In this paper, I develop a neglected puzzle for the moral realist. I then canvass some potential responses. Although I endorse one response as the most promising of those I survey, my primary goal is to make vivid how formidable the puzzle is, as opposed to offering a definitive solution.
Some omissions seem to be causes. For example, suppose Barry promises to water Alice’s plant, doesn’t water it, and that the plant then dries up and dies. Barry’s not watering the plant – his omitting to water the plant – caused its death. But there is reason to believe that if omissions are ever causes, then there is far more causation by omission than we ordinarily think. In other words, there is reason to think the following thesis true.
Case B. You tell me that eating meat is immoral. Although I believe that, left to my own devices, I would not think this, no matter how long I reflected, I adopt your attitude as my own. It is not that I believe that you are better informed about potentially relevant non-moral facts (e.g., about the conditions under which livestock is kept, or about the typical effects of eliminating meat from one’s diet). On the contrary, I know that I have (...) all of the non-moral information relevant to the issue that you have. (shrink)
The phenomenon of persistent ethical disagreement is often cited in connection with the question of whether there is any ‘‘absolute’’ morality, or whether, instead, morality is in some sense merely ‘‘a matter of personal opinion’’. Citing disagreement, many people who hold strong views about controversial issues such as the permissibility of abortion, eating meat, or the death penalty deny that these views are anything more than ‘‘personal beliefs’’. But while there might be inconsistencies lurking in this position, it is not (...) obviously at fault for according the facts about disagreement some epistemic weight. This paper addresses the question of whether and to what extent moral disagreement undermines moral knowledge. The most familiar arguments from disagreement in the literature purport to establish conclusions about the metaphysics of morality: that there are no moral facts, or that there are no moral properties, or that the moral facts are relative rather than absolute. Of course, the conclusions of some such metaphysical arguments might be perfectly consistent with the existence of considerable moral knowledge. For example, even if there is some successful argument from disagreement to the conclusion that moral facts are relative rather than absolute, this might very well be consistent with our having just as much moral knowledge as we.. (shrink)
How fragile is our knowledge of morality, compared to other kinds of knowledge? Does knowledge of the difference between right and wrong fundamentally differ from knowledge of other kinds? Sarah McGrath offers new answers to these questions as she explores the possibilities, sources and characteristic vulnerabilities of moral knowledge.
Suppose that one is at least a minimal realist about a given domain, in that one thinks that that domain contains truths that are not in any interesting sense of our own making. Given such an understanding, what can be said for and against the method of reflective equilibrium as a procedure for investigating the domain? One fact that lends this question some interest is that many philosophers do combine commitments to minimal realism and a reflective equilibrium methodology. Here, for (...) example, is David Lewis on philosophy: Our “intuitions” are simply opinions: our philosophical theories are the same. Some are commonsensical, some are sophisticated; some are particular; some general; some are more firmly held, some less. But they are all opinions, and a reasonable goal for a philosopher is to bring them into equilibrium. Our common task it to find out what equilibria there are that can withstand examination, but it remains for each of us to come to rest at one or another of them… Once the menu of well-worked out theories is before us, philosophy is a matter of opinion. Is that to say that there is no truth to be had? Or that the truth is of our own making, and different ones of us can make it differently? Not at all! If you say flatly that there is no god, and I say that there are countless gods but none of them are our worldmates, then it may be that neither of us is making any mistake of method. We may each be bringing our opinions to equilibrium in the most careful possible way, taking account of all the arguments, distinctions, and counterexamples. But one of us, at least, is making a mistake of fact. Which one is wrong depends on what there is (1983: x-xi). In addition to philosophy in general, the method of reflective equilibrium has also been endorsed as the appropriate procedure for investigating various other subject.. (shrink)
Relaxed realists hold that there are deep differences between moral truths and the truths studied by the empirical sciences, but they deny that these differences raise troubling metaphysical or epistemological questions about moral truths. On this view, although features such as causal inefficacy, perceptual inaccessibility, and failure to figure in the best explanations of our empirical beliefs would raise pressing skeptical concerns were they claimed to characterize some aspect of physical reality, the same is not true when it comes to (...) the moral domain. This chapter raises some doubts about this general picture of morality and some prominent ways of defending it. First, it takes up a comparison that is frequently invoked by relaxed realists, and one on which they often place a great deal of weight: a comparison between irreducibly normative properties and truths on the one hand, and mathematical properties and truths on the other. It argues that this comparison is much less favorable to the relaxed realist’s cause than is often thought. It then offers an extended critique of a particularly vigorous and sustained presentation of relaxed realism: that offered by Ronald Dworkin in Justice for Hedgehogs. (shrink)
On the face of it, some of our knowledge is of moral facts (for example, that this promise should not be broken in these circumstances), and some of it is of non-moral facts (for example, that the kettle has just boiled). But, some argue, there is reason to believe that we do not, after all, know any moral facts. For example, according to J. L. Mackie, if we had moral knowledge (‘‘if we were aware of [objective values]’’), ‘‘it would have (...) to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else’’(1977,p.38).But wehavenosuchspecialfaculty.So,wehavenomoralknowledge. Following Mackie, let us distinguish two questions: Q1: Assuming that we have moral knowledge, how do we have it? Q2: Do we in fact have any moral knowledge? In response to the first question, I argue that if we have moral knowledge, we have some of it in the same way we have knowledge of our immediate environment: by perception. Many people think that this answer leads to moral skepticism, because they think that we obviously cannot have moral knowledge by perception. But I will argue that this is incorrect. The plan for the paper is as follows. In Sections 2–4, I work up to my answer to Q1 by considering rivals. In Section 5, I explain what marks my answer to Q1 as a distinctive view, and defend it. In Section 6, I briefly discuss how this answer to Q1 affects what we say in response to Q2. (shrink)
It is sometimes claimed that if moral realism is true, then rational and informed individuals would not disagree about morality. According to this line of thought, the moral realist is committed to an extremely substantive convergence thesis, one that might very well turn out to be false. Although this idea has been accepted by prominent moral realists as well as by antirealists, I argue that we have no reason to think that it is true, and that the only convergence claims (...) to which the realist is committed are trivial ones. (shrink)
According to Peter van Inwagen, there are no successful philosophical arguments for substantive conclusions. He argues for this thesis in two steps. First, he puts forward and defends a “criterion of philosophical success,” according to which a philosophical argument is a success just in case it has the power to convert any ideally rational agnostic to its conclusion. He then argues that, given the kind of disagreement we find among philosophers, we have good reason to think that no philosophical arguments (...) for substantive conclusions satisfy that criterion. This paper contests van Inwagen’s case at both steps: first, it offers objections to his proposed criterion of philosophical success; second, it argues that even if we are wrong and his criterion is correct, the kind of disagreement that we find among actual philosophers does not provide a good reason to think that no philosophical arguments meet the relevant standard. (shrink)
Throw: Harry throws a stone at Dick, hitting him. Intuitively, there is a moral difference between the first and the second case of each of these pairs.1 In the second case, the agent’s behavior is morally worse than his behavior in the first case. But in each pair, the agent’s behavior has the same outcome: in No Check and Shoot, the outcome is that a child dies, and Jim saves $40; in No Catch and Throw, the outcome is that Dick (...) is hit by a stone. Let us call these pairs of cases “the paradigm pairs.” The paradigm pairs, and others like them, provide evidence that common sense morality is not consequentialist: common sense morality does not judge the moral worth of actions just in terms of their consequences. But it has proved extremely difficult to provide an account of a morally relevant difference between the members of pairs like the ones above. One hypothesis about the difference that has received a lot of attention in the literature is that in the first kind of case the agent allows the outcome to occur, while in the second the agent makes the.. (shrink)
Sarah McGrath has recently defended a disagreement-based argument for skepticism about moral knowledge. If sound, the argument shows that our beliefs about controversial moral issues do not amount to knowledge. In this paper, I argue that McGrath fails to establish her skeptical conclusion. I defend two main claims. First, the key premise of McGrath’s argument is inadequately supported. Second, there is good reason to think that this premise is false.
In the first chapter of The Nature of Morality (1977), Gilbert Harman sets out what he takes to be the “basic issue” confronting moral philosophy: whether moral principles can be “tested and confirmed in the way that scientific principles can... out in the world” (3–4). Harman argues that they can’t be. In this paper I argue that if we reject the Harmanian view that confirmation is the converse of explanation, then we can agree with the naturalist realist on the basic (...) epistemological issue of whether moral principles can be tested and confirmed in the way that scientific principles can. But I argue that there nevertheless is an important metaphysical way in which moral explanations differ from certain kinds of non-moral explanations. An upshot is that even realists who think that moral facts are necessary, causally inefficacious, and knowable a priori can agree that moral claims are subject to empirical confirmation in the way that scientific claims are. (shrink)
We pretend that philosophical problems divide into the various subfields of philosophy, but to take this pretense too seriously is a mistake. Philosophical problems often raise issues within more than one subfield, and require knowledge of and insights from several subfields. To pretend that ethical questions can be pursued in isolation from the rest of philosophy would be to miss out on a great deal. This course will highlight some recent, cutting—edge work on problems at the overlap of ethics and (...) three other subfields of philosophy. The course has three sections: Ethics and Metaphysics, Ethics and Language, and Ethics and Epistemology. We will examine questions such as the following: ls there moral luck? ls there a morally significant making/allowing distinction? Can work in the metaphysics of causation help us to answer these two questions? Does a careful reflection on modality, and the recognition that each of us could have lived different lives, ultimately show that consequentialism is true? Can recent work in the philosophy of language on generics help us to understand moral generalizations better? Can it help us to settle whether particularism is true? Can recent work on semantic relativism solve problems for Expressivism? What can advances in the study of vagueness tell us about slippery—slope arguments and other Sorites—like arguments in ethics? Should we expect reasonable, fully—informed people to converge on the same moral beliefs over time? What is the epistemic significance of our predictions regarding convergence? What is the epistemic significance of widespread moral disagreement? ls it reasonable to rely on first—order moral beliefs in answering such meta—ethical questions as d0 we have maral knawledge? and is maral realism true} Are there moral experts? (shrink)
In attempting to influence the moral views of others, activists sometimes employ pictures as tools of moral persuasion. In such cases, a viewer is confronted with an actual instance of the practice whose morality is at issue and invited to draw a general moral conclusion in response. This paper explores some of the philosophical issues that arise in connection with the use of pictures as tools of moral persuasion, with special attention to the roles of acquaintance and conversion in the (...) moral domain. Against concerns that relying on pictures will tend to bias or distort one’s moral judgment, the paper offers a qualified defense of the use of pictures. It then considers some implications for (i) the characterization of wide reflective equilibrium, (ii) the concept of a moral expert, and (iii) our attitudes towards our moral convictions. (shrink)
Chapter 1. The causal relata. Ordinary talk suggests that entities from different ontological categories can cause and be caused: Kathy's throw, the fact that Kathy threw, and Kathy herself can all cause the window to break. But according to the majority view, causation exclusively relates events. This chapter defends the contrary view that the causal relata are as miscellaneous as ordinary talk suggests. A question remains: is there an ontological kind K such that causal relations on entities of that kind (...) are somehow more fundamental than causal relations on the non-Ks? I argue that there is such a kind: facts. I defend this claim against objections. ;Chapter 2. Causation by omission. Ordinary talk also suggests that omissions can be causes. For example, if Barry promised to water Alice's plant, didn't water it, and the plant then dried up and died, then Barry's not watering the plant---his omitting to water the plant---is a cause of its death. But there are reasons to think that either there is no causation by omission, or there is far more of it than common sense allows. I argue that neither disjunct is acceptable, and propose that we avoid the dilemma by embracing the view that causation has a normative component. The proposal faces the objection that causation is a paradigmatic example of a natural, and so entirely non-normative, relation. I argue that the objection can be defused once we are clear about the kind of normativity that plays a role in causation by omission. ;Chapter 3. Causation and the Making/Allowing Distinction. Common sense morality suggests that it can matter morally whether an agent makes an outcome occur or merely allows it to occur. For example, it is far worse to pinch your little brother than to allow him to be pinched. I argue against the assumption that the making/allowing distinction is exclusive: in fact, the categories of making and allowing overlap. I go on to offer a positive account of makings, and a positive account of allowings. (shrink)