Review of “Our Inconsistent Ethical Instincts” by Mathew Hutson

Posted on Posted in Consequentialism, Ethics, Kantian Ethics

Here’s the link to the original article.

Thanks Nam for the heads up on this article. As one my professors used to say “Philosophers are put on this earth to complain”, so here are my complaints:

1) At the end of the article the author says “Objective moral truth doesn’t exist, and these studies show that even if it did, our grasp of it would be tenuous.” Nothing in the article is anything close to an argument for the claim that “Objective moral truth doesn’t exist.” However the more troubling part of the article is that although the author never directly claims that the information on moral psychology he presents bolster the claim that there are no moral truths, he nevertheless seems to imply or presume this to be the case. The question regarding the presence or absence of moral facts in the universe has nothing to do with whether humans are able to know these facts or act on them consistently. Said another way it might be true that humans can never know what the moral facts are  or that they can never act consistently based on moral principles but that doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on the existence of moral facts. Imagine humans were really bad at math and could never successful add two numbers, or that they only very rarely could add them correctly as their judgement was generally distorted by various factors. This fact about humans wouldn’t determine the existence or non-existence of mathematical facts.

2) It is true, as the author suggests, there is a tension in our ethical thinking between consequentialist type reasoning and deontological type reasoning. This tension has played out in philosophy over the past few hundred years or so of moral philosophy. This tension is still not satisfactorily resolved. However, again, that does not necessarily prove that there are no moral facts. That “Consequentialism is obviously false!” is pretty clear example of a moral fact. 🙂

So, I find the piece at best bad philosophy and at worst a little disingenuous. Again, the author points to a theoretical disagreement in ethics and shows people are inconsistent in applying ethical principles, and then asserts that there are no moral facts. It is a total non-sequitor.

As a side note it may not be that people are as inconsistent in their ethical reasoning as the author presumes, or at least it may be true that sometimes reasoning consequentially and sometimes reasoning deontologically does not necessary show an inconsistency in ethical reasoning. Allen Wood discusses this point in his book Kantian Ethics. An ethical theory’s fundamental value doesn’t necessarily determine method of ethical reasoning one uses. Consequentialist could reasoning deontologically (think rule utilitarian) and a Kantian could reason consequentially (think Kant’s claim that we have a duty to charity). The above is a little philosophically dense, there is not much I can do about that other than devote a future post to it.

All that being said, there is obviously some legitimate work that needs to be done to reconcile the two modes of ethical reasoning. This last issue is a very big topic.

Moral psychology is really interesting but moral psychology is descriptive rather than normative, and to draw any sort of normative conclusion from any fact of moral psychology is usually going to be a philosophical blunder.


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