Research

My main research interests are in
moral psychology and empirically informed metaethics.

 

 


 

Here are links to some of my papers:

 

Can’t We All Disagree More Constructively?
Moral Foundations, Moral Reasoning, and Political Disagreement

2014

Can’t we all disagree more constructively? Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in political partisanship: the 2013 shutdown of the US government as well as an ever more divided political landscape in Europe illustrate that citizens and representatives of developed nations fundamentally disagree over virtually every significant issue of public policy, from immigration to health care, from the regulation of financial markets to climate change, from drug policies to medical procedures. The emerging field of political psychology brings the tools of moral psychology to bear on this issue. It suggests that the main conflict shaping politics today can be explained in terms of people’s moral foundations: progressive liberals, it is argued, view society as consisting of separate individuals with differing values and life plans, whereas conservatives rely on a thicker notion of political morality that includes traditions, communities, and values of purity . In this paper, I explore the normative implications of this theory. In particular, I will argue that its proponents take it to support an asymmetry of understanding: if deep political disagreements reflect differences in people’s moral foundations, and these disagreements cannot be rationally resolved, then overcoming them makes it necessary to acknowledge the moral foundations of the other side’s political outlook. But conservatives, the theory suggests, already do acknowledge all of the liberal moral foundations, and not vice versa. To overcome partisanship and the resulting political deadlock, then, it seems to be up to liberals to move closer towards the conservative side, and not vice versa. I wish to analyze what the argument for this asymmetry is and whether it holds up. In the end, I shall argue that the available evidence does support an asymmetry, but that it is the opposite of what Moral Foundations theorists think it is. There is such an asymmetry – but its burden falls on the conservative side.

 


It’s the Knobe Effect, Stupid!
How (And How Not) to Explain the Side-Effect Effect

2014

People asymmetrically attribute various agential features such as intentionality, knowledge, or causal impact to other agents when something of normative significance is at stake. I will argue that three questions are of primary interest in the debate about this effect. A methodological question about how to explain it at all; a substantive question about how to explain it correctly: and a normative question about whether to explain it in terms of an error or a legitimate judgmental pattern. The problem, I argue, is that these three questions are difficult to disentangle. I propose a solution to this problem, and show how it accounts for the most recent data regarding the effect.

 


The Wrong Kind of Mistake.
A Problem for Robust Sentimentalism about Moral Judgment

2014

Robust sentimentalists about moral judgment argue that both moral judgments and moral properties are constituted by emotional responses. This tight connection between judgments and properties makes it hard to explain how moral error is possible. Moral judgments, it seems, are necessarily true because they bring into existence the very properties they are about. In a first step, use this argument to motivate why sentimentalists need a plausible account of moral error. In a second step, I argue that all attempts to provide such an account on sentimentalist terms fail due to what I refer to as the wrong kind of mistake problem. Sentimentalists reduce genuine moral error to factual error or introspective error about which emotional dispositions one has.

 


Chairmen, Cocaine, and Car Crashes.
The Knobe Effect as an Attribution Error

2013  /  Co-authored with Tom Bates

In this paper, we argue that the so-called Knobe-Effect constitutes an error. There is now a wealth of data confirming that people are highly prone to what has also come to be known as the ‘side-effect effect’. That is, when attributing psychological states—such as intentionality, foreknowledge, and desiring—as well as other agential features—such as causal control—people typically do so to a greater extent when the action under consideration is evaluated negatively. There are a plethora of models attempting to account for this effect. We hold that the central question of interest is whether the effect represents a competence or an error in judgment. We offer a systematic argument for the claim that the burden of proof regarding this question is on the competence theorist. We sketch an account, based on the notion of the reactive attitudes, that can accommodate both the idea that these sorts of judgments are fundamentally normative and that they often constitute errors.

 


Educated Intuitions.
Automaticity and Rationality in Moral Judgment

2012

Moral judgements are based on automatic processes. Moral judgements are based on reason. In this paper, I argue that both of these claims are true, and show how they can be reconciled. Neither the automaticity of moral judgement nor the post hoc nature of conscious moral reasoning pose a threat to rationalist models of moral cognition. The relation moral reasoning bears to our moral judgements is not primarily mediated by episodes of conscious reasoning, but by the acquisition, formation and maintenance – in short: education – of our moral intuitions.

 


Morally Irrelevant Factors.
What’s Left of the Dual Process-Model of Moral Cognition?

2012

Current developments in empirical moral psychology have spawned a new perspective on the traditional metaethical question of whether moral judgment is based on reason or emotion. Psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists such as Joshua Greene argue that there is empirical evidence that emotion is essential for one particularly important subclass of moral judgments: so-called “deontological judgments.” In this paper, I scrutinize this claim and argue that neither the empirical evidence for Greene’s dual process-theory of moral judgment nor the normative conclusions it is supposed to yield can be maintained. More specifically, I argue that the evidence from neuroimaging relies on a problematic reverse inference, that the behavioral data are flawed, and that the findings from focal brain damage do not support the model. From a normative point of view, Greene fails to show that we ought to discount the intuitions that give rise to deontological judgments because they respond to morally irrelevant factors: firstly, I show that they do not pick up on the factors Greene deems to be morally irrelevant in the first place, and secondly, I argue that there generally is reason to trust our deontological intuitions.

 


Psychopaths and Filthy Desks.
Are Emotions Necessary and Sufficient for Moral Judgment?

2012

Philosophical and empirical moral psychologists claim that emotions are both necessary and sufficient for moral judgment. The aim of this paper is to assess the evidence in favor of both claims and to show how a moderate rationalist position about moral judgment can be defended nonetheless. The experimental evidence for both the necessity- and the sufficiency-thesis concerning the connection between emotional reactions and moral judgment is presented. I argue that a rationalist about moral judgment can be happy to accept the necessity-thesis. My argument draws on the idea that emotions play the same role for moral judgment that perceptions play for ordinary judgments about the external world. I develop a rationalist interpretation of the sufficiency-thesis and show that it can successfully account for the available empirical evidence. The general idea is that the rationalist can accept the claim that emotional reactions are sufficient for moral judgment just in case a subject’s emotional reaction towards an action in question causes the judgment in a way that can be reflectively endorsed under conditions of full information and rationality. This idea is spelled out in some detail and it is argued that a moral agent is entitled to her endorsement if the way she arrives at her judgment reliably leads to correct moral beliefs, and that this reliability can be established if the subject’s emotional reaction picks up on the morally relevant aspects of the situation.

 


Social Intuitionism and the Psychology of Moral Reasoning

2011

Rationalism about the psychology of moral judgment holds, among other things, that the justifying moral reasons we have for our judgments are also the causally effective reasons for why we make those judgments. This can be called the ‘effectiveness’-thesis regarding moral reasoning. The theory that best exemplifies the thesis is the traditional conscious reasoning-paradigm. Current empirical moral psychology, however, poses a serious challenge to this thesis: it argues that in fact, emotional reactions are necessary and sufficient to account for moral judgment, and that typically, moral reasoning is a matter of mere confabulation. In this survey, the empirical challenge to this thesis made by the ‘social intuitionist’ model of moral judgment and reasoning is discussed. The model claims that moral reasoning is essentially ineffective and, psychologically speaking, a matter of mere post hoc-rationalizations of cognitively impenetratable gut reactions. Several interpretations of this evidence are discussed and it is shown that there is room for a psychology of moral reasoning that can account for the available empirical evidence and yet does not have to give up the most central elements of a normative picture of moral reasoning.

 


The Appropriateness of Emotions.
Moral Judgment, Moral Emotions, and the Conflation Problem

2011

What is the connection between emotions and moral judgments? Neo-sentimentalism maintains that to say that something is morally wrong is to think it appropriate to resent other people for doing it or to feel guilty upon doing it oneself. But intuitively, it seems that there is no way to characterize the content of guilt and resentment independent from the fact that these emotions respond to morally wrong actions. In response to this problem of circularity, modern forms of sentimentalism have favoured a ‘no-priority view’, arguing that judgments of moral wrongness cannot be reduced to expressions of feelings of guilt and resentment, but that emotional responses and moral judgments mutually elucidate each other. In the present contribution, I argue that this strategy is not successful: the problem of circularity returns at a deeper level of the account, a level at which the ‘no-priority view’ can no longer escape it. The concept of ‘appropriateness’ that is invoked by neo-sentimentalism is liable to the so-called ‘conflation-problem’: it fails to distinguish between right and wrong kinds of appropriateness. In order to draw that important distinction, neo-sentimentalism has to presuppose a substantive notion of moral wrongness already. Moreover, I show that the most influential contemporary attempts to achieve an independent, non-circular ‘fix’ on the emotions fail for one of the following three reasons: they either cease to be sentimentalist, to capture the normative dimension of moral judgment or end up being circular again.