Neurons and normativity: A critique of Greene’s notion of unfamiliarity

Philosophical Psychology 33 (8):1072-1095 (2020)
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In his article “Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality,” Joshua Greene argues that the empirical findings of cognitive neuroscience have implications for ethics. Specifically, he contends that we ought to trust our manual, conscious reasoning system more than our automatic, emotional system when confronting unfamiliar problems; and because cognitive neuroscience has shown that consequentialist judgments are generated by the manual system and deontological judgments are generated by the automatic system, we ought to trust the former more than the latter when facing unfamiliar moral problems. In the present article, I analyze one of the premises of Greene’s argument. In particular, I ask what exactly an unfamiliar problem is and whether moral problems can be classified as unfamiliar. After exploring several different possible interpretations of familiarity and unfamiliarity, I conclude that the concepts are too problematic to be philosophically compelling, and thus should be abandoned.

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Michael Dale
Eindhoven University of Technology


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