Moral Epistemology

Edited by Christopher Michael Cloos (University of California at Santa Barbara)
About this topic

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 2004 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 2003 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.
Related categories

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Material to categorize
  1. Challenge and Response: Justification in Ethics. [REVIEW]S. C. A. - 1971 - Review of Metaphysics 25 (2):373-374.
  2. Empathy and Moral Motivation.E. Denham Alison - 2017 - In Heidi Maibom (ed.), The Philosophy of Empathy. Routledge.
  3. (Probably) Not Companions in Guilt.Sharon Berry - forthcoming - Philosophical Studies:1-24.
    In this paper, I will attempt to develop and defend a common form of intuitive resistance to the companions in guilt argument. I will argue that one can reasonably believe there are promising solutions to the access problem for mathematical realism that don’t translate to moral realism. In particular, I will suggest that the structuralist project of accounting for mathematical knowledge in terms of some form of logical knowledge offers significant hope of success while no analogous approach offers such hope (...)
  4. Ethics and Other Knowledge.William E. Carlo - 1957 - Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 31:126-128.
  5. Ethics and Other Knowledge.W. Norris Clarke - 1957 - Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 31:128-132.
  6. Rorty's Promise in Metaethics.Raff Donelson - 2017 - Contemporary Pragmatism 14 (3):292-306.
    Little attention is given to Richard Rorty’s metaethical views. No doubt this stems from the fact that most commentators are more interested in his metaphilosophical views; most see his metaethical views, offered in scattered passages, as just the downstream runoff from higher-level reflection. This article considers Rorty’s metaethics on their own merits, quite apart from whether his global picture works. I ultimately argue that Rorty’s metaethical outlook is attractive but beset by internal difficulties. Specifically, I contend that Rorty does not (...)
  7. Ethics and Other Knowledge.John J. Fitzgerald - 1957 - Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 31:132-142.
  8. Intuitions in Moral Realism.Christoph Halbig - unknown
  9. Moral Realism: A Defence. [REVIEW]Jason Kawall - 2005 - Review of Metaphysics 59 (1):204-205.
  10. Can Moral Realists Deflect Defeat Due to Evolutionary Explanations of Morality?Michael Klenk - forthcoming - Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 70 (19).
    I address Andrew Moon's recent discussion (2016, this journal) of the question whether third-factor accounts are valid responses to debunking arguments against moral realism. Moon argues that third-factor responses are valid under certain conditions but leaves open whether moral realists can use his interpretation of the third-factor response to defuse the evolutionary debunking challenge. I rebut Moon's claim and answer his question. Moon's third-factor reply is valid only if we accept externalism about epistemic defeaters. However, even if we do, I (...)
  11. Debunking Arguments in Metaethics and Metaphysics.Daniel Z. Korman - forthcoming - In Alvin Goldman & Brian McLaughlin (eds.), Metaphysics and Cognitive Science.
    Evolutionary debunking arguments abound, but it is widely assumed that they do not arise for our perceptual beliefs about midsized objects, insofar as the adaptive value of our object beliefs cannot be explained without reference to the objects themselves. I argue that this is a mistake. Just as with moral beliefs, the adaptive value of our object beliefs can be explained without assuming that the beliefs are accurate. I then explore the prospects for other sorts of vindications of our object (...)
  12. 8. Evaluative Beliefs and Knowledge.Arto Laitinen - 2008 - In Strong Evaluation Without Moral Sources: On Charles Taylor's Philosophical Anthropology and Ethics. Walter de Gruyter.
    This Chapter discusses the questions of (8.1) Acquiring moral beliefs and knowledge: normal cases, (8.2) cases of missing knowledge, (8.3), Moral disagreements.
  13. Ethics and Other Knowledge.J. A. McWilliams - 1957 - Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 31:91-95.
  14. An Epistemology of Ethics.Anna Navarro - unknown
  15. Sensing Values?Ralph Wedgwood - 2001 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 63 (1):215-223.
    This is a response to Mark Johnston's paper, "The Authority of Affect".
  16. Sturgeon and Brink on Moral Explanations.Ken Yasenchuk - 1994 - Southern Journal of Philosophy 32 (4):483-502.
Moral Coherentism
  1. Moral Epistemological Coherentism, Contextualism, and Consensualism.Elvio Baccarini - 2009 - 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.
  2. Rational Consensus and Coherence Methods in Ethics.Elvio Baccarini - 1991 - 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 (...)
  3. Coherence Arguments and Cyclical Moral Rankings.Luc Bovens - 1994 - Philosophical Studies 74 (3):369 - 384.
  4. Reflective Equilibrium and Moral Maagt Sem - 2016 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy (5):1-27.
    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 (...)
  5. Liberal Exclusions and Foundationalism.Michael R. DePaul - 1998 - 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 (...)
  6. Balance and Refinement: Beyond Coherence Methods of Moral Inquiry.Michael R. DePaul - 1993 - 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 (...)
  7. The Problem of the Criterion and Coherence Methods in Ethics.Michael R. Depaul - 1988 - 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 (...)
  8. A Coherence Theory of Truth in Ethics.Dale Dorsey - 2006 - 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 (...)
  9. Coherentism and the Epistemic Justification of Moral Beliefs: A Case Study in How to Do Practical Ethics Without Appeal to a Moral Theory.Mylan Engel Jr - 2012 - 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 (...)
  10. Value Pluralism and Coherentist Justification of Ethical Advice.Ellen-Marie Forsberg - 2007 - 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 (...)
  11. Postmodernism and the Dilemma of an Appropriate Christian Paradigm for Ethical Descision Making.Edvard Kristian Foshaugen - 2000 - Dissertation, Stellenbosch
    The Church is facing a dilemma in how to apply and live out its message in a postmodern world. For many in the Church an understanding and application of morals and ethics has become bewildering. This assignment attempts to develop a Christian vocabulary and conceptual framework for morality. This is done by firstly elucidating the milieu out of which postmodernism arose. Modernism, through universal claims of reason and instrumental rationality, believed in the ultimate mastery of the world. The failure of (...)
  12. Are Moral Philosophers Moral Experts?Bernward Gesang - 2010 - 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 (...)
  13. Computation, Coherence, and Ethical Reasoning.Marcello Guarini - 2007 - 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 (...)
  14. Moral Intuition in Philosophy and Psychology.Antti Kauppinen - 2015 - 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.
  15. Moral Coherence in the Modern World: An Interdisciplinary View.Anthony L. Klemmer - unknown
    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 (...)
  16. The Method of Reflective Equilibrium: Wide, Radical, Fallible, Plausible.Carl Knight - 2006 - 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 (...)
  17. Moral Coherence, Moral Worth and Explanations of Moral Motivation.Aristophanes Koutoungos - 2005 - 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 (...)
  18. Review of Kieran Setiya’s Knowing Right From Wrong.Charlie Kurth - 2013 - Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2013.
  19. Moral Coherence and Principle Pluralism.Patricia Marino - 2014 - Journal of Moral Philosophy 11 (6):727-749.
    This paper develops and defends a conception of moral coherence that is suitable for use in contexts of principle pluralism. I argue that, as they are traditionally understood, coherence methods stack the deck against pluralist theories, by incorporating norms such as systematicity—that the principles of a theory should be as few and as simple as possible. I develop and defend an alternative, minimal, conception of coherence that focuses instead on consistency. It has been suggested that consistency in this context should (...)
  20. Moral Rationalism and the Normative Status of Desiderative Coherence.Patricia Marino - 2010 - 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 (...)
  21. On Essentially Conflicting Desires.Patricia Marino - 2009 - 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 (...)
  22. Narrative and Justification in Moral Particularism.Daniel Nica - 2013 - 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 (...)
  23. A Coherentist Theory of Normative Authority.Linda Radzik - 2002 - 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 (...)
  24. Incorrigible Norms: Foundationalist Theories of Normative Authority.Linda Radzik - 2000 - 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 (...)
  25. Coherence and the Moral Criterion.P. T. Raju - 1939 - Ethics 50 (2):206-218.
  26. Coherentist Naturalism in Ethics.James A. Ryan - 2000 - 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 (...)
  27. Coherentist Epistemology and Moral Theory.Geoffrey Sayre-McCord - 1996 - 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..
  28. Coherence, Proper Basicality and Moral Arguments for Theism.William Lad Sessions - 1987 - International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 22 (3):119 - 137.
  29. Knowing Right From Wrong.Kieran Setiya - 2012 - 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 moral 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.
  30. Foundationalism, Coherentism, and the Levels Gambit.David Shatz - 1983 - 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 (...)
  31. Moral Knowledge? New Readings in Moral Epistemology.Sinnott-Armstrong Walter & Timmons Mark (eds.) - 1996 - 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, (...)
  32. Theoretical and Practical Problems with Wide Reflective Equilibrium in Bioethics.Carson Strong - 2010 - 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, (...)
  33. Applied Ethics. A Defence.Torbjörn Tännsjö - 2011 - 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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