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Why Is Moral Dumbfounding Significant?

I introduce and refute Dwyer (2009)’s argument that moral dumbfounding provides evidence for what she calls ‘The Linguistic Analogy’.

In its place, I defend a different view. The existence of moral dumbfounding shows that some moral intuitions are not consequences of reasoning from known principles.

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What Does Moral Dumbfounding Show? A Misconstrual

Dwyer (2009, p. 294) takes the evidence for moral dumbfounding to show that

moral ‘judgments are [not] the conclusions of explicitly represented syllogisms, one or more premises of which are moral principles, that ordinary folk can articulate.’

This is a mistake. The abstract for Haidt, Bjorklund, & Murphy (2000) states:

‘It was hypothesized that participants’ judgments would be highly consistent with their reasoning on the moral reasoning dilemma’ [ie. reasoning concerning the morally provocative and harmfull events].

And this is what those researchers found.

What Does Moral Dumbfounding Truly Show?

The existence of moral dumbfounding shows that some moral intuitions are not consequences of reasoning from known principles.

It also appears to support the view that, in some cases of moral intution, the moral attributes being tracked are inaccessible. Which is significant because we had difficultly finding evidence for this earlier (in Moral Attributes Are Inaccessible).

It does not show that no ethical judgements are consequences of reasoning from known principles. Indeed, reflection on moral disengagement suggests that this is false.


inaccessible : An attribute is inaccessible in a context just if it is difficult or impossible, in that context, to discern substantive truths about that attribute. For example, in ordinary life and for most people the attribute being further from Kilmery (in Wales) than Steve’s brother Matt is would be inaccessible.
See Kahneman & Frederick (2005, p. 271): ‘We adopt the term accessibility to refer to the ease (or effort) with which particular mental contents come to mind.’
moral disengagement : Moral disengagement occurs when self-sanctions are disengaged from inhumane conduct. Bandura (2002, p. 103) identifies several mechanisms of moral disengagement: ‘The disengagement may centre on redefining harmful conduct as honourable by moral justification, exonerating social comparison and sanitising language. It may focus on agency of action so that perpetrators can minimise their role in causing harm by diffusion and displacement of responsibility. It may involve minimising or distorting the harm that follows from detrimental actions; and the disengagement may include dehumanising and blaming the victims of the maltreatment.’
moral dumbfounding : ‘the stubborn and puzzled maintenance of an [ethical] judgment without supporting reasons’ (Haidt et al., 2000, p. 1).
moral intuition : According to this lecturer, moral intuitions are unreflective ethical judgements.
According to Sinnott-Armstrong, Young, & Cushman (2010, p. 256), moral intuitions are ‘strong, stable, immediate moral beliefs.’


Bandura, A. (2002). Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency. Journal of Moral Education, 31(2), 101–119.
Dwyer, S. (2009). Moral Dumbfounding and the Linguistic Analogy: Methodological Implications for the Study of Moral Judgment. Mind & Language, 24(3), 274–296.
Haidt, J., Bjorklund, F., & Murphy, S. (2000). Moral dumbfounding: When intuition finds no reason. Unpublished manuscript, University of Virginia.
Kahneman, D., & Frederick, S. (2005). A model of heuristic judgment. In K. J. Holyoak & R. G. Morrison (Eds.), The cambridge handbook of thinking and reasoning (pp. 267–293). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sinnott-Armstrong, W., Young, L., & Cushman, F. (2010). Moral intuitions. In J. M. Doris, M. P. R. Group, & others (Eds.), The moral psychology handbook (pp. 246–272). Oxford: OUP.