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Reidian Moral Perception

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Terence Cuneo
Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI 49546, USA


It is a common antirealist strategy to reject realism about some domain of entities for broadly epistemological reasons. When this strategy is applied to realism about moral facts, it takes something like the following form:

The moral realist believes that there are full-blooded, irreducible moral facts. But if there are moral facts of this sort, then we shall have no plausible story to tell about how we have epistemic access to them. After all, how can facts about what ought to be the case impinge upon our cognitive faculties so as to produce the corresponding states of knowledge? Indeed, rather than give us any plausible story about how we have epistemic access to moral facts, the realist posits a moral faculty by which we are supposed to ‘intuit’ or ‘see’ moral facts. But in doing so, the realist offers us an overly mysterious epistemology in addition to an already mysterious ontology. But any good theory ought not to multiply mysteries. So, all other things being equal, we ought to reject moral realism.

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Copyright © The Authors 2003

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1 My formulation of the argument owes something to McGinn, Colin Problems in Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell 1993), eh. 6Google Scholar. For variants of this objection, see Mackie, J.L. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin 1977)Google Scholar; Sayre-McCord, GeoffreyCoherentist Epistemology and Moral Theory,’ in Moral Knowledge? Sinnott-Armstrong, W. and Timmons, M. eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1996)Google Scholar; and Darwall, Stephen Philosophical Ethics (Boulder, CO: Westview 1998)Google Scholar — although none of Darwall, Sayre-McCord, or McGinn endorses the argument.

2 Throughout this discussion, I use the term ‘moral quality’ in the semi-technical sense to pick out instances of moral properties at the actual world. I shall understand instances of moral properties to be either moral facts (e.g., that Sam is compassionate) or ‘abstract particulars’ (e.g., this person's wickedness). That Reid himself operated with the notion of an abstract particular is evident (see EIP V.iii: 367).

All references to Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (EIP) and An Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (IHM) are to the critical editions edited by Brookes, Derek R. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 1997 & 2002, respectively)Google Scholar. References to Essays on the Active Powers of Man (EAP) are to the version edited by Brody, Baruch (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 1969)Google Scholar. References follow an essay, chapter, page number format. (The exception to this is references to EAP essay III, which follow an essay, chapter, section and page number format.) Quotations from Reid in the text are followed by references in the text to the relevant passage from Reid's work.

3 ‘Every thing is said to be in the mind, of which the mind is the subject.’ However, we are to remember that ‘this distinction between things in the mind, and things external, is not meant to signify the place of the things we speak of, but their subject’ (EIP I.i: 21-2).

4 ‘Some figures of speech are so natural and so common in all languages, that we are led to think them literal and proper expressions. Thus an action is called brave, virtuous, generous; but it is evident, that valour, virtue, generosity, are the attributes of persons only, and not of actions. In the action considered abstractly, there is neither valour, nor virtue, nor generosity. The same action done from a different motive may deserve none of these epithets. The change in this case is not in the action, but in the agent; yet, in all languages, generosity and other moral qualities are ascribed to actions. By a figure, we assign to the effect a quality which is inherent only in the cause’ (EIP VIII.iii: 587). See also EAP V.iv: 395 and 448.

5 Reid himself distinguishes between perception ‘most properly applied’ and analogical extensions of the term (EIP Ii: 23). It may be that, according to his own criteria, Reid's frequent talk of moral perception is best interpreted as an analogical extension of the term because the objects of perception are things in the mind. See EIP I.i: 22.

6 I borrow the terminology from Nicholas Wolterstorff's recent treatment of Reid in Wolterstorff, Nicholas Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2001)Google Scholar, chs. 5 and 6.

7 In ordinary cases of perception, what Reid calls ‘impressions’ on our sensory organs are not noticed by the perceiver, but occur ‘behind the scenes’ (IHM Vl.xxi: 176-7).

8 When pictured, the Standard schema looks like this: O (e.g., an object's hardness) → impression (physical Stimulus) → sign (e.g., pressure Sensation) → apprehension/ belief. With the exception of the first instance,'→’ Stands for the relation that Reid calls ‘Suggestion.'

9 Diagrammed, the non-standard schema goes as such: O (e.g., an object's roundness) → sign (e.g., an object's elliptical appearance) → impression (physical Stimulus) → apprehension/belief.

10 See IHM VI and EIP Il.xxi: 237.

11 See IHM VI.v: 86, VI.xxii: 186, Vl.xxiii: 191.

12 In another essay, ‘Signs of Value: Reid on the Evidential Role of Feelings in Moral Judgment’ (unpublished), I argue that there is a way by which we can extend what I've called the ‘Standard Schema’ to account for different sorts of cases of moral perception. In such cases, feelings of certain kinds act as signs for moral qualities.

13 ‘What hath imposed upon philosophers in this matter, is, that the feelings of touch, which suggest primary qualities, have no names, nor are they ever reflected upon. They pass through the mind instantaneously, and serve only to introduce the notion and belief of external things, which by our constitution are connected with them. They are natural signs, and the mind immediately passes to the thing signified, without making the least reflection upon the sign, or observing that there was any such thing’ (IHM V.v: 63; also see EIP Il.xvi: 195ff). For similar comments about visual perception, see IHM VI.ii: 81.

14 Reid Claims that there ‘is no reasoning in perception, as hath been observed’ (IHM VI.xx: 172). See, also, EIP II.v: 96. In one place, Reid likens the interpretative element in perception to the way in which we immediately see that a group of letters has a certain meaning. See IHM V.ii: 57.

15 However, to claim that signs of certain kinds immediately evoke or ‘suggest’ apprehension and belief is not, in Reid's view, to offer an explanation of what occurs in perception. See IHM V.viii: 74 and Vl.xii: 121.

16 Wolterstorff, eh. 1. Also see Aiston, WilliamReid on Perception and Conception,’ in The Philosophy of Thomas Reid, Dalgarno, M. and Mathews, E. eds. (Dordrecht: Kluwer 1986)Google Scholar, which offers a similar interpretation of Reid's thought. Here is what Reid says: ‘Conceiving, imagining, apprehending, understanding, having a notion of a thing, are common words, used to express that Operation of the understanding, which the Logicians call simple apprehension. Logicians define simple apprehension to be the bare conception of a thing, without any judgment or belief about it’ (EIP IV.i: 295). Also see EIP I.i: 24 and EIP.vii: 65.

17 Reid himself appears to operate with a similar distinction. Some instances of what Reid calls having a ‘relative’ conception of a thing overlap with what Wolterstorff calls ‘conceptual apprehension’; and some instances of what Reid calls having a ‘direct’ conception of a thing overlap with what Wolterstorff calls ‘acquaintance.’ See EAP I.i: 5-10. Also, see EIP IV.i: 395.

18 Here is another passage in which Reid explicitly brings out the connection:

‘Nature seems to have given to men a faculty or sense, by which this connection [between sign and signified] is perceived. And the Operation of this sense is very analogous to that of the external senses.

‘When I grasp an ivory ball in my hand, I feel a certain Sensation of touch. In the Sensation, there is nothing external, nothing corporeal. The Sensation is neither round nor hard; it is an act of feeling of the mind, from which I cannot, by reasoning, infer the existence of any body. But, by the constitution of my nature, the Sensation carries along with it the conception and belief of a round hard body really existing in my hand.

‘In like manner, when I see the features of an expressive face, I see only figure and colour variously modified. But, by the constitution of my nature, the visible object brings along with it the conception and belief of a certain passion or sentiment in the mind of the person.

‘In the former case, a Sensation of touch is the sign, and the hardness and roundness of the body I grasp, is signified by that Sensation. In the latter case, the features of the person is the sign, and the passion or sentiment is signified by if (EIP VI.v: 486).

19 Throughout his discussion, Reid has his eye on persons of the requisite maturity whose cognitive faculties are working well in an appropriate environment. I will assume likewise in the subsequent discussion.

20 The natural signs that comprise ‘natural language,’ then, are the second type of natural sign that Reid identifies in IHM Vl.iii: 59-60. See also IHM Vl.xxiv: 191.

21 See IHM Vl.xxiv: 191-3.

22 Although I shall not develop the point, it is interesting that Reid's views on natural language enjoy a significant amount of empirical support from work done by contemporary developmental psychologists. See Gopnik, Alison Meltzoff, Andrew and Kohl, Patricia The Scientist in the Crib (New York: Morrow 1999)Google Scholar.

23 Natural signs that belong to this type are the first sort of natural sign that Reid identifies in IHM V.iii: 59.

24 See IHM VI.xxiv: 190.

25 Reid explains acquired perception thus: ‘In acquired perception, the signs are either sensations, or things which we perceive by means of sensations. The connection between the sign, and the thing signified, is established by nature: and we discover this connection by experience; but not without the aid of our original perceptions, or of those we have already acquired. After this connection is discovered, the sign, in like manner as in original perception, always suggests the thing signified, and creates the belief of it’ (IHM Vl.xxiv: 191).

26 It will be noticed that Reid himself frequently employs this style of argument (see EIP VI.iv: 463). It bears a resemblance to an argument that Reid offers for the reliability of moral judgment in EAP 237.

Incidentally, those familiar with Keith Lehrer's treatment of Reid's account of moral perception (see Lehrer, Keith Thomas Reid [New York: Routledge 1989], eh. 12)Google Scholar will note that the Reidian view with which I am concerned in this essay is both more broad and more narrow than the one that Lehrer attributes to Reid. According to Lehrer's interpretation of Reid, in cases of moral perception, the ‘input is the conception of an action, and the Output is a moral Judgment (ibid., 24). My view is broader than this insofar as I claim that, in Reid's view, there are (i) multiple types of input that occasion moral apprehension and judgment, including awareness of the countenance and behavior of other persons — where awareness is a mental act not identical with conception; and (ii) multiple objects of moral perception, including character traits and intentions. Given that Reid himself repeatedly talks of perceiving character traits upon being aware of the countenance and behavior of persons, I see no reason to attribute to Reid the position that, in every case of moral perception, the input is a conception of an action. Lehrer also suggests that among the actions conceived are possible actions, and not simply actual ones (see ibid. p. 224). When Reid writes ‘our first moral conceptions are probably got by attending cooly to the conduct of others and observing what moves our approbation and what our indignation’ (EAP V.ii: 372), I agree that he is plausibly read as having his eye (at least in part) on possible actions. However, for the sake of manageability, in this paper I am concerned only with how we perceive moral qualities — where moral qualities are features of entities at the actual world and not possible actions, character traits, etc.

27 Speaking of aesthetic excellence, Reid says, ‘it depends no doubt upon our constitution, whether we do, or do not perceive excellence where it really is: but the object has its excellence from its own constitution, and not from ours’ (EIP VIII.iii: 584). For a more extensive argument against positions that claim that moral qualities are akin to secondary ones, see EIP 494-5 and EAP V.vii: 480. Reid's objections to contractarianism can be found in IHM II.ii: 51 and EAP V and VI.

28 See, also, EIP VIII.iv: 598.

29 I won't try to defend this claim here. I simply note that in the ‘Essay on Taste’ Reid comes close to identifying aesthetic and moral qualities of certain sorts with each other.

30 See Robert, AudiEthical Naturalism and the Explanatory Power of Moral Concepts,’ in his Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997), 120–2.Google Scholar

31 See EAP 236.

32 Dancy, Jonathan Moral Reasons (Oxford: Blackwell 1993), 115Google Scholar

33 My understanding of concepts is indebted to Wolterstorff, eh. 1, and Nicholas Wolterstorff, From Presence to Practice (The Gifford Lectures for 1994-95, unpublished).

34 Pace what Peacocke, Christopher suggests in Sense and Content (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1983), 6.Google Scholar

35 There's a wonderful passage in which Reid emphasizes the fact that acquiring the requisite mastery of moral concepts is a blend of our innate hardwiring, training, and habit:

‘We must not therefore think, because man has the natural power of discerning what is right, and what is wrong, that he has no need of instruction; that this power has no need of cultivation and improvement; that he may safely rely upon the suggestions of his mind, or upon opinions he has got, he knows not how.

‘What should we think of a man, who, because he has by nature the power of moving all his limbs, should, therefore conclude that he needs not be taught to dance, or to fence, to ride, or to swim? All these exercises are performed by that power of moving our limbs, which we have by nature; but they will be performed very awkwardly and imperfectly by those who have not been trained to them, and practised in them.

‘What should we think of the man who, because he has the power by nature of distinguishing what is true from what is false, should conclude that he has no need to be taught mathematics, or natural philosophy, or other sciences? It is by the natural power of human understanding that everything in those sciences has been discovered, and the truths they contain are discerned. But the understanding left to itself, without the aid of instruction, training, habit, and exercise would make very small progress, as everyone sees, in persons uninstructed in those matters.

‘Our natural power of discerning between right and wrong, needs the aid of instruction, education, exercise, and habit, as well as our other natural powers’ (EAP III.iii.viii: 249).

What Reid says here goes some distance toward explaining moral disagreement of certain kinds. Some moral disagreement is the result of different persons having been trained in different ways, having acquired and exercised different habits, being more or less expert in the application of a concept, and so forth. So, according to Reid's view, it is possible for two persons to receive the same experiential input, but to apprehend what is indicated by that input under different concepts (say, because of being trained in different ways), and, thus, to form different moral judgments.

36 Here I've been helped by Greco, John Putting Skeptics in Their Place (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000), eh. 9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37 He isn't silent on the matter, however. See EIP VI.v: 486, 508 and IHM VI.xxiv: 191.

38 ‘I apprehend, that in every kind of duty we owe to God or man, the case is similar: that is, that the Obligation of the most general rules of duty is self-evident; that the application of those rules to particular actions is often no less evident; and that, when it is not evident, but requires reasoning, that reasoning can very rarely be demonstrative’ (EIP VII.ii: 553). Here (as elsewhere) Reid appears to use the term ‘self-evident’ to pick out what we call ‘immediate’ or ‘basic’ beliefs.

39 See, also, EAP III.iii.viii: 258.

40 This objection was raised by both Peter Kivy and an anonymous referee.

41 I myself defend a more nearly Humean view in Cuneo, TerenceReconciling Realism with Humeanism,’ Australasian Journal of Philosophy 80 (2002) 465–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

42 Reid is explicit that the agent in question may be oneself (see EAP III.iii.vii: 239). On a different note, at EAP III.ii.i: 121, Reid Claims that feelings are an ingredient in any affection. So, in the passage I've quoted, why does Reid distinguish between the affection toward someone and the feeling had by the agent? My guess is that Reid adopts this style of description merely to emphasize that feelings are constituent in affection. I should also note that, in some places, Reid says that affections ‘accompany’ judgment and approbation and are not constituents thereof. See EAP III.iii.vii: 241-2.

43 See McNaughton, David Moral Vision (Oxford: Blackwell 1988), chs. 3 and 7Google Scholar. One apparent difference between Reid's view and McNaughton's is that the latter appears to claim that there is a necessary conceptual connection between moral belief and motivation. Reid's considered view, however, seems to be that the connection is one effected by the proper functioning of our constitution. If this is right, Reid's view is only weakly intemalist (or weakly externalist, depending on the typology used). For a defense of this Interpretation of Reid, see Cuneo, TerenceReid's Moral Philosophy,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Reid, Cuneo, T. and Woudenberg, R. van eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

44 See EAP III.ii.iii: 158ff. If we understand ‘sentimentalism’ as the claim that ‘moral evaluation, is somehow grounded in human sentiment’ (Justin D’Arms and Daniel Jacobson, ‘Sentiment and Value,’ Ethics 110 [2000] 722-48, at 722), there is a sense in which Reid is a sentimentalist. Reid claims that our first moral conceptions are formed by attending to the moral qualities of others and feeling the sentiments of moral approbation and disapprobation. See EAP V.l: 369 and 372.

45 See EAP III.iii.vii: 242ff.

46 This objection owes its inspiration to McGinn, Colin The Character of Mind: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997)Google Scholar. However, McGinn doesn't develop it as an objection to moral perception in particular.

47 According to Reid, moral qualities couldn't be causes strictly speaking. Reid is of the view that causes in the strict and proper sense are always agents. But I see no reason to believe that Reid would deny that moral qualities of certain kinds might be causal in some more ‘loose and popular’ sense. Indeed, in one place, Reid talks of the causal efficacy of aesthetic qualities. See EIP VIII.iv: 604.

48 And if we are willing to admit that traits such as Sam's insensitivity are in some sense causally implicated in their own expression, then we can say that we also bear causal relations to them.

49 Reid himself Claims that it is a ‘first principle … that the natural faculties, by which we distinguish truth from error, are not fallacious’ (EIP VI.v: 480). Elsewhere (EAP 231) Reid says that the moral faculty is an ‘original’ faculty of judgment and, thus, I assume ‘natural.’ In any event, if we follow Aiston, WilliamThomas Reid on Epistemic Principles,’ History of Philosophy Quarterly 2 (1985) 435–52Google Scholar, and interpret this principle to be an expression of Reid's broadly reliabilist position, then it follows that, in Reid's view, many of our moral beliefs are justified or warranted by virtue of their being produced by a reliable or properly functioning belief-forming faculty.

50 I wish to thank Jason Baehr, Erika Cuneo, Phil Goggans, John Greco, Steve Layman, Pat McDonald, Luke Reinsma, Russ Shafer-Landau, René van Woudenberg, Gideon Yaffe, three anonymous referees for this Journal, as well as audiences at Georgetown University, Rice University, the University of Aberdeen and the Vrije Universiteit, Netherlands, for their comments on this essay. I also owe a debt to James Van Cleve and the members of the 2000 Summer NEH seminar ‘Thomas Reid on Perception, Knowledge, and Action’ for their discussion of an earlier draft of this essay. Finally, I would like to thank the NEH and the Vrije Universiteit for their financial support, which made the writing of this essay possible.

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