Philosophy Faculty Publications

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Book Chapter

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Mind and Morals: Essays on Ethics and Cognitive Science


Moral philosophers often assume that there are clear and unambiguous single descriptions of particular moral situations, and thus they view their primary task as that of determining the most moral action to take when in these situations. But surely there is less chance of there being a single and final way to describe a given moral situation than there is of there being a single and final way to organize and describe a visual display. Although we perceive many of our day-to-day moral experiences in an unreflective and even reflexive manner, it is also possible for us to (and we often do) "reperceive" moral situations. On one end of the spectrum, we can slightly adjust our original perceptions by attending to details of moral significance that were at first unnoticed. Or on the other end of the spectrum, we can dramatically shift from our original perceptions to very different moral perspectives or frameworks.

I argue in this chapter that gestalt shifts play a significant role in the mental processes used to determine the moral saliencies of particular situations. I build on the recent debate between Carol Gilligan and Owen Flanagan over the relevance of the gestalt-shift metaphor to the organization and reorganization of our moral perceptions (Gilligan 1987; Flanagan and Jackson 1990; Gilligan and Attanucci 1988; and Flanagan 1991). Throughout the course of this debate, neither of them directly referred to important related issues found in philosophical and psychological discussions of perception. I propose to place this debate within that broader context and argue that a discussion of gestalt shifts in moral perception is directly linked to the more general consideration of how it is that we abstract from and draw meaning out of situations. Connectionist models of cognition, along with research on the role of tasks, metaphors, and analogies in perceptual mental processes, help answer the question, To what degree and under what conditions do we experience gestalt shifts in the organization of our moral perceptions?

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To read the entire book, visit the publisher's website or an academic library.

Book citation information: Larry May, Marilyn Friedman, and Andy Clark (eds.), Mind and Morals: Essays on Ethics and Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.


MIT Press

Place of Publication

Cambridge, MA

Peer Reviewed