I saw this research paper titled "Moral reasoning as perception", and I was wondering how is it possible to conceive "moral reasoning" as a perception. I would agree that some part of our abstract thinking revolves around "how we perceive abstract concepts mentally", but to consider the whole of "moral reasoning" as a perception sounds like nonsense to me. To be honest, I haven't read the paper, but I was wondering how can "moral reasoning" could even be construed as the act of perceiving, because it is so much more than that.

  • 2
    Headlines are mottos that are meant to be taken "in the spirit", not literally. Already in the abstract it says "Gilligan's understanding of moral reasoning as a kind of perception". There is a lot more explanation in the paper itself, you should read it first, here is a Jstor link.
    – Conifold
    Aug 30 '19 at 21:42
  • You can equally well interpret logic as a form of perception. We know we are being logical when we feel a certain kind of clarity. We learn by exposure to shape that feeling so it is reliable and reflects what those around us find rational. Then we trust it above them. We also know we are being moral because we can invest our choices with a certain kind of care. We learn from others what morality is, and shape that feeling of investment. And then we trust it above those others. The facility for consistently identifying internal emotions are as much a form of perception as is sight.
    – user9166
    Aug 31 '19 at 3:53

Reasoning and perception

We need to draw distinctions. Can any moral reasoning be perceptual ('how can "moral reasoning" ...be construed as the act of perceiving?) and Is all moral reasoning perceptual ('to consider the whole of "moral reasoning" as a perception sounds like nonsense to me'). Whatever the relations between them, these questions are not the same. A 'yes' to the first does not commit us to a 'yes' to the second.

I'll fix on the first question because it is more basic. We can't say 'yes' to the second question if we answer 'no' to the first.

A widely held idea separates perception and reasoning. Reasoning and perception are taken to be radically distinct; and so no moral reasoning can be perceptual. I don't agree with this idea but it is supported by the following argument:

Inference is active, perception is passive. In inference, I set my mind to work something out, whereas in perception, something 'just comes to me'?I am subject to an occurrence that I do not make happen, except in the minimal sense in which I can, e.g., choose in which direction I look. Inference is experienced as structured, perception as simple: to perform an inference is, normally, to run through a number of steps of reasoning, whereas perceiving some thing is a step-less, instantaneous whole. So perception is quick where inference is slow: perceiving something can happen instantaneously, inferring something normally takes time. (Dennett on chess again (op. cit. p. 42): 'the scale of compression when one adopts the intentional stance4 towards the two-dimensional chess-playing computer galaxy is stupendous: it is the difference between figuring out in your head what white's most likely (best) move is [and] calculating the state of a few trillion pixels through a few hundred thousand generations.') (Timothy Chappell, 'Moral Perception', Philosophy, Vol. 83, No. 326 (Oct., 2008), pp. 421-437: 427-8; Dennett, 'Daniel Dennett, 'Real Patterns', Journal of Philosophy 88.1 (1991): 27-51: 34, 42.)

If we accept this line of argument then

Rejecting the separation between reasoning or inference and perception

If I can see that a glowing poker is hot, this is a perceptual judgement with inference built into it. Of course I cannot directly or immediately see the heat, or the hotness, of the poker but I have enough experience of heat and pokers to infer - to reason - that this kind of appearance in a poker is an indication that it is hot. The judgement that a glowing poker is hot is both perceptual and inferential. The inference will usually be unconscious in adult perceivers, experienced that is to say as a dispositional belief or habitual reaction.

Bringing perception into moral reasoning

I introduce David McNaughton at this point:

We might suppose that the only properties that can be observed [GT: perceived] are the 'proper objects' of the five senses: touch, shape, and texture; hearing, sound, and so on. If we adopt this austere account of what can be perceived it is clear that not only moral properties but a great many of the things we normally take our selves to perceive will be, strictly speaking, unobservable. If, on the other hand, we are prepared to allow that I can see that this cliff is dangerous, that Smith is worried, or that one thing is further away than another [GT: or that a poker is hot], then there seems no reason to be squeamish about letting in moral observation. (D. McNaughten, Moral Vision, Oxford: Blackwell, 1988: 57.)

The nature of moral perception

So far all seems clear enough, by which I mean only that there appears to be conceptual space in which to connect reasoning and perception and to extend perception - including inferential perception - into the moral sphere. But is this conceptual possibility a real possibility? If moral perception or observation is to be a real possibility then there are, one or at least I would expect there to be, moral properties to be perceived. Are there any such properties? To suppose that there are is to subscribe to one of the many forms of moral realism.

Here we encounter all the problems that writers such as J.L. Mackie and Simon Blackburn raise against the likelihood or plausibility of the existence of moral properties. To begin, there is a supervenience problem for moral properties.

[I]f A has some naturalistic properties, and is also good, but its goodness is a distinct further fact not following [logically] from its naturalistic features {GT: it is in the lingo 'supervenient' on them], and if B has those features as well, then it follows that B also is good. And this is a puzzle for the realist, because there is no reason at all, on his theory, why this should follow. If the goodness is, as it were, an ex gratia payment to A, one to which A is not as a matter of logic entitled in virtue of being as it is in all naturalistic respects, then it should be consistent to suppose that although goodness was given to A, it was not given to B, which merely shares the naturalistic features that do not entail the goodness. (Simon Blackburn, Essays in Quasi-Realism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993: 119.)

In other words, an action A (say) cannot have just, nothing but, the moral property of goodness. It needs other properties: it must occur at a time, it must have effects or consequences, it must be done by an agent and so on. These we may call its naturalistic properties. On these properties its moral properties - in this case the moral property of goodness - supervene.

Moral realism generally involves that view that if two actions, A and B, are identical or relevantly similar in all their naturalistic properties, then they must be identical or relevantly similar in all their moral properties. If a moral realist commits herself to this view, on what is the 'must' based ?

More than that, morality is widely understood to be action-guiding. If, as a moral agent, someone capable of morality and concerned to act morally, I see some maltreatment of a child by an adult, or bullying between children, to take just two examples then I am motivated to act on what I have seen and, all else equal, to intervene on behalf of the victim(s). But no other properties have this motivational aspect; and Mackie calls them 'queer' for this reason. If I see two vehicles that will crash into each other unless I make a warning sign, this mere perception will not as such motivate me to do anything. We have to add the contingent desire to prevent harm. That desire cannot be delivered by mere perception or reasoning. Some other account must be offered of it, as Hume recognised (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739-40: II.3.3 & III.1.2).

Further reading

Gilbert Harman, The Nature of Morality, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977: 9.

J.L. Mackie, Ethics: inventing right and wrong, London: Penguin, 38 et passim.


Neitzche addresses this under perspectivism. All morality is the creation of a perception by one class to keep another class enslaved. The morality, as a way of seeing the world, which determines how we function. We move through how we perceive.

This necessitates assumption. We assume a set of values, these values are strictly patterns of behavior (what to do and not to do given a certain context).

These values, as assumed, become self evident to us. We take them without thought, are imprinted by them and these imprints are repeated within our thoughts and behaviors.

Self reflection is thus the repetition of assumptions, with all values as patterns being assumed.

We strictly take a value for what it is basically.

Moral reasoning is thus the connection and seperstion of assumed values within certain contexts.

For example I assume the value of no stealing. In assuming this value I must connect this "assumption" with a current assumption of experience (ie I am hungry and someone else's candy bar is in front of me).

How I connect one assumption (value) to another assumption (experience) in turn will form a further assumption.

So for example I do not take the candy bar. This experience is assumed and connected to the value of not stealing (another assumption), where this value as a perspective is repeated across time giving further definition as to my identity.

The connection of one assumption to another will all assumptions being points of awareness, the values/experiences that guide us, necessitates moral reasoning as having an inherent "form".

One assumption connects to another assumption and this connection takes a linear form or cycle. Platos Justified True Belief, observes the forms as inherent perspectives by default...as they are believed. But as believed they form the perspective of the observer and reciprocally give it form or identity.

So moral reasoning, as the connection and seperation of assumed values and experiences, takes on an inherent form.

This is where we get the word "rational", ie "ratio" in which one set of assumptions effectively exist in a fractal state composed of other assumptions. Thus moral reasoning is the measurement of perspectives by observing how they fit into eachother and replicate across time and space.

Plato alludes to this, but this "reasoning as an inherent form" can be observed in the subjective nature of time and space in kant and heidegger with time and space (composing all things through the subjective self), being embodied by a simple point (persepctive) line (definition) and point (perspective).

Keep in mind that in moral reasoning, reflection is necessary, and requires the formation of a multitude of "points of view" to understand something from different angles.

This can be observed much like a sphere encapsulating chaos to reference the book of the 24 philosophers. The sphere is composed of infinite points with each point representing a perspective. In forming a new perspective we can observe the problem/evil/unactualized potential, from a different angle and eventually give structure to it.

This is most likely why many of the ancients viewed the circle as divine and man as an image of the creator, we use circular reasoning to contain an inherent set of characteristics so we do not fall into chaos. Circular reasoning, along a linear time line, is no different than the repetition of behavior.

This intuitively alludes why pythagoras and Plato, as well as many other philosophers, who were heavily into geometry where into virtue ethics.

Considering the subjective nature of space, we can observed that even the subjective state exists through constant forms of linear and circular reasoning that manifest themselves in fractals.

This fractal form of awareness can be observed with the following example of the golden rule (reciprocity as circular reasoning):

  1. The golden rule is circular

  2. The assumption of assumptions begets a defined "I" (circular) ***we see this with descarts "I think; therefore I am".

  3. This assume of assumption results in a perspective as the recursion of assumptions (circular).

  4. This perspective assumes in assuming itself assumes connection as a value as the assumption of assumptions results in an inherent connection. (Circular)

  5. Connection is assumed as inherent within perspective, thus is given value. Value is the place of one perspective as a focal point to measure reality. (Circular)

  6. In observing a value inherent within my self, ie connected assumptions which enable a stable identity, I value connection with other as a form of stability which enables identity. (Circular)

  7. Etc. As it progresses.

Thus moral reasoning observes an inherent set of fractal reasons as an extension of the original value system (the golden rule).

Each cycle effectively gives order to chaos.

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