Still philosophy, even if empirically supported!

Two related notices arrived in my email today.  (There should be a technical term for coincidental content-alerts in philosophy.)  The first was an automated delivery of a review of The Moral Psychology Handbook; the reviewer, Dan Haybron, begins with the promising comment:

Around a decade ago, a leading moral philosopher told me flatly, “psychology is irrelevant for ethics.” That was not, at the time, an unusual sentiment. It is hard to imagine anyone saying such a thing today (not, at any rate, publicly).  Should any doubts remain, The Moral Psychology Handbook should swiftly put them to rest.

Yes, Haybron and I were both already inclined to endorse empirical projects, but that’s because we’re so very, very correct!  And even if it isn’t always appropriate to appeal to the empirical realm, at least in the case of this Handbook, it is a success.

The chapters are richly informed by empirical research. The empirical focus, note, is not placed in opposition to philosophical reflection, but employed to inform it. This is still philosophy.

This gives me a shot in my feminist arm!  Here I was beginning to lose the courage of my convictions that embodied and concrete experiences should inform our philosophical efforts, and that gender is especially relevant to so many of the conceptual analyses we do in ethics.

The second related alert was a note from an FP reader regarding an article provocatively titled, “The Dark Side of Forgiveness: The Tendency to Forgive Predicts Continued Psychological and Physical Aggression in Marriage” (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2011 37: 770).  The longitudinal study is fascinating on several levels, although the title somewhat overstates the conclusions.  Hearing about this was a valuable reminder of the extent to which philosophers tend to appeal to hypothetical examples of heterosexual married couples when spinning conceptual analyses of forgiveness.  Imagine how philosophical habits might change if we attended to the experiences of actual married couples instead of relying on the handy cultural narratives we tend to assume we share!  And I haven’t even gotten to the wacky, wild, gutsy possibility that we appeal to concrete examples of intimate relationships other than the heterosexually arranged marriage. 

More on the “Dark Side of Forgiveness” after I’ve really absorbed the data, but in the short run, I can already attest that the findings do not significantly vary between the husbands and wives in the study; sex is not a predictor of re-offense, according to the authors.  Unfortunately, when it comes to serious harm, forgiving might be a predictor of re-offense.

3 thoughts on “Still philosophy, even if empirically supported!

  1. Re: the article, check out some of his other pubs though: http://psp.sagepub.com/search?author1=James+K.+McNulty&sortspec=date&submit=Submit

    E.g., “Marriages Are More Satisfying When Wives Are Thinner Than Their Husbands”

    Yikes!

    I also don’t think the connection between the empirical and the embodied/experiential is at all straightforward. If anything, I think the x-phi turn currently tends to undermine the effort to have our self-reports and experiences taken seriously. I’m with you on it being a crucial effort though!

  2. Agreed re: x-phi, but I’m happy to report that Haybron’s review of the _Handbook_ includes the comment, “First, there is refreshingly little discussion of ‘experimental philosophy,’ though several of the authors are leading figures in that movement.” This is a point in its favor!

    Regarding psychologist McNulty’s other works, I couldn’t say what their quality is, but he certain seems to be one of the authors of a few overdone titles, doesn’t he! Yes.

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