Moral Learning and Moral Realism: How Empirical Psychology Illuminates Issues in Moral Ontology
William A. Rottschaefer
Although scientifically and naturalistically inclined philosophers are concerned with the role of empirical psychology in illuminating problems in moral psychology, such as the capacities for moral agency, they have paid less attention to its potential contributions to issues of moral epistemology and ontology. In this paper, I illustrate how findings in moral developmental psychology illuminate and advance the discussion of the long-standing issue in moral ontology of moral realism. Moral realism is the view that moral realities are objective, and thus in some important sense(s) independent of either the subjective states of moral agents or intersubjective factors. Naturalistic moral realism makes these objective moral realities part of the material world. I examine some recent discussions of the argument against moral realism from explanatory inertness and contend that they end in a stalemate. I then introduce some empirical findings from the study of moral developmental psychology concerning moral internalization to break this deadlock. These empirical results render the explanatory inertness argument problematic; in addition, they lend some support to the thesis of moral realism and provide some fruitful paths for continuing investigation of the issue of moral realism.
Gilbert Harman has argued that although moral claims can be tested, their testability and subsequent confirmation is not sufficient to establish moral realism. He maintains that explanatory scientific hypotheses identify causal factors in the occurrence of the explanandum. Successful testing of such hypotheses is a basis for realism about these factors. So if the moral realist is to make her case, she must not only demonstrate that moral claims can be successfully tested, but also show that some moral claims are explanatory hypotheses which, if confirmed, provide evidence that moral facts play a causal role in the bringing about of moral and nonmoral phenomena. If there are several competing explanatory hypotheses, then the explanatory hypothesis that better accounts for the effects is the preferable one.
Harman argues, for instance, that the fact that helping someone who is injured and in need of help is morally right does not identify any causal factors, and, consequently, is explanatorily inert. So, for example, if we find Katie helping Ivan who has fallen and cut his knee, we can explain her actions without the invocation of moral facts by means of sociological or psychological hypotheses such as many Americans believe that it is right to help a person who is injured or Katie also believes this. On this basis Harman concludes that hypotheses about objective moral facts are not necessary, indeed, irrelevant, for explanations of either other moral facts or nonmoral facts.
Moral realists, like Nicholas Sturgeon, have challenged Harman's views concerning the explanatory inertness of moral facts. Sturgeon argues that common sense moral explanations, if taken on face value, attribute effects to the moral features of actions, persons, practices and institutions. He maintains that these explanations should be taken seriously, and should not be rejected, as Harman does, without good reason. Nevertheless, although anti-realists admit that common sense moral explanations sometimes appeal to moral facts as explanatory, they can maintain that examples of anti-realist explanatory patterns are also found in common sense moral discourse. Moreover, anti-realists can recast realist interpretations in terms of subjective and intersubjective facts without loss of explanatory power.
Since common sense explanatory practice does not provide definitive support for moral realism, Sturgeon reinforces his argument with the claim that these explanations stand up in the face of thought experiments concerning counterfactual situations. For instance, suppose that Alfred hits his innocent baby brother with a stick, thereby harming him. Katie sees Alfred doing so and forms the belief that what Alfred did was wrong. The objective wrongness of Alfred's action plays a necessary role in explaining Katie's belief. Suppose, however, that what Alfred had done in hitting his innocent baby brother had not been wrong. What, then, would Katie have believed about Alfred's action? Our intuitions tell us that she would not have believed that what Alfred had done was wrong. So, there is some further reason to believe that moral facts play a causal role in Katie's belief.
Harman allows that at least in some cases of ordinary moral reasoning the counterfactual test seems to work. But he does not concede that this is enough to establish Sturgeon's case for moral realism. The counterfactual argument fails to convince a moral epiphenomenalist that moral properties are causally efficacious. Although they may exist, they do nothing. Moral epiphenomenalists attribute all the causal efficacy to the nonmoral features of Alfred's action upon which the moral features supervene. However, Harman's appeal to moral epiphenomenalism is unsatisfactory because Harman's own naturalistic position itself depends upon the failure of moral epiphenomenalism, since it requires that subject-side factors have causal powers. A full-fledged commitment to epiphenomenalism denies causal power to these subject-side factors, and seems to render all scientific explanations, except perhaps those of particle physics, explanatorily inert.
I conclude that we have reached a dead-end; neither the moral realist or the anti-realist has presented a clearly persuasive case. Although each side calls upon examples from ordinary moral discourse to support its position, the other side can reinterpret these examples to fit its own position. Moreover, the use of thought experiments leads into controversial issues about the causality of supervenient properties. In any case, both the realist's claims about the explanatory power of object-side moral features and the anti-realist's about subject-side factors assume the causality of supervenient properties. Thus the discussion seems to have resulted in a stalemate. In order to break the stalemate, I suggest that we look at the results of scientific psychological studies concerning moral development, in particular, moral internalization, to see whether they throw light on the mechanisms of moral belief formation and thereby on the role, if any, of moral facts. Parents and siblings are the primary agents within the family for the promotion of moral learning. With respect to the role of parents, psychologists have identified several major methods of moral training including modeling, instruction, and discipline techniques. In addition, they have identified styles of parental interaction with children that affect moral learning such as warmth, nurturance, and degree of attachment between caregivers and children. Combinations of these methods and styles make for different sorts of more or less effective moral training Moral internalization is a way that developmental psychologists often describe what moralists have discussed as the formation of conscience. It designates a psychological state, and its development, in which one feels or believes that she has an obligation to act in accord with moral norms. Developmental psychologists mean various things by moral norms; but one acceptable and non-biasing version is that a moral norm is a norm that enjoins one in a specific situation to act for the welfare of another. Successful moral internalization is manifested by an agent when, in situations where there is a conflict of interests between the welfare of another and her own interests, she consistently acts to promote the welfare of another person, rather than to attain social approval or egoistic aims.
Psychologists who study the moral development fostered by parental discipline have identified three importantly different disciplinary techniques by means of which parents facilitate moral internalization: assertions of power, love-withdrawal, and induction. Power techniques involve such measures as the use of force, deprivation of privileges, threats and commands. Love withdrawal includes expressions of parental anger and disapproval, while in the use of inductive techniques, caregivers point out to the child, either directly or indirectly, the effects of the child's behavior on others, provide information about moral norms, and communicate their values with regard to considering others.
Both naturalistic and experimental studies since the late 1950's and the early 1960's indicate that the most effective means of moral internalization are inductive techniques. However, there is some evidence that the occasional use of power assertion by nurturant parents who usually employ induction plays a positive role in moral internalization by, for instance, letting the child know that the parent feels strongly about something or by controlling a child's defiant behavior. Love withdrawal, on the other hand, contributes to the child's inhibition of anger. The general message of these studies is that love withdrawal and power assertion techniques may play a role in getting the child's attention; while inductive techniques serve to point out to the child, for instance, the harmful consequences of her actions. These help to engage the child's empathic capacities and can also lead to feelings of guilt. The most successful moral internalization occurs as the result of repeated use of inductive techniques in varied circumstances of moral learning.
Consider Katie's moral learning situation at a point when the moral internalization process is beginning under the auspices of her caregivers. Although she is still a moral neophyte, we do not need to suppose that she is a moral blank slate, especially if the evidence concerning in-built empathic capacities is correct. As far as her caregiver goes, we assume that no matter what internalization technique she uses, she considers the action in question wrong. The situation is one in which Katie is doing something wrong, for example, she is hitting her baby brother, Jimmy, for no reason at all. Her mother tells her that what she is doing is wrong and that she should stop hitting little Jimmy. No matter what kind of internalization technique her mother uses, we can suppose that the above factors are constant with respect to our example. The only relevant difference in the learning situation concerns the internalization techniques used by her mother. If she uses an inductive technique, she points out to Katie the harmful nature and consequences of her actions; and Katie notices them. In contrast, if her mother uses love withdrawal, for instance, ignoring Katie or looking at her with displeasure, Katie feels the anger and disapproval of her mother. If, however, her mother applies power assertion techniques, Katie experiences fear of punishment or even bodily coercion. Applying our findings, we conclude that if Katie has successfully internalized her mother's norm, the most likely source of that success, and so of Katie's reliable moral sensibility or background beliefs, is the repetition of learning situations in which her mother uses inductive techniques. Katie successfully internalizes the moral norm urged by her mother because her mother has repeatedly pointed out to Katie the consequences for others of her actions. This is something that those who use the less effective techniques of power assertion and love withdrawal do not do. We can conclude that object-side factors in the situation, in particular the harm and distress being suffered by another person, play a causal role in inductively-based learning that they do not in power assertion or love withdrawal modes of learning.
Consider now what Harman finds to be the crucial difference between the explanatory power of theories in particle physics and the explanatory inertness of appeals to moral facts. Physicists successfully refer to the presence of protons to explain the observation of vapor trails in a cloud chamber; while moralists' appeals to moral facts to explain moral perceptions and beliefs appear futile. But, if the studies to which we have referred are valid, the alleged contrast fails. Thus, with regard to Alfred, both the wrongness of his action, as constituted by the observable physical harm he has done to his baby brother, and her own internalized moral sensibility, lead Katie to judge that what she sees is wrong. Although moral philosophers have not attained the degree of theoretical agreement about the nature of moral value that physicists have about elementary particles, the findings about the relative superiority of inductive techniques allow us to attribute to object-side factors an explanatory role in the formation of Katie's perception and belief similar to that found in physical explanations. The object-side factors in the explanans of the physical case concern the activity of unobservable particles, while in the moral case the explanans refers to observable features of the injured child. Nevertheless, there is no reason to assume that some theoretical account of the explanatory object-side moral features is in-principle unavailable. Moreover, since empirical laws are acceptable, though not entirely adequate, sources of explanation in the sciences, the moral realist is within her rights, given the validity of the role of inductive techniques in effecting moral internalization, to count as partially explanatory of moral beliefs and actions references to observable object-side factors. I conclude that we have broken the stalemate. On the basis of the evidence of the causes for moral internalization, the moral realist has good reason to claim that the fact that inflicting unnecessary harm on innocent people is morally wrong plays a part in a person's belief that it is wrong. Appeal to merely the psychological and/or sociological sources for that belief is insufficient. Generalizing, I conclude that in cases of moral internalization by means of inductive techniques, moral explanations involving appeals to objective moral facts play an explanatory role. Thus, I maintain that current empirical findings about moral internalization support the objectivist moral realism urged by moral realists rather than the subjectivist or intersubjectivist position supported by anti-realists.
The anti-realist is unlikely to be satisfied with the above empirically based argument for moral realism. She might reject the argument denying either the relevance of the empirical findings or their validity. On the other hand, she may accept both the relevance of the findings and their validity, while maintaining her anti-realism. I shall consider this latter response.
First, the anti-realist argues that what the findings show is that inductive techniques are superior to love withdrawal and power assertion methods precisely because they appeal to subject side factors in the child, her moral sensibilities. I grant that the realist must concede an explanatory role for subject-side factors. However, in contrast with power assertion and love withdrawal techniques, inductive techniques also involve appeal to object-side factors. The superior effectiveness of inductive techniques lies in their appeal to both object-and subject-side factors.
A second line of anti-realist response uses the findings about the relative effectiveness of inductive techniques to make a case for anti-realism. Thus, a caregiver could use inductive techniques to teach racist behaviors and practices by focusing a child's attention only on the distress of those of the same color. But, if this is so, then induction is as effective in teaching immoral behaviors and incorrect moral perceptions and beliefs as it is in teaching their opposites. This implies that the relevant object-side features are indifferently moral or immoral or, indeed, amoral. However, what the example shows, if correct, is that inductive moral techniques are not the only techniques required for adequate moral learning. Nevertheless, the limitations of a learning mechanism do not diminish the role of the object-side factors in the situations in which it is effective. Moreover, inductive techniques will not be very successful in the teaching of racist beliefs and actions since by their nature these techniques appeal to a coordinated set of object-and subject-side features, those features of the object that invoke empathic and sympathetic capacities. The teaching of racist beliefs and actions appeals to differences and antipathies, not similarities and sympathies.
Finally, while granting the validity of the empirical findings, the anti-realist can argue that there is no reason for calling the object-side features that play a role in moral learning moral features. The realist has given us no reason for thinking that diminishing or eliminating another's physical or psychological distress or increasing or restoring her physical or psychological well-being are morally valuable. The realist is begging a fundamental question by identifying norms that require avoiding harming innocent people as moral norms. She is reading philosophical conclusions about the nature of morality and moral values into the empirical findings about moral learning. In response the realist first can note that the anti-realist has changed the issue in question between them. They had both agreed that the explanandum concerned a genuinely moral matter; they differed over how to explain it. If the anti-realist denies that there is a moral phenomenon to be explained, then the original question under discussion, the issue of the explanatory power or inertness of moral facts, disappears. So the realist has begged no question.
Secondly, there are good reasons for taking the explananda, in our examples, Katie's judgments about Albert's and her own action, to be moral judgments and probably correct ones. Lay persons, researchers of human morality, and philosophers often use similar examples as paradigm cases of correct moral judgments. In addition, one can appeal to any major contemporary ethical theory, religious, Kantian, Utilitarian, or virtue ethics, to support the claim that Katie's judgment concerns a matter of morality and is, at least prima facie, correct.
Third, even if one grants a realistic interpretation of the empirical findings, she need not concede that the nature of moral facts is adequately, let alone completely, specified by these empirical findings. The specification of the nature of moral facts requires the use of ethical theories. If the realist is right, these theories will refer to some theoretical object-side properties that will provide the sort of theoretical explanations in ethics that Harman has identified as distinctive of the sciences.
I conclude that if the empirical findings that I have examined stand, the moral realist is on the right track in supporting the reality of moral facts as manifested in the causal role they play in bringing about both moral and nonmoral phenomena. Moreover, whatever the final resolution of the issue of moral realism, I contend that an examination of the findings and theories of empirical psychology prove helpful in the exploration and resolution of issues in moral ontology.
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