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What is the two systems theory of ethical cognition significant? Because it conflicts with the widespread (in philosophy) use of not-justified-inferentially premises in arguments intended to provide knowledge of the truth of their conclusions.
Faster processes are unreliable in unfamiliar situations.
Therefore, we should not rely on faster process in unfamiliar situations [from 2].
When philosophers rely on not-justified-inferentially premises, they are relying on faster processes.
We have reason to suspect that the moral scenarios and principles philosophers consider involve unfamiliar situations.
Therefore, not-justified-inferentially premises about particular moral scenarios, and debatable principles, cannot be used in ethical arguments where the aim is to establish knowledge of their conclusions [from 3, 4 and 5].
To see why the conclusion of the argument above is significant, we need to see how many philosophers approach ethics.
Consider Thomson (1976) on what she calls ‘the trolley problem’:
‘why is it that Edward may turn that trolley to save his five, but David may not cut up his healthy specimen to save his five? I like to call this the trolley problem, in honor of Mrs. Foot’s example’ (Thomson, 1976, p. 206).
Foot (1967) had earlier suggested that it is at least in part because duties not to harm rank above duties to help. To counter this suggestion, Thomson adds a further trolley case:
‘Frank is a passenger on a trolley whose driver has just shouted that the trolley’s brakes have failed, and who then died of the shock. On the track ahead are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. The track has a spur leading off to the right, and Frank can turn the trolley onto it. Unfortunately there is one person on the right-hand track. Frank can turn the trolley, killing the one; or he can refrain from turning the trolley, letting the five die’ (Thomson, 1976, p. 207).
Frank’s case is constructed in such a way that (according to Thomson1) if he does nothing, he fails to help; whereas if turns the trolley, he harms one person in order to help five. His choice is between harming one or helping five. Thomson infers:
Thomson responds by relying on what appears to be an empirical claim:
It is possible to interpret Thomson as offering this as a normative claim (anyone must take it to be so). Alternatively, she might consider her position as one that is relevant only to those who agree with her on this. So there is no obvious commitment to an empirical claim here.
‘what matters in these cases in which a threat is to be distributed is whether the agent distributes it by doing something to it, or whether he distributes it by doing something to a person’ (Thomson, 1976, p. 216).
If the above loose reconstruction of Greene’s argument is correct, Thomson’s method of trolley cases is misguided because it relies on not-justified-inferentially premises about particular moral scenarios.
The loose reconstruction of Greene’s argument, if successful, also implies the falsity of Audi’s view about ethics:
‘Episodic intuitions […] can serve as data […] … beliefs that derive from them receive prima facie justification’ (Audi, 2015, p. 65).
The above argument does not favour one type (e.g. deontological vs consequentialist) of ethical theory, nor one approach to doing ethics (e.g. case-based vs systematic).4 (We will eventually consider whether further arguments succeed in establishing either such favouritism.)
The above argument does not imply that philosophers should give up on arguments involving not-justified-inferentially premises about particular moral scenarios. Aristotelian theories of the physical, although much less useful than the successors which arose when scientists moved away from reliance on not-justified-inferentially premises, remain useful in some situations. And in the cases of ethics, there may be no better alternative approach.
The above argument implies that when using arguments involving not-justified-inferentially premises about particular moral scenarios, the aim should not be to establish knowledge of their conclusions. Instead it might be to characterise aspects of moral cognition (as Kozhevnikov & Hegarty (2001) use an Aristotelian theory of the physical to characterise physical cognition). Or the aim might be to understand what consistency with certain judgements would require.
Can the loose reconstruction of Greene’s argument concerning ethics be generalised to other domains? On the face of it, none of the arguments for the premises rely on features are specific to ethics.
Kumar & Campbell (2012) provide an alternative reconstruction of Green’s argument (which, helpfully, is a refinement on a critique of Berker (2009)’s earlier reconstruction: Kumar and Campbell are probably easier to understand). They analyse Greene’s argument as a debunking argument. This means that (a) it depends on premises about which factors are morally relevant; and (b) is is open to the response that facts about which factors explain judgements are ethically irrelevant (see Rini, 2017, p. 14435).
Why bother with my loose reconstruction when we could just borrow Kumar & Campbell (2012)’s? While their reconstruction may be more faithful to the original (Greene, 2014), my loose reconstruction does not depend on premises about which factors are morally relevant nor does it require the premises that facts about which factors explain why certain judgements are made are ethically relevant. This enables the loose reconstruction to avoid some objections.
Since automaticity and cognitive efficiency are matters of degree, it is only strictly correct to identify some processes as faster than others.
The fast-slow distinction has been variously characterised in ways that do not entirely overlap (even individual author have offered differing characterisations at different times; e.g. Kahneman, 2013; Morewedge & Kahneman, 2010; Kahneman & Klein, 2009; Kahneman, 2002): as its advocates stress, it is a rough-and-ready tool rather than an element in a rigorous theory.
Claims made on the basis of perception (_That jumper is red_, say) are typically not-justified-inferentially.
Why not just say ‘noninferentially justified’? Because that can be read as implying that the claim is justified, noninferentially. Whereas ‘not-justified-inferentially’ does not imply this. Any claim which is not justified at all is thereby not-justified-inferentially.
This qualification is necessary because there is a tricky issue about which, if any, omissions are actions. If Frank’s refraining from turning the trolley is an action which harms the five, then Frank’s choice is between harming one and harming five and so his case does not work against Foot in the way Thomson intends. ↩
Here Thomson appears to misrepresent Foot’s position. Foot (1967, p. 17) stresses, ‘I have not, of course, argued that there are no other principles.‘ But the key issue is not whether Foot is right but whether the principle that duties not to harm rank above duties to help can justify the pattern of judgements. ↩
Note that Thomson is rejecting only Foot’s answer to the trolley problem. Thomson (1976, p. 217) concedes, ‘Mrs. Foot and others may be right to say that negative duties are more stringent than positive duties.’ ↩
The loose reconstruction may appear to favour systematic over case-based approaches to ethics because its conclusion concerns judgements about particular moral scenarios. This appearance is misleading. The conclusion is framed in this way for simplicity. The argument can be straightforwardly generalised to cover not-justified-inferentially premises about moral principles too. ↩
In this passage, Rini cites Nagel (1997, p. 105) in support of the view that discoveries about moral psychology cannot ‘change our moral beliefs’. Note that the paragraph she cites from ends with a much weaker claim opposing ‘any blanket attempt to displace, defuse, or subjectivize‘ moral concerns. Further, Nagel’s essay starts with the observation that moral reasoning ‘is easily subject to distortion by morally irrelevant factors … as well as outright error’ (Nagel, 1997, p. 101). So while one of Nagel’s assertions supports Rini’s interpretation, it is unclear to me that Rini is right about Nagel’s considered position. But I could easily be wrong. ↩