Philosophy Faculty Publications


Moral Perception and Responsiveness

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Journal of Social Philosophy


A good moral theory should provide useful norms for our day-to-day moral perceptions, deliberations, choices, and practices. It should accommodate human cognitive constraints and respond to the complexities of actual experienced lives. In other words, our moral theories should be psychologically and socially realistic.

A number of contemporary moral philosophers agree. They have taken an empirical turn by drawing on research from cognitive science, neuroscience, and the social sciences and by conducting their own experiments. We now have edited volumes with such titles as The Neuroscience of Morality (Sinnott-Armstrong 2008b), The Cognitive Science of Morality (Sinnott-Armstrong 2008a), and Experimental Philosophy (Knobe and Nichols 2008). Much of this work centers on folk intuitions about moral dilemmas and the brain processes underlying the making of moral judgments.

In order to control these neurological and psychological experiments, subjects are usually presented with a paragraph of text and then asked to reason about and make judgments on the situation described in the text. Rather than have subjects read and respond to paragraphs of text, social scientists such as Lee Ross and John Nisbett (1991) have placed subjects in actual, real-life situations. Their research has shown how much our social situations can influence our perceptions and behaviors. Moral philosopher John Doris (2002) has used Nisbett’s and similar social science research to argue that supposed moral character traits are not so trait-like after all.

So far, however, moral philosophers have had little to say about how an agent should (1) decide that a situation is one of ethical import to begin with, (2) determine what is relevant to the moral reasoning process, and (3) compensate for implicit biases. It is impossible for an agent to be morally responsive if she fails to identify the morally salient aspects of her experience. A handful of moral philosophers have noticed this oversight, but they fail to engage with recent work in cognitive science.

Barbara Herman (1993), for example, who describes her project as a “normative reconstruction of Kant,” argues that the Kantian account of moral judgment can and should be supplemented with an account of moral perception. She provides such an account but concedes that Kant himself did not (73–93).

In what follows I first describe a morally responsive agent and the role that moral perception plays in moral responsiveness. I then discuss problems tied to rule-based norms for moral perception. Next, I examine in more detail the thought processes that comprise moral perception and the built-in constraints on these processes by drawing on recent advances in cognitive science. I focus primarily on the implications for moral perception of what I term “the framing problem.” More specifically, I argue that the framing problem cannot be solved by an appeal to explicit pre-articulated rules of salience. I further maintain that the day-to-day mental processes used in the framing of moral situations are constrained by (1) the fact that human mental processes take place in real time, and (2) the fact that the content of our perceptions cannot always be consciously directed and controlled. Finally, I provide a rough sketch of how to better align our moral perceptual cognitive processes with our consciously held moral commitments.

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John Wiley & Sons





Peer Reviewed