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Moral Epistemology

Edited by Christopher Michael Cloos (University of California at Santa Barbara)
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Summary

Moral epistemology concerns moral knowledge and things related to moral knowledge. Is it possible for one to know that torturing babies for fun is wrong? Can one know that slavery is unjust? Moral skeptics doubt the possibility of moral knowledge and doubt its veracity. Some argue that the persistence of wide-spread moral disagreement among peoples, such as differing views on the morality of infanticide, abortion, and capital punishment, suggests there is no fact of the matter regarding moral claims. Some moral theorists argue for the possibility of justified moral beliefs sufficient to yield moral knowledge. Moral coherentists claims that moral beliefs are justified in virtue of being part of a coherent body of beliefs. Reflective equilibrium is a method of moral justification that is often regarded as a form of moral coherentism. It is a way of resolving conflicts between intuitive moral judgments and moral principles that seek to capture those judgments. Intuitionism is an alternative approach to the justification of moral beliefs. On this theory, moral beliefs are non-inferentially justified. Additionally, some theorists endorse moral rationalism. On this view, it is possible to have moral knowledge even when that knowledge is not based on sense experience. Moral knowledge is often compared to mathematical knowledge. Lastly, moral agents always operate under moral uncertainty. It is impossible to perfectly predict the moral goodness or value that will result from a given course of action. Various approaches try to deal with moral uncertainty, often by incorporating the calculation of expected utility into moral choice situations.

Key works

Brink 1989 argues that coherence between a moral belief and one’s other beliefs can justify that moral belief. Sayre-McCord 1996 also endorses this view but argues that things other than one’s beliefs can factor into coherence and justification. Audi 2005 and Huemer 2005 defend comprehensive accounts of moral intuitionism, but Sinnott-Armstrong 2006 argues that moral beliefs are not justified non-inferentially. McGrath 2008 argues that moral disagreement can prevent one from obtaining moral knowledge when one’s peer shares one’s basic moral commitments, yet Wedgwood 2007 argues against this position. Peacocke 2004 and Setiya 2012 defend accounts of moral rationalism involving the possession of moral concepts. Rawls 1971 articulates the method of reflective equilibrium in defending how one can arrive at the best conception of justice. Daniels 1996 extends the method of reflective equilibrium to include background theories of human nature and social stability.

Introductions For online introductions to moral epistemology see Tramel 2005 and Campbell 2014. For general overviews of the topic see Arrington 1989, Audi 1999, Sinnott-Armstrong 2006, and Zimmerman 2010.
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Moral Coherentism
  1. Elvio Baccarini (2009). Moral Epistemological Coherentism, Contextualism, and Consensualism. Croatian Journal of Philosophy 9 (1):69-89.
    The discussion regards moral epistemology as the research of a proper methodology in moral thinking. Coherentism is proposed as the appropriate methodology in the individual context of moral thinking (because of the fact that all the alternatives to coherentism, at least understood as a regulatory ideal, are opposed to rationality), while a qualified form of consensualism is proposed as the appropriate methodology in the context of communitarian or public justification of beliefs.
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  2. Elvio Baccarini (1991). Rational Consensus and Coherence Methods in Ethics. Grazer Philosophische Studien 40:151-159.
    The method of reflective equilibrium implies that moral principles received from philosophical reasoning and considered moral judgments received intuitively are finally justified if they cohere with each other. This idea is combined with the proposal of rational consensus (Lehrer), which shows the way in which divergences of judgements could be made to converge. This second method is used to the end of rendering more plausible the intuitions used in reflective equilibrium, and, so, to show the appropriateness of the coherentist method (...)
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  3. Luc Bovens (1994). Coherence Arguments and Cyclical Moral Rankings. Philosophical Studies 74 (3):369 - 384.
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  4. Sem de Maagt (forthcoming). Reflective Equilibrium and Moral Objectivity. Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy.
    Ever since the introduction of reflective equilibrium in ethics, it has been argued that reflective equilibrium either leads to moral relativism, or that it turns out to be a form of intuitionism in disguise. Despite these criticisms, reflective equilibrium remains the most dominant method of moral justification in ethics. In this paper, I therefore critically examine the most recent attempts to defend the method of reflective equilibrium against these objections. Defenders of reflective equilibrium typically respond to the objections by saying (...)
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  5. Michael R. DePaul (1998). Liberal Exclusions and Foundationalism. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 1 (1):103-120.
    Certain versions of liberalism exclude from public political discussions the reasons some citizens regard as most fundamental, reasons having to do with their deepest religious, philosophical, moral or political views. This liberal exclusion of deep and deeply held reasons from political discussions has been controversial. In this article I will point out a way in which the discussion seems to presuppose a foundationalist conception of human reasoning. This is rather surprising, inasmuch as one of the foremost advocates of liberalism, John (...)
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  6. Michael R. DePaul (1993). Balance and Refinement: Beyond Coherence Methods of Moral Inquiry. Routledge.
    We all have moral beliefs. What if we are unsure about what to believe about a serious moral issue, or if one belief conflicts with another that we hold with equal conviction? When such conflicts and doubts occur, we try to make our beliefs cohere, and are forced to engage in a moral inquiry. Michael R. DePaul argues that we have to make our beliefs cohere, but that the current coherence methods are seriously flawed. Methods such as that which John (...)
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  7. Michael R. Depaul (1988). The Problem of the Criterion and Coherence Methods in Ethics. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 18 (1):67 - 86.
    One merit claimed for john rawls's coherence method, Wide reflective equilibrium, Is that it transcends the traditional two tiered approach to moral inquiry according to which one must choose as one's starting points either particular moral judgments or general moral principles. The two tiered conception of philosophical method is not limited to ethics. The most detailed exposition of the conception can be found in r m chisholm's various discussions of the problem of the criterion. While chisholm's work has played a (...)
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  8. Dale Dorsey (2006). A Coherence Theory of Truth in Ethics. Philosophical Studies 127 (3):493 - 523.
    Quine argues, in “On the Nature of Moral Values” that a coherence theory of truth is the “lot of ethics”. In this paper, I do a bit of work from within Quinean theory. Specifically, I explore precisely what a coherence theory of truth in ethics might look like and what it might imply for the study of normative value theory generally. The first section of the paper is dedicated to the exposition of a formally correct coherence truth predicate, the possibility (...)
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  9. Mylan Engel Jr (2012). Coherentism and the Epistemic Justification of Moral Beliefs: A Case Study in How to Do Practical Ethics Without Appeal to a Moral Theory. Southern Journal of Philosophy 50 (1):50-74.
    This paper defends a coherentist approach to moral epistemology. In “The Immorality of Eating Meat”, I offer a coherentist consistency argument to show that our own beliefs rationally commit us to the immorality of eating meat. Elsewhere, I use our own beliefs as premises to argue that we have positive duties to assist the poor and to argue that biomedical animal experimentation is wrong. The present paper explores whether this consistency-based coherentist approach of grounding particular moral judgments on beliefs we (...)
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  10. Ellen-Marie Forsberg (2007). Value Pluralism and Coherentist Justification of Ethical Advice. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 20 (1):81-97.
    Liberal societies are characterized by respect for a fundamental value pluralism; i.e., respect for individuals’ rights to live by their own conception of the good. Still, the state must make decisions that privilege some values at the cost of others. When public ethics committees give substantial ethical advice on policy related issues, it is therefore important that this advice is well justified. The use of explicit tools for ethical assessment can contribute to justifying advice. In this article, I will discuss (...)
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  11. Bernward Gesang (2010). Are Moral Philosophers Moral Experts? Bioethics 24 (4):153-159.
    In this paper I examine the question of whether ethicists are moral experts. I call people moral experts if their moral judgments are correct with high probability and for the right reasons. I defend three theses, while developing a version of the coherence theory of moral justification based on the differences between moral and nonmoral experience: The answer to the question of whether there are moral experts depends on the answer to the question of how to justify moral judgments. Deductivism (...)
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  12. Marcello Guarini (2007). Computation, Coherence, and Ethical Reasoning. Minds and Machines 17 (1):27-46.
    Theories of moral, and more generally, practical reasoning sometimes draw on the notion of coherence. Admirably, Paul Thagard has attempted to give a computationally detailed account of the kind of coherence involved in practical reasoning, claiming that it will help overcome problems in foundationalist approaches to ethics. The arguments herein rebut the alleged role of coherence in practical reasoning endorsed by Thagard. While there are some general lessons to be learned from the preceding, no attempt is made to argue against (...)
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  13. Antti Kauppinen (2015). Moral Intuition in Philosophy and Psychology. In Neil Levy & Jens Clausen (eds.), Springer Handbook of Neuroethics. Springer
    Psychologists and philosophers use the term 'intuition' for a variety of different phenomena. In this paper, I try to provide a kind of a roadmap of the debates, point to some confusions and problems, and give a brief sketch of an empirically respectable philosophical approach.
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  14. Anthony L. Klemmer, Moral Coherence in the Modern World: An Interdisciplinary View.
    What is the influence of the increasing complexity and fragmentation of modern society on the moral coherence of the human person as an individual and as a community member? Researchers have tackled the question of modern moral coherence from a variety of disciplinary vantage points, with appropriate intra-disciplinary focus and depth. Rarely have researchers attempted to apply a more comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to the researchable questions of the present study. This dissertation analyzes the impact of complex modern society on moral (...)
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  15. Carl Knight (2006). The Method of Reflective Equilibrium: Wide, Radical, Fallible, Plausible. Philosophical Papers 35 (2):205-229.
    This article argues that, suitably modified, the method of reflective equilibrium is a plausible way of selecting moral principles. The appropriate conception of the method is wide and radical, admitting consideration of a full range of moral principles and arguments, and requiring the enquiring individual to consider others' views and undergo experiences that may offset any formative biases. The individual is not bound by his initial considered judgments, and may revise his view in any way whatsoever. It is appropriate to (...)
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  16. Aristophanes Koutoungos (2005). Moral Coherence, Moral Worth and Explanations of Moral Motivation. Acta Analytica 20 (3):59-79.
    Moral internalism and moral externalism compete over the best explanation of the link between judgment and relevant motivation but, it is argued, they differ at best only verbally. The internalist rational-conceptual nature of the link’ as accounted by M. Smith in The Moral Problem is contrasted to the externalist, also rational, link that requires in addition support from the agent’s psychological-dispositional profile; the internalist link, however, is found to depend crucially on a, similarly to the externalist, psychologically ‘loaded’ profile. It (...)
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  17. Charlie Kurth (2013). Review of Kieran Setiya’s Knowing Right From Wrong. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2013.
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  18. Patricia Marino (2010). Moral Rationalism and the Normative Status of Desiderative Coherence. Journal of Moral Philosophy 7 (2):227-252.
    This paper concerns the normative status of coherence of desires, in the context of moral rationalism. I argue that 'desiderative coherence' is not tied to rationality, but is rather of pragmatic, instrumental, and sometimes moral value. This means that desire-based views cannot rely on coherence to support non-agent-relative accounts of moral reasons. For example, on Michael Smith's neo-rationalist view, you have 'normative reason' to do whatever your maximally coherent and fully informed self would want you to do, whether you want (...)
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  19. Patricia Marino (2009). On Essentially Conflicting Desires. Philosophical Quarterly 59 (235):274-291.
    It is sometimes argued that having inconsistent desires is irrational or otherwise bad for an agent. If so, if agents seem to want a and not-a, then either their attitudes are being misdescribed – what they really want is some aspect x of a and some aspect y of not-a – or those desires are somehow 'inconsistent' and thus inappropriate. I argue first that the proper characterization of inconsistency here does not involve logical form, that is, whether the desires involved (...)
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  20. Daniel Nica (2013). Narrative and Justification in Moral Particularism. Romanian Journal of Analytic Philosophy (2):22-32.
    In this paper I will discuss the problem of justification in moral particularism. The first part is concerned with Jonathan Dancy’s account of justification, which is a narrative one. To justify one’s choice is to present a persuasive description of the context in a narrative fashion, not to subordinate singular cases to universal rules. Since it dismisses arguments and employs persuasiveness, this view seems irrational, so the second part of my paper will consist of a personal reconstruction and reformulation of (...)
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  21. Norbert Paulo (2016). The Confluence of Philosophy and Law in Applied Ethics. Palgrave.
    The law serves functions that are not often taken seriously enough by ethicists, namely feasibility and practicability. A consequence of feasibility is that most laws do not meet the demands of ideal ethical theory. A consequence of practicability is that law requires elaborated and explicit methodologies that determine how to do things with norms. These two consequences form the core idea behind this book, which employs methods from legal theory to inform and examine debates on methodology in applied ethics, particularly (...)
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  22. Linda Radzik (2002). A Coherentist Theory of Normative Authority. Journal of Ethics 6 (1):21-42.
    What makes an ``ought'''' claim authoritative? What makes aparticular norm genuinely reason-giving for an agent? This paper arguesthat normative authority can best be accounted for in terms of thejustification of norms. The main obstacle to such a theory, however, isa regress problem. The worry is that every attempt to offer ajustification for an ``ought'''' claim must appeal to another ``ought''''claim, ad infinitum. The paper argues that vicious regress canbe avoided in practical reasoning in the same way coherentists avoid theproblem in (...)
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  23. Linda Radzik (2000). Incorrigible Norms: Foundationalist Theories of Normative Authority. Southern Journal of Philosophy 38 (4):633-649.
    What makes a norm a genuinely authoritative guide to action? For many theorists, the answer takes a foundationalist form, analogous to foundationalism in epistemology. They say that there is at least one norm that is justified in itself. On most versions, the norm is said to be incorrigibly authoritative. All other norms are justified in virtue of their connection with it. This essay argues that all such foundationalist theories of normative authority fail because they cannot give an account of the (...)
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  24. P. T. Raju (1940). Coherence and the Moral Criterion. Ethics 50 (2):206-218.
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  25. James A. Ryan (2000). Coherentist Naturalism in Ethics. Journal of Philosophical Research 25:471-487.
    After briefly arguing that neither (Kantian or utilitarian) rule-based ethics nor virtue ethics offers promise as a moral theory, I state that argument by analogy (i.e., deliberation within coherence constraints) is a satisfactory form of moral deliberation. I show that what is right must be whatever corresponds to the largest and most coherent set of a society’s moral values. Since we would not know how to interpret the claim that what is right might be repugnant to all our shared moral (...)
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  26. Geoffrey Sayre-McCord (1996). Coherentist Epistemology and Moral Theory. In Walter Sinnott-Armstrong & Mark Timmons (eds.), Moral Knowledge? New Readings in Moral Epistemology. Oxford University Press
    matter of knowing that -- that injustice is wrong, courage is valuable, and care is As a result, what I'll be doing is primarily defending in general -- and due. Such knowledge is embodied in a range of capacities, abilities, and skills..
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  27. William Lad Sessions (1987). Coherence, Proper Basicality and Moral Arguments for Theism. International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 22 (3):119 - 137.
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  28. Kieran Setiya (2012). Knowing Right From Wrong. Oxford University Press.
    Can we have objective knowledge of right and wrong, of how we should live and what there is reason to do? Can it be anything but luck when our beliefs are true? Kieran Setiya confronts these questions in their most compelling and articulate forms, and argues that if there is objective ethical knowledge, human nature is its source.
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  29. David Shatz (1983). Foundationalism, Coherentism, and the Levels Gambit. Synthese 55 (1):97 - 118.
    A central problem in epistemology concerns the justification of beliefs about epistemic principles, i.e., principles stating which kinds of beliefs are justified and which not. It is generally regarded as circular to justify such beliefs empirically. However, some recent defenders of foundationalism have argued that, within a foundationalist framework, one can justify beliefs about epistemic principles empirically without incurring the charge of vicious circularity. The key to this position is a sharp distinction between first- and second-level justifiedness.In this paper I (...)
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  30. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong & Mark Timmons (eds.) (1996). Moral Knowledge? New Readings in Moral Epistemology. Oxford University Press.
    In Moral Knowledge? New Readings in Moral Epistemology, editors Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Mark Timmons bring together eleven specially commissioned essays by distinguished moral philosophers exploring the nature and possibility of moral knowledge. Each essay represents a major position within the exciting field of moral epistemology in which a proponent of the position presents and defends his or her view and locates it vis-a-vis competing views. The authors include established philosophers such as Peter Railton, Robert Audi, Richard Brandt, and Simon Blackburn, (...)
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  31. Carson Strong (2010). Theoretical and Practical Problems with Wide Reflective Equilibrium in Bioethics. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 31 (2):123-140.
    Various theories have been put forward in an attempt to explain what makes moral judgments justifiable. One of the main theories currently advocated in bioethics is a form of coherentism known as wide reflective equilibrium. In this paper, I argue that wide reflective equilibrium is not a satisfactory approach for justifying moral beliefs and propositions. A long-standing theoretical problem for reflective equilibrium has not been adequately resolved, and, as a result, the main arguments for wide reflective equilibrium are unsuccessful. Moreover, (...)
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  32. Torbjörn Tännsjö (2011). Applied Ethics. A Defence. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 14 (4):397-406.
    Given a reasonable coherentist view of justification in ethics, applied ethics, as here conceived of, cannot only guide us, in our practical decisions, but also provide moral understanding through explanation of our moral obligations. Furthermore, applied ethics can contribute to the growth of knowledge in ethics as such. We put moral hypotheses to crucial test in individual cases. This claim is defended against the challenges from moral intuitionism and particularism.
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Moral Intuitionism
  1. Leo Abraham (1933). The Logic of Ethical Intuitionism. International Journal of Ethics 44 (1):37-55.
    Philosophers have in the past had difficulty in determining how to define ethical terms. here they are defined as open-context terms with a loosely limited range of substitution instances, in conformity with actual language usage. ethical terms are in themselves meaningless. it is a misuse to say, "x is wrong in itself." ethical terms then reduce to empirical terms concerning wants, likes, knowledge of cause and effect and consequences, knowledge of how ethical terms themselves work. ethical commands reduce to if-then (...)
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  2. Thomas Aquinas & Arendt Ed Liliane Weissberg Trans Richard (1998). Moral Knowledge and Ethical Character. By Robert Audi. New York: Oxford. Philosophical Review 107 (1).
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  3. Robert Audi (2008). Intuition, Inference, and Rational Disagreement in Ethics. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 11 (5):475 - 492.
    This paper defends a moderate intuitionism by extending a version of that view previously put forward and responding to some significant objections to it that have been posed in recent years. The notion of intuition is clarified, and various kinds of intuition are distinguished and interconnected. These include doxastic intuitions and intuitive seemings. The concept of inference is also clarified. In that light, the possibility of non-inferential intuitive justification is explained in relation to both singular moral judgments, which intuitionists do (...)
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  4. Robert Audi (2005). The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value. Princeton Up.
    "Robert Audi's magisterial "The Good in the Right" offers the most comprehensive and developed account of rational ethical intuitionism to date."--Roger Crisp, St. Anne's College, University of Oxford "This is an excellent book.
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  5. Robert Audi (2002). Prospects for a Value-Based Intuitionism. In Phillip Stratton-Lake (ed.), Ethical Intuitionism: Re-Evaluations. Oxford University Press 29--55.
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  6. Robert Audi (2001). A Kantian Intuitionism. Mind 110 (439):601-635.
    Kant famously said that one could not do morality a worse disservice than to derive it from examples, and this pronouncement, taken together with his formulations and explanations of the categorical imperative, has led some critics to regard him as too abstract. Ross, by contrast, has been widely viewed as taking individual cases of duty to have a kind of epistemic priority over principles of duty, and some of his critics have thus considered him insufficiently systematic, or even dogmatically limited (...)
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  7. Robert Audi (1999). Moral Knowledge and Ethical Pluralism. In John Greco & Ernest Sosa (eds.), The Blackwell Guide to Epistemology. Blackwell 271-302.
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  8. Robert Audi (1998). Moderate Intuitionism and the Epistemology of Moral Judgment. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 1 (1):15-44.
    This paper outlines and defends a moderate intuitionism. The point of departure is the intuitionism of W. D. Ross (1930) in The Right and the Good, conceived as ethically pluralist and epistemologically rationalist. The paper articulates a conception of self-evidence – including mediate as well as immediate kinds – appropriate to a moderate intuitionism, explores some of the resources and varieties of that position, and considers some problems and prospects for a rationalist version of intuitionism. The final section addresses the (...)
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  9. Michael W. Austin (2004). It is Ethical Intuitionism, and Not Another Thing. Southwest Philosophy Review 20 (2):155-157.
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  10. Michael W. Austin (2003). On the Alleged Irrationality of Ethical Intuitionism. Southwest Philosophy Review 19 (1):205-213.
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  11. Carla Bagnoli (2000). Moral Dilemmas and the Limits of Ethical Theory. LED.
    In this book, I consider whether the hypothesis of moral dilemmas undermines ethics' pretensions to objectivity. I argue against the view that moral dilemmas challenge the very possibility of ethical theory, as a practical and theoretical enterprise. By examining Kantian, Intuitionist and Utilitarian arguments about moral dilemmas, I show that no ethical theory is capable of avoiding them. I further argue that an adequate ethical theory should admit dilemmas. Dilemmas do not reveal a logical or normative flaw in the theory (...)
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  12. Tom Baldwin (2002). The Three Phases of Intuitionism. In Philip Stratton-Lake (ed.), Ethical Intuitionism: Re-Evaluations. Clarendon Press
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  13. Nathan Ballantyne & Joshua C. Thurow (2013). Moral Intuitionism Defeated? American Philosophical Quarterly 50 (4):411-422.
    Walter Sinnott-Armstrong has developed and progressively refined an argument against moral intuitionism—the view on which some moral beliefs enjoy non-inferential justification. He has stated his argument in a few different forms, but the basic idea is straightforward. To start with, Sinnott-Armstrong highlights facts relevant to the truth of moral beliefs: such beliefs are sometimes biased, influenced by various irrelevant factors, and often subject to disagreement. Given these facts, Sinnott-Armstrong infers that many moral beliefs are false. What then shall we think (...)
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  14. Dan Baras (2015). Oxford Studies in Metaethics Volume 7, Edited by R. Shafer-Landau. Journal of Moral Philosophy 12 (3):359-362.
    This review article focuses on David Copp's article 'Experiments, Intuitions, and Methodology in Moral and Political Theory'. Copp argues that recent developments in moral psychology challenge the common method in ethics, which infers moral truths from moral intuitions, as these intuitions are shown to likely be unreliable. Copp responds to the worry by arguing that even if moral intuitions cannot be trusted to indicate objective moral truths, the common method remains valuable for other reasons. In this article I raise several (...)
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  15. Dan Baras (2012). Review - The New Intuitionism. [REVIEW] Metapsychology Online Reviews 16 (49).
    In this review article I focus on Walter-Sinnott-Armstrong's critique of moral intuitionism. Sinnott-Armstrong argues that recent discoveries by empirical psychologists undermine the plausibility of moral intuitionism. In response, I list a number of potential ways in which moral intuitionists might defend their view.
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  16. Dan Baras (2012). Review - The New Intuitionism. [REVIEW] Metapsychology Online Reviews 16 (49).
    In this review article I focus on Walter-Sinnott-Armstrong's critique of moral intuitionism. Sinnott-Armstrong argues that recent discoveries by empirical psychologists undermine the plausibility of moral intuitionism. In response, I list a number of potential ways in which moral intuitionists might defend their view.
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  17. Dan Baras (2012). Review - The New Intuitionism. [REVIEW] Metapsychology Online Reviews 16 (49).
    In this review article I focus on Walter-Sinnott-Armstrong's critique of moral intuitionism. Sinnott-Armstrong argues that recent discoveries by empirical psychologists undermine the plausibility of moral intuitionism. In response, I list a number of potential ways in which moral intuitionists might defend their view.
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  18. Dan Baras (2012). Review - The New Intuitionism. [REVIEW] Metapsychology Online Reviews 16 (49).
    In this review article I focus on Walter-Sinnott-Armstrong's critique of moral intuitionism. Sinnott-Armstrong argues that recent discoveries by empirical psychologists undermine the plausibility of moral intuitionism. In response, I list a number of potential ways in which moral intuitionists might defend their view.
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