In Conversation With LSR Visiting Faculty Fellow Shaun Nichols

Thursday, Jan 25, 2018
by Julie Clack

Shaun Nichols is a professor of philosophy at the University of Arizona and a Laurance S. Rockefeller (LSR) Visiting Faculty Fellow. His research focuses on the psychological underpinnings of ordinary thinking about philosophical issues. 

This year, Nichols is working on a book titled “Rational Rules,” which explores how statistical learning grounds much of our moral competence. 

“Most work in moral psychology has pointed towards defects in moral thinking: bias and errant emotions are thought to corrupt moral judgment,” said Nichols. “I’ve been impressed by recent work in cognitive science that paints an optimistic picture of human inference, and I’ve been applying those ideas to the case of morality.”

Nichols cites children’s ability to make subtle distinctions in ethics and metaethics as an example. He believes that the phenomenon can be explained in terms of rational inference, given the evidence children receive from their parents and peers, and plans to make a sustained case for this in a monograph.

In March, Nichols will present his LSR paper, which takes up a related theme. “Recent work in moral psychology tries to explain moral judgment without adverting to rules, appealing instead to habit learning or emotional attunement,” Nichols said. “I will argue that despite the ingenuity of these low-level proposals, we still need to invoke representations of rules to explain how people make moral judgments.”

Added Nichols: “This provides a starting point for thinking about whether those rules are acquired by rational means and whether the rules themselves are good rules.”

Nichols has found plenty of overlap between his research interests and those of others at the UCHV. “I’ve been looking at what makes certain rules culturally resilient, and this is a theme in Peter Singer’s recent work on Sidgwick,” he said. “Another part of my project explores how metaethical judgments can be informed by the extent to which there is a consensus about the claim, and this connects with some of Michael Smith’s ideas about convergence and moral objectivity.”

The diversity of the UCHV community has been another highlight of Nichols’ experience as a LSR fellow. “I’ve enjoyed talking philosophy with a new group of people,” he said. “It’s easy to fall into familiar ways of thinking, and being at the UCHV has given me an opportunity to talk with people with very different knowledge and expertise from my usual crowd.”