. that appear to share a similar background, etc. However, things also run the other way in dramatic fashion. Perhaps we do denigrate others because of difference. We also centre our violence on those who are not different. The vast majority of violent crime is not perpetrated on those unlike us, but in a supermajority of all cases the victims will be from our socio-economic group and often be related to us. The affective bonds that may unite us against others as a group, bringing us closer together, also create a springboard from which many in our group are harmed by each other. Thus, while we may accept the “outsider” module, we may also be wary of the “insider,” too.

Multiplex Morality
Appiah notes that his list of modules may well be open to revision: perhaps there is a better way of categorizing the variety of evaluations that we make. Whatever its limitations, I believe his view of modules is very helpful. Its helpfulness is rooted in assisting reflect more deeply on particular dimensions of evaluative responses brought upon by reaction to our environment, as well as the “connections” we may draw between our responses and the moral theories we defend. Thus, Appiah notes:

“The force of these studies is to make us doubt that there’s any deep relation between our moral judgments and the explicit rationales we offer for them” (149).

Our reasons and explanations may well be moving in different directions, and more often than we may have first thought.

Double Vision
This section begins by arguing that “[v]alues guide our acts, our thoughts, and our feelings” (154). The feelings and thoughts we have provide our responses to our values. In recognizing the value of x, I seek x out. Thus, if I recognize the value of music, then I will seek out the concert hall. Or, if I recognize the value of philosophy, then I may seek out the nearest bookstore.

We think of ourselves in the following way: we ought to do something all things considered because it is a proper response to our values. Thus, we believe that others should adopt a particular response to value precisely because we recognize the value of that response. (Or, in Appiah’s example, “You prefer that people should be kind because you recognize the value of kindness (154).) These judgements about values are rooted, at least in part, in the emotional, evaluative responses we have. While we must be clear on how our emotions may lead us to unjust evaluations, we must also recognize their role in helping guide (and perhaps motivate) us to adopt just evaluations.

The Language of Morality
The chapter ends with this section where our focus is on language and moral justification. The main point is that just as we can consider experiments in ethics through studies by social scientists, we also perform ethical experimentation in the descriptions we give of moral justification. The process of selecting salient features in our moral stories and the ethical perspective we offer form a major part of our ethical project. This seems absolutely correct: what we exclude both in terms of relevant features and the perspective we offer (and do not offer) matter in drawing ethical conclusions: “Moral perception is a way of seeing, and seeing is always seeing as and seeing that. Appiah clearly highlights for us the importance of perhaps expanding our philosophical toolkits.

Concluding Remarks
In my view, Appiah defends a most helpful view. He is absolutely right to argue that social scientists can help us address normative questions. In fact, he makes the case so clearly it is striking that such work remains in its infancy. (And I took note of Appiah’s favourable mentioning of one of my philosophical heroes, Thomas Hill Green, who also took seriously scientific advances in relation to ethics.)

However, there now seems more work to be done. The case seems made that social scientists can assist ethicists and this presents us with a great opportunity. However, more must be said about getting right the relation between our evaluative responses and justifiable moral positions as the two may come apart. It now falls to us to continue this worthy project.


  1. 1. Posted by Jeff Huggins | April 17, 2008 3:21 pm

    Thanks to Appiah for another great chapter and to Thom for the very helpful comments.

    I agree with most of Chapter 4, although it begins to paint a picture (it seems to me) with which I disagree, at least in part, if I understand it correctly.

    Appiah refers to “Multiplex Morality” (p. 145) and writes “The modularity of our moral psychology is only a starting point of our plural commitments …” (p. 162). My comment involves the picture of morality that Appiah seems to paint in his discussion of “Multiplex Morality” and “plural commitments”.

    I may be misunderstanding him, but Appiah seems to paint the beginnings of a picture that considers two possibilities (and that suggests one of them), i.e., either that:

    1. Morality involves, or boils down to, a simple singular value or ideal of the sort represented by individual happiness, collective happiness, justice, or etc. (This is the possibility that Appiah doesn’t seem to support.) OR,

    2. Morality involves multiple/plural values or ideals that, although they may overlap a bit and interrelate in ways, are nevertheless roughly equal in terms of priority in the hierarchy and do not serve (in an interrelated and understandable fashion) a more foundational “umbrella” value/end. (This is the possibility that Appiah seems to suggest, at this point.) In other words, morality is a “multiplex” of plural values and ideals with, perhaps, no broader theatre that encompasses the individual screens of this multiplex and no broader end served by all (plural) values working together.

    But there is another possibility of course. It’s one that is (I would argue) the case and that’s also consistent with, and supported by, Appiah’s other themes, which is this:

    3. Morality involves multiple values and ideals at an intermediate level-of-view (a level that is not at the foundation nor the bird’s eye view). These overlap and interrelate in many ways and can all be understood as having different roles, priorities, and places in a larger hierarchy. Together, they serve (in an interrelated and understandable fashion) a more foundational “umbrella” value/end.

    As mentioned in my comments on Chapter 2, my view is that the foundation of the whole enterprise [that is, of morality itself] has to do with ongoing human survival and (given the way time works) human sustainability, achieved in the context of our existence as a social species, our vital relationships with the environment and other species, and our view of human equality (in important senses). Put another way, there is a deep, grounded, foundational, and in many ways definitional connection between morality and sustainability themselves.

    In my view, the answer is “no” to the question Appiah poses on page 136, “However different the moral lexicons we’ve just surveyed may be (we’ve managed to invoke aretaic, deontological, and contractarian traditions), is it inconceivable that they share a taproot?” Indeed, the various facets and lexicons of morality do share a very deep taproot in several senses.

    I hope these comments are helpful. Looking forward to the next chapter.

  2. 2. Posted by Joe Paxton | April 25, 2008 10:04 pm

    As a non-philosopher, I find the following passage from Ch. 4 quite confusing, and I wonder if the philosophy-types in the audience could help to clear it up for me:

    “Many contemporary people will say that it’s the fact that you want these things that makes it true you value kindness, because many modern people think that values are things we make up, projections of our preferences… But from the standpoint of the Verstandeswelt, we can only think it the other way around. You prefer people should be kind because you recognize the value of kindness. You want people to agree with you because then they will be kind and encourage kindness in yet other people… You will think of your regard for kindness not as a mere personal preference but as the acknowledgement of a universal truth…” (pp. 154-155)

    It seems to me that our values are primarily a function of our shared psychological constitution (along with some notable differences both within and between cultures that are variations on the theme of our shared psychological constitution). But here Appiah is saying that our values aren’t a function of our preferences. And this is clearly in tension with the claim that our values are primarily a function of our shared psychological constitution. If our values are a function of our shared psychological constitution, but the relevant facts about our psychological constitution aren’t facts about our preferences, then what are the relevant facts about our psychological constitution that fix our values? Are they facts about the particular moral intuitions that we have? But aren’t our preferences a function of our intuitions? If so, then our values are a function of our preferences as well.

    Perhaps I’m just working with an overly broad conception of what a preference is, or perhaps I am unwilling or unable to see things from the standpoint of the Verstandeswelt. In either case, I’d greatly appreciate correction or clarification.


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