Thursday, October 22, 2009

Experimental Philosophy - Are People Actually Moral Objectivists?

Really interesting article. People are more likely to be objectivists within their own culture (think white Americans) and more likely to be relativists when it come to other cultures (think white Americans looking at Amazonian Indians).

Are People Actually Moral Objectivists?

Metaethicists disagree about a whole lot of stuff—whether moral properties exist and, if so, what the heck they are and how we have knowledge of them; whether one can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ ; whether moral judgments are the deliverances of affective or purely cognitive faculties; and a whole lot besides.

One particular claim, though, seems to have widespread endorsement—the claim that the folk are objectivists about morality—that ordinary folk view moral issues as having a single correct answer. When ordinary individuals claim, for example, that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were wrong or immoral, they mean that it is wrong or immoral *full stop*. If someone were to disagree with such a claim, then at least one of the persons would have to be wrong.

The claim of folk objectivism is a datum that most metaethical theories try to vindicate or accommodate. But is it true? Are ordinary folks objectivists about morality? John Park (a philosopher at Duke), Joshua Knobe (someone you don’t know) and I have been pursuing this question, and our initial findings suggest that folk objectivism might be rather relative in nature.

For example, we asked subjects to interpret disagreement on the morality of the following action: “Dylan buys an expensive new knife and tests its sharpness by randomly stabbing a passerby on the street.” When asked whether disagreeing Americans could both be correct in their judgments about the morality of this action, the folk were predictably objectivist.

Things began to shift, though, when the disagreeing individuals were depicted as belonging to different cultural groups. When the disagreement was between an American and a member of an Amazonian warrior culture, or a member of an extraterrestrial species called the Pentars, objectivity levels dropped in turn. It seems as though subjects think that there could be objectively correct moral judgments within cultures, but not between them. The greater the disparity of the cultural groups, the more the folk started to embrace a relativistic conception of morality.

So perhaps people aren’t actually objectivists about morality after all. Perhaps they think that moral judgments can only be true or false relative to a particular individual… but then if the individuals turn out to be very similar to each other, they assume that anything that is true relative to one of them will also be true relative to the other.

Here is a link to our (extremely brief) paper. Download Are the Folk Objectivists About Morality.

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