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Ethics and psychology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L143-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved January 20, 2018, from

Article Summary

Psychological research promises substantive contributions to philosophical ethics. Arguments purporting to show that empirical considerations are of sharply limited relevance to ethical reflection, such as those commonly associated with Hume and Moore (although in the former case strangely, since this can hardly be thought to have been Hume’s view), have proved indecisive. Arguments in philosophical ethics very often presuppose empirical claims that are appropriately evaluated by reference to the behavioural and social sciences. Four points of contact between philosophical and psychological research substantiate this contention and suggest a general methodological standard: philosophical ethics can, and indeed must, interface with the human sciences.

Contemporary virtue ethics typically understands character traits as involving reliable tendencies to trait-appropriate behaviour. However, much research in psychology indicates that this conception of character traits is inadequate; behaviour varies enormously with the situation, and people very often do not consistently behave in ways that accord with a given trait. To address this difficulty, virtue ethics must either be recast in a way that does not involve commitments in empirical psychology, or take better account of the empirical evidence than existing articulations of the position have done.

In philosophical ethics, motivational internalism is the view that a rational agent will be reliably moved to act in ways that comport with their moral judgments. Recent clinical studies of psychopaths, individuals who suffer no generalized cognitive deficiencies but seem to be quite unmoved by their moral judgments, appear to undermine internalism. To address this argument, the motivational internalist must engage with the clinical literature

It is often argued that the existence of widespread and persistent moral disagreement makes claims for the ‘objectivity of morality’ problematic: If there were really a ‘fact of the matter’ for moral issues, we would expect more convergence on answers in moral debate than we in fact observe. In response, those defending the objectivity of morality argue that convergence can be expected to obtain only in ideal circumstances, when participants in moral discussion are impartial, rational, aware of the non-moral facts, and so on. A preliminary assessment of the record in anthropology and cultural psychology does not justify confidence in this conjecture. If such confidence is to be vindicated, it must be based on a serious investigation of the empirical literature.

A standard method in philosophical writing is to present readers with a hypothetical example designed to tap some intuition. The resulting intuitions are often treated as ‘data’ for ethical theory; competing theories, it is widely believed, must account for people’s responses to cases. For this method to be credible, what people’s responses actually are, and what factors influence these responses, must be subject to systematic empirical investigation.

Citing this article:
Doris, John M. and Stephen P. Stich. Ethics and psychology, 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L143-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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