Johnson, Mark. Morality for Humans: Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science

By Holtzman, Geoffrey S. | The Review of Metaphysics, June 2016 | Go to article overview

Johnson, Mark. Morality for Humans: Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science


Holtzman, Geoffrey S., The Review of Metaphysics


JOHNSON, Mark. Morality for Humans: Ethical Understanding from the Perspective of Cognitive Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014. xii + 261 pp. Cloth, $35.00; paper, $21.00--In the 1970s and 1980s, cognitive psychologists shattered economists' illusion of "homo economicus," the ideally rational agent of economic activity. In a similar way, Johnson seeks to shatter the illusion of what we might call "homo philosophicus," the ideally rational (and epistemically privileged) agent of moral-philosophical inquiry. To this end, Johnson gives us a treatise on how and why some recently discovered limitations of human understanding support a pragmatist, naturalist ethics.

The book is in large part a defense of John Dewey, to whom Johnson devotes more than two dozen block quotes. As usual, Johnson's prose is eminently readable and quite lucid. He makes plain his main theses in the introduction and summarizes his arguments concisely in the final chapter. He believes that moral judgment requires a form of problem-solving, one that involves not only reason and emotion, but also "dramatic imaginative rehearsal," a concept he borrows from Dewey. I found this concept intriguing, but would have liked more explanation of just what it is supposed to be.

Johnson ultimately argues that findings in cognitive science demand a major overhaul of Western moral theories. He opines that philosophy cannot provide us with absolute standards of moral behavior and that monism, realism, and fundamentalism may actually undermine our efforts to lead moral lives. To support his views, Johnson draws on a wealth of knowledge compiled by cognitive scientists over the past half-century.

However, he does not always share that wealth with us directly. For instance, in chapter one he tells us that cognition is embodied and situated; that there is no such thing as radically free will; that scientific inquiry is always value-laden; and that emotion and reason cannot be neatly separated. Yet he does not fully engage with the literature examining these claims. Of course, Johnson's book is not meant to defend these claims, but I would encourage anyone assigning the text to a class to make sure all students understand that the premises set forth in the first chapter are not universally taken for granted.

In the following three chapters, Johnson shares his views on where moral values come from: organic functioning and well-being, interpersonal relations, social interactions and institutions, and self-cultivation. These views are concisely and convincingly defended by reference to philosophers such as Flanagan and Churchland, and to scientists like Damasio and Haidt. …

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