Abstract: Conventional wisdom commonly counsels us to place great reliance upon the deliverances of conscience, our impressive mental faculty of intuitive moral perception, for making moral judgments and decisions. But is such counsel wise? Examination of the cognitive mechanisms of conscience operation and formation—beginning with a psychological model that emphasizes the role of stored precedent exemplars in moral recognition, evaluation, and response—suggests six grounds for hesitation: precedents that are mis-classified (having been subjected to distorted moral evaluation), or absent; precedents whose analyses are compromised by lack of pluralistic thoroughness in assessment; compartmentalization-based restrictions on retrieval of precedents from memory; precedents that seem similar to newly-encountered situations but have unmarked morally-significant differences; intuitions that are useless for edifying discussions of moral reasoning; and a bypassing of the explicit moral reasoning that imposes rational pressures toward scrutinizing and justifying our positions. This analysis permits the construction of concrete guidelines for the prudent management and scrupulously careful use of conscience, correcting the common practice of paying insufficiently-critical deference to its decrees. The analysis also highlights our oft-overlooked role as influential shapers of others’ consciences, and provides insights into what is required for fulfilling these moral-instruction responsibilities.
In-person Venue: Suite 1 Seminar Area, Oxford Uehiro Centre, Littlegate House, 16-17 St Ebbe’s Street, Oxford OX1 1PT (buzzer 1)
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