Origins of Moral Relevance: The Psychology of Moral Judgment, and its Normative and Metaethical Significance

Dissertation, Universität Bayreuth (2015)
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This dissertation examines the psychology of moral judgment and its implications for normative ethics and metaethics. Recent empirical findings in moral psychology, such as the impact of emotions, intuitions, and situational factors on moral judgments, have sparked a debate about whether ordinary moral judgments are systematically error-prone. Some philosophers, such as Peter Singer and Joshua Greene, argue that these findings challenge the reliability of moral intuitions and support more "reasoned", consequentialist approaches over deontological ones. The first part of the dissertation reviews these provocative findings and the philosophical reactions to them, which often invoke the notion of 'moral relevance' - the idea that some factors shaping moral judgments are morally irrelevant. The second part develops a psychological account of moral relevance, drawing on theories of the moral domain, the role of emotions, and models of moral cognition. This account reveals the complex interplay of intuitive and reasoned processes in generating impressions of moral relevance. The final part reevaluates the philosophical discussions in light of this psychological understanding. It contends that the evolutionary background of moral intuitions does not necessarily render them inadequate, and that both deontological and consequentialist judgments likely depend on evolved intuitions to a significant degree. Furthermore, the tendency to dismiss certain influences on moral judgment as irrelevant can itself be explained psychologically. Considering the psychological account presented, mind-independent accounts of morality become less plausible. The dissertation concludes that while empirical moral psychology reveals important constraints on normative theorizing, it does not decisively favor consequentialism over deontology. To assess the significance of empirical-scientific findings for ethics, a nuanced understanding of the origins of moral judgments is nevertheless indispensable.

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Benjamin Huppert
Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf


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