Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Deontological Confabulation

Emilian Mihailov (pictured below) is the Executive Director of the Research Centre in Applied Ethics (CCEA) and a teaching assistant at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Bucharest. Currently he is working on the implications of experimental moral psychology and neuroscience for normative and applied ethics.

I will present some ideas I developed in my paper “Is deontology a moral confabulation?”, recently published in Neuroethics.

Here is a provoking thought. What if the effort of philosophical theorizing is an exercise in moral confabulation to polish off track emotional responses, admitingly hard to resist given their evolutionary roots? Joshua Greene speculates that if you mix the fact we are largely driven by strong emotional responses with the tendency to make up plausible sounding stories to justify or explain these responses, you get deontological moral philosophy.

As a philosopher who has done some work in the Kantian tradition, was I confabulating? I the paper I argue, hopefully in a non-motivated way, that the evidence used by Greene does not support the confabulation hypothesis, and that even if we accept it we should not be too worried.

One suspicion I start with is that paradigmatic cases of confabulation do not seem to fit the relevant model for Greene’s ambitious attack on deontology, namely what I call alarm-like emotion based confabulation. Since established cases tend to favour a neutral model, which is not committed to a particular content of behavioural causes (cognitive/emotional), it is puzzling to expect outright alarm-like confabulations in philosophical theorizing.

This puzzle leads to a deeper reason as to why the confabulation hypothesis is problematic. Why is the case that paradigmatic cases are not driven by alarm-like emotions? By looking at the conducive conditions for confabulation, I argue that there is an inherent resistance on the part of alarm-like emotions to be subject to confabulation. A confabulation is likely to occur when stimuli are not salient and are not plausible causes of belief or action. And vice versa, a confabulation is unlikely to occur when stimuli are salient and plausible causes. 

But alarm-like emotions are highly salient, blunt, simple and almost forces one to issue strong commands such as “Don’t do it!”. Thus, it is unlikely to expect people to have alarm-like emotions that are activated by the tragic conditions of moral dilemmas, used to pit deontological judgements against consequentialist judgements, and not know what the tragedy is about. Understanding what is conducive to confabulatory behaviour suggests that it is resistant to Greene’s profile of the psychological “essence” of deontology. 

Now suppose that the justification of a particular deontological judgement is, indeed, a confabulation. What debunking force has this fact? Should deontological theory be threatened? The deployment of knowledge in particular cases is ill-grounded in confabulation tendencies, not the content of the justifications or explanations in general. If we make this clarification, confabulation data can only support an argument that deontology is incorrectly applied in particular cases, not that it is faulty theory in general. 

And if a deontological confabulation is to sound like a plausible story, then it has to involve some valid features, because the way non-pathological confabulation works is by picking up content from shared knowledge and norms that people endorse in general. Ironically, admitting cases of deontological confabulation implies accepting that, in general, deontology has some epistemic merit from which confabulations get their prima facie plausibility.

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