Morality For Humans

Following on from the previous post which looked at Kate Douglas’s 26 May 2014 New Scientist Article on Mark Johnson’s book ‘Morality for Humans’, here I quote from the introductory chapter (‘Moral Problem Solving as an Empirical Inquiry’) of Johnson’s book (parts are available on-line via Google Books) in order to provide a succinct overview of the whole book. Quotes have been rephrased slightly for readability where he in turn quotes others. Italic emphasis is his. Bold emphasis is mine.

The first task of a naturalized ethics must be to validate the idea of moral reasoning as a form of problem-solving that does not rely on some special, unique realm of moral values.

Why should anyone think that there is some special status for what are known as “moral” or “ethical” judgements that make them fundamentally different in kind from all other types of normative judgements …?

… we tend to believe that moral imperatives trump all our other garden-variety normative judgements, such as appraisals of artworks, claims about the best way to grow good tomatoes, and arguments over what constitutes excellence in medical practice.

… we can certainly acknowledge the importance and special force of moral imperatives without needing to ground that force on a presumption of a moral faculty that generates distinctly moral imperatives.

Many philosophers have the:

… mistaken belief that moral questions arise from a unique and utterly distinct type of experience.

My contention is that moral deliberation is a process of problem-solving that arises in situations of moral indeterminacy and conflict.

It is past time to get over the mistaken idea that so-called “factual” claims have neither a normative dimension nor normative implications.

Johnson quotes John Dewey. Dewey’s:

“…foremost conclusion is that morals has to do with all activity into which alternative possibilities enter. For wherever they enter a difference between better and worse arises. Reflection upon action means uncertainty and consequent need of decision as to which course is better.

Johnson again:

Dewey famously describes this moral problem-solving as a deliberative process of imaginative exploration of available courses of action.

Deliberation is a dramatic rehearsal (in imagination) of various competing possible lines of action.

Let us begin by considering a very mundane form of problem-solving. Let’s say you want to grow luscious tomatoes. … You get advice from experienced, knowledgeable farmers about [… soil … climate … fertilizer … watering … harvesting…]… Behind all of this expert knowledge is years, perhaps even centuries, of accumulated scientific … knowledge.

Farming is what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “practice,” by which he means “any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity …”

farmers learn to recognize and prize exemplary enactments of their practice. This in turn, gives rise to catalogues of the virtues that are required to realize the ends appropriate to that particular practice.

Practices are dynamic, not static. They can evolve through the creative activities of people who engage in them …

Every practice thus develops at least some recognized processes of inquiry and experimentation for carrying out the practice…

MacIntyre’s notion of practices leads to the idea that living a morally exemplary life requires developing the relevant virtues.

Johnson quotes Churchland as saying that moral knowledge is:

A set of skills. To begin with, a morally knowledgeable adult has clearly acquired a sophisticated family of perceptual or recognitional skills…

Johnson again:

An important part of the requisite skill for navigating an extremely comple social landscape is the ability to assume a critical and reconstructive perspective on ones own inherited moral tradition, so that we do not simply reproduce its values and practices blindly. Without this skill, there can be no intelligent moral growth.

I am interested in the idea that moral cultivation is acquiring virtues, skills and attitudes that allow one to resolve morally problematic situations.

Unfortunately, we are saddled with centuries-old traditions of moral philosophy that regard the idea of empirically grounded problem-solving as anathema to a proper conception of moral reasoning.

Johnson quotes from Elliot Turiel’s “The Culture of Moraliity” on the way children make judgements. Children learn to distinguish between moral strictures and social conventions. An interviewed five-year-old:

child insists that hitting is “not okay,” and when asked why not, he responds, “because that is like making people unhappy …hurting is not good”. …children tend to regard the moral restrictions of this sort to be binding, even if a teacher or other authority tells them that it is permissible to hit other children. In other words, the source of moral obligation appears to transcend any social or conventional authority.


Children and adolescents judge moral obligations not as contingent on rules or authority and as applicable across social contexts. Moral transgressions, such as hitting or stealing, are not judged by the existence of rules, the directives of authority, or commonly accepted practices… Rather, rules pertaining to moral issues are judged as unalterable by agreement, and such acts would be wrong even if there were no rules governing them.


would argue that the widespread cross-cultural existence of such differentiation between moral and the conventional need not be taken as justifying claims that such a distinction marks some essential ontological or epistemological difference between experiential types.

I submit that the moral/conventional distinction is a matter of degree, and so will at best establish only a culturally contingent continuum, with clearly moral issues on one pole …, clearly conventional prescriptions lying at the opposite pole… , and a vast range of intermediate cases lying at various points between the poles…

there can be no value-neutral or absolute non-question-begging way to draw a rigid distinction between these two types of experience.

Qualifying terms such as “moral”, “pragmatic”, “technical” and “aesthetic” seldom get us into any trouble when they are used principally to mark some dominant quality of a situation in a particular context of action.

Experiences do not come premarked with their “type” stamped on them in indelible metaphysical ink.

… the way one dresses in public places might be considered merely a matter of style and aesthetic preference in the United States, but might have profound moral implications in an Islamic culture.

Johnson quotes from Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”:

The moral domain varies by culture, It is unusually narrow in Western, educated, and individualistic cultures. Sociocentric cultures broaden the moral domain to encompass and regulate more aspects of life

Back to Johnson:

…in most cases a developing experience involves multiple dimensions, which are often inextricably intertwined, so that selecting just one descriptive category misses the richness, complexity, and depth of any given experience.

Anyone who works in a health-care profession knows full well that any given “health” issue will typically have economic, social, aesthetic, psychological, spiritual, and political dimensions too.

In Western cultures, we typically call an experience “ethical” or “moral” to emphasize that issues of the harm or well-being of ourselves and others are at a prominent concern at that particular moment.

the relatively unproblematic partitioning of kinds of experience that operates in daily life can become problematic if it leads us to oversimplify a situation and thus ignore its complexity. The error is to the think that there is some pre-established ontological, epistemic, or phenomenological absoluteness about our preferred distinctions.

the fact that we regard certain issues as predominantly moral does not entail that what defines those issues as moral somehow excludes a number of other dimensions of human experience.

We … learn that certain actions are morally significant … but we need not, and should not, infer from this that there are purely “moral” experiences having no admixture of aesthetic, religious, scientific, technical, economic, or political dimensions interwoven into a complex tapestry of a given situation. I shall argue that reducing experiences to exclusive kinds is precisely the sort of reductionism that leads us to overlook or under-appreciate the complexity of a particular problematic situation.

Johnson is arguing against what he has called “the folk theory of Experiential Kinds” that consist of:

  1. For each particular kind of experience, there is believed to be a correlative form of judgement appropriate to it.
  2. Each form of judgement is the product of our various cognitive faculties.
  3. Each kind of judgement employs its own unique standards and values.
  4. Each of those standards, principles, or values must have its own unique source in the mind.

the most influential version of this folk theory applied to morals is Kant’s celebrated moral philosophy.

Now, it would be a nice achievement if you could get everyone to admit what “everyone must admit” and what is “evident”, but that is famously impossible, or at least notoriously improbable. …  It would appear that the “everyone” who “must admit” that Kant is right turns out to be those who share at least most of the key concepts, values, and principles embedded in the Judeo-Christian culture he took for granted.

But there is:

nothing like a transcendently grounded set of absolute moral laws.

The crux of Kant’s view is that moral laws, insofar as they are universally and unconditionally valid, can only be categorical imperatives.

Whereas for Kant, hypothetical imperatives:

would be merely conditional and would lack the requisite purity of origin that “everyone must admit” is the defining character of moral principles.

Kant then proceeds to reject any notion of moral thinking as hypothetical reasoning geared toward problem solving. … empirical considerations are deemed by Kant not to be relevant in determining our basic moral obligations (even though they may be relevant in applying particular moral laws to concrete cases).

Kant’s philosophy:

enforces the most rigid and exclusionary fact-value dichotomy

Armed with this absolute dichotomy, Kant is thus able to sweep away all forms of consequentialist moral theory.

Supposedly, you can be truly free only when you are bound by moral law you give to yourself.

It is this type of non-naturalism, along with its attendant conception of a unique type of moral judgement, that I will argue is entirely out of touch with our current understanding of how the mind works.

Being positive:

The great and abiding positive value of Kantian moral philosophy is its insistence on respect for the autonomy and well-being of oneself and others.

But Kant:

has bequeathed us a set of highly problematic assumptions.

  1. a classification of types of experience and judgement,
  2. a characterization of moral laws as unconditionally binding,
  3. an insistence that nothing but pure practical reason can possibly be the source of morality,
  4. the strident denial that moral thinking might be a form of transformative problem-solving, and
  5. the dismissal of empirical knowledge from the foundations of morals.

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2 Responses to Morality For Humans

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