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Conclusion: Yet Another Puzzle

The research on dumbfounding and disengagement confronts us with a third puzzle which any acceptable theory of moral intution and action should solve.

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Our overall question for this lecture was, How, if at all, does a person’s reasoning influence their moral judgements?

From the two bodies of research on moral dumbfounding and moral disengagement, we can conclude that any answer to this question must be consistent the discovery that moral judgements are sometimes, but not always, a consequence of reasoning from known principles.

Further, there is no special reason to suppose that reasoning might not give rise to characteristically deontological as well as characteristically consequentialist moral judgements; or contractualist judgements (Scanlon, 1998) or any other kind of moral judgements.

As we have seen, this is a problem for proponents of a Linguistic Analogy.[1] It is also an objection to several researchers’ strong claims about reasoning functioning only for giving retrospective justification for moral judgements that have already been made (as we saw in Moral Disengagement: Significance). Looking forward (hold this in mind for the future), it is also perhaps a problem for to Greene’s dual-process theory, which we have yet to encounter (Greene, Morelli, Lowenberg, Nystrom, & Cohen, 2008; Greene, 2014).

Four Puzzles (Review)

We have now seen four puzzles ...

[emotion] Why do feelings of disgust (and perhaps other emotions) sometimes influence moral judgements? And why do we sometimes feel disgust in response to moral transgressions? (see Moral Intuitions and Emotions: Evaluating the Evidence)

[structure] Why do patterns in moral judgements reflect legal principles humans are typically unaware of? (see A Linguistic Analogy)

[order-effects] Why are people’s moral judgements about Switch and Drop subject to order-of-presentation effects (see Framing Effects and Mikhail’s Linguistic Analogy)[2]

[dumbfounding-disengagement] Why are moral judgements sometimes, but not always, a consequence of reasoning from known principles? (see Moral Dumbfounding and Moral Disengagement: The Theory)

Why The Four Puzzles Matter

To understand the roles of feeling and reasoning in moral intuitions and judgements, we must identify or create a theory that can solve the puzzles, is theoretically coherent and empirically motivated, and generates novel testable predictions.

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characteristically consequentialist : According to Greene, a judgement is characteristically consequentialist (or characteristically utilitarian) if it is one in ‘favor of characteristically consequentialist conclusions (eg, “Better to save more lives”)’ (Greene, 2007, p. 39). According to Gawronski, Armstrong, Conway, Friesdorf, & Hütter (2017, p. 365), ‘a given judgment cannot be categorized as [consequentialist] without confirming its property of being sensitive to consequences.’
characteristically deontological : According to Greene, a judgement is characteristically deontological if it is one in ‘favor of characteristically deontological conclusions (eg, “It’s wrong despite the benefits”)’ (Greene, 2007, p. 39). According to Gawronski et al. (2017, p. 365), ‘a given judgment cannot be categorized as deontological without confirming its property of being sensitive to moral norms.’
Drop : A dilemma; also known as Footbridge. A runaway trolley is about to run over and kill five people. You can hit a switch that will release the bottom of a footbridge and one person will fall onto the track. The trolley will hit this person, slow down, and not hit the five people further down the track. Is it okay to hit the switch?
moral disengagement : Moral disengagement occurs when self-sanctions are disengaged from conduct. To illustrate, an executioner may avoid self-sanctioning for killing by reframing the role they play as ‘babysitting’ (Bandura, 2002, p. 103). Bandura (2002, p. 111) identifies several mechanisms of moral disengagement: ‘The disengagement may centre on redefining harmful conduct as honourable by moral justification, exonerating social comparison and sanitising language. It may focus on agency of action so that perpetrators can minimise their role in causing harm by diffusion and displacement of responsibility. It may involve minimising or distorting the harm that follows from detrimental actions; and the disengagement may include dehumanising and blaming the victims of the maltreatment.’
moral dumbfounding : ‘the stubborn and puzzled maintenance of an [ethical] judgment without supporting reasons’ (Haidt, Bjorklund, & Murphy, 2000, p. 1). As McHugh, McGann, Igou, & Kinsella (2017) note, subsequent researchers have given different definitions of moral dumbfounding so that ‘there is [currently] no single, agreed definition of moral dumbfounding.’ I adopt the original authors’ definition, as should you unless there are good reasons to depart from it.
moral intuition : According to this lecturer, a person’s intuitions are the claims they take to be true independently of whether those claims are justified inferentially. And a person’s moral intuitions are simply those of their intuitions that concern ethical matters.
According to Sinnott-Armstrong, Young, & Cushman (2010, p. 256), moral intuitions are ‘strong, stable, immediate moral beliefs.’
Trolley : A dilemma; also known as Switch. A runaway trolley is about to run over and kill five people. You can hit a switch that will divert the trolley onto a different set of tracks where it will kill only one. Is it okay to hit the switch?


Bandura, A. (2002). Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency. Journal of Moral Education, 31(2), 101–119.
Gawronski, B., Armstrong, J., Conway, P., Friesdorf, R., & Hütter, M. (2017). Consequences, norms, and generalized inaction in moral dilemmas: The CNI model of moral decision-making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(3), 343–376.
Greene, J. D. (2007). The Secret Joke of Kant’s Soul. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral Psychology, Vol. 3 (pp. 35–79). MIT Press.
Greene, J. D. (2014). Beyond Point-and-Shoot Morality: Why Cognitive (Neuro)Science Matters for Ethics. Ethics, 124(4), 695–726.
Greene, J. D., Morelli, S. A., Lowenberg, K., Nystrom, L. E., & Cohen, J. D. (2008). Cognitive load selectively interferes with utilitarian moral judgment. Cognition, 107(3), 1144–1154.
Haidt, J., Bjorklund, F., & Murphy, S. (2000). Moral dumbfounding: When intuition finds no reason. Unpublished manuscript, University of Virginia.
McHugh, C., McGann, M., Igou, E. R., & Kinsella, E. L. (2017). Searching for Moral Dumbfounding: Identifying Measurable Indicators of Moral Dumbfounding. Collabra: Psychology, 3(1), 23.
Petrinovich, L., & O’Neill, P. (1996). Influence of wording and framing effects on moral intuitions. Ethology and Sociobiology, 17(3), 145–171.
Scanlon, T. M. (1998). What we owe to each other. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Schwitzgebel, E., & Cushman, F. (2015). Philosophers’ biased judgments persist despite training, expertise and reflection. Cognition, 141, 127–137.
Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, Young, L., & Cushman, F. (2010). Moral intuitions. In J. M. Doris, M. P. R. Group, & others (Eds.), The moral psychology handbook (pp. 246–272). Oxford: OUP.
Wiegmann, A., Okan, Y., & Nagel, J. (2012). Order effects in moral judgment. Philosophical Psychology, 25(6), 813–836.


  1. A linguistic analogy was introduced in A Linguistic Analogy; we saw arguments against it in Moral Disengagement: Significance. ↩︎

  2. Petrinovich & O’Neill (1996, p. Study 2); Wiegmann, Okan, & Nagel (2012); Schwitzgebel & Cushman (2015) ↩︎