To work out the common view, let me take a version of the standard account from Angela Smith, who takes moral perception to be a case of “seeing under an aspect” (I do not mean to imply that this is Smith's own view; she suggests that it may be mistaken in the paragraph that follows):
A morally insensitive person may, in a literal perceptual sense, “see” exactly the same thing as a morally sensitive person—for example, that a person is standing on a crowded subway with two very full grocery bags. What differs is that the morally sensitive person sees this person as uncomfortable and in need of a place to sit down, while the morally insensitive person does not. (1, 259)
This point is taken to be independent of the further point about moral perception that a morally sensitive agent is more likely to notice features of her surroundings that call for a moral response (perceptual salience). Here, the issue is rather of how, or under what aspect, the morally sensitive or insensitive person perceives a situation provided that both have already noticed it. And this view—that intentional objects are somehow basic particular units of meaning that, already constituted, can enter into various intentional acts—has some obvious support: If, for example, I am to want to have chicken soup for dinner, then “having chicken soup for dinner” or something of the sort must have a meaning independently of my particular act of wanting it; after all, the very same object must be able to play a role in my epistemic judgments, or else I would never know how to satisfy my desires.
This is the sort of view Ricoeur has in mind. He calls on us to consider the following infinitive proposition: “I am to go on a trip.” This grammatical form
Is a neutral signification which could be incorporated in acts of different quality. It will occur some day that “I shall go on a trip”: here the meaning is at the same time called and held in suspension by its hypothetical modifier. In a decision the meaning is inserted into a positing of existence which is not stated but is affirmed as depending on me… (2, 43)
So what is the common meaning in these intentional acts? Ricoeur rejects the idea that the common meaning is given by a founding act of understanding, which allows it to enter into other intentional acts such as willing, hoping, predicting, etc. Nor “is it a primitive judgment of existence modified afterwards as a wish or a decision” (44).Ricoeur's own view is that,
this meaning is distinguished only by abstraction from the concrete act of stating, wishing, ordering, or deciding… This proposition is not a judgment about that which I state, hope, command, or will, but a convergent product of abstraction, formed in the context of a reflection on acts and their objects (43-44)Thus, the intentional object of a wish is not identical to the intentional object of the understanding; the identity of the two objects is not primary, but is established through a later act of abstraction. Similarly, the perception of a person standing with heavy bags will not be identical to the perception of a person with heavy bags in need of a seat: these intentional acts have a different quality, and are filled by different objects. (Ricoeur makes a similar point in “Methods and Tasks of a Phenomenology of the Will,” published in (3), though in similarly vague terms and also without any clear analysis of the implications. If anyone is familiar with further sources, please let me know.)
One way of bringing this out is by going back to the distinction I mentioned above, between seeing something under an aspect and noticing it at all. We can, of course, make this distinction in abstraction, but it is not at all clear that we can draw any fine line. For one thing, to take the example Smith uses, it seems a fact about the situation that the person with heavy bags needs a seat. So the morally sensitive observer is not adding something of his own to the situation; rather, he is simply seeing the situation for what it is. That the person with heavy bags needs a seat is part and parcel of the perceived situation, and it is a feature of the situation that the morally insensitive person simply does not notice. Similarly, an even less sensitive person might fail to notice that the bags are heavy, or might fail to notice a person standing with them at all. “Seeing under an aspect” is easily distinguishable from perceptual salience only if we assume that the “aspect” under which a perception might be seen is something added by the agent’s subjective attitudes, in opposition to what is objectively there to be perceived. But if we accept a moral realist picture, the “aspect” is really there, to be noticed by any sensitive observer in the way that the person with bags is really there.
So why does this matter? For one, if Ricoeur is right, we have to reexamine the standard classification of cognitive and conative acts in terms of directions of fit. For another, it suggests that valuation is integral to perception rather than projected on it, perhaps as some secondary quality. Of course the account would—to pose any serious challenge—still require a serious work-up of how a secondary act of abstraction, through which sameness of meaning is determined, could serve to unite our various judgments (say, judgments about what we want and judgments about how to get it; or judgments about moral responsibility and judgments about moral desirability). In any case, I suspect there is a way to pull off such an analysis by working out exactly how second-order acts govern first-order acts.
PS. What looks like a blue jay just pooped on my copy of Smith's paper. A spirited philosophical debate at last!
(1) Angela Smith, “Responsibility for Attitudes,” Ethics 115 (January 2005): 236-271
(2) Paul Ricoeur, Freedom and Nature. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1966.
(3) Paul Ricoeur, Husserl: An Analysis of His Phenomenology. Chicago: Northwestern, 2007.