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Consider two questions of the same form but about different domains:
A standard answer to the second question, (2), is: they compute the syntactic attributes themselves. Of course, humans are all, or mostly, unaware of computing syntactic attributes. But they do in fact do this, probably thanks to a language module.
Mikhail (2014) offers some considerations which can be used to argue for a parallel view about moral attributes:
Humans track moral attributes by computing moral attributes.
This view would appear to imply that moral attributes are accessible.
In Moral Attributes Are Inaccessible we considered Sinnott-Armstrong, Young, & Cushman (2010, p. §2.1)’s argument that moral attributes are inaccessible.
I take that argument to depend on this premise:
If it is hard to articulate some rules or how they apply to a situation, then any attribute characterised by those rules must be inaccessible.
Against this we may object:
It is hard to articulate syntactic rules, and to articulate how they apply to a sentence. But such rules characterise syntactic attributes, and syntactic attributes are not inaccessible. (Or if they are inaccessible, at least they are not inaccessible in any way that would support the argument for the hypothesis that the Affect Heuristic explains why humans have certain moral intuitions.2)
This is not merely a hypothetical objection. For Mikhail (2007) argues that there is a relevant parallel between syntactic and ethical abilities.
‘adequately specifying the kinds of harm that humans intuitively grasp requires a technical legal vocabulary’ (Mikhail, 2007, p. 146)
The abilities underpinning unreflective ethical judgements must involve analysis in accordance with rules.
Humans do not know the rules.
The analysis is achieved by a modular process.
Mikhail’s argument for the first premise that ‘adequately specifying the kinds of harm that humans intuitively grasp requires a technical legal vocabulary’ (Mikhail, 2007, p. 146) depends on an analysis of pairs of dilemmas like the Trolley/Transplant pair presented in the recording. Many subjects make apparently inconsistent judgements when presented with such pairs of dilemmas; they appear to say that killing one to save five people is both permitted and impermissible. Mikhail argues that the inconsistency is merely apparent. For there is a morally significant difference between the dilemmas: one (Transplant) involves purposive battery while the other (Trolley) does not. This supports the idea that the pattern of judgements, far from being inconsistent, reflects the operation of principles and the identification of structure in the scenarios.3
Moral judgements are subject to order effects: which in a pair of dilemmas is presented first sometimes influences subjects’ responses to the dilemmas (Petrinovich & O’Neill, 1996, p. Study 2; Wiegmann, Okan, & Nagel, 2012). This is true even for professional philosophers (Schwitzgebel & Cushman, 2015). No such effect is predicted by Mikhail’s hypothesis that subjects’ moral intuitions are a consequence of their correctly identifying structure and applying principles consistently.
Mikhail’s hypothesis therefore at least requires qualification. This means his argument does not provide sufficient grounds to conclude that humans track moral attributes by computing moral attributes.
This is an obstacle to establishing the hypothesis that the Affect Heuristic explains moral intuitions. For, as we saw (in The Affect Heuristic and Risk: A Case Study) the best argument for that hypothesis depends on establishing that moral attributes are inaccessible.4
A different (but related) Affect Heurstic has also be postulated to explain how people make judgements about risky things are: The more dread you feel when imagining an event, the more risky you should judge it is (see Pachur, Hertwig, & Steinmann, 2012, which is discussed in The Affect Heuristic and Risk: A Case Study).
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.’
According to Sinnott-Armstrong et al. (2010, p. 256), moral intuitions are ‘strong, stable, immediate moral beliefs.’
Tracking an attribute is contrasted with computing it. Unlike tracking, computing typically requires that the attribute be represented. (The distinction between tracking and computing is a topic of Two Questions about Moral Intuitions.)
As an example of a syntactic attribute, consider being a (grammatical) sentence. For example, the sequence of words ‘He is a waffling fatberg of lies’ is a sentence whereas the sequence of words ‘A waffling fatberg lies of he is’ is not a sentence. These are syntactic attributes of the two sequences of words. ↩
In Fodor (1983)’s characterisation of modularity, limited accessibility is one of the characteristics of modules. But note that limited accessibility is characteristic of the inner workings of a module, not of the judgements which modular processes influence. ↩