The Philosophy Café

this month's topic:

Is Moral Reasoning a Waste of Time?


February 20, 2013
8:30 PM


Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138


This event is free; no tickets are required.

The Philosophy Café at Harvard Book Store is a monthly gathering meant for the informal, relaxed, philosophical discussion of topics of mutual interest to participants. No particular expertise is required to participate, only a desire to explore philosophy and its real-world applications. More information can be found at

The Philosophy Café is held on the third Wednesday of each month at 7:30 in the Used Book department on the lower level of Harvard Book Store.

This Month: Is Moral Reasoning a Waste of Time?

The empirical research of Jonathan Haidt and others challenges the belief that moral reasoning has any real effect upon the moral decisions we make.  Most philosophers have historically affirmed the practical relevance of moral reasoning. Some philosophers (particularly Kant) demand that reason should dominate our moral thinking.  In fact, in Kant’s view, to the extent that a judgment is based on gut emotions, it is NOT genuinely moral.  Hume, on the other hand, argued that we had an innate tendency to feel positively about what maximizes human utility and negatively about what maximizes disutility.  Although, in Hume’s view, the moral decision itself is emotional, reason helps construct the understanding of an act’s utility, to which we react emotionally.  John Rawls is foremost among philosophers who see moral judgments as consisting of a meld of reasoning and emotional reaction.  For Rawls, we reach moral conclusions by bringing our emotions and our reasons into harmony with each other (a state he labels reflective equilibrium.)  In all of these philosophical accounts of moral judgment, reason plays a key role.  What if philosophers have been wrong about that?  What if our actual moral decisions were largely independent of any moral reasoning? Would moral reasoning be reduced to a parlor game?

Some psychologists and some research suggest that, with respect to morality, we tend to make up our reasons after we have already made judgments.  Those moral positions are generally, according to this point of view, taken on the basis of our gut emotional intuitions not reasons.  Nor, according to this analysis, do we, on the whole, change our moral views on the basis of reasoned arguments.Should we accept this analysis?  If we were to, what purpose would moral reasoning serve?  Are we or should we be invested in reason driving our moral decisions?  



A series of postings on the New York Times Philosophy blog, The Stone, debating these issues:

Michael Lynch:

Gary Gutting:

Jonathan Haidt:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Reflective Equilibrium:

Norman Daniels:

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Article on Kant’s Moral Philosophy:

Robert Johnson:

Review of Hume’s Book on Ethics:



Used Books Department
1256 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

Walking from the Harvard Square T station: 2 minutes

As you exit the station, reverse your direction and walk east along Mass. Ave. in front of the Cambridge Savings Bank. Cross Dunster St. and proceed along Mass. Ave for three more blocks. You will pass Au Bon Pain, JP Licks, and the Adidas Store. Harvard Book Store is located at the corner of Mass. Ave. and Plympton St.

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