We have seen that manipulating emotion (in particular, disgust) can influence how people respond when asked to make moral judgement. According to Huebner, Dwyer, & Hauser (2009), we should not conclude from this that emotion can influence moral judgement. They suggest that emotion may instead influence how scenarios are interpreted, how questions are understood; or it may ‘act as a gain on what has already been conceived as a moral infraction (thereby, increasing the severity of the perceived wrong)’ Are they right?
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This question, which is a mini-essay task, is posed by Huebner et al. (2009). We saw (in Moral Intuitions and Emotions: Evaluating the Evidence) that manipulating emotion (in particular, disgust) can influence how people respond when asked to make moral judgement.
This leads to a puzzle for advocates of views on which feelings play no role in moral intuitions (like that of Mikhail (2007); see Moral Attributes Are Accessible). The puzzle is to explain why feelings of disgust (and perhaps other emotions) influence moral intuitions, and why we feel disgust in response to moral transgressions.
‘fail to isolate the precise point at which emotion has a role in our moral psychology. … emotional stimuli … presented before the scenario is read could … influence the interpretation of the scenario or the question. Or, emotion could act as a gain on what has already been conceived as a moral infraction (thereby, increasing the severity of the perceived wrong)’ (Huebner et al., 2009, pp. 2–3).
Is this correct? If so, does it eliminate the need to respond to the puzzle about emotion?
More careful evaluations of the evidence are provided in reviews by Chapman & Anderson (2013) and Piazza, Landy, Chakroff, Young, & Wasserman (2018), and a meta-analysis by Landy & Goodwin (2015).1 Interestingly, these reach quite different conclusions.
Anya challenged me to better explain why I conclude Huebner et al. (2009) fails to present a good challenge (thank you Anya!).
Suppose some researchers formulate a hypothesis H, generate some predictions and test them, and their predictions are all confirmed. No matter how often they do this, it will always be possible for a philosopher to identify an alternative hypothesis, H’, which is consistent with all the observations made when testing the predictions. So we should not take the bare existence of an alternative hypothesis that is consistent with some observations to undermine the status of those observations as evidence for H.
This should be uncontroversial: it’s barely saying more than that scientific arguments are not deductively valid.
My challenge to anyone who wants to use Huebner et al. (2009) is: Explain why your argument does more than establish that your opponents’ observations are consistent with an alternative hypothesis, H’, which is incompatible with your opponents’ hypothesis.
Minimally, meeting this challenge requires showing that H and H’ can be distinguished through readily testable predictions. If there’s no prospect of us getting evidence to distinguish your opponents’ hypothesis from your hypothesis, the distinction is unlikely to matter to us.
Ideally, meeting the challenge requires showing that your alternative hypothesis is theoretically coherent and empirically motivated.
To illustrate, Piazza et al. (2018) oppose the hypothesis that feelings of disgust influence moral judgements with the hypothesis that facts about what is disgusting play a conceptual role in categorising actions as good or bad.2 But they do not offer this as a bare logical possibility. Instead they support their hypothesis with a mixture of argument and evidence. Their challenge should undermine our confidence in the hypothesis that feelings of disgust influence moral judgements to the extent that their alternative hypothesis is well supported.
According to Sinnott-Armstrong, Young, & Cushman (2010, p. 256), moral intuitions are ‘strong, stable, immediate moral beliefs.’
As they put it,
‘the mind may use disgustingness to meaningfully separate and classify moral violations, and this organizing principle appears to operate separately from judgments of the acts’ level of wrongdoing’ (Piazza et al., 2018).
They distinguish this from a view on which it is feelings of disgust that influences judgement (‘one may understand that an act is generally considered gross, and use that information to judge and act, regardless of whether one personally feels grossed out’). ↩