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Greene contra Ethics (Railgun Remix)

Do discoveries in moral psychology reveal that not-justified-inferentially premises about particular moral scenarios cannot be used in ethical arguments? This section outlines a loose reconstruction of one strand of Greene (2014)’s argument which, if successful, shows that the answer is yes.

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Greene (2014)’s argument has been interpreted in a variety of ways, and has ambitious aims (including establishing that a broadly consequentialist theory is preferable to any deontological theory). Since Greene’s argument has been the target of several objections, our strategy will be first to consider whether we can craft a loose reconstruction of one strand of the argument which aims to establish a conclusion more modest than Greene’s own (although one with interesting implications). If that succeeds, we may then consider whether further arguments for Greene’s more ambitious conclusions succeed.

Argument Outline

  1. Ethical judgements are explained by a dual-process theory, which distinguishes faster from slower processes (see A Dual Process Theory of Ethical Judgement).

  2. Faster processes are unreliable in unfamiliar situations (see Cognitive Miracles: When Are Fast Processes Unreliable?).

  3. Therefore, we should not rely on faster process in unfamiliar situations [from 2].

  4. When philosophers rely on not-justified-inferentially premises, they are relying on faster processes (see What Is the Role of Fast Processes In Not-Justified-Inferentially Judgements?).

  5. We have reason to suspect that the moral scenarios philosophers consider are unfamiliar situations (see Which Moral Scenarios Are Unfamiliar?).

  6. Therefore, not-justified-inferentially premises about particular moral scenarios cannot be used in ethical arguments where the aim is to establish knowledge of their conclusions [from 3, 4 and 5].


The above argument implies that Thomson’s method of trolley cases is misguided (see Thomson’s Other Method of Trolley Cases), along with many other philosophical arguments in ethics.

The above argument, if successful, also implies the falsity of Audi’s view about ethics:

‘Episodic intuitions […] can serve as data […] … beliefs that derive from them receive prima facie justification’ (Audi, 2015, p. 65).

The above argument does not favour one type (e.g. deontological vs consequentialist) of ethical theory, nor one approach to doing ethics (e.g. case-based vs systematic).1 (We will eventually consider whether further arguments succeed in establishing either such favouritism.)

The above argument does not imply that philosophers should give up on arguments involving not-justified-inferentially premises about particular moral scenarios. Aristotelian theories of the physical, although much less useful than the successors which arose when scientists moved away from reliance on not-justified-inferentially premises, remain useful in some situations. And in the cases of ethics, there may be no better alternative approach.

The above argument implies that when using arguments involving not-justified-inferentially premises about particular moral scenarios (as in Thomson’s Other Method of Trolley Cases, for example), the aim should not be to establish knowledge of their conclusions. Instead it might be to characterise aspects of moral cognition (as Kozhevnikov & Hegarty (2001) use an Aristotelian theory of the physical to characterise physical cognition). Or the aim might be to understand what consistency with certain judgements would require.

Alternative Reconstructions

Kumar & Campbell (2012) provide an alternative reconstruction of Green’s argument (which, helpfully, is a refinement on a critique of Berker (2009)’s earlier reconstruction: Kumar and Campbell are probably easier to understand). They analyse Greene’s argument as a debunking argument. This means that (a) it depends on premises about which factors are morally relevant; and (b) is is open to the response that facts about which factors explain judgements are ethically irrelevant (see Rini, 2017, p. 14432).

Why bother with my loose reconstruction when I could just borrow Kumar & Campbell (2012)’s? While their reconstruction may be more faithful to the original (Greene, 2014), my loose reconstruction does not depend on premises about which factors are morally relevant nor does it require the premises that facts about which factors explain why certain judgements are made are ethically relevant. This enables the loose reconstruction to avoid some objections (see Quick Objections to Greene’s Argument).


automatic : On this course, a process is _automatic_ just if whether or not it occurs is to a significant extent independent of your current task, motivations and intentions. To say that _mindreading is automatic_ is to say that it involves only automatic processes. The term `automatic' has been used in a variety of ways by other authors: see Moors (2014, p. 22) for a one-page overview, Moors & De Houwer (2006) for a detailed theoretical review, or Bargh (1992) for a classic and very readable introduction
cognitively efficient : A process is cognitively efficient to the degree that it does not consume working memory and other scarce cognitive resources.
debunking argument : A debunking argument aims to use facts about why people make a certain judgement together with facts about which factors are morally relevant in order to undermine the case for accepting it. Königs (2020, p. 2607) provides a useful outline of the logic of these arguments (which he calls ‘arguments from moral irrelevance’): ‘when we have different intuitions about similar moral cases, we take this to indicate that there is a moral difference between these cases. This is because we take our intuitions to have responded to a morally relevant difference. But if it turns out that our case-specific intuitions are responding to a factor that lacks moral significance, we no longer have reason to trust our case-specific intuitions suggesting that there really is a moral difference. This is the basic logic behind arguments from moral irrelevance’ (Königs, 2020, p. 2607).
fast : A fast process is one that is to some interesting degree automatic and to some interesting degree cognitively efficient. These processes are also sometimes characterised as able to yield rapid responses.
Since automaticity and cognitive efficiency are matters of degree, it is only strictly correct to identify some processes as faster than others.
The fast-slow distinction has been variously characterised in ways that do not entirely overlap (even individual author have offered differing characterisations at different times; e.g. Kahneman, 2013; Morewedge & Kahneman, 2010; Kahneman & Klein, 2009; Kahneman, 2002): as its advocates stress, it is a rough-and-ready tool, not the basis for a rigorous theory.
loose reconstruction : (of an argument). A reconstruction which prioritises finding a correct argument for a significant conclusion over faithfully representing the argument being reconstructed.
not-justified-inferentially : A claim (or premise, or principle) is not-justified-inferentially if it is not justified in virtue of being inferred from some other claim (or premise, or principle).
Claims made on the basis of perception (_That jumper is red_, say) are typically not-justified-inferentially.
Why not just say ‘noninferentially justified’? Because that can be read as implying that the claim is justified, noninferentially. Whereas ‘not-justified-inferentially’ does not imply this. Any claim which is not justified at all is thereby not-justified-inferentially.
slow : converse of fast.
unfamiliar problem : An unfamiliar problem (or situation) is one ’with which we have inadequate evolutionary, cultural, or personal experience’ (Greene, 2014, p. 714).


Audi, R. (2015). Intuition and Its Place in Ethics. Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 1(1), 57–77.
Bargh, J. A. (1992). The Ecology of Automaticity: Toward Establishing the Conditions Needed to Produce Automatic Processing Effects. The American Journal of Psychology, 105(2), 181–199.
Berker, S. (2009). The Normative Insignificance of Neuroscience. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 37(4), 293–329.
Greene, J. D. (2014). Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality: Why Cognitive (Neuro)Science Matters for Ethics. Ethics, 124(4), 695–726.
Kahneman, D. (2002). Maps of bounded rationality: A perspective on intuitive judgment and choice. In T. Frangsmyr (Ed.), Le prix nobel, ed. T. Frangsmyr, 416–499. (Vol. 8, pp. 351–401). Stockholm, Sweden: Nobel Foundation.
Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking, fast and slow.
Kahneman, D., & Klein, G. (2009). Conditions for intuitive expertise: A failure to disagree. American Psychologist, 64(6), 515–526.
Königs, P. (2020). Experimental ethics, intuitions, and morally irrelevant factors. Philosophical Studies, forthcoming, 1–19.
Kozhevnikov, M., & Hegarty, M. (2001). Impetus beliefs as default heuristics: Dissociation between explicit and implicit knowledge about motion. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 8(3), 439–453.
Kumar, V., & Campbell, R. (2012). On the normative significance of experimental moral psychology. Philosophical Psychology, 25(3), 311–330.
Moors, A. (2014). Examining the mapping problem in dual process models. In Dual process theories of the social mind (pp. 20–34). Guilford.
Moors, A., & De Houwer, J. (2006). Automaticity: A Theoretical and Conceptual Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(2), 297–326.
Morewedge, C. K., & Kahneman, D. (2010). Associative processes in intuitive judgment. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 14(10), 435–440.
Nagel, T. (1997). The last word. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Rini, R. A. (2017). Why moral psychology is disturbing. Philosophical Studies, 174(6), 1439–1458.
  1. The loose reconstruction may appear to favour systematic over case-based approaches to ethics because its conclusion concerns judgements about particular moral scenarios. This appearance is misleading. The conclusion is framed in this way for simplicity. The argument can be straightforwardly generalised to cover not-justified-inferentially premises about moral principles too. 

  2. In this passage, Rini cites Nagel (1997, p. 105) in support of the view that discoveries about moral psychology cannot ‘change our moral beliefs’. Note that the paragraph she cites from ends with a much weaker claim opposing ‘any blanket attempt to displace, defuse, or subjectivize‘ moral concerns. Further, Nagel’s essay starts with the observation that moral reasoning ‘is easily subject to distortion by morally irrelevant factors … as well as outright error’ (Nagel, 1997, p. 101). So while one of Nagel’s assertions supports Rini’s interpretation, it is unclear to me that Rini is right about Nagel’s considered position. But I could easily be wrong.