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WHAT DOES MORAL PHENOMENOLOGY TELL US ABOUT MORAL OBJECTIVITY?

  • Terry Horgan (a1) and Mark Timmons (a1)
Abstract

Moral phenomenology is concerned with the elements of one's moral experiences that are generally available to introspection. Some philosophers argue that one's moral experiences, such as experiencing oneself as being morally obligated to perform some action on some occasion, contain elements that (1) are available to introspection and (2) carry ontological objectivist purport—that is, they purport to be about objective, in the world, moral properties or relations. In our article, we examine one version of this sort of argument that we call the “argument from phenomenological introspection.” Our investigation involves, first, clarifications of the various issues that are prominent in the argument from phenomenological introspection. We then proceed to argue that the argument from phenomenological introspection fails; that although one's moral experiences may carry ontological objectivist purport, whether they do or do not carry such purport is not something available to introspection. We call this claim of ours the “neutrality thesis”—the phenomenological data regarding one's moral experiences that is available to introspection is neutral with respect to the issue of whether such experiences carry ontological objectivist purport.

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1 In Section III below, we discuss the subject matter and method of phenomenology in general, and in Section V, we say more about the subject matter and method of moral phenomenology.

2 Nor have they spent much time grappling with questions about the scope, unity, and distinctiveness of moral phenomenology. One major exception is Mandelbaum Maurice, The Phenomenology of Moral Experience (Glencoe, IL: The New Press, 1955). More recently, we ourselves have broached such questions in Horgan Terry and Timmons Mark, “Moral Phenomenology and Moral Theory,” Philosophical Issues 15 (2005): 5677; and in Prolegomena to a Future Phenomenology of Morals,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 7, edited by Kriegel Uriah (2008).

3 By “introspectively accessible elements” we mean elements that are readily introspectively accessible by people with ordinary introspective acuity—as distinct, for instance, from elements that are introspectively accessible only by people with unusually powerful and accurate introspective skill.

4 We also believe, although we will not argue for this here, that moral experiences in fact do not carry ontological objective purport. But even if we happen to be wrong about this, we still could be right about the Neutrality thesis. The truth of the Neutrality thesis would be enough to undercut the argument from phenomenological introspection, even if that argument's conclusion happens to be correct.

5 Horgan Terry and Timmons Mark, “Nondescriptivist Cognitivism: Outline of a New Metaethic,” Philosophical Papers 29 (2000): 121–53; and “Cognitivist Expressivism,” in Horgan Terry and Timmons Mark, eds., Metaethics after Moore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). The construal of moral phenomenology that we will explore below is not ontologically objectivist; nevertheless, it does recognize and accommodate phenomenological features of direct moral judgment that count intuitively as objective. See Section X below.

6 Of course, if cognitivist expressivism cannot accommodate the phenomenological data, and if no other metaethical view that rejects ontological objectivism can do so either, this does not yet guarantee that the argument goes through. For it might be that the phenomenological data can be accommodated by some form of metaethical rationalism that denies ontological moral objectivism.

7 Some moral realists prefer to characterize realism (including moral realism) in terms of “stance-independence” rather than in terms of “mind-independence.” See Shafer-Landau Russ, Moral Realism: A Defense (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1516. Whether this way of characterizing realism allows for a response-dependent account of secondary qualities to count as realist will depend on how one understands the notion of stance.

8 This is how McDowell John, “Values and Secondary Qualities,” in Honderich Ted, ed., Morality and Objectivity (London: Routledge, 1985), 170, characterizes a kind of objectivity characteristic of secondary qualities (understood as response-dependent) that he contrasts with a stronger kind that does not recognize response-dependent properties as being objective. See also Dancy Jonathan, “Two Conceptions of Moral Realism,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, supp. vol. 60 (1985): 167–87.

9 For more discussion of these two conceptions, see Timmons Mark, “Objectivity in Moral Discourse,” in Brown Keith, ed., The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2d ed. (Oxford: Elsevier, 2006), 9:510.

10 Firth Roderick, “Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 12 (1952): 317–45. Smith Michael, The Moral Problem (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

11 Kant Immanuel, Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (Akademie volume IV, 1985), 389, in Kant , Practical Philosophy, ed. and trans. Gregor Mary J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 4445.

12 Mackie J. L., Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), chap. 1.

13 Note that if one claims both (1) that moral properties are analogous to primary qualities in being human-response independent and (2) that moral properties are intrinsically reason-providing, then one seems committed to the rationalist claim that recognition of moral properties provides all rational agents with reasons. This seems to be why Mackie believed that moral thought and discourse presuppose both ontological and rationalist conceptions of objectivity.

14 This seems to be the view that Smith is advocating in Smith Michael, “Objectivity and Moral Realism: On the Significance of the Phenomenology of Moral Experience,” reprinted in Smith Michael, ed., Ethics and the A Priori (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

15 The idea that certain forms of discourse, including mathematics, logic, and ethics, can be objective—that claims in these areas can be objectively true—without there having to be a realm of objects and properties that make them true is one main theme of Hilary Putnam's Hermes Lectures, published as Part I of Putnam Hilary, Ethics without Ontology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004). See esp. Lecture 3, “Objectivity without Objects.”

16 Hare R. M., “Objective Prescriptions,” Philosophy 35 (1993): 117.

17 Perhaps an objective moral property can be constructed from the components that Hare posits. But it is enough for present purposes to note, as we do, that embracing rationalist objectivism but denying ontological objectivism is, prima facie, a metaethical option.

18 Korsgaard Christine M., The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 311.

19 Charles Siewert, for instance, in his “Who's Afraid of Phenomenological Disputes?” Southern Journal of Philosophy 45 (2007), understands phenomenology as primarily methodological.

20 There are various ways that one might widen somewhat the scope of phenomenal consciousness, while still regarding its scope as fairly restricted. For instance, one might hold that moods and/or emotions, in addition to sensations and sensory images, have distinctive phenomenal character.

21 Block Ned, “On a Confusion about a Conception of Consciousness,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18 (1995): 227–47.

22 For a defense of this broader conception of the scope of phenomenal consciousness, see, e.g., Horgan Terry and Tienson John, “The Intentionality of Phenomenology and the Phenomenology of Intentionality,” in Chalmers David, ed., Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 520–33; Horgan Terry, Tienson John, and Graham George, “Phenomenal Intentionality and the Brain in a Vat,” in Schantz Richard, ed., The Externalist Challenge (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 297317; Kriegel Uriah, “Consciousness as Sensory Quality and as Implicit Self-Awareness,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 2 (2003), 126; Pitt David, “The Phenomenology of Cognition, or What Is It Like to Think That P?Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 69 (2004): 136; and Strawson Galen, Mental Reality (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004).

23 These intentionalist views bifurcate into two broad kinds: one kind maintains that all phenomenal character is sensory or sensory-imagistic (while insisting that phenomenal character is also inherently intentional); the other kind maintains that the scope of phenomenal consciousness is much broader, encompassing all (or virtually all) mental states that are conscious-as-opposed-to-unconscious. The former view is advocated, e.g., in Tye Michael, Ten Problems of Consciousness: A Representational Theory of the Phenomenal Mind (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995); and Dretske Fred, Naturalizing the Mind (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1995). The latter view is advocated, e.g., in the texts mentioned in note 22 above.

24 For some discussion of this matter, see Charles Siewert, “Who's Afraid of Phenomenological Disputes?”

25 See, e.g., Siegel Susanna, “Which Properties Are Represented in Perception?” in Szabo T. Gendler and Hawthorne John, eds., Perceptual Experience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), and Siegel , “The Phenomenology of Efficacy,” Philosophical Topics 33 (2005): 265–84.

26 Harman Gilbert, The Nature of Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 4.

27 Note, however, that careful application of the introspective method—or of a mixed methodology that is partly phenomenological and partly abductive—might well be very relevant to such disputes. See, e.g., Siegel's mixed-method argumentation for the claim that causation is represented in visual-perceptual experience in Siegel, “Which Properties Are Represented in Perception?” and “The Phenomenology of Efficacy.”

28 Chisholm Roderick, “The Problem of the Speckled Hen,” Mind 51 (1942): 368–73.

29 For more on this theme, see Horgan Terry, “Agentive Phenomenology and the Limits of Introspection,” Psyche 13 (2007): 129.

30 Our broad characterization of moral phenomenology allows for experiences (or elements of them) that give rise to moral judgments to be included within the purview of moral phenomenology. For example, my experiencing a certain contemplated action as being (in relation to certain elements of my circumstances) unfitting may result in my morally coming down on the matter and judging that the action is all-in unfitting and ought not to be done. (For more on the distinction between experiences of prima facie and of all-in unfittingness and fittingness, see note 56 below.) And, of course, our characterization allows for experiences that include (perhaps exclusively) the having or making of a moral judgment. (This particular point about the breadth of moral phenomenology is prompted by some remarks by Philip Pettit in conversation.)

31 The following point bears emphasis. If indeed not all aspects of mentality that belong to the subject matter of phenomenology are introspectively accessible (say, because some aspects of phenomenal character are not thus accessible but are present in experience nonetheless), then the distinctive phenomenological method (namely, introspection) will not suffice by itself to answer all pertinent questions about the subject matter. Other methods will need to be brought to bear too, over and above introspection.

32 Note that what we are here calling “theoretical” semantic issues are meant to be distinct from issues concerning the introspectively accessible content of intentional mental states.

33 The case is pro tanto, rather than complete in itself, because one theoretical option is an error theory asserting both (1) that it is an introspectively accessible fact that direct moral experience carries ontological objective purport, and (2) that there are no in-the-world moral properties or facts—and, hence, (3) that direct moral experience is systematically nonveridical in its intentional content. Those who seek to defend moral realism by appeal to the argument from phenomenological introspection need to say something about the theoretical disadvantages of such an error theory, in comparison to moral realism.

34 Dreyfus Hubert L. and Dreyfus Stuart E., “What Is Morality? A Phenomenological Account of the Development of Ethical Expertise,” in Rasmussen David, ed., Universalism vs. Communitarianism: Contemporary Debates in Ethics (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 237–64.

35 This is not to deny that, in many cases, one's moral emotions “run ahead” of one's first-order moral judgments: in thinking about some past action of his, John begins to have feelings of guilt, and it is through his feelings of guilt that he comes to realize the wrongness of what he did. One way in which this might happen is described by Audi Robert in “The Axiology of Moral Experience,” The Journal of Ethics 2 (1998): 355–75.

36 Mandelbaum, The Phenomenology of Moral Experience, 127.

37 Haidt Jonathan, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment,” Psychological Review 108 (2001): 818.

38 Harman, The Nature of Morality, 4.

39 Cases involving intuitive moral judgments are to be contrasted with cases of “ethical comportment” of the sort that the Dreyfus brothers discuss in “What Is Morality?” in which one spontaneously responds as a matter of reflex. The latter are cases of experiences that do not seem to involve having or making a moral judgment, not even a spontaneous judgment that generates spontaneous, unhesitating behavior.

40 Strictly speaking, moral experiences might exhibit some common features that serve, in a weak sense, to unify them; however, it is possible that such common features do not serve to distinguish moral experiences from certain types of nonmoral normative experiences. For more on this, see Horgan and Timmons, “Moral Phenomenology and Moral Theory.” See also Sinnott-Armstrong Walter, “Is Moral Phenomenology Unified?Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 7 (2008).

41 “Levels” is our term, but it seems appropriate given Mandelbaum's talk of felt demand being “grounded in” one's apprehension of fittingness or unfittingness.

42 Mandelbaum, The Phenomenology of Moral Experience, 54.

43 Ibid., 55.

44 Ibid., 55–56.

45 Ibid., 55.

46 Ibid., 67–68.

47 For more on this point, see Horgan and Timmons, “Prolegomena to a Future Phenomenology of Morals.” Interestingly, Chisholm Roderick, “Practical Reason and the Logic of Requirement,” reprinted in Raz Joseph, ed., Practical Reason (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 118–27, distinguishes two senses of fittingness, a strong and a weak sense, both of which he defines in terms of requiredness. (Chisholm mentions Mandelbaum.)

48 See Horgan and Timmons, “Cognitivist Expressivism.” The view we describe does treat moral judgments as objective, in a specific sense to be described in Section X below. But the view is a form of expressivism, and thus it also treats moral judgments as being nondescriptive in their overall content. This precludes them from carrying ontological objective purport, because the latter is a species of descriptive content.

49 Here, again, we emphasize that our thesis concerns what is introspectively accessible in order to distinguish what we are calling the Neutrality thesis from a stronger neutrality thesis according to which moral phenomenology itself is neutral with respect to ontological objective purport.

50 According to an error theory, (1) affirmative moral judgments purport to represent objective moral facts, but (2) since there are no such facts, (3) affirmative moral judgments are erroneous (false).

51 Here we use the term “descriptive,” as applied to content talk, to include content that purports to attribute irreducibly normative properties to items of evaluation. On this usage, J. L. Mackie's claim that moral judgments purport to ascribe to actions the alleged normative property to-be-pursuedness counts as a construal according to which such judgments possess descriptive content.

52 Mackie J. L., Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), chap. 1.

53 On our view, the is in the case of is-belief is also in the attitude. The idea is that the descriptive content of a belief—of either an is-belief or an ought-belief—is most perspicuously expressed not by a declarative sentence but rather by a “that”-clause such as “that John takes out the trash” (or by a nominalized sentence such as “John's taking out the trash”). In English, an is-commitment is canonically expressed linguistically by asserting a complete sentence in the declarative mood—as in “John took out the trash.” An ought-commitment is canonically expressed by asserting a declarative-mood sentence whose predicative constituent comprises the modal auxiliary “ought” appended to an infinitival verb—as in “John ought to take out the trash.” On our account, however, the logical structure of is-beliefs and ought-beliefs is more perspicuously revealed via sentences employing a commitment-operator applied to a descriptive “that”-clause, thus: “It is the case that John takes out the trash”; “It ought to be the case that John takes out the trash.”

54 Horgan and Timmons, “Nondescriptivist Cognitivism”; Horgan Terry and Timmons Mark, “Expressivism, Yes! Relativism, No!” in Shafer-Landau Russ, ed., Oxford Studies in Metaethics, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Horgan Terry and Timmons Mark, “Cognitivist Expressivism,” in Horgan and Timmons , eds., Metaethics after Moore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

55 This cake example is from Beardsley Elizabeth L., “Moral Experience and Ethical Analysis,” The Philosophical Review 68 (1959), 519–30 (critical review of Mandelbaum's The Phenomenology of Moral Experience).

56 The moral experiences that we are here calling direct ought-judgment-involving moral experiences are all-in moral experiences of moral unfittingness. We also recognize moral experiences of unfittingness that are like all-in moral experiences except that one does not come to feel ought-committed; rather, one only experiences oneself as having a tendency to feel ought-committed. These are cases in which one would find oneself ought-committed if the relevant non-normative feature in question were the only feature one took to be a reason. In contrast to all-in experiences of unfittingness (or fittingness), such cases are those of prima facie unfittingness (or fittingness).

This distinction between two types of experiences of moral unfittingness bears on an example that Julia Driver described (in conversation) in which one comes across a pigeon lying on the ground (apparently hit by a car) that is in pain and obviously cannot be saved. One can walk away or crush its skull (thereby putting it out of its misery). One judges that it is morally best (and hence fitting) to crush the pigeon's skull, but in doing so one takes the act of crushing to be unfitting. In this case, putting the pigeon out of its misery is experienced as fitting, but the act of crushing is experienced as unfitting. Driver asked whether our model of moral experience, featuring as it does experiences of unfittingness and fittingness, can handle this case. Given what we have just said about the distinction between all-in experiences of moral unfittingness (and fittingness) and experiences of prima facie moral unfittingness, we can say of Driver's case that, on the one hand, given that the act in question is a crushing of a live animal's skull, one experiences the contemplated action as prima facie unfitting. On the other hand, given that the animal is suffering and cannot be saved, one experiences the act as prima facie fitting. On our picture, then, one has a tendency to feel ought-committed to crushing the skull, and an opposing tendency to feel ought-committed to refraining from crushing the skull. As in typical cases of conflicts of prima facie duties, one must determine which consideration is all-in or most fitting in the circumstances.

57 In the formal language featured in Horgan and Timmons, “Cognitivist Expressivism,” judgments of the form I ought to do A (now) are rendered as O[A], where “O” expresses ought-commitment and “A” expresses a descriptive way-the-world-might-be content (e.g., that I take out the trash now). Likewise, is-commitments are rendered as I[A]. Thus, “O[A]” is the canonical way of expressing linguistically one's state of being ought-committed to a descriptive content, which is how cognitivist expressivism understands direct moral ought-judgments. As we have said, the idea is that the “ought” is in the attitude of the psychological state, not in the content toward which the attitude is directed. The formal language also generates constructions corresponding to a whole hierarchy of logically complex commitment-states—e.g., commitment-states of the type {I[] or O[]}, where such a commitment-state obtains with respect to a pair of descriptive contents expressable by “that”-clauses that would be inserted into the respective bracketed slots. To capture unfittingness judgments in such a formal language, a natural idea would be to augment the range of logically complex formal-language constructions to incorporate an adverbial operator that expresses the “reasonish-because” manner of judging. Judgments of the form, It would be unfitting for me not to take out the trash now because I've promised to do so, or equivalently, My promising to take out the trash at this time is a reason for why I ought to take it out now, can be rendered: R(I[B]){O[A]}, which expresses a logically complex commitment-state of being ought-committed to a certain non-moral-descriptive content (namely, that I take out the trash now) in a for-the-reason-that I promised to take it out manner. (More precisely, the manner is a for-the-reason-that-it-is-the-case [that I promised to take out the trash] manner.) That is to say, this is a commitment-state of the logical type R(I[]){O[]}, with respect to the pair of descriptive contents that I promised to take out trash and that I take out the trash now. (We assume here that one takes the reason to be an all-in reason for the ought-judgment.) Of course, this for-the-reason-that-I[] manner of becoming ought-committed is also a non-self-privileging manner, and so to capture this in our syntax, one might render the ought-operator thus: Oi[A], for “ought-impartial.” Thus, the full formal rendering of such an impartial, reasonish-because manner of being ought-committed would be this: R(I[B]){Oi[A]}. Again, such a logically complex commitment-state is not an is-commitment with respect to a putative descriptive content (namely, my having promised to take out the trash being a reason for my taking out the trash now). On the contrary: according to cognitivist expressivism, there is no such descriptive content, and there is no such is-commitment to such a putative content.

58 This phrase is inspired by Putnam's phrase “realism with a small ‘r’.” See Putnam Hilary, The Many Faces of Realism (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1987), 17.

59 See Horgan and Timmons, “Cognitivist Expressivism.”

60 See note 54.

61 Questions about the theory-ladenness of moral experiences were raised in conversation by David Wong. Michael Gill, in his “Variability and Moral Phenomenology,” Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 7 (2008), pressed this same worry. We reply to Gill in our “Prolegomena to a Future Phenomenology of Morals.”

We wish to thank the other contributors to this volume, and its editors, for helpful comments. We are especially grateful for comments by Janice Dowell, Michael Huemer, Scott McDonald, Philip Pettit, David Shoemaker, and David Wong. We also benefited from comments from Robert Audi, Michael Gill, and Uriah Kriegel.

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