Notes on Mark Johnson’s Morality for Humans

Mark Johnson‘s Morality for Humans: Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science is another book, like Fesmire’s John Dewey and Moral Imagination, that I am hoping to use as a background for Science and Moral Imagination. In the book, Johnson provides a broadly naturalistic, Deweyan pragmatist account of morality centered on moral deliberation and the role of imagination in moral deliberation. Johnson’s book complements Fesmire’s in much the way that I was hoping, i.e., it makes good use of Dewey’s distinction between “valuing” and “valuation” (though I thought Dewey called the latter “evaluation” — something I’ll have to check), and it discusses at length the relationship between science and ethics, not only the influence of science on ethics, which is a central part of Johnson’s story, but also the sense in which moral deliberation is a kind of empirical inquiry.

Johnson is probably most well-known for his long-term collaboration with cognitive linguist George Lakoff, and their work on embodied metaphor theory in cognitive semantics and its philosophical implications. It is no surprise that Johnson so adeptly reviews the empirical literature and draws implications for our understanding of morality. Johnson does not limit himself to embodied metaphor theory, but draws on the affective neuroscience of Damasio, the moral psychology of Haidt, the neurophilosophy of the Churchlands, the feminist developmental psychology of Carol Gilligan, and many other scientific sources as well as philosophers’ insights from a variety of traditions, in a way that is satisfying and provocative without becoming reductionistic or scientistic.

Chapter 1, “Moral Problem-Solving as an Empirical Inquiry,” provides a powerful argument against the idea that there is a special realm of “moral experience” and against the Kantian idea that there is a peculiar kind of “moral judgment” distinct from our ordinary repertoire of problem-solving strategies. Chapter 2 canvasses the various sources of our values, including biology, kinship, social institutions, and cultural sources. Johnson points out that some values will be universal or near-universal simply due to the necessities biological functioning and the requirements of any functioning social interaction or institution, though there will also be a lot of cultural variation. In this chapter, Johnson builds on and critically assesses Damasio’s affective neuroscience and Haidt’s moral foundations theory.

Chapter 3 reviews the popular two-process account of moral psychology, which posits an intuitive-level, affect-driven process of moral evaluation that rules most of our moral lives, and a process of moral reasoning whose main function is post-hoc justification of intuition. Johnson argues for either a third process, or another version of the second process of moral reasoning, which he calls moral deliberation, and the theory of moral deliberation occupies Chapters 4-5. Johnson does not dispute dual-process theory per se, but argues that there is another important process in our moral lives that it ignores.

Johnson’s account of moral deliberation is fully Deweyan. Moral deliberation is problem-solving inquiry that addresses a particular situation in which our habits, desires, and values are inadequate to the conditions of the particular situation. It involves gathering information about the situation and dramatic rehearsal in imagination of various possible courses of action. Johnson adopts whole hog Dewey’s view that this process is regulated by qualitative considerations, and that the goal of inquiry is to transform a situation characterized by an indeterminate, perplexing, problematic quality to one that is determinate, stable, allowing us to move forward in a satisfactory way. The process of moral deliberation as inquiry is “reasonable” if it actually transforms the situation in a way that resolves the problem or perplexity that occasioned deliberation. This process changes not only our values and our perception of the world, but the world itself and ourselves via a new structure of activities and interactions. (If anything from Dewey’s view of inquiry is missing here, it is his emphasis on “experimental testing” prior to judgment, but I must admit I am also unclear how this would work in the case of moral deliberation.)

The last three chapters held relatively less interest for me, partly because I didn’t need to be convinced of most of these things, partly because it doesn’t serve my needs as much. Chapter 6 takes to task those moral psychologists who have been tempted to revive talk of a separate “moral faculty.” Chapter 7, “Moral Fundamentalism is Immoral,” takes on both religious and rationalistic forms of moral fundamentalism, taken as the idea that there are either universally binding moral laws or absolute and foundational moral facts. These views are both incompatible with our cognitive machinery and detrimental to the needs of genuine moral deliberation, and so both impossible for humans to use and immoral insofar as we try. Moral realism is treated as an absolutist, foundationalist belief in moral facts independent of the natural picture of the world. (While this is certainly a common view under the heading of “Moral Realism,” I think Johnson is mistaken to treat this as the only way one could be a moral realist.)

Chapter 8 discusses the nature of moral experience and the moral self. Continuing the metaphysical discussion from the previous chapter, Johnson posits a pragmatist process metaphysics about values and norms, in contrast to both the objectivist metaphysics according to which values or principles are discovered, and a relativist metaphysics according to which they are arbitrarily made up. According to the pragmatist process view the metaphor of “creative transformation of our experience” and the moral deliberator as artist are much more apt. Johnson also defends Dewey’s view, which I have always found puzzling, that the ultimate end of moral deliberation is growth, on the grounds that moral deliberation requires a willingness to revise the values and habits that constitute the self to deal with ever new situations. This chapter also includes a detailed, and fairly satisfying, example of moral deliberation, about the ethics of gay marriage.

I think there is one major missed connection in Johnson’s account that connects very closely with my own interests. On the one hand, Johnson appears to hold a basically realist (if critical and fallibilist) attitude towards the science he relies on in his account. On the other hand, he denies moral realism because it is supposedly absolutist and foundationalist in untenable ways. However, Johnson himself denies that there are distinctive types of experience and inquiry. It is the first major argument of the book. Presumably, this would require us to reject the dichotomy between scientific and moral experience and inquiry, and to see his pragmatist process metaphysics as applying broadly to human knowledge, not just to values and norms. If this still permits a realist attitude about science, which I think it does, why can it not permit a realist attitude about the valuations that result from reasonable processes of moral deliberation?

My notes on Mark Johnson’s Morality for Humans

Update: I had a brief email exchange with Mark Johnson about the question at the end of the post, and he basically agrees with me. He just avoids talk of “realism” in this context because it has become associated with problematic views that are absolutist, fundamentalist, and foundationalist.