Thursday, November 20, 2014

Erik J. Wielenberg's "Robust Ethics"

Erik J. Wielenberg is Professor of Philosophy at DePauw University. He works primarily in ethics and the philosophy of religion and is the author of Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe and God and the Reach of Reason. His work has appeared in such journals as Ethics, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Synthese, Faith and Philosophy, The European Journal for Philosophy of Religion, and Religious Studies.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Robust Ethics: The Metaphysics and Epistemology of Godless Normative Realism, and reported the following:
Where do our moral beliefs come from? Psychology has seen an explosion of competing answers to this question in recent years. Page 99 of Robust Ethics highlights an important area of agreement in the midst of this ongoing debate. Despite their differences, many psychologists who study moral cognition accept the following:
The Hidden Principles Claim: Our conscious moral judgments typically conform to general moral principles; such principles are often but not always hidden from us in that we cannot become consciously aware of the conformance of our conscious moral judgments to such principles in any direct way. This phenomenon is a consequence of the heavy involvement of System 1 cognition in the production of our conscious moral judgments.
System 1 cognition is thinking that happens quickly, effortlessly, and automatically; it also often operates behind-the-scenes, outside of conscious awareness, with the result that we often lack insight into its operations. When System 1 thinking drives our moral thinking, we often find ourselves with firm moral convictions that seem simply to appear in our minds and which we struggle to justify. For example, many of us will judge that it’s permissible to flip a switch that diverts an out-of-control trolley onto a sidetrack where it will kill one person rather than killing five. However, many who make that judgment will also judge that it’s wrong to push a large man in front of an out-of-control trolley, killing him in order to save five. Ask us to explain how we can consistently hold both convictions and we’ll typically illustrate what psychologists call “moral dumbfounding” – we’ll hem and haw, offer various inadequate justifications, and most likely stick to our judgments about the two cases even if we can’t justify them.

Zooming out a bit, the discussion of moral cognition in Robust Ethics is part of an attempt to provide a plausible account of how human beings could have knowledge of objective moral truths. Providing such an account and answering objections to it is the main task of the second half of the book; the account combines ideas from philosophy and psychology in a new (and hopefully plausible!) way. Zooming out a bit further, Robust Ethics as a whole could be characterized as an attempt at answering these questions: what are objective moral facts? Where do they come from? How do we know them? The answers I give to these questions imply that (i) moral facts and features are not the sorts of things that can be investigated by empirical science (contra some of the “new atheists”) and (ii) there can be objective moral facts and that we can have knowledge of at least some of them even if ours is a godless universe (contra many theistic philosophers).
Learn more about Robust Ethics at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue