Moral Epistemology

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MORAL EPISTEMOLOGY

It is easy to find examples of moral claims. People often say or write such things as: (a) Deliberate targeting of innocent civilians in war is wrong. (b) Women should get equal pay for equal work. I shall refer to the contents of moral claims as moral statements. I presuppose nothing controversial regarding the real nature of moral statements. The first two examples of moral statements are general, but many are particular, for example: (c) George Bush should not have invaded Iraq. (d) I ought to make a contribution to tsunami relief. Not all moral statements concern what is right or wrong, or what we should or should not do. Some concern our rights: (e) Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion. (f) The KKK has a right to adopt a highway just as any other group does. Other moral claims concern what is morally good or bad, what is virtuous or vicious, what is praiseworthy, when morally significant feelings such as guilt, remorse or gratitude, are appropriate, and so on. I hope this makes it sufficiently clear what I mean to count as moral statements.

Just as a person can be insincere in making a nonmoral claim, such as an ordinary factual claim, so a person can make a moral claim insincerely. It is not hard to imagine someone expressing agreement with others about some moral statement just to avoid confrontation, argument, or ridicule. In addition, we all recognize that what we say or write about morality does not exhaust our moral views, just as our factual beliefs can be more extensive than what we choose to make public. Let us therefore distinguish between people's moral judgmentsthat is, what they really thinkand the public moral claims they make. I take no controversial stand regarding the nature of moral judgments.

A Narrow and a Broad Understanding of Moral Epistemology

According to one traditional understanding, epistemology is the theory of knowledge. It is concerned with analyzing knowledge or specifying the conditions that must be satisfied for something to count as knowledge, with determining what we know and accounting for how we know it. Accordingly, moral epistemology would be concerned with moral knowledge. It would seek to determine whether any of our moral judgments count as knowledge and to provide an account of whatever moral knowledge we do have. Unfortunately this traditional understanding puts moral epistemology at risk of being a field with which many ethical theorists can have no substantial engagement.

Although there is a great deal of debate regarding the proper analysis of knowledge, nearly everyone agrees that for a person to know a statement (or proposition), that statement must be true. There is almost as wide agreement that a person must believe something in order to know it. In spite of the consensus that knowledge requires true belief, epistemologists do not work much on accounts of either truth or belief. They instead focus on figuring out what knowledge requires in addition to true belief and at understanding the precise nature of whatever else is required. Epistemologists do not agree about exactly what more is required for knowledge, but nearly all would accept that for a true belief to be knowledge it must be good in some yet to be specified but particularly epistemic sense. Epistemologists are, therefore, primarily concerned with understanding something normative or, more broadly, evaluative. When they attempt to determine whether we know something or how we might know it, they are engaged in an evaluative enterprise, seeking to address such questions as whether we ought to hold the belief in question, whether we are justified or responsible or warranted in holding it, or simply whether the belief has some special positive epistemic status. Philosophically significant debates about skepticism regarding some type of belief rarely begin with the skeptics arguing that the beliefs are false. They typically charge that the beliefs are deficient in some other waythat they are unjustified or unwarrantedwhereas nonskeptics try to show that the beliefs are legitimate or up to standard.

If we adopt the traditional knowledge-centered understanding of moral epistemology, many ethicists cannot take moral epistemology seriously; if they allow that there are any significant evaluative questions regarding moral judgments, they must take them to fall outside moral epistemology. One reason for this is that a great many ethical theorists accept some version of noncognitivism. This was the dominant metaethical position for a large part of the twentieth century, and it may still be the majority view. In spite of the apparent similarities between moral statements such as "Murder is wrong" and descriptive statements such as "The cat is black," noncognitivism holds that moral statements are not descriptive, that they do not state facts. Noncognitivists variously hold that moral statements instead do such things as vent emotions, state how one feels about certain actions and call upon others to feel the same way, make universal prescriptions, or express one's acceptance of norms.

Hence, according to noncognitivism, moral judgments blatantly fail to satisfy the most obvious necessary conditions for knowledge. No moral judgments are true for the simple reason that they are not the sort of thing that could possibly be true; like questions or commands, they are neither true nor false. We could put the point in other ways by saying that moral claims do not really make statements at all or that moral judgments do not have propositionsthings that carry truth valuesas their objects or contents. Hence, even when we sincerely make a moral claim, we are not really expressing a belief. If moral statements such as "Theft is wrong" are not descriptive but have some sort of noncognitive contentif they are, for example, ventings of emotion ("Theft: big time yucko!") or prescriptions ("Don't steal!")then clearly their contents are not the sorts of things that one could possibly believe or, for that matter, disbelieve.

So noncognitivism entails the impossibility of moral knowledge. Regardless of how interesting the various versions of noncognitivism might be or how subtle and deep are the arguments that support them, no interesting normative epistemology is necessary to see this entailment. We need not get involved in any sort of epistemic evaluation of moral judgments to reach the skeptical conclusion. One need not do anything like reconstruct the evidence we have for our moral judgments and evaluate it to see how strong it is. One need not investigate the cognitive processes that produce moral judgments and attempt to determine how reliable they are. Since moral judgments just are not, according to noncognitivism, the sorts of things that could possibly be knowledge, there is no reason to get involved in the distinctive kind of evaluation of belief or judgment that is the special business of epistemology. Indeed, it would seem that epistemic evaluation of moral judgments could not really make any sense for a noncognitivist. Moral epistemology as an area of serious inquiry is left open only to cognitivists.

But of course this is not the way things are. Most people, regardless of their metaethical views, evaluate moral judgments, and they evaluate them in ways that seem no different from straightforward epistemic evaluations of ordinary factual judgments. They take some moral judgments to be epistemically better and others worse. People are dubious, for example, of moral judgments made on the basis of incomplete information or made when someone is tired or emotionally distraught, just as one would doubt factual judgments made in such circumstances.

We think we can at least sometimes provide reasons or evidence for or against moral judgments and that the reasons or evidence can be evaluated. We sometimes seek reasons for moral judgments we have already made, and at other times we try to find reasons that would allow us to make a moral judgment when we are unsure. In certain cases we ask others about their reasons for moral judgments and look askance upon their judgments if they can provide no adequate reasons. We are perfectly comfortable applying terms of epistemic evaluation such as reasonable and unreasonable, rational and irrational, warranted and unwarranted, or justified and unjustifed to moral judgments. When we apply these terms to moral judgments, it seems that we use them in the same way as when we apply them to other kinds of judgments.

There are two hard lines that affirm the restrictive understanding of epistemology as concerned exclusively with knowledge and accept that the conjunction of this conception with noncognitivism entails that the epistemic evaluation of moral judgments makes no sense. The one hard line concludes that epistemic evaluation of moral judgments, that is, moral epistemology, makes no sense. The other accepts the epistemic evaluation of moral judgments and rejects noncognitivism. I expect the first hard line approach would be more popular than the second. But I prefer a third alternative. It maintains that epistemic evaluation of moral judgments makes perfectly good sense, as common practice suggests, and that most metaethical positions, including most versions of noncognitivism, can recognize this; it instead rejects the narrow understanding of epistemology. One advantage of this approach is that there are independent reasons for preferring a broader conception of epistemology.

We can extend the conception of epistemology, and specifically epistemic evaluation, in two ways. First, we should allow that epistemology is concerned with more than knowledge and its constituents. There are significant concepts of epistemic evaluation that do not figure in the analysis of knowledge. Some epistemologists account for knowledge in terms of reliable belief formation. Others disagree because a person's reliability may not be subjectively accessible to that person. They hold that knowing requires responsible belief, and that belief is irresponsible unless we have reason to think the belief is likely to be true. Others hold that to be known a belief must be properly based or grounded, while others hold that to be known a belief must be part of an extensive coherent system of beliefs. Yet others think a belief must be formed by a properly functioning cognitive mechanism. There are still more contenders: for example, those who analyze knowledge in terms of the exercise of intellectual virtues. Presumably at most one of these accounts provides a correct analysis of knowledge, but even those accounts that fail as analyses of knowledge may still succeed in identifying something that has epistemic value.

Whether reliable belief is necessary for knowledge, it is a good thing to be reliable in forming beliefs. The same holds for subjectively accessible reasons: It is clearly a good thing to have such reasons for a belief, regardless of whether they are necessary for knowledgeand so on for the various other evaluative characteristics of belief that have been put forward as necessary for knowledge. A strong case can be made that each is a real epistemic good. There are also concepts of epistemic evaluation that do not even seem to be required for knowledge. According to one account, rational beliefs are those that would stand up upon thorough reflection because they satisfy the believer's own deep epistemic standards. This is a highly subjective sense of rationality and therefore it is probably not required for knowledge. Nevertheless, it is epistemically good to have beliefs that satisfy one's own epistemic standards rather than beliefs that one would, upon careful consideration, regard as epistemically flawed. There are doubtless still more concepts of epistemic evaluation.

The second way to broaden epistemology is by abandoning the dominant monistic view of epistemic evaluation that regards truth as sole intrinsic epistemic good and all other epistemic goods as valuable because of some connection to truth such as being a means to true belief. There have been attempts to show that some features, such as coherence, make truth more likely, but these attempts have not met with much success. It has seemed obvious all along that other features, such as subjective rationality, do not make true belief objectively likely. We need not conclude that no such features are epistemically valuable. It is better to allow that some things we value epistemically do not make true belief likely. In the case of something like reliable belief, at least on some understandings, the connection with truth is obvious. But even here we should take a broader view, at least for moral judgments. As we have seen, noncognitivism entails that moral judgments have no truth values and hence cannot be reliable.

Nevertheless, it seems obvious that some moral judgments are more reliable than others. For example, moral judgments made by a person who is emotionally distraught or who has selfish interests at stake are less than reliable. Most noncognitivists can easily accept such seemingly obvious examples, since most draw some sort of distinction between correct and incorrect moral judgments. Hence a notion of reliability is available that is an extension of the familiar, truth-connected notion. It makes more sense to recognize judgments that are reliable in this extended sense as epistemically valuable than to think that we are making an epistemic evaluation when we criticize a factual belief because a person formed it, say, when in a rage, but some totally different kind of evaluation when we criticize a moral judgment for exactly the same reason.

Epistemic Evaluation of Moral Judgments

If the broad conception of moral epistemology is basically correct, we should not ask simply whether any moral judgments are known or justified. Recognizing that there are various significant concepts of epistemic evaluation, we should ask what, if any, positive epistemic statuses moral judgments might have and also whether moral judgments suffer from any epistemic flaws so severe that we should regard them with a robust skepticisma skepticism that holds not merely that no moral statements are known, but that moral judgments are so flawed that it makes no sense to use them either in moral theorizing or as a guide to life and action.

Some moral judgments are bound to be epistemically flawed for straightforward reasonsfor example, because they were formed by a person who was emotionally distraught or who stood to gain or lose depending upon the judgment, or because they were made on the basis of an incomplete or incorrect understanding of the facts of the case, or because the person judging feels unsure or has no stable opinion. We know that judgments like these run a significant risk of error, regardless of their content. Let us set aside such obviously flawed judgments and focus on those that are free of all such well recognized sources of error. Such moral judgments already have some positive epistemic statusthey have managed to avoid some significant pitfalls. But this is not, perhaps, a very impressive status, so let us consider what more might be said on behalf of moral judgments.

Among the remaining moral judgments, we can distinguish between those formed or not formed on the basis of inference. We obviously cannot have formed all of our judgments by inferring them from other judgments. Some of our judgments must be noninferential. It might be that all moral judgments are inferred from nonmoral judgments, either immediately or by means of inferential chains that eventually terminate exclusively in nonmoral judgments. Certain ethicists have tried to ground moral judgments in something like this way, deriving them from theses regarding the meanings of moral terms in conjunction with purely empirical claims. But it seems highly unlikely that anything like this will work out, and near certain that the moral judgments of ordinary people are not grounded in this way. Ordinary people, and even philosophers when they are being ordinary, form many noninferential moral judgments, and when they do infer moral judgments, the inferences have moral premises that are, or eventually trace to, noninferential moral judgments. So let us focus on noninferential moral judgments.

Consider the widely shared judgment that it is wrong to cause animals suffering for no good reason. Those who share this general judgment will also make judgments regarding the wrongness of many particular cases of animal torture. It is certainly possible to reach the general judgment via inference or to infer the particular judgments from it. But it is also possible to make both judgments noninferentially. Even where the judgments are noninferential, it is quite obvious that they do not come from nowhere. We were taught to make such judgments as children. At some time or other when we were children, our parents or some other adult caught us, or perhaps a sibling or a friend tormenting some helpless small animal and scolded us. Maybe one incident was enough; maybe similar incidents were repeated, but eventually the lesson stuck.

Perhaps, then, our noninferential moral judgments get their epistemic status in the same way as our beliefs in other things we were taught as children. I believe that my maternal grandfather was killed in World War II, before I was born. This belief is noninferential, but it does not just pop into my head from I know not where. I know full well that it arises from testimony and memory. When I was a child my mother told me this. I believed her. Although I never received any objective confirmation of the belieffor example, by reading a letter from the War Departmentneither did I encounter any reason to doubt what I was told. And I still remember what I was told. This is sufficient for my belief to have some fairly impressive epistemic credentials. My belief is rational or reasonable. You could say that I am epistemically responsible in believing. The belief coheres with other things I believe, although I would have to admit that most of the relevant beliefs are also things I remember being told by my parents. My mother has usually been reliable, and I know this to be so because in many cases what she told me has been borne out by the future course of experience. And I know my memory is fairly reliable as well, at least about things like this.

As good as all this is, however, it is still possible that my belief is seriously flawed. Suppose my grandfather mysteriously disappeared around the start of the war, and, although my mother knew he was involved with organized crime, she deceived herself into believing he had gone off to the war. When he didn't return at the end of the war, she came to believe he had been killed in action. Under this scenario, given the fact that my mother's original belief about her father's fate had little positive epistemic statusindeed, was flawedmy belief would be seriously flawed. It is significant that in such cases a testimonial belief can have a higher epistemic status than the belief of the testifier. Nevertheless, the epistemic status attainable by beliefs that are (solely) grounded in testimony and memory is constrained by the epistemic status of the testifier's belief. The epistemic status of memorial beliefs is similarly constrained by the status of the original belief.

Of course, the adults who taught us about morality when we were children probably did not fabricate their own moral views in some strange way. They were taught about morality by their parents, who were taught by theirs, and so on. This suggests a somewhat different problem: In the case of beliefs that have their source in chains of testimony and memory involving a series of people, somewhere along the line someone must have formed the relevant beliefs in some other way. And if the beliefs that come later in the chain are to be free from significant epistemic defect, somewhere along the line some beliefs must have attained some fairly strong positive epistemic status in virtue of something other than testimony and memory.

In the case of historical beliefs, which presumably trace back to persons who witnessed the events in question, it might make sense to suppose that the original source beliefs had the requisite epistemic credentials. But in the case of moral judgments it is hard to credit such a view, unless one takes something like the biblical narrative of Moses quite literally and holds that all our moral judgments can be traced through a long chain of testimony and memory all the way back to Moses or some other prophet whose moral judgments came straight from God. My guess is that even many theists will find such a supposition incredible.

How, then, might noninferential moral judgments attain a significant positive epistemic status? Here is a possibility: We were also taught to make simple arithmetical judgments. I can well remember trying to memorize multiplication and division tables. But although testimony and memory are surely somehow involved in the arithmetical judgments we now make, these judgments do not get their epistemic status primarily from testimony and memory. Indeed, I doubt that our simple arithmetical judgments are even produced by memory and testimony any longer. Somewhere along the line, no doubt as a result of our training, we reached a point where we could simply see for ourselves that simple arithmetical propositions are true. Simple mathematical and logical propositions, and perhaps some few others, are special. Any person with the conceptual resources to really understand the propositions can simply see that they are true, or at least this is one venerable and still widely held view. Some ethicists have wanted to say that certain ethical statements are like this as well. So the first part of the current proposal is that although we were taught to make moral judgments when we were children, such judgments are no longer merely products of testimony and memory. Rather, when we understand and consider certain moral statements, they simply seem to us as though they are true, so we form the moral judgment. The second, explicitly epistemic part of the proposal is that such moral judgments have the same positive epistemic status as simple arithmetical judgments and come to have this status in the same way.

There are reasons for being suspicious that things are quite so simple. Before I explain why, here are a couple of terminological notes. Contemporary discussions of moral epistemology and methodology frequently are conducted in terms of considered moral judgments and moral intuitions. Considered moral judgments are typically characterized simply as noninferential moral judgments that are not subject to obvious sources of error. When we narrowed our focus to such judgments above, however, I did not refer to them as considered moral judgments because judgments formed through testimony are not inferential in their origin, and neither are memorial judgments. Nevertheless, moral judgments formed via testimony or memory are not considered moral judgments even if they have avoided the usual sources of error. In the first part of the proposal regarding moral judgments we have restricted our attention to judgments that are free of the usual sources of error and are not only noninferential but are also held simply because it seems to the believer that they are true. Such judgments are appropriately regarded as considered moral judgments.

The term intuition can be used in a stronger, epistemically loaded sense or a weaker, nonepistemic sense. In the weaker sense, intuitions are simply noninferential judgments that do not arise from any of the traditionally recognized sources of knowledge: Intuitions are not produced by sense perception, introspection, memory, or testimony. A person makes an intuitive judgment simply because the proposition seems true upon due consideration. Considered moral judgments are, therefore, a subset of moral intuitions, namely, those that have avoided obvious causes or error. Limiting ourselves to the first part of the current proposal regarding moral judgments, we could say these judgments are moral intuitions in the weak sense. There are various stronger concepts of intuition that add to the weak notion a claim to some positive epistemic statusoften some strong status such as certainty or infallibility or incorrigibility. Critical discussions of intuitionism often assume a strong notion of intuition, most frequently one involving a very strong epistemic status. The second part of the current proposal takes moral judgments to be moral intuitions in a very strong sense.

I would like to consider two significant grounds for doubting that our considered moral judgments are epistemically similar to simple mathematical judgments. They also may seem to be grounds for doubting that considered moral judgments are intuitions in any strong sense and even that considered moral judgments could have a significant positive epistemic status. The first ground for doubt is based on the fact that our considered moral judgments seem to be revisable; the second is based on the fact that there is considerable disagreement regarding these judgments.

Most people who reflect on their moral views encounter conflicts among their considered moral judgments. Many of us find certain moral principles intuitively obvious, particularly midlevel principles such as "It is right to keep one's promises" and "It is wrong to lie." One need not reflect very long to come up with cases where application of an intuitive principle produces a judgment at odds with our considered moral judgment regarding the case. (This is just what one does when arguing by counterexample.) Conflicts can also emerge if we make different intuitive moral judgments about different particular cases and there is no difference between the cases that we judge sufficient to justify our different moral judgments. When we encounter conflicts among our considered moral judgments, moral reflection obviously does not halt. We decide what to revise and move on. But the existence, or more properly, the frequency of such conflicts does seem to count against the claim that our considered moral judgments are epistemically similar to simple mathematical beliefs.

The problem is not that our intuitive judgments about simple logical and mathematical propositions could never come into conflict and can never be revised. There are mathematical propositions that seem intuitively obvious but lead to paradoxthat is, they come into conflict with other intuitive mathematical propositions. In such cases we are led to revise some intuitive judgments. But such occurrences are the rare exception in mathematics and logic, however, and vastly more common with moral judgments. Hence, although we might get away with claiming that simple mathematical propositions can be seen to be true by anyone who adequately understands them, even though we are forced to allow that those who adequately understand are sometimes mistaken when they think they see something to be true, the parallel claim regarding considered moral judgments seems much less plausible.

People seem to disagree a lot about morality. Some of the differences might not constitute conflictsthat is, cases where the judgments are inconsistent. Some of the differences might arise from misunderstanding on the part of one or both parties, and some might not involve considered moral judgments. But even setting aside such disagreements, there are many real conflicts between the considered moral judgments of mature adults who fully understand. Not only does the existence and extent of these conflicts render untenable the claim that considered moral judgments have the same epistemic status as simple mathematical judgments, but it also could be taken to block the claim that considered moral judgments have any significant positive epistemic status. One reason is that, in many cases of conflict, the parties to the different sides come from different societies or cultures, a circumstance that seems to support the idea that moral judgments are some sort of social or cultural construct. They might then be reliable guides to the taboos or mores of the judge's own culture but not to anything more substantial or objective. When conflicts among considered moral judgments within cultures are added to the mix, we seem to have ample reason to doubt whether they are reliable guides to anything at all.

Actually, the fact that a single person's considered moral judgments can conflict and require revision is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is a fundamental element of the most influential approach to the construction and justification of moral theories. According to the method of reflective equilibrium, we should strive to mold our considered moral judgments and a set of moral principles that account for them into a coherent system via a series of mutual adjustments to principles and judgments, with revisions guided only by what seems most likely to be true upon due consideration. If only considered moral judgments and moral principles are involved, a narrow reflective equilibrium emerges. Inquirers should next strive to bring their judgments into a wide equilibrium, which also includes background theories and judgmentsfor example, views regarding the nature of persons or the role of morality in society. Once again, in the search for a wide reflective equilibrium, no type of judgment has a privileged status. Coherence is attained by a series of mutual adjustments.

The method of reflective equilibrium is an idealization of the kind of moral inquiry carried on by many philosophers and presumably by at least some reflective nonspecialists. We might, then, shift away from the considered moral judgments of ordinary people and ask about the epistemic status of the moral judgments we would hold if we brought our moral judgments into wide reflective equilibrium. It might be all but impossible for us ever to attain such equilibrium, but perhaps we can approach it ever more closely. The moral judgments a person holds in reflective equilibrium would have a number of epistemically good features: they would have been formed after careful and thorough reflection, they would not conflict with either the person's other moral judgments or any of the person's other beliefs, and they would be part of a highly coherent system of beliefs and judgments. Moreover, we might hope that there would be fewer conflicts between the moral judgments of different people who had brought their beliefs into reflective equilibrium. One reason for this hope is that part of the method explicitly involves considering alternatives to one's own moral system.

Unfortunately, I fear we cannot expect that inquirers will converge upon a single system of moral judgments in wide reflective equilibrium. It is too easy to imagine people who begin with radically different moral perspectives being led to revise their judgments in different ways to overcome the conflicts internal to their own moral perspectives, and so at the end of their inquiries being led to accept very different, incompatible moral systems in reflective equilibrium. So questions about the reliability of moral judgments persist.

I will close by briefly describing one possible way of addressing such questions. Suppose that people differ in their capacities for making moral judgments. Suppose that this capacity needs to be developed through experience and possibly even training, but that it can also be corrupted. (For what it is worth, common sense strongly supports these suppositions.) Let's call a person with a well-developed capacity for moral judgment a competent moral judge. If two people with unequally developed capacities for moral judgment were to bring their moral judgments into reflective equilibrium, they would probably disagree to some extent. Such disagreement would not establish that the moral judgments of both inquirers were unreliable, however, for it might be that only one of the inquirers is a competent moral judge. Presumably the moral judgments the competent judge would make in reflective equilibrium would be quite reliable. Since the other person's moral judgments would also be in reflective equilibrium, it would not be possible to prove to that person that his or her judgments are unreliable or that the competent judge's moral judgments are reliable. But this would not change the fact that the competent judge's moral judgments would be reliable.

One might require that, in order for a person's moral judgments to have a significant positive epistemic status, a person must be able to prove that his or her moral judgments are reliable or that he or she is a competent moral judge. If this is right, then we will have to grant that even the moral judgments competent judges hold in reflective equilibrium have no significant positive epistemic status. We should note, however, that if similar requirements were imposed across the board, we would be forced to conclude that almost none of our beliefs or judgments have a significant positive epistemic status. On the other hand, if actually being reliable is sufficient for having a significant positive epistemic status, at least in conjunction with all the other epistemic goods we have identified, then it seems that the moral judgments competent judges would make in reflective equilibrium will have such a status. One might doubt whether there are any competent judges, but I do not think we know that there are not. So there is reason to hope that moral judgments can attain a strong positive epistemic status.

See also Metaethics; Meaning; Moral Skepticism; Noncognitivism; Rationality.

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Michael R. DePaul (1996, 2005)