The Psychology of Ethics


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Most major ethical theories in philosophy suffer from their not seeming to reflect quite how most people make ethical determinations. We can say that reflects a failing of people, but to be sure, such theories are testing against ethical intuitions in the literature. Which is to say that a given theory is often said to fail if it can be shown to logically necessitate a bad course of action being taken if followed rigorously. This makes the whole enterprise of deciding between consequentialism, deontology, and value ethics; seem somewhat farcical.

How do people decide what is right? There appear to be a number of different ways, some of which the above theories try to make the focus of ethical determinations. We can say first, that many statements of ethical positions seem to owe to rote repetition. For example, someone could say it is wrong to wear jeans to church, because they were told that it is wrong to wear jeans to church. That is not to say that a person could not turn around and justify their belief if pressed, but such justification and contemplation of the proposition would come after the fact.

So our first source of ethical positions appears to be their having been learned by rote, and our second will be direct transference from emotional response. A person may say it is wrong to hurt cats, because they feel disgusted by the idea of a cat being hurt. I say "direct" transference, because this thinking goes straight from disgust at cats being hurt, to a belief in the universal wrongness of hurting cats. A person may believe, though, that it is right for a veterinarian to hurt cats to prevent them greater pain, which owes to direct transference, but also a weighing of consequences, which will be our third method.

So we have as our sources: rote repetition of principle, direct transference from emotional responses, and lastly the consideration of consequences. Comments, contentions? Did I forget anything?
After thinking more, there seems to be a fourth source. That is the adoption of principle given by law or authority. We can imagine a person thinking it wrong to walk in the park after midnight, because it is illegal to walk in the park after midnight. This differs from rote repetition as it is not simply repeated or followed, but done so due to the believed legitimacy of an authority.
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