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Do reflective people agree about ethics?

You might think that most people will share some big-picture beliefs about morality (a lacommon morality“). And you might think that this agreement is the result of reflective reasoning about ethics. For example, most people might think about ethics for awhile and accept a consequentialist principle like this: we should try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Well, it turns out that people don’t agree about such ethical principles — not even people who often reflect on such matters. Before I get to the evidence for that claim, take a look at someone who thought that reflective people do agree about ethics.

1.  Will Reflective People To Agree About Ethics?

Here’s Henry Sidgwick:

“The Utilitarian principle […that there is a] connexion between right action and happiness […] has always been to a large extent recognised by all reflective persons.” (The Methods of Ethics, Book I, Chapter 6, Section 3)

Sidgwick is claiming that…

  1. there is a connection between happiness and right conduct (and)
  2. all reflective people recognize this connection.

What do you think? Do these claims sound right?

2.  The Evidence

Notice that 2 requires evidence. Alas, 2 is not well-supported by evidence: reflective people do not seem to agree that there is an important ethical connection between happiness and right conduct.

Common Morality

Consider that there is widespread disagreement about 1 among philosophers. To quantify this disagreement a bit, let us look at some data. Of about 1000 philosophers surveyed in 2009, 25.9% of leaned toward or accepted deontology, 18.2% leaned toward or accepted virtue ethics, and 23.6% leaned toward or accepted consequentialism (Bourget and Chalmers 2013). Consequentialism is the view most associated with 1 — the idea that there is a connection between happiness and right conduct — and yet fewer than a quarter of philosophers are partial to it. So, contrary to Sidgwick’s claim, the consequentialist’s connection between happiness and right conduct does not seem to be recognized by all reflective people. Indeed, it does even seem to be recognized be even most reflective people.

Reflection

In situations like this, an intuitionist like Sidgwick might want to press on the notion of ’reflective’. After all, the finding (above) is only a problem for Sidgwick if — among other things — philosophers count as ‘reflective.’ If they do, then Sidgwick’s hypothesis is falsified. If they do not, then Sidgwick’s hypothesis might still be intact.

So if you want to defend Sidgwick’s hypothesis 2 from the evidence (above), then you need to argue that philosophers do not count as reflective — and do not thereby pose a counterexample to 2. One cannot, of course, merely stipulate that philosophers do not count as reflective. That would be ad hoc. In order to defend Sidgwick’s 2 from the aforementioned data, you will need to appeal to independent evidence. Fortunately there is independent evidence about the relative reflectiveness of philosophers and non-philosophers.

Alas, the evidence does not support Sidgwick’s hypothesis (2). Rather, the evidence suggests that philosophers are significantly more reflective than non-philosophers. In a sample of 4000 participants, those with training in philosophy performed up to three times better on tests of reflection — e.g., the Cognitive Reflection Test (Frederick 2005) — than those without such training (Livengood et al 2010). This result has been replicated and expanded. For example, those with (or a candidate for) a PhD in philosophy also performed significantly better than others — F(1, 558) = 15.41, p < 0.001, d = 0.32 (Byrd 2014). And these findings are not new. Over 20 years ago, Deanna Kuhn found that philosophers demonstrated “perfect” and domain-general reasoning competence (Kuhn 1991, 258-262).

So it seems that if any group of people should count as reflective, it is philosophers. And these reflective people do not — contrary to Sidgwick’s hypothesis 2 — unanimously recognize a connection between happiness and rightness.

3. So what now?

The idea that people share a “common morality” via “reflective equilibrium” might fly in the face of evidence. It certainly does for Sidgwick. After all, it seems like reflective people (e.g., philosophers) simply don’t agree about the alleged connection between happiness and right conduct. And if you try to respond to this evidence by denying that philosophers are reflective, then you run into another problem: that claim also flies in the face of evidence. So those objections won’t work.

A better strategy might be to reject my claims about the association between Sidgwick’s claims and consequentialism. That is, you might say that non-consequentialist approaches to ethics acknowledge the connection between happiness and right conduct just as much as consequentialist approaches — sort of like Andy Hallman does in the comments. If that claim is right, then Sidgwick might have been on to something. I leave it to you to decide if that kind of objection is promising.

 

 

Featured image: “Extermination of Evil Sendan Kendatsuba” via Wikipedia Commons (in the public domain).

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

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Andy Hallman
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Hi Nick. Nice post.

I have a question.

You seem to interpret belief in deontology with a disbelief that there is a connection between happiness and right action. Is that true? Why can’t deontologists believe there is a connection between happiness and right action, but that there are other things that matter, too?

I think it would definitely be wrong to say all reflective people are utilitarians, since the evidence doesn’t support that, but Sidgwick appears to be making a weaker claim that that.