How Neuroscience Can Vindicate Moral Intuition

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 18 (5):1011-1025 (2015)


Imagine that an anthropologist returns from her study of a group of people and reports the following:They refuse to kill one person even to avert the death of all involved—including that one person;They won’t directly push someone to his death to save the lives of five others, but they will push a lever to kill him to save five others;They punish transgressors because it feels right, even when they expect the punishment to cause far more harm than good—and even when the harm done by the punishment exceeds the harm done by the transgression being punished.The anthropologist’s report might lead us to conclude that these people are at least confused, and perhaps even dangerous.Here’s some bad news. Those people are us. Or so suggests recent research in experimental psychology and the neurosciences. This research indicates that our moral intuitions have a vaguely deontological character and they prompt us to make any number of judgments that appear arbitrary or otherwise unjustified, such ... I contend that Greene partly misunderstands the practical implications of his own principles. If our ordinary moral judgments are to do the strategic work Greene wants them to do, he needs to endorse fullfledged Sidgwickian self-effacement for at least some areas of micro-level decision making. By the lights of some of Greene’s own arguments, people must accept the correctness—and not simply the usefulness—of the relevant intuitions in their personal conduct to satisfy utilitarian standards. I argue that removing utilitarian reasoning from micro-level decision making is consistent with Greene’s preferred strategy of using utilitarianism as a Bcommon currency^ for resolving moral conflict at the institutional level. To clarify upfront: the aim of this paper is to offer an internal criticism rather than to defend (e.g.,) the relevant empirical research, utilitarianism, self-effacement, and so on. I’m making an argument about where Greene’s own psychological and philosophical commitments should take him.

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Christopher Freiman
College of William and Mary

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