The following is what I consider the state of the art in theories of moral learning. It comes from philosophers of agency and choice, including especially Ruth Chang, Charles Taylor, and David Velleman. Christine Tappolet is also relevant for the role of emotions in moral reasoning and learning.

I’ll start by nutshelling what I see as the collective theory they share (although each philosopher would probably disagree with certain points). Then, I’ll give excerpts from their texts, to illustrate this the view and show more depth.


Before I begin, a few preparatory notes.

<aside> 🔬 Note:

  1. The following is an idealized model. It's not about actual human behavior, which is messier. It ignores the following (a) our pure agency is mixed with biological imperatives and habits, (b) many of our decisions are forced to varying degrees, and (c) we implement a messy approximation of what follows.

  2. The following describes moral learning, not moral choice-making. (But the same theorists have written about how values are used in choice.)

  3. Especially when it comes to the emotions, people will question the universality of the below. They’ll point out how emotions are socially constructed differently in different cultures, and how Western ideas of reasonableness differ from those of other cultures.

    These people usually just listened to one Radiolab episode about emotions.

    Velleman makes a good case for this universality in his books Practical Reflection (which shows how an individual, to be a stable planner, would need values and reasons) and How We Get Along (which shows how a community would need values and reasons to coordinate well).


A Quick Outline

The high level overview is:

(1) people have a working set of values, and

(2) they sometimes recognize the inadequacy of their value set in a challenging circumstance

(3) they then undergo “moral learning”, often mediated by moral emotions

(4) eventually they arrive at a replacement set of values which they recognize as upgrades to the previous set

(1) People Have a “Working Set” of Values

I believe (following Velleman, Bond, etc) that values and reasons aren't just something we come up with after the fact. There's a sense in which a person has certain set of values / sources of meaning they’ve adopted to live by, which they’ve decided apply to a set of contexts they frequently find themselves in.

<aside> 🪤 From my Now, you might respond in two ways: you might say that irrational behavior is done without reasons—because of an instinct or drive or a raw desire. Or you might say that irrational behavior is done because of bad reasons.

Recent work in the philosophy of action[^36] doesn’t leave much room for the first idea—that we act without reason. It seems we aren’t comfortable acting when we don’t know our reasons. Even if we imagine we are probably in the right—we stop and try to figure out what we are up to. Here’s David Velleman:

You are walking up Fifth Avenue. All of a sudden you realize that you don't know what you're doing. You can see that you're walking up Fifth Avenue, of course: the surroundings are quite familiar. But the reason why you’re walking up Fifth Avenue escapes you, and so you still don't know what you're doing. Are you walking home from work? Trying to catch a downtown bus? Just taking a stroll? You stop to think.[^37]


This is mostly subconscious, and most people cannot say the values in their working set, although these values will come up in their rationales for acting in the relevant contexts.

<aside> 🧑‍🤝‍🧑 Most reasons are logical chains which connect a value to an action via one or more steps.

All-things-considered judgments about what is better than what form the basis of what we should do, want, and believe. And if, for those judgments to be possible, there must be a more comprehensive value that determines how the things considered normatively relate, then it is values that tell us what reasons we have, all things considered. — Ruth Chang, All Things Considered


Note: Not Every Value You “Know” is a Value You Live By

A person is intuitively aware of sources of meaning which they haven’t adopted into their working set. They may be articulate about these other sources of meaning, or just intuitively aware of them.