The Power of Ideals commentary on New York Review of Books essay

A recent New York Review of Books essay by Tamsin Shaw, which included comments about The Power of Ideals and several other books, has stimulated a great deal of attention and controversy. At the center of Shaw’s essay is the claim that psychologists who study morality assume that psychological expertise and research are all that’s needed to distinguish between morally good and bad values, decisions, and behaviors.

We found it odd that she would level this criticism at The Power of Ideals, because we are explicit at many points in the book about our belief that these moral distinctions are fundamentally philosophical and conceptual, not empirical. For example, in our chapter on developmental theory, we said: “[T]here’s another point here—an essential philosophy of science point—regarding what’s required for a valid scientific account of human morality. A moral psychology cannot entirely avoid questions of what should be (questions that philosophers call prescriptive or normative). Prescriptive statements always sneak into descriptions of the moral sense, even if authors fail to recognize them. … The question of whether a given change represents an advance, a nondevelopmental change, or a regression must be addressed conceptually …. This kind of analysis brings in values to determine what is most functional and most adaptive, and it will be an analysis that relies on philosophical argumentation rather than empirical validation” (p. 27-28).

Later, in our discussion of faith, we make the point that: “Distinguishing between real and false gods, true and false moral values, wise and foolish pursuits, is not a job for psychologists or other social scientists. These are prescriptive (philosophical and theological) rather than empirical questions, as we discussed in Chapter 2. For our purposes, the best we can do is to select moral exemplars and moral leaders who meet criteria laid out by philosophers and theologians—consistency between moral ends and means, behavior that appears to conform with moral principles that are universalizable, that include a generalized respect for humanity—and then describe the nature of the faith, meaning, or wisdom they exhibit” (p. 162).

It is disappointing that an author writing for a publication as distinguished as the New York Review of Books would fail to give a book careful attention and an accurate reading.

Anne Colby and William Damon

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