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«1 Epistemology, Moral Geoffrey Sayre-McCord Moral epistemology, as a field, is concerned with (i) whether, (ii) how, and (iii) what (if anything) we ...»

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Epistemology, Moral

Geoffrey Sayre-McCord

Moral epistemology, as a field, is concerned with (i) whether, (ii) how, and (iii) what

(if anything) we know about morality, about right and wrong, justice and injustice,

virtue and vice.

Generally, people seem to have high confidence in at least some of their moral

opinions, a confidence that goes with thinking one knows right from wrong, good

from bad, etc. Understanding what grounds people might have for their confidence

is a central challenge in moral epistemology.

Despite people’s confidence in their moral views, developing a plausible account of how they might know what they think they do is a real challenge, one made all the more pressing by the familiar, and disturbing, fact that there is such dramatic, deep, and apparently irreconcilable disagreement about morality. In fact, there are substantial arguments for thinking that, when it comes to morality, there is really nothing to know, because there are no moral facts, and that even if there were such facts, we would have no way to discover them, so that, when it comes to moral knowledge, we should recognize that people do not have it (see realism, moral).

Of course, the confidence we might have in our own moral views will weigh against this conclusion. But our confidence, standing alone, and especially when others have equal confidence in opposing views, is not really evidence that we know what we think we do.

Models for Moral Knowledge Those who think we do have moral knowledge appeal to a variety of models to understand its nature.

Thus, for instance, some see moral knowledge as rightly understood on the model of perceptual knowledge (see a posteriori ethical knowledge). They maintain that our capacity to know what is moral, and to distinguish virtue from vice, is much like our capacity to know colors, and to distinguish blue from red. Just as we know about color thanks to having vision, we know about morality (people argue) thanks to our having a moral sense. On this model, if we are in the proper circumstances, we can “see” that causing pain is bad and that helping others is a virtue. It is because we have a moral sense – a conscience – that we are able to distinguish right from wrong, and are in a position to learn about morality (Hutcheson 1725; McNaughton 1988; McGrath 2004).

Alternatively, some suggest that moral knowledge is better understood as analogous to mathematical and logical knowledge, accessible not because of some special sense, but because of the nature or structure of our reason or the distinctive The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Edited by Hugh LaFollette, print pages 1674–1688.

© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

DOI: 10.1002/ 9781444367072.wbiee730 powers of intuition (see a priori ethical knowledge). They maintain that our capacity to know what is moral, and to distinguish virtue from vice, is much like our capacity to recognize that 2 + 2 = 4, and that certain claims express logical truths.

This knowledge, it seems, is not culled from experience (as moral sense theorists would have it), but brought to experience. It is available to all whose rational or intuitive powers are sufficiently developed, whatever their experience might be (Plato 2004; Kant 1785; Ross 1930).

Others hold that moral knowledge should be understood as similar to our scientific knowledge of, say, unobservable entities and natural laws, or of cultural artifacts and sociopolitical features of the world. On this view, our capacity to know what is moral, and to distinguish virtue from vice, is, as with scientific knowledge of the physical and social world, not primarily knowledge of what is directly perceptible, nor of what can be recognized by intuition or through reason alone. Yet it depends, nonetheless, on both experience and reason since what we end up knowing we infer from experience, using reason (Rawls 1971; Boyd 1985).

Still others recommend seeing moral knowledge as not primarily being a matter of knowing that something is the case, but of knowing how to do something. Moral knowledge, on this model, is more like our knowing a language than knowing the color of things around us. It is expressed in how we act and feel in response to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Thus, our knowledge of morality, like our knowledge of a language, is largely a matter of having acquired a broad, yet distinctive, range of abilities. In both cases, the ability in question may well come with various kinds of knowledge that (say, that something is wrong, or that a sentence is ungrammatical), but the core capacities that constitute the knowledge in question do not depend on this additional knowledge. One can respond with courage without  knowing that acting otherwise would be cowardice; one can speak grammatically without knowing that speaking otherwise is ungrammatical (Aristotle 1999; Mikhail 2011).

As it happens, most people agree that if there is moral knowledge at all, to a large  extent it involves knowing how (to respond appropriately to one’s circumstances). At the same time, though, a full account of moral knowledge seems to require as well a fair amount of knowing that, and for at least two reasons. First, in many people’s view, what morality requires is not merely that we do what is right, but that we do it because we recognize that it is right. Morality requires not merely that we do our duty, but that we do it because it is our duty. And this, many people think, involves knowing that acting in a certain way is our duty. If so, we need an account of that knowledge. Second, in identifying some people as knowing how to act morally, and others not, we presuppose moral distinctions among the various abilities, as better or worse, good or bad, virtuous or vicious, and knowing that abilities fall on one side or the other of these distinctions itself calls for an explanation not provided by the model of knowing how.





So, inevitably, attempts to explain moral knowledge need to explain how it is we might know that certain things are right, others wrong, that certain traits or habits or reactions are virtuous and others vicious, and that some things are more valuable morally than others. The other models mentioned above (of a moral sense, rational intuition, or theoretical inference) find their role when offering such explanations.

Justification A primary focus of such explanations is on whether, when, and how we might be justified in holding the moral views we do. What might count as evidence for one position and against another? In the context of moral thought, the idea of justification has two distinct roles. It is important to be clear on the difference.

On the one hand, questions of justification often ask of things (say actions, attitudes, or institutions) whether they are morally justified, that is, whether the appropriate moral considerations weigh in their favor or not. Indeed, much of substantive moral theory is concerned with articulating and defending more or less general accounts of when and why, and in what way, various things might meet morality’s requirements and so count as morally justified.

On the other hand, questions of justification also often ask of our moral beliefs (including, specifically, beliefs that something is morally justified) whether they are epistemically justified, that is, whether the available evidence weighs in their favor.

Much of substantive epistemic (as opposed to moral) theory is concerned with articulating and defending more or less general accounts of when and why, and in what way, various beliefs (moral and otherwise) might meet epistemic requirements and so count as epistemically justified.

These different roles for questions of justification reflect quite different dimensions of evaluation. Often, it seems, we might be epistemically justified in thinking something is, say, morally justified, even though (as a matter of fact) it is not; and one can be morally justified in doing something even though one might not be epistemically justified in believing it is morally justified. Still, moral justification and epistemic justification interact in interesting ways. In particular, sometimes it seems as if the fact that one does not have good evidence for one’s moral beliefs itself counts against the moral permissibility of acting on them.

In any case, in thinking about moral epistemology, epistemic justification is of primary importance. The theories of epistemic justification developed in other contexts – say in accounting for when and why we are justified in trusting our perceptions, or, more generally, our experience, or justified in relying on our intuitions or on our reasoning – carry over to thinking about the epistemic justification of our moral beliefs. Predictably, the general positions and challenges that emerge concerning epistemic justification in these other contexts all have their place in thinking specifically about the standing of our moral views.

Thus, for instance, one might hold that the structure of justification requires an unshakable foundation. Those who hold this view, epistemic foundationalists, hold that we cannot be justified in believing anything unless at least some of our beliefs are certain, or indubitable, or infallible, or self-evident. If this is right, then defending the possibility of our moral beliefs being justified requires showing either that some such beliefs enjoy the required privileged status or that they are properly related to beliefs that do (Huemer 2005).

Alternatively, one might reject the need for such foundations and defend the idea that justification is a matter of how one’s beliefs fit together. Those who hold this view, coherence theorists, hold that a person’s belief stands as justified (or not) in light of the relations it bears to the person’s other beliefs. If this is right, then defending the possibility of our moral beliefs being justified requires showing that they might actually stand in the relations that are required either to each other or to our other beliefs (Sayre-McCord 1996; see coherentism, moral).

Or, to consider a third approach, one might hold that what justification requires is not centrally a matter of relations to privileged beliefs (as foundationalists hold), nor even a matter of what relations hold among beliefs (as coherentists hold), but is instead a matter of being appropriately responsive to the facts (as reliablists hold). If this is right, then defending the possibility of our moral beliefs being justified requires showing that they might be responsive to the moral facts in the required way.

Each of these views of justification carries specific burdens for those hoping to show that some moral beliefs are epistemically justified. And they each play out against a broad set of considerations that shape how we might best understand what is involved in our having good evidence for our beliefs, whether those beliefs are perceptual, mathematical, logical, scientific, or otherwise.

Different theories of justification, and different models of knowledge, go with different accounts of what counts as evidence for, or justification of, our moral views, and with different accounts of when and how we might acquire moral knowledge.

Moreover, they go with different understandings of what is known, when someone has moral knowledge.

Challenges Models and analogies are all well and good, and when it comes to moral knowledge, each of these models seems to get at something important about how we come to our moral views. Yet, their value, when it comes to moral knowledge, depends on our being able to work out, in some detail, how, in the proffered model, we come actually to know something about morality.

Just how hard this is depends, in part, on what it is that we are supposed to know when we have moral knowledge. If moral facts are of a piece with, say, perceptual, or mathematical, or sociological, or psychological, or physical, facts, then (on the perceptual, mathematical, or scientific models) the details relating to our knowledge of morality are the very same details involved in accounting for our knowledge of these facts (see naturalism, ethical). Moral knowledge would pose no special problem. However, many think that moral facts are (or would have to be, if there were any) distinctive in various ways that mean they are not simply “of a piece” with these other, more familiar and epistemically tractable, facts.

Thus, for instance, virtually no one holds that value (as opposed to the things that are valuable) is literally visible, or tangible, or audible, or that value itself has a taste or an odor. Even those who think that perception offers a good model for moral knowledge are overwhelmingly likely to hold as well that our “moral sense” is distinct from our other senses and – crucially – that what is sensed by it is different from what is available to the other senses.

Similarly, virtually no one holds that when we have moral knowledge what we have is merely a case of mathematical or logical knowledge, even if they think we come to know moral truths much as we know truths of mathematics and logic.

Morality is not mathematics, nor merely a matter of logic, even though numbers might matter and logic constrains what morality might demand. Consequently, those who embrace our knowledge of mathematics and logic as their model for moral knowledge treat what we know as distinctive in important ways.

In contrast, and moving to the third model, some people do think it is plausible to hold that what we know, when we have moral knowledge, is some empirically accessible fact. So, for instance, cultural relativists have maintained that an action is morally right if, but only if, it is in accord with the norms of one’s society. On this view, discovering that an action is right is a straightforward sociological discovery, to be understood on a par with other such discoveries, and to be explained in exactly the same way. Or, to take other examples, hedonists and preference theorists hold that discovering something has value is discovering, respectively, that it produces pleasure or that it satisfies someone’s preferences. On either suggestion, discovering the value of something is a matter of making an empirical discovery that is utterly explicable as a piece of scientific knowledge. Indeed, one of the main arguments offered in favor of these accounts is that they remove the mystery from moral knowledge (Perry 1926; Brandt 1979; Railton 1986).



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