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.

Notes on Fesmire’s John Dewey and Moral Imagination

I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it. Fesmire reads Dewey together with Martha Nussbaum on Aristotelian practical wisdom and emotion in ethics, and Lakoff on Johnson on embodied metaphor in cognitive semantics, to set forward an account of moral deliberation in which moral imagination plays a central role. (Havelock Ellis, Alisdair MacIntyre, and James T. Farrell all play supporting roles as well.) Typical of much Dewey scholarship, Fesmire’s approach is to think-with Dewey about the topic of moral imagination, rather than to simply provide an interpretation of Dewey’s work. The approach has costs and benefits, but for my purposes, it was a useful one.

The brief introduction starts with a silly quote from Havelock Ellis about “The academic philosophers of ethics” and their “slavery to rigid formulas” being “the death of all high moral responsibility.” It proceeds to identify a shift in the center of gravity of ethics, exemplified by the work of Nussbaum, MacIntyre, Nel Noddings, Bernard Williams, Charles Taylor, Owen Flanagan, and Mark Johnson. The shift is away from ultimate moral criteria towards practical wisdom, character, narrative, caring, moral luck, pluralism, and psychological realism. Rules and principles have a role to play in ethics, but not as ultimate criteria or as decision-procedures.

The book is divided into two parts. Part I consists of three chapters and reviews pragmatist philosophy of mind, moral psychology, and epistemology. The focus is on character, habit, belief, reason, and intelligence. A nice summary from Chapter 2:

Classical pragmatism situates reason within the broad context of the whole person in action. It replaces beliefs-as-intellectual-abstractions with beliefs-as-tendencies-to-act, pure reason with practical inquiry, and objectivist rationality with imaginative situational intelligence. (p. 28)

Bain, Peirce, and James play a big role in this first part along with Dewey. Given her focus on ethics and social issues, I wish that Jane Addams had played an equally central role, but she’s rarely given adequate treatment. Nothing in this section will surprise those familiar with classical pragmatism and the way this diverse cast of characters are usually put together into a unified (Dewey-centric) narrative, though Fesmire’s presentation is helpfully clear and concise.

Part II is the account of moral imagination in the context of pragmatist ethics. The first chapter provides the context for pragmatist (Deweyan) ethics more broadly. Some of the key features are: pluralism of ethical principles, factors, or values / value-types; moral deliberation as reconciliation or integration of these often-conflicting factors through inquiry; the value of moral ethical rules or principles is in making salient these independent factors or values. This chapter also introduces the two key ways that imagination plays a role in moral deliberation: empathetic projection as the imaginative adoption of values, perspectives, and attitudes of others, and creatively tapping a situation’s possibilities by imaginatively exploring different aspects of the situation and the dramatically rehearsing the possible courses of action they afford. (The latter, Fesmire holds, is Dewey’s main focus.) This kind of imagination is the ability “to see the actual in the light of the possible” (p. 67, quoting Alexander).

Chapter 5 discusses the role of imagination conceived as dramatic rehearsal in moral deliberation. (For Dewey, it is so central that sometimes he just refers to moral deliberation as “dramatic rehearsal.”) Dewey thinks of moral deliberation as a kind of problem-solving inquiry, where the conflict arises from the conflicts between currently held values in particular situations. For Dewey, deliberation or inquiry requires that rather than just acting in the face of a problem, we step back and withhold immediate action, channeling our conflicting impulses into dramatic rehearsal of possible courses of action. Exploring these possibilities through careful examination of the facts of the situation, bringing prior knowledge to bear, along with dramatic rehearsal is what intelligent moral deliberation requires; and finally, action is treated as an experimental test of the chosen hypothesis, whose success or failure will modify future conduct. Finally, Fesmire incorporates George Lakoff’s and Mark Johnson’s work in cognitive semantics to argue that the imaginative process depends heavily on metaphor, and these metaphors are in fact central to our cognitive and linguistic machinery. These metaphors are, of course, embodied, in a way that fits well with Dewey’s emphasis as organism-environment-culture interaction as the scene of human mind.

The last two chapters constitute an extended exploration of the metaphor of “moral deliberation as art.” I was pretty skeptical of the value of this analogy at first, but I was convinced of its utility. One value of the metaphor is that it can help overcome the more dominant metaphor of morality as accounting, according to which well-being is wealth, duty is debt, and moral deeds are transactions. Another valuable feature of the metaphor is that it centers the importance of perceptiveness, creativity, skill, and the response of the Other (the audience) in moral deliberation.

I found myself disappointed in only a few ways. First, there was not enough attention to Dewey’s central distinction between what he calls valuing/evaluation, prizing/appraisal, satisfying/satisfactory, or desires/value judgments. It is there (notably on pp. 96-7), but it doesn’t play a huge role. Second, there was very little discussion of the relationship between science and ethics. Third, there wasn’t much engagement with other contemporary theorists of moral deliberation or practical ethics, besides those (like Nussbaum) who are clearly working a similar vein of thought as Dewey.

Dispatches from Pittsburgh

Greetings from Pittsburgh, PA, somewhere on the border between the neighborhoods of Squirrel Hill and Greenfield. It is nearing the end of my first full day of a roughly 8 month adventure. I’m here for my sabbatical year and on a visiting fellowship at the Center for Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, one of the most important institutions in the field still in operation. It’s an honor to be invited to be a visiting fellow. I’m planning to go in tomorrow morning to get acquainted with the Center, fill out paperwork, and properly start my visit.

Since arriving in Pittsburgh, I’ve done a significant amount of walking (and I hope to do a lot more). I have gone grocery shopping and to Target. I’ve figured out the transit system, more or less. I’ve cooked two meals in my rental apartment, which is seeming more homey by the hour.

My plan, while I am here, is to write a book on science & values. It is the area I’ve been working in most since I finished my dissertation, and one where I’ve slowly developed my ideas in bits and pieces in my philosophical articles over the last 7 years. I think I’m finally ready to put it all together, and I think it will take a book to do it. The book will also be informed by the work on ethical decision-making in engineering research and design that I’ve been engaged with for the past several years with my collaborators at UT Dallas.

The book is engaged primarily with the current debates about values in science, but it draws on two other influences. One is the pragmatism of John Dewey, particularly his views on the logic of inquiry, the nature of values, and the role of science in society. The other is the philosophy of science in practice, a tradition that includes (in my view) the early Thomas Kuhn, the later Paul Feyerabend, Norwood Russell Hanson, Nancy Cartwright, John Dupré, and Hasok Chang, and also closely connected with the work of, among others, Peter Galison and Bruno Latour.

The tentative title of the book is “Science and the Moral Imagination.” I’m sure I will post again about the content of the book. The basic ideas behind the project are (1) that the scientific quest for knowledge and the ethical quest for a good life and a just society are deeply interrelated pursuits, ultimately inextricable from one another; (2) that scientific inquiry involves a series of interlocking, contingent, and open choices, which can only be resolved intelligently and responsibly through a process of value judgment; and, (3) that “research ethics” or “responsible conduct of research” should be a process not merely of compliance with prior given principles or edicts, but should involve the creative projection of consequences (in the broadest sense), and evaluation of those consequences. It is this latter (clumsily expressed) point that I hope to capture with the phrase “moral imagination.” To put the point differently, I seek to explicate and defend an ideal for science according to which “seekers of knowledge” ought to “use their creativity to make the world a better place in which to live.”

What I’m reading this week: John Dewey & Moral Imagination: Pragmatism in Ethics by Steven Fesmire and Science, Values, and Democracy (Descartes Lecture Draft) by Heather Douglas.
What I’m writing: My commentary on Heather’s Lecture #1 on “Science and Values,” and my presentation for the Descartes Lectures Conference. (Why did I say I would do both??)
Other stuff I’m working on: Learning my way around Pittsburgh; establishing a routine; improving my diet and exercise; getting into the habit of blogging more.
What I’m doing for fun: Walking; reading The Waste Lands by Stephen King; meeting new people.

Dewey’s Definition of “Cognition”?

This week in CCC we’re reading the first part of Jean Lave’s Cognition in Practice (1988). Lave is one of the major figures in the area of so-called “Situated Cognition.” This sounds to my ear a little bit like the less conservative “Embedded Cognition” approaches which emphasize that environmental situatedness is important for understanding cognition, without thinking that features of the situation are constitutive of cognition. It is clear from the get-go that this is not in fact Lave’s view:

It will be argued here… that a more appropriate unit of analysis is the whole person in action, acting with the settings of that activity. This shifts the boundaries of activity well outside the skull and beyond the hypothetical economic actor, to persons engaged with the world…

It is within this framework that the idea of cognition as stretched across mind, body, activity and setting begins to make sense. (p. 17-18, emphasis added)

I am drawn back (no surprise) to John Dewey. John Dewey says, in the preface of his 1938 Logic, that throughout the work he refers to “inquiry” where he had previously referred to “thinking.” Perhaps we could adapt his definition of “inquiry” as a definition of “cognition” for situated cognition theory:

[Cognition] is the directed or controlled transformation of an indeterminate situation into a determinately unified one. (“The Pattern of Inquiry,” Logic, 1938, LW 12).

Could be a start.

American Pragmatism, Fall 2012

“Post-modernist skeptics and their few neopragmatist  admirers turn to the old pragmatists because they (correctly) see them as potential partners in a struggle against ‘strong’, that is, absolutist and ‘totalizing’, conceptions of truth. But what they neglect is the old pragmatists’ conviction… that once they had overcome absolutism, they could then resume traveling down the road of inquiry in a more fuel-efficient vehicle than Reason toward a more modest destination than Truth.” — Robert Westbrook

Course Description

This course will focus on America’s only original philosophical tradition: Pragmatism. American pragmatism is a diverse tradition, united by a common interest in a robust account of human experience, the fallibility of our knowledge, truth as a human phenomenon, and the relation of theory to practice. We will focus on several of the classical pragmatists and neo-pragmatists, including Charles S. Peirce, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., John Dewey, Jane Addams, Alain Locke, Richard Rorty, and Cornel West.

Student Learning Objectives/Outcomes

  • Students will demonstrate knowledge of several major figures in the American
    philosophical tradition of Pragmatism, their lives, relationships to one another, and
    their major philosophical ideas.
  • Students will analyze and interpret a significant body of primary works in the
    American pragmatist tradition.
  • Students will engage with a variety of secondary sources on the period and figures
    of study.
  • Students will develop their skills of critical analysis and philosophical argumentation.

Required Texts

Abbreviations in [brackets] are used to give page numbers for readings in the course schedulebelow.

Books are on order at Off Campus Books (561 West Campbell Road near Fuzzy’s).

Pragmatism Resources

  • Pragmatism Cybrary – The most systematic repository of research, information, and online resources.
  • The PastMasters Database, which includes the complete works and correspondence of John Dewey, the collected papers and published works of Peirce, and the works of Santayana.

Course Schedule (by week)

  1. Introduction and Background (8/27)
    • Menand, The Metaphysical Club, Preface + Part One [MC ix–70]
    • Menand, “An Introduction to Pragmatism,” [PR xi-xxxv]
    • Margolis, “Introduction: Pragmatism, Retrospective, and Prospective,” [CP 1–10]
  2. Labor Day Holiday (9/3)
  3. Charles S Peirce – Meaning, Truth, and Inquiry (9/10)
    • “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities” [PR 3–6]
    • “The Fixation of Belief” [PR 7–25]
    • “How to Make Our Ideas Clear” [PR 26–48]
    • “A Definition of Pragmatism” [PR 56–58]
    • Menand, The Metaphysical Club, Part Two [MC 71–148]
    • Colapietro, “C.S. Peirce” [CP 13–29]; Anderson, “Peirce and Cartesian
      Rationalism” [CP 154–165]
  4. Charles S Peirce – Continuity, Chance, and Evolution (9/17)
    • from “A Guess at the Riddle” [PR 49–51]
    • “The Doctrine of Necessity Examined” [online]
    • from “Evolutionary Love” [PR 52–55]
    • Haack, “Not Cynicism, but Synechism” [CP 141–53]
    • Metaphysical Club Part Three [MC 149-232]
  5. William James (9/24)
    • from The Principles of Psychology [PR 59–68]
    • “The Will to Believe” [PR 69–92]
    • “What Pragmatism Means” [PR 93–111]
    • “Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth” [PR 112–131]
    • Suckiel, “William James” [CP 30–43]
  6. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. – Pragmatism and the Law (10/1)
    • from “Lecture I: Early Forms of Liability,” in The Common Law (1881) [PR
    • from “Lecture III: Torts – Trespass and Negligence,” in The Common Law (1881)
      [PR 139-141]
    • “The Path of the Law” (1897) [PR 145-159]
    • from “Ideals and Doubts” (1915) [PR 170-172]
    • “Natural Law” (1918) [PR 173-177]
    • from Abrams v. United States (1919) [PR 178-181]
    • Posner, “Introduction” to The Essential Holmes [online]
    • Morton White, “Rule, Ruling, and Prediction in the Law: Hart v. Holmes”  from A Philosophy of Culture [online]
  7. John Dewey – The Reconstruction of Philosophy (10/8)
  8. John Dewey – Inquiry, Science, and Art (10/15)
    • from How We Think (1933) [online]
    • from Logic: the Theory of Inquiry [Part I, Part II, Bonus: Part III] [online]
    • “Experience, Nature, and Art” [PR 233–264]
    • from Art as Experience [Part I, Part II] [online]
    • Hickman, “Dewey’s Theory of Inquiry” [RD Ch. 9]
    • Alexander, “The Art of Life: Dewey’s Aesthetics” [RD Ch. 1]
  9. John Dewey – Moral and Political Philosophy (10/22)
  10. Jane Addams – Radical Pragmatism (10/29)
    • from “A Function of the Social Settlement” [PR 272–286]
    • Haddock Seigfried, “Introduction” [DS ix-xxxviii]
    • “Introduction” [DS 5–10]
    • “Charitable Effort” [DS 11–34]
    • “Filial Relations” [DS 35–47]
    • “Political Reform” [DS 98–120]
    • “Problems of Poverty” [online]
    • Fischer, “Jane Addams” [CP 79–86]
    • Hamington, “Jane Addams”
  11. Alain LeRoy Locke (11/5)
  12. The Middle Period – Pragmatism and the Rise of Analytic Philosophy (11/12)
  13. Thanksgiving Holiday (11/19)
  14. Richard Rorty (11/26)
  15. Cornel West – Prophetic Pragmatism (12/3)
  16. Feminist Pragmatism (12/10)


Graded Assignments

  1. Questions on the readings — Email the professor 2-3 questions about the primary texts at least 24 hours prior to class. Students are responsible for submitting questions at least 10 of the 13 weeks of substantive class meetings (not counting the introductory class). These questions will form the basis of in-class discussion. Questions can be of the following types:
    1. Interpretive questions – Questions about how to interpret particular concepts or arguments from the text. Must include reference to a specific passage or passages for close reading and proposed options or strategies of interpretation.
    2. Critical questions – Questions which critically analyze or challenge certain key ideas in the primary text. You must clearly explain the concept or argument being challenged.
    3. Historical questions – Questions that explore the larger historical context of the thinker being discussed. These questions should be specific and make reference to the content of a certain idea. You need to give us enough to have something to discuss: e.g., a question of influence between philosophers should point to passages of text and biographical details that at least give some reason to raise the question of influence.
    4. Application questions – As pragmatism is deeply concerned with the relation of theory and practice, it is apropos to ask how certain pragmatist ideas can be applied. A clear explanation of the concept or argument being questioned, along with the context of application to be explored. The application should raise some interesting philosophical point, such as providing a potential counter-example or illuminating some unappreciated feature of the idea.

    Do not skimp on explaining and elaborating the question.

  2. Participation in class discussion — A necessary part of developing ones scholarly
    skills, especially in philosophy. Based on class attendance, frequency and quality of
  3. Term paper — details TBA.

Evaluation Standards

The following is a clarification for the purposes of this course of UTD’s official policy with
respect to grading standards.

  • An A grade indicates excellent work. A work has something to say and says it well. It displays a subtle and nuanced understanding of the texts, develops arguments clearly and effectively, and reflects insightfully on the course material. It often rises above other work in terms of creativity and sophistication, or it may add something valuable to the discussion that goes beyond merely fulfilling the letter of the requirements. Only few, minor mistakes are present.
  • A B grade indicates good work, but with room for improvement. Such work displays a clear understanding of the text, develops arguments consistently with a clear aim, and is thoughtful and careful. The presence of serious errors must not impair the clarity of an argument or the overall understanding of a text. B work is in many ways successful, but lacks the sophistication or originality of A work.
  • A C grade indicates marginal work. It shows a basically adequate understanding of the key parts of the text. Arguments aim at a central claim, though they may rely on unsupported or insufficiently developed ideas. More serious errors may be present, so long as the central claims and basic understandings are not undermined.
  • Work which deserves a grade less than C is considered poor and will display some of the following problems: it fails to show adequate understanding of the text; it fails to understand the assignment; it fails to articulate a coherent or adequate argument; it fails to reflect on the content of the course; it displays such pervasive grammatical errors as to be highly obscure in meaning.

Course & Instructor Policies

Late Work / Make-up Exams

No late work or make-up exams will be allowed without consent of the professor prior to the due/exam date, except in situations where University policy requires it.

Class Attendance

While reading and writing are crucial parts of the course, the central philosophical activity is live discussion. While class will occasionally involve bits of lecture, this is merely an instrument to a more well-informed discussion. Attendance is thus considered mandatory.

Classroom expectations

You are expected to have read the assignments before class, and it would be to your benefit to also read them again after class. You are expected to bring all of the texts assigned for each day’s class, and have them available to refer to. You are expected to listen respectfully to the professor and your fellow students, and participate in class discussions and activities.

Further standard University policies can be found at