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  • The Neuroscience of Moral Judgment and Aquinas on Moral Expertise
  • Stephen Napier

CONTEMPORARY MORAL psychology is discovering some unflattering aspects of our moral intuitions. Quite simply, they are unreliable, or, at least, we have every reason to think that our intuitions are not attuned to morally relevant features of our environment. Because moral intuitions are the starting point for a person's moral judgments and reasoning, faulty intuitions can affect someone's entire system of moral beliefs. What is more, the agent whose beliefs result from these faulty intuitions would not know otherwise. As E. F. Schumacher reminded us,1 just as by the eye one can see everything except the eye through which one sees, so the moral eye can see everything except the eye through which it sees. The same is true for whole systems of moral beliefs according to which everything looks okay "from the inside" or from the perspective of the agent, but, viewed sideways on, a moral belief system may be radically disordered.

This paper attempts to put contemporary cognitive science of moral judgment into conversation with Aquinas's moral epistemology. Aquinas has provided us with a cognitive therapy for our moral intuitions, one that stands as a viable remedy for the problem of faulty intuitions. My goal here is to explain why and how his moral epistemology addresses the problem of faulty intuitions. A more ambitious goal would be to argue that his [End Page 31] solution is the best solution to our epistemic predicament. Though in fact I think this is the case, I cannot argue for it here.

The first section aims to highlight the problem contemporary moral psychology is discovering about our moral intuitions. The second section outlines and explains Aquinas's solution to this problem. I explain this in two stages. First, I show that Aquinas's solution to the problem of faulty intuitions is only partly the acquisition of the requisite virtues. Full rehabilitation of our moral intellects requires realizing the gifts of the Holy Spirit—in particular, understanding, knowledge, wisdom, and counsel. In the second stage I explain why the virtues and gifts are solutions to our problem. To understand why they are necessary we must understand how they operate on our moral intellects. Here I advert to recent work done on other areas of expertise with an eye toward finding family resemblances between expertise in chess and other domains, and moral expertise. We can appreciate better why the virtues and gifts are necessary if we have some grasp of how they are supposed to work, and we can see this on analogy with other forms of expertise.

I. The Problem

The following nomenclature will provide the framework for the remainder of our discussion. The term "intuition" in philosophy has a rather diverse meaning. Following Elijah Chudnoff2 and William Tolhurst,3 I understand intuition to mean something like an intellectual seeming analogous to a perceptual seeming. To use Aquinas's terminology, an intuition is something like an apprehension according to which "the intellect merely has a likeness of a thing existing outside the soul, as a sense has a likeness when it receives the species of a sensible thing. But when the intellect begins to judge about the thing it has apprehended, then its judgment is something proper [End Page 32] to itself."4 An intuition may be taken as an apprehension of something qua kind or species. Intuitions are intentional states in that they are about the world—"world" understood to include the perceptual environment, mathematical world, or the world of values and goods. They have a mind-to-world direction of fit, which means that they are representations of how the world actually is, or appears to be. But intuitions, as understood here, are not beliefs. One can have an intuition—a seeming—that, for example, the Muller-Lyer Illusion indicates two lines of different lengths.

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Upon being informed that this is an illusion and/or measuring the lines, any subsequent viewing of the Muller-Lyer lines will involve a seeming that they are different lengths, but one would not believe them to be different lengths...


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pp. 31-74
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