Mind and Morals:
Essays on Ethics and Cognitive Science

Larry May, Marilyn Friedman + Andy Clark (editors)

The MIT Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996 http://dannyreviews.com/
Like many conference proceedings, Mind and Morals lacks a clear focus. There is, however, a kind of "meta-message" to be gleaned from the relative merits of its papers: the importance of connections with science for moral philosophy.

The opening three papers debate the possibility of a naturalised ethics. Owen Flanagan and Mark Johnson put the case for the affirmative. Flanagan tackles the problem directly, arguing that ethics is a part of "human ecology". Johnson argues for a union of moral philosophy with moral psychology, and against governance theories for a view of morals as a metaphoric system. But it was Virginia Held's attempt at a counter-argument ("cognitive science has rather little to offer ethics") that is most "convincing". Her argument largely consists of describing successful results of cognitive science and then saying "but that doesn't give us anything genuinely normative". But if you insist that moral philosophy is a province separate from cognitive science, anthropology, and psychology on one side and from politics, law, and education on the other, you are left with nothing except some trivial constructs of deductive logic, surreptitiously anchored either to the very disciplines you are trying to avoid or to a supernaturalist moral realism. (Something very similar happens if you insist that "real" economics is independent of history, anthropology, sociology, geography, and politics.)

Some of the papers illustrate the folly of explicitly disdaining the empirical disciplines: Alvin Goldman argues for the possibility of non-empirical interpersonal utility comparisons, but most of his paper is taken up by feeble (and unoriginal) attacks on functionalism; James Sterba's attempt to prove that rationality requires morality is so blatantly tendentious as to provoke laughter. Others restrict themselves to traditional philosophical analysis, illustrating the relative aridity of such "pure" philosophy: Michael Bratman critiques a model of temptation proposed by Ainslie; Susan Khin Zaw argues against Kantian and nomological-deductive theories of moral rationality and for a more traditional (Aristotelian) view.

The majority of the papers in Mind and Morals take a more positive approach to contributions from the sciences. Papers by Paul Churchland and Andy Clark develop connectionist perspectives on social and moral perception and judgement. Ruth Millikan argues that representations which are both descriptive and directive may be fundamental to cognition. Peggy DesAutels explores the role of "gestalt shifts" in moral perception. John Deigh looks at psychopathy and the light it sheds on the question of internalism, concluding that answers will only come from developmental psychology and cognitive science. Robert Gordon links recent empirical research to older ideas about the role of simulation in empathy and moral judgement. Naomi Scheman finds a form of moral objectivity with an argument for emotions as socially defined rather than as states of individuals. Helen Longino warns of the dangers of naively seizing on particular biological theories to underpin philosophical arguments, comparing the different implications of behavioural neuroendocrinology and developmental neurophysiology.

Mind and Morals is a thought-provoking collection. It makes it clear that moral philosophy can no more claim independence from the empirical disciplines than they can from one another. Moral philosophy is not (unless too narrowly conceived) about to disappear or be replaced, but moral philosophers who refuse to learn from psychology and cognitive science are dooming themselves to increasing irrelevance.

June 1996

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%T Mind and Morals
%S Essays on Ethics and Cognitive Science
%E May, Larry
%E Friedman, Marilyn
%E Clark, Andy
%I The MIT Press
%D 1996
%O paperback, references, index
%G ISBN 0262631652
%P x,315pp