Genealogical Explanations of Chance and Morals

In Uri D. Leibowitz & Neil Sinclair (eds.), Explanation in Ethics and Mathematics: Debunking and Dispensability. Oxford University Press (2016)
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Objective chance and morality are rarely discussed together. In this paper, I argue that there is a surprising similarity in the epistemic standing of our beliefs about both objective chance and objective morality. The key similarity is that both of these sorts of belief are undermined -- in a limited, but important way -- by plausible genealogical accounts of the concepts that feature in these beliefs. The paper presents a brief account of Richard Joyce's evolutionary hypothesis of the genealogy of morality, and refines the debunking argument which he consequently mounts against moral beliefs. The evolutionary hypothesis in question suggests that we could easily have failed to believe that moral judgments have a peculiarly categorical force. This aspect of our moral belief, then, is unreliable. The paper then turns to chance, and presents a more speculative hypothesis about the cultural evolution of ideas about chance, as a peculiarly physical and objective form of probability. It is argued that, in the same way that our beliefs about morality could easily have lacked the commitment to inescapable force, our beliefs about chance could easily have lacked various idiosyncratic commitments. By a similar argument then, these aspects of our chance beliefs are unreliable. In the final section of the paper, I review some recent objections to genealogical debunking arguments, due to Roger White and Guy Kahane, showing how the form of argument developed in this paper is immune to these criticisms.



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Toby Handfield
Monash University

Citations of this work

The Epistemology of Debunking Argumentation.Jonathan Egeland - 2022 - Philosophical Quarterly 72 (4):837-852.
Evolution and Moral Disagreement.Michael Klenk - 2018 - Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 14 (2).
A Bayesian analysis of debunking arguments in ethics.Shang Long Yeo - 2021 - Philosophical Studies 179 (5):1673-1692.

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