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

1693 found
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Material to categorize
  1. Comparative Metaethics: Neglected Perspectives on the Foundations of Morality.Colin Marshall (ed.) - forthcoming - Routledge.
    This collection of new essays focuses on metaethical views from outside the mainstream European tradition. The guiding motivation is that important discussions about the ultimate nature of morality can be found far beyond ancient Greece and modern Europe. The volume’s aim is to show how rich the possibilities are for comparative metaethics, and how much these comparisons can add to contemporary discussions of the foundations of morality. Representing five continents, the thinkers discussed range from ancient Egyptian, ancient Chinese, and the (...)
  2. Om moralisk oenighet mellan epistemiska likar.Marco Tiozzo - 2016 - Filosofisk Tidskrift 37 (2):24-34.
  3. How to Determine Whether Evolution Debunks Moral Realism.Thomas Pölzler - forthcoming - Jahrbuch für Wissenschaft Und Ethik 23.
    Anti-realist evolutionary debunking arguments purport to show that if there were objective moral truths, then evolutionary evidence would suggest that our moral judgements are unjustified (which excludes or makes it unlikely that these truths exist). Recent controversies about these arguments can often be traced back to confusion about how its premises are to be supported or undermined. My aim in this paper is accordingly a clarificatory one. I will attempt to identify which kinds of philosophical or scientific evidence would have (...)
  4. A Priorism in Moral Epistemology.Amelia Hicks & Michael R. DePaul - 2016 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  5. Ought to Is: The Puzzle of Moral Science.John Basl & Christian Coons - 2017 - Oxford Studies in Metaethics 12.
  6. Three Problems with Metaethical Minimalism.Raff Donelson - 2018 - Southwest Philosophy Review 34 (1):125-131.
    Metaethical minimalism. sometimes called quietism, is the view that first-order moral judgments can be true but nothing makes them true. This article raises three worries for that view. First, minimalists have no good reason to insist that moral judgments can be true. Second, minimalism, in abandoning the requirement that true judgments need to have truthmakers, leads to a problematic proliferation of truths. Third, most versions of minimalism entail a disjointed and therefore unacceptable theory of language and thought.
  7. Doing Unto Others: A Phenomenological Search for the Ground of Ethics.Richard Oxenberg - manuscript
    Can we find a phenomenological basis for the ethical 'ought'? This essay addresses this question through a reflection on Husserl's fifth Meditation. In the fifth Meditation Husserl endeavors to show the manner in which I constitute the other through an associative pairing of the other with my own subjectivity. This essay argues that this same associative pairing forces me to acknowledge the other as a person of intrinsic worth insofar as I recognize myself as one. Having acknowledged the intrinsic worth (...)
  8. Exclusion in Morality.Lei Zhong - 2016 - Grazer Philosophische Studien 93 (2):275-290.
  9. Self‐Esteem and Ethics: A Phenomenological View.Anna Bortolan - 2018 - Hypatia 33 (1):56-72.
    This paper aims to provide an account of the relationship between self-esteem and moral experience. In particular, drawing on feminist and phenomenological accounts of affectivity and ethics, I argue that self-esteem has a primary role in moral epistemology and moral action. I start by providing a characterization of self-esteem, suggesting in particular that it can be best understood through the phenomenological notion of “existential feeling.” Examining the dynamics characteristic of the so-called “impostor phenomenon” and the experience of women who are (...)
  10. Attention, Emotion, and Evaluative Understanding.John M. Monteleone - 2017 - Philosophia 45 (4):1749-1764.
    This paper assesses Michael Brady’s claim that the ‘capture and consumption of attention’ in an emotion facilitates evaluative understanding. It argues that emotional attention is epistemically deleterious on its own, even though it can be beneficial in conjunction with the right epistemic skills and motivations. The paper considers Sartre’s and Solomon’s claim that emotions have purposes, respectively, to circumvent difficulty or maximize self-esteem. While this appeal to purposes is problematic, it suggests a promising alternative conception of how emotions can be (...)
  11. 'When You Know for Yourselves': Mindfulness and the Development of Wisdom.Jake H. Davis - 2017 - In A Mirror is For Reflection: Understanding Buddhist Ethics. New York, USA: Oxford University Press. pp. 224-235.
  12. Measuring Moral Development.Michael Klenk - 2017 - de Filosoof 75:21-23.
    In the aftermath of the financial crisis, heightened awareness of ethical issues has sparked increased efforts toward moral education within universities and businesses. In many cases, psychological tests are used to measure whether moral development occurs. As long as we understand moral development as synonymous with moral progress, this may seem like a good sign: it would appear that such tests give us a handle on moral progress. Alas, moral development and moral progress are two very different things. And although (...)
  13. Methodological Naturalism in Metaethics.Daniel Nolan - 2017 - In Tristram McPherson & David Plunkett (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Metaethics. Routledge. pp. 659-673.
    Methodological naturalism arises as a topic in metaethics in two ways. One is the issue of whether we should be methodological naturalists when doing our moral theorising, and another is whether we should take a naturalistic approach to metaethics itself. Interestingly, these can come apart, and some naturalist programs in metaethics justify a non-scientific approach to our moral theorising. This paper discusses the range of approaches that fall under the general umbrella of methodological naturalism, and how naturalists view the role (...)
  14. 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 (...)
  15. Accounting for Similarities and Differences in Moral Belief (Atheism).Thaddeus Metz - 2019 - In Graham Oppy & Joseph W. Koterski (eds.), Theism and Atheism: Opposing Viewpoints in Philosophy. Cengage. pp. 472-477.
    A chapter composed largely for undergraduate and postgraduate students that considers whether general facts about morality and our ability to make moral judgements count in favor of either theism or atheism.
  16. Routledge Handbook on Moral Epistemology.Mark Timmons, Karen Jones & Aaron Zimmerman (eds.) - forthcoming - Routledge.
  17. Caring Beings and the Immanence of Value: An Inquiry Into the Foundations of Interpersonal Morality.Richard Oxenberg - manuscript
    By what authority does morality make its demands? In this essay I argue that we find that authority within ourselves, immanent to - not necessarily the character - but the very fact of our own self-concern.
  18. The Knowledge of Good.W. R. Sorley - 1906 - Philosophical Review 15:457.
  19. Caring as a Feminist Practice of Moral Reason.Alison M. Jaggar - 1995 - In Virginia Held (ed.), Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics. Westview Press. pp. 179--202.
  20. Ethics and Other Knowledge.Gerald B. Phelan - 1957 - Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 31:193-200.
  21. Book Review. Hume's Moral Epistemology. Jonathan Harrison. [REVIEW]Nicholas L. Sturgeon - 1980 - Philosophical Review 89 (1):124-29.
  22. On 'Moral Expertise'.Béla Szabados - 1978 - Canadian Journal of Philosophy 8 (1):117 - 129.
  23. Feminist Ethics: Some Issues for the Nineties.Alison M. Jaggar - 1989 - Journal of Social Philosophy 20 (1-2):91-107.
  24. "Technē" and Moral Expertise.J. E. Tiles - 1984 - Philosophy 59 (227):49 - 66.
  25. Topical Epistemologies.Todd Stewart - 2007 - Metaphilosophy 38 (1):23–43.
    What is the point of developing an epistemology for a topic—for example, morality? When is it appropriate to develop the epistemology of a topic? For many topics—for example, the topic of socks—we see no need to develop a special epistemology. Under what conditions, then, does a topic deserve its own epistemology? I seek to answer these questions in this article. I provide a criterion for deciding when we are warranted in developing an epistemological theory for a topic. I briefly apply (...)
Moral Coherentism
  1. Reflective Equilibrium and Moral Objectivity.Sem de Maagt - 2017 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 60 (5):443-465.
    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 (...)
  2. 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 (...)
  3. Balance and Refinement: Beyond Coherence Methods of Moral Inquiry.Michael R. DePaul - 1993 - Routledge.
    We all have moral beliefs. But what if one beleif conflicts with another? DePaul argues that we have to make our beliefs cohere, but that the current coherence methods are seriously flawed. It is not just the arguments that need to be considered in moral enquiry. DePaul asserts that the ability to make sensitive moral judgements is vital to any philosophical inquiry into morality. The inquirer must consider how her life experiences and experiences with literature, film and theatre have influenced (...)
  4. Konstruktywizm w metaetyce – perspektywa Arystotelesowska.Jacek Jaśtal - 2015 - Diametros 45:122-143.
    Recently, constructivism has become one of the most important movements in metaethics. According to metaethical constructivism, moral judgements do not refer to moral facts but are constructed as solutions to practical problems. At the same time this claim is not seen as incompatible with cognitive realism. A variant of metaethical constructivism, developed in opposition to the dominant Kantian branch, alludes to Aristotle’s practical philosophy. In this article I raise two issues. Firstly, I present a new version of the Aristotelian constructivism (...)
  5. Review of Kieran Setiya’s Knowing Right From Wrong.Charlie Kurth - 2013 - Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews 2013.
  6. 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 (...)
  7. 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 (...)
  8. 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 (...)
  9. Contextual Pluralism and the Libertarian Paradox.Luc Bovens - 1993 - Archiv Fuer Rechts Und Sozialphilosphie 79 (2):188-197.
    I argue that we can generate intransitive preference orderings for a single person on the model of Sen's Libertarian Paradox.
  10. 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 (...)
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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 (...)
  14. 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 (...)
  15. 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.
  16. 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 (...)
  17. 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.
  18. 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 (...)
  19. 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 (...)
  20. 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 (...)
  21. 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 (...)
  22. 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, (...)
  23. Coherence Arguments and Cyclical Moral Rankings.Luc Bovens - 1994 - Philosophical Studies 74 (3):369 - 384.
    I argue that we can generate intransitive preference orderings for a single person on the model of Sen's Libertarian Paradox.
  24. 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 (...)
  25. 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 (...)
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