How moral dilemmas illuminate cognitive structure

In philosophy, a debate can live forever. Nowhere is this more evident than in ethics, a field that is fueled by apparently intractable dilemmas. To promote the wellbeing of many, may we sacrifice the rights of a few? If our actions are predetermined, can we be held responsible for them? Should people be judged on their intentions alone, or also by the consequences of their behavior? Is failing to prevent someone’s death as blameworthy as actively causing it? For generations, questions like these have provoked passionate arguments and counterarguments, but few clear answers. Here, we offer a psychological account of why philosophical dilemmas arise, why they resist resolution, and why scientists should pay attention to them. Building on a family of recent proposals (Cushman & Young, 2009; Greene, 2008; Sinnott- Armstrong, 2008), we argue that dilemmas result from conflict between dissociable psychological processes. When two such processes yield different answers to the same question, that question becomes a “dilemma”. No matter which answer you choose, part of you walks away dissatisfied. This explanation of philosophical dilemmas has an important payoff for psychological research, and we discuss two specific cases in which it has yielded promising results. In each case, social neuroscience has played an important role in distinguishing the psychological processes responsible for producing a dilemma. This, we suggest, is no accident; cognitive neuroscientific methods are particularly well-suited to dissociating independent psychological processes (Henson, 2006). Consequently, philosophers’ dilemmas provide a reliable guide toward productive cognitive neuroscience by identifying the contours of distinct psychological process. The research we review below focuses particularly on moral dilemmas, which is our own area of expertise. The psychological processes that contribute to moral judgment are of interest in their own right, and play a central role in social cognition..
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