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  • Experimenting with Ethics in the Twenty-First Century
  • Jessica Wahman

The recent development of a field known as experimental philosophy—in particular, its subfield devoted to moral decision making—invites us to reflect on what it means to experiment in ethics and how it is that philosophers determine the good. Furthermore, as this new discipline uses the methods of experimental psychology to examine our intuitions about such things as praise, blame, and moral responsibility, we ought to consider the relationship between ethics and our psychological makeup. To this end, it will be beneficial to consider the American pragmatists' interpretations of these issues. Ethics, for these thinkers, was both a psychological and an experimental enterprise, one in which all of our psychological capabilities are brought to bear in solving specific moral problems through the testing of hypothetical and tentative solutions.1 I plan to argue here that the future of experimental ethics will find itself indebted to the American past, not only in its attempts to address the empirical data it already collects but in rethinking the scope of ethics and experimentation.

A distinctive contribution that classical American philosophers like William James, John Dewey, and George Santayana made to moral philosophy was the placement of ethics in the context of psychology. According to them, values are not handed down from on high (either via revelation or [End Page 33] a priori deduction) but originate from within a biological organism with specific interests regarding its own well-being as well as that of its society. Our cognitive and emotional capacities, our intuitions, and our more deliberate reasoning practices all play important roles in helping us to determine the good for ourselves. From the point of view of the pragmatist, then, there is no way to step fully outside a human perspective, no God's-eye view or absolute position from which to make sense of different moral sensibilities. It is from within this context that we make decisions about right and wrong or good and evil.

Developments in moral psychology and experimental philosophy demand that we analyze the psychology of decision making even more closely, for recent studies illuminate specific tensions between our automatic intuitions, on the one hand, and our rational deliberations regarding our ethical obligations, on the other.2 For example, one recent study—dubbed "the Knobe effect," after the philosopher who discovered it, Joshua Knobe—indicates that we are more inclined to ascribe intentionality to (and by extension, hold a person responsible for) a harmful act than a beneficial one (2003, 193). In this case, our brains ignore the rational maxim to treat equal things equally, and we accuse one actor but do not praise the other.3 As philosophers, what should we think about this intuition? Is this a psychological fallacy (possibly one of inference, similar to our tendency to deny the antecedent even when, technically, we know better), or should this serve as evidence of a legitimate moral distinction between praise and blame? Furthermore, if some intuitions are found to be shaped by culture or gender—as Carol Gilligan has famously asserted—how are we to make sense of this influence? Are encultured and engendered intuitions just "different voices," or can we put ourselves in a position to assess better and worse ones?

A common way for philosophers to address this question is to analyze the justificatory ground of a moral judgment. If reason has pride of place in generating universal moral rules, then the intuition in the above case is simply illogical and therefore unjustified. On the other hand, if our emotions and sentiments ultimately rule the day, as Hume supposed, then our nature is simply such that we care more about holding wrongdoers responsible.4 However, another way to analyze the issue is to turn from the origin of ethical choices to their consequences by asking what kinds of differences are made in people's lives when we tie intentionality and morality together in these ways. It is here that Dewey, in particular, [End Page 34] but also James and Santayana have something helpful to say about psychological influences on our interpretations of ethical situations. In their analyses they neither treat reason as a suprapsychological...


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