Friday, February 25, 2011


Did Shep just go wildly off script?

I don't know how many readers know who Alex Jones is, but he has a radio show that airs in Austin (and nationwide, I think) where the standard fare is conspiracy theories about how Obama and Bush are united in a plot to install a one world government, a push to own lots of gold, a healthy dose of 9/11 truthers, some conspiracy theories about OK, some crazy stuff about not giving your kids vaccines, etc... I'm sure most know who Charlie Sheen is. Why is Charlie Sheen on Alex Jones talking about his sitcom, 2.5 men? The world really is getting crazier. It's like flipping on The View to see Mariah Carey chatting about the work of David Ikcie.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Good news (finally)

So, I have these lefty friends who aren't too keen on Obama. (Yeah, I know, there are lots of reasons for your discontent.) Maybe this will cheer you up just a bit. Grinches, your heart might grow a size or two today:
President Barack Obama has ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as only between a man and woman, according to a statement Wednesday from Attorney General Eric Holder.

"The president has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny," Holder said.

The key provisions in the law "fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional."

"Given that conclusion, the president has instructed the (Justice Department) not to defend the statute" in two pending cases in New York state, Holder said. "I fully concur with the president's determination."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On bringing guns to campus

I was really bothered yesterday by the news that the powers that be want to bring guns to campus. Today, I'm really, really bothered by this. Two points and then I'm done.

First, every semester I have to explain to students why they've failed. (Or, as they see it, why I'm failing them.) It could be that they didn't do the work or that they cheated, but I don't think I've had a semester yet where I haven't had to explain to someone very distraught why they failed one of my courses. I started to think about the consequences of this. I've had students tell me that they'll lose scholarships, they won't graduate, they won't be able to go to DC for a high paying internship, that they will be kicked out of the country because they will be kicked out of school, that their parents will do horrible things to them, that they'll never get into law/med school and that that's all they had lived for, etc... I don't always believe these stories, but I'm sure some of them are true. I guess I don't like the idea that the laws and policies will create a situation where students packing pistols get to come to my office and corner me to talk these things over. That's just crazy. Why should anyone have to work under those conditions? I don't see any real solution to this. I don't think that the situation being envisaged is one where I can insist that _my_ students don't carry firearms. I don't think the situation being envisaged is one where I can decide whether others are allowed into my office with a gun. So, what am I supposed to do? I guess I'll buy a vest, hide a pistol under my coat, and hope that I'm a quick enough draw to shoot someone before they shoot me but not so quick that I shoot someone who was reaching for a phone. Wonderful. What an insane thing to have to worry about. I hope the legislature comes up with the extra money for hazard pay.

The other galling feature of this is that the people affected by this policy have had no say in it. It's not as if the students or faculty demanded this. People who spend no time on the university campus have decided that it would be a good idea for students to carry handguns. Now, you can run safety arguments all you like (esp. if you ignore all the facts), but there's something oddly paternalistic about all this. If students and faculty are willing to run the horrible risk of being unarmed if dinosaurs or ninjas attack the campus, that's on us. It's really none of your business whether we decide to run this risk or not. I'm willing to live with the risk of being unarmed if something horrible happens on campus. I'll place my trust in the police and hope that if I duck and cover everything will turn out for the best. You should tolerate my foolishness if that's what you think it is. At any rate, outsiders have decided that it would be best for us to have guns brought to campus. Regardless of whether you think it would be safer to have guns or not, there's another principle in play here. We (i.e., those on campus) should have some say since we're the people at risk. If a critical mass of us decide there will be guns, I'll live with that. (I'll live with that by trying to leave, but I'll live with that). That's not what happened. It's people with no stake in it who decided that we should let college kids keep guns in dorms, carry them to lectures, and bring them into our offices. I've had a hard time being angry about this because I've found the suggestion that weapons should be allowed on campus simply incredible. Now that reality is sinking in, I'm just getting more upset.


I've just received word that my PPR piece on fallibilism and concessive knowledge attributions is online here.

Alright, back to prepping for classes and worrying about handguns on campus.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Hostile work environment?

Because I'd like to think that this matters, I would prefer not to have guns on the campus where I work. I imagine that I'm not the only one who would prefer it if students couldn't carry handguns into their classrooms. Story here.

On this issue. That's Texas' Governor Rick Perry, in case you didn't know. I'd like to think that he wouldn't have so easily won reelection if he hadn't found a way to conceal the fact that the state is running a deficit of about 25 billion dollars until a day or two after the election. My guess is that if you asked academics whether they'd choose a campus that didn't allow guns over a campus that did allow guns if all other factors were held equal, a significant number of us would choose the campus that didn't allow guns. I know this is a controversial assumption, but I think creating a work environment that frightens faculty is a con. What are the pros of this proposal? I keep reading comments about how concealed fire arms deter crime. That might be. I, like the opposition, probably have no real evidence one way or the other. What I thought was that there wasn't a serious problem with crime on campus, in which case I would have thought that the argument simply didn't apply. The dorms are locked down and campus security is doing their job. Of course, the next "argument" you'll hear will make reference to specific incidents where having armed students would have led to better outcomes. The incident in Tuscon is a strange example since people are allowed to carry firearms there and that didn't seem to alter the turn of events there in any way at all. The recent shooting on UT seems to have involved a disturbed student interested in taking his own life. Students carrying handguns trying to squeeze off shots when they saw the shooter would have made the situation much much worse. Of course, there's the Virginia Tech case to consider. Would things have been different if students were allowed to carry guns? I don't know. That depends, of course, on whether other students would be carrying on that morning, how handy they were with a firearm, etc... We'd also have to factor in that if students were allowed to carry, the discovery that the shooter had firearms wouldn't have allowed the authorities to intervene (assuming, that is, that the shooter registered his firearms and I can't think of any reason to think that the shooter wouldn't have done that if it was an option). Once we factor in the increased odds that students who are abusing drugs and alcohol and dealing with serious emotional and psychological issues are given access to firearms in the dorms, I don't see yet how to construct a credible argument that increased firearms would make students safer.

On another issue. Yes, anonymous, I get that you think I'm a %#!&. You'll probably think that for a while. You don't need to keep posting that. I'll just take it as read that you still think that tomorrow and the days after that. It's not as if I'm going to publish your comment. You can take a break now.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Impossibly Easy Response to the Error Theory?

I've written previously on the way in which I think the prospectivist view of "ought" leads to the unfortunate result that we (who should know better) have to sanction all sorts of wrongdoing in light of the fact that agents have what we intuitively take to be defective evidence (normative and non-normative). The prospectivist, you'll recall, thinks that what you ought-really to do is a function not of what's best, but what's prospectively-best (where that's a matter of maximizing expectable value).

So, someone produces an argument for the error theory and we're thinking of what to say in response. The following response shouldn't cut it, but would (I think) cut it on the prospectivist view: some subject out there has evidence according to which the actions that would maximize expectable value are actions that won't serve the agent's interests but would answer to the demands of traditional morality. And, so while there are parts of traditional morality that are wrong, it's nevertheless true to say of this individual that he ought to do what would best serve the interests of others and so has overall reason to do something other than what he has self-interested reason to do. It looks as if we can generate the sorts of reasons and obligations to act that the error-theorist thinks we cannot have out of nothing but ignorance and appearances. I think that's a defect of the view. Am I wrong about that?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Ethical Intuitions (II): Cosmic Coincidence

I want to consider one final skeptical argument. This argument’s intended target is not intuitionism per se, but the combination of intuitionism with non-naturalism about moral properties. It’s not clear what the commitments of naturalism are, but it’s often thought there’s more to moral naturalism than just the thesis that the moral properties supervene upon the natural properties. Let’s assume that the non-naturalist agrees that this supervenience relation holds. In this section, I’ll defend a version of intuitionism on which moral properties supervene upon natural properties from the argument from cosmic coincidence:

(1) Your intuitions are physical events or states.
(2) The physical world is causally closed.
(3) Thus, your intuitions are fully causally closed.
(4) Ethical facts or properties are non-physical facts or properties.
(5) Thus, ethical facts or properties do not cause anything in the physical world.
(6) Your physically caused intuitions accurately represent non-causal ethical facts or properties only if there exists a “cosmic coincidence” between the causal order and the non-causal facts or properties.
(7) The need for cosmic coincidence, once realized, constitutes a defeater.
(8) Thus, whatever intuitive justification for beliefs in ethical facts or properties is defeated once you realize the need for cosmic coincidence.

For the sake of this discussion, I’ll grant (1)-(4). The real work is done by (6) and (7).
In support of (6), Bedke remarks:
If one’s ethical commitments are psychological, physical, and so part of the casual order, and if ethical facts or properties are not part of the causal order, how, exactly, do the causal forces of the world conspire to ensure that one’s ethical commitments, including intuitions and beliefs, accurately represent the ethical facts or properties? After all, the latter are not part of the causal order and so they cannot causally influence one’s commitments.

So as to clarify the guiding intuition that supports (7), he adds:
One could argue that there is a kind of coincidence foreclosed by metaphysical necessitation. Consider the possibility that some natural fact in the causal order N causes me to have an ethical intuition and a subsequent ethical belief that p. Suppose that N also metaphysically necessitates the ethical fact that p. In such a case, it would not be metaphysically coincidental that my intuition and belief reflect the ethical fact, for both hold in virtue of N, where the in virtue of relation is causal in the case of the intuition and belief, and the in virtue of relation is metaphysical in the case of the ethical fact. This is true enough, but it does not eliminate the kind of coincidence central to this paper. For notice how lucky I am that the metaphysical necessitation was tailored to necessitate the very fact my ethical belief represents. After all, N could have necessitated some non-p fact, q. To be clear, it couldn’t do so metaphysically speaking, by hypothesis, but it certainly is conceptually possible that it necessitate q, and more importantly, it is evidentially possible that it necessitate q or any other non-p fact given that my intuitive evidence of the ethical fact depends only on the causal order.

I’m not convinced that intuition favors the case against the intuitionist. In fact, I think we can use this to run a thought experiment that supports the intuitionist’s cause.

Let’s imagine that a being with vast power and little better to do creates a series of planets populated by creatures that are in many ways physically and psychologically similar to us. On each planet, these creatures are wired up in such a way that they’re disposed to attribute moral properties when they take it that certain natural properties are present. So, for example, there’s a planet on which the creatures are disposed to think that if some action would cause someone pain, that counts against it. There’s another where the creatures are wired up so as to think that there’s something wrong with sodomy. There’s another where the creatures are wired up to think that non-human animal pain counts for little compared to human pain. There’s yet another where the creatures are very concerned with the welfare of plants. Internally, some of these creatures are similar to you. No matter how strange your views might be you have a counterpart out there somewhere. Your counterpart has similar beliefs, experiences, wants, desires, etc… None of these creatures know how they came to be. They have the same sorts of creation stories we do.

The argument from cosmic coincidence doesn’t rest on the thought that we don’t have moral beliefs, that there aren’t moral facts, or that our beliefs don’t fit the moral facts. Since the argument doesn’t assume these things, let’s stipulate that there are some creatures that have beliefs that fit the facts. We’ve crossed off two of the conditions necessary for knowledge. There are lots of creatures wired for failure, but let’s focus on the creatures wired in such a way that they are the lucky ones that get things right. Just so we’re clear, these creatures aren’t wired this way because someone chose them to get things right. They happen to be the ones who get things right. Given the sheer number of different wirings, the odds were that someone would get things right. We can imagine that the creature doing the wiring doesn’t know which natural properties are the natural properties on which the moral properties supervene. She wanted to cover her bases and make sure that “wherever” the moral properties are found, there’s some group out there that judges that they are where they take them to be. To give this group a name, let’s call them the “Rossians”.

Do the Rossians have moral knowledge? If they don’t, it’s not because they lack true beliefs about moral matters. And, because they’re wired in such a way that they reliably attribute the correct moral properties when their non-moral judgments are correct, they would seem to satisfy any reliability condition on knowledge. So, if they don’t have knowledge, it’s not for a lack of a reliable basis for their moral judgments. It’s perfectly consistent with everything that we’ve said that their beliefs are sensitive and safe. Given the way that they are wired, in the nearest possible worlds where their moral beliefs wouldn’t be true, they wouldn’t have those beliefs. Given the way that they are wired, if they have a moral belief, that same belief is true in the nearby possible worlds. So, why shouldn’t we say that they have moral knowledge?

One reason might be that nothing we’ve said thus far shows that their beliefs are reasonable. For all we’ve said, they might be in the same epistemic position as the chicken sexers. Of course, you might think that chicken sexers know the sex of the chicks that they sort and so might think that this just provides further support for the claim that they have moral knowledge. If you think chicken sexers don’t have knowledge. This is easily remedied. We can add that the Rossians have good wiring and that when they take the relevant natural properties to be present, it seems intuitive to them that the moral properties are present as well. Surely if they can be wired up to track the right properties, they can be wired up to have the “right” intuitions. Now we can exert some additional pressure on the skeptic. The intuition that underlies the new evil demon objection to reliabilism suggests that if someone is the same on the inside as someone who has knowledge, no matter how bad things are external to her perspective, we can still say that she’s reasonable in her judgments and justified in making them. And now, I think, we’ve effectively silenced the moral skeptic. The moral skeptic wants to say that our moral beliefs aren’t justified and don’t amount to knowledge. If ST1 is off the table, there’s little the moral skeptic can say.

The moral skeptic cannot say that we don’t have moral beliefs. She doesn’t derive her view from non-cognitivism. She cannot say that there are no moral facts for these beliefs to fit. She doesn’t derive her view from moral nihilism. She cannot say that there are moral beliefs for the facts to fit and that none of our beliefs fit the facts. If I judge that giving to charity is either permissible or obligatory and she judges that that’s false, she’s committed to saying both that giving to charity is impermissible and that she doesn’t know that it is. This combination of attitudes constitutes a Moorean absurdity. Such thoughts are deeply irrational. Similarly, she cannot say that our moral beliefs fail to constitute knowledge and fail to be justified for purely Gettierish reasons. For one, she’d have to concede that our beliefs are true and would be committed to the Moorean absurd thought just mentioned. For another, beliefs are justifiably held in Gettier cases, so this wouldn’t matter to assessing the justificatory standing of our moral beliefs. It looks like she’d have to say that we’re not the same on the inside as someone who has moral knowledge and argue for ST1 by arguing for ST2. The trouble she faces is that the thought experiment above suggests that ST1 is false, assuming that our standard accounts of knowledge are approximately correct. In this case, she can only argue that we’re not the same on the inside as someone who has moral knowledge by arguing that our moral beliefs couldn’t be true. Again, the skeptic cannot argue that our moral beliefs are mistaken without committing herself to the Moorean absurd thought that something is impermissible and nobody knows that it is.

It’s at this point, however, that the skeptic would remind us that we haven’t addressed the argument from cosmic coincidence. Yes, the Rossians have good wiring and it’s true that if they take their intuitions at face value, they get things right as a rule. But, doesn’t this miss the point? The creatures I’ve described get things wrong as a rule if they take their intuitions at face value because it’s only in the very rare case that someone gets things right as it’s only in the rarest case that someone is wired up in the way that the Rossians are. So, as noted above, it looks like the Rossians are lucky to get things right and this sort of luck precludes knowledge. If it does, then even if the intuition that underlies the new evil demon objection to reliabilism is correct, we have no reason to say that those who are the same on the inside as the Rossians have justified moral judgments. We have no reason to think that they’re the same on the inside as someone whose moral judgments constitute knowledge.

The skeptic’s argument is too crude if it rests on the thought that epistemic luck precludes knowledge. Some luck is malignant, but some is benign. Let’s contrast two kinds of epistemic luck. First, there is veritic epistemic luck. In cases of veritic luck, the subject is lucky, so her belief is true, but she’s lucky, so it easily could have been false. To sharpen this up just a bit, it’s lucky that the subject gets it right given what her evidence is. Second, there is evidential epistemic luck. In cases of evidential luck, the subject is lucky, so her evidence is good, but she’s lucky, so it easily could have been that she had worse evidence. Evidential luck is thought to be benign because it’s not lucky that the subject has a true belief given her good evidence. Veritic luck is thought to be malignant because it is lucky that the subject gets it right given her poor evidence.

If the case of the Rossians is a case of veritic luck, the anti-skeptical strategy outlined here is a failure. If, however, the case of the Rossians is a case of evidential luck, the anti-skeptical strategy looks pretty good. While I don’t know if I can make a compelling case for the claim that the case we’re dealing with is a case of evidential luck, I also don’t think the skeptic can make a compelling case for the claim that it’s a case of veritic luck. The intuition that underlies the argument from cosmic coincidence is a kind of anti-luck intuition. If the skeptic cannot show that the luck at issue is malignant, we’re at an impasse.

The problem is this. Suppose we take the Rossians and all the other creatures and say that their evidence for their moral beliefs differs in content, not kind. By this I mean the evidence that they (i.e., the Rossians and the rest) have for their moral beliefs is basically this: it seems that some feature of the situation calls for a certain sort of response or counts against a certain sort of response. This evidence would consist of propositions about how things seem to them and given only that evidence. Given only this evidence, the Rossians are lucky to get things right. Suppose instead that we say that the evidence they have for their moral beliefs differs both in content and in kind. By that I mean the evidence that the Rossians have includes the propositions about how things seem and the facts that certain features call for an action or speak against an action. The Rossians wouldn’t be lucky to get things right given that their beliefs were based on this sort of evidence. The rest of the creatures wouldn’t have these facts at their disposal because their moral beliefs and intuition don’t fit the moral facts. But, if the Rossians enjoy an epistemic advantage over the others, there’s no reason to think the Rossians’ beliefs are veritically lucky.

What evidence do the Rossians have for their moral beliefs? The intuitionist should say that their evidence includes both psychological facts (e.g., that it seems that such and such a feature counts for or counts against) and normative facts (e.g., that such and such a feature counts for or counts against). The intuitionist should also say that this second kind of evidence isn’t available to the others. Earlier I said that your evidence includes the proposition that p if you know p non-inferentially. Non-inferential knowledge is all you need to have p as a reason for belief. I didn’t say what it takes for p to be a reason for belief. There’s currently some controversy as to whether false propositions can constitute evidence or reasons to believe. (There’s no question that they can be treated as if they are evidence or reasons to believe, but that’s not the same thing.) If I’m right and your evidence includes anything you know non-inferentially, the intuitionist should say that the Rossians have normative propositions as part of their evidence. If I’m right and only true propositions can constitute evidence, the Rossians’ evidence differs in kind from the evidence the other creatures have for their intuitions misrepresent the moral domain and their moral beliefs are mistaken.

If evidence consists of facts or true propositions and your evidence will include any propositions you know non-inferentially, it’s a mistake to say that the Rossians are lucky to get things right given what their evidence is if that’s based on the claim that the Rossians and the rest of the creatures are in roughly the same evidential position (i.e., that their evidence differs in content, not kind). It seems to me that there are two promising lines of argument for the claim that false propositions do not constitute evidence. First, there’s the linguistic evidence that suggests that evidence ascriptions are factive. As Unger noted long ago, the following remarks are clearly defective:

(9) What was his reason for believing that he was out of milk? It was that his fridge was empty. Of course, he didn’t know that the fridge was empty.

Those who don’t think evidence ascriptions are factive have to offer some explanation as to why (9) seems defective. If something can be your reason for believing even if it’s not true, something can be your reason for believing even if you don’t know it’s true. Why then does (9) seem contradictory? We can strengthen the case for the factivity of evidence and reasons ascriptions. Those who deny that such ascriptions are factive will have to offer some explanation as to why (9) seems defective even if it’s in perfectly good order. The explanation will have to say that there’s something weaker than entailment that holds between the reason-ascription and the further claim that the proposition ascribed by the that-clause is true. One way to test to see if a connection is weaker than entailment is by considering the reinforcement data. You can properly reinforce information that is merely pragmatically implied, but not information that is entailed. If you try to reinforce an obvious entailment, the result is a statement that seems defective, a redundant conjunction:

(10) I have a dog. I have just one dog.
(11) He knows he has a dog. Indeed, he believes he has a dog.

If (9) weren’t a contradiction and it didn’t follow from the fact that his reason was that he was out of milk that he was out of milk, then this should seem felicitous:

(12) His reason for believing that he was out of milk was that his fridge was empty. Not only that, his fridge was empty.

Intuitively, it seems (12) is a redundant conjunction along the lines of (11).

The second line of argument focuses on the relation between evidence and explanation. Our evidence or our reasons for belief can figure in explanations in two ways. When we know that p is part of our evidence, we know that so long as p is not a brute fact, there’s some explanation as to why p. We also know that if p is part of our evidence, p explains certain support facts. It explains, for example, why it’s likely that q if, say, the probability of q on p is high. Whether a piece of evidence figures in an explanation as the explanans or the explanandum, since we know that only facts figure in (correct) explanations, only facts constitute evidence. Views that deny that evidence consists of true propositions cannot account for these connections between evidence and explanation.

With this in place, we can now see why the intuitionists ought to say that the Rossians’ have evidence that differs both in content and in kind from the evidence that the other creatures might have for their moral beliefs. It differs in content because they attribute moral properties in different situations than the other creatures do. It differs in kind because the Rossians have moral propositions as part of their evidence and the others do not. So, the intuitionists should say that the case described is a case of evidential luck rather than veritic luck, in which case the skeptical argument isn’t all that threatening. I can anticipate two objections to the view developed here. The first is that the intuitionists don’t have anything good to say about cases of error. It’s a consequence of this view that the Rossians are the only subjects that have moral propositions as part of their evidence, so how can the intuitionist say that the rest of these subjects are justified in their beliefs? The second is that the account I’ve described is only available to the naturalists.

Let’s think about some of the creatures that get things reliably wrong. These poor subjects attribute moral properties when they take certain natural properties to be present when and only when it’s incorrect for them to attribute these moral properties. To give them a name, let’s call them the “Randians”. Intuitively, the Randians are just as reasonable and just as rational as the Rossians since they both form their moral beliefs by taking their moral intuitions at face value, they are internally coherent, they reason just as carefully, etc… It’s true that the Randians get things wrong as a rule, but they are no worse off than those systematically deceived by a Cartesian demon and the demon’s dupes count as rational in their beliefs. I don’t think it’s difficult for the intuitionist to accommodate the intuition that the Randians are rational. While their beliefs aren’t based on (genuine) evidence, this isn’t due to a failure on their part. They count as rational, in part, because they respond in the way that they should have responded if the evidence had been the sort of evidence they took themselves to have. What about the intuition that their beliefs are justified? The intuitionists might go in one of two directions here. There’s a difference between saying that something is rational and saying that it’s justified. If someone’s actions or beliefs are justified, it’s not true that they should have been otherwise. If someone was rational or reasonable, it doesn’t follow from the fact that they should have done things otherwise that they are anything less than perfectly virtuous. If the intuitionist wants to explain why the Randian’s beliefs are just as justified as the Rossians, they can say that the justification of a belief doesn’t depend upon whether it’s based on evidence but whether it’s formed in such a way that the believer formed the beliefs she should if her evidence was what she took it to be. Myself, I’m not inclined to say that the Randians’ beliefs are just as justified as the Rossians. Surely the Rossians’ behavior is better justified than the Randians’ behavior. The Rossians do what they’re obliged to do and the Randians don’t. If, however, the Randians really believed what they ought to have believed, it seems that they’d be justified in acting as they judged that they ought to act. Since they’re not, I’d rather classify both their actions and their attitudes as excusable at best.

There is a second worry that arises for the intuitionist. The intuitionist view has to juggle two commitments. The first is that it’s possible for some subjects to have moral facts as part of their evidence. The second is that these facts are not natural facts. You’ll recall that the argument from cosmic coincidence assumed that moral intuitions are physical states or events. If we assume that that’s so and we say that intuitions provide us with our reasons or our evidence for our basic moral beliefs, how could we also say that our evidence for these beliefs includes moral facts? To deal with this worry, it’s important to stress that intuitions can provide reasons even if the intuitions aren’t themselves the reasons and aren’t constituted in part by those reasons. On the account of evidence defended earlier, if you know p non-inferentially and p is a reason, p is a reason you have that you can rely on in your reasoning. To have a reason is for the thing you have to be a reason and for you to have the right to treat it as such. If you think intuitions or experiences by virtue of which it seems to you that p justify believing p to be true, these give you the right to treat p as a reason. Whether p is a reason depends upon whether p is true. There’s no obvious inconsistency here in saying that the intuition is not part of the non-natural order but gives you a right to reason from premises that are true by virtue of how things stand in the non-natural order.

Let’s take stock. I’ve reviewed a few of the recent arguments for moral skepticism to see if any compels us to reject the intuitionist view. So far, the arguments we’ve considered don’t force us to say that it’s not possible to have non-inferentially justified moral belief or non-inferential moral knowledge based on intuition. In this next section, I want to gesture towards an explanation as to how intuitions justify.

Ethical Intuitions (Part I)

Consider two theses the moral skeptic wants to defend:
ST1: Moral knowledge is impossible.
ST2: Justified moral judgment is impossible.
The intuitionist denies both. In this post, I want to look at some of Sinnott-Armstrong’s arguments for moral skepticism.

The first of these arguments draws upon recent empirical research into moral intuition and judgment:
Until the last decade of the twentieth century, philosophers and psychologists usually engaged in their enterprises separately. This was unfortunate, because it is hard to see how to determine whether certain moral intuitions are justified without any understanding of the processes that produce those intuitions. We are not claiming that psychological findings alone entail philosophical or moral conclusions. That would move us too quickly from ‘‘is’’ to ‘‘ought.’’ Our point is different: moral intuitions are unreliable to the extent that morally irrelevant factors affect moral intuitions. When they are distorted by irrelevant factors, moral intuitions can be likened to mirages or seeing pink elephants while one is on LSD. Only when beliefs arise in more reputable ways do they have a fighting chance of being justified. Hence we need to know about the processes that produce moral intuitions before we can determine whether moral intuitions are justified.

Let’s suppose that the available evidence does strongly suggest that moral intuitions can be influenced by factors that we take to be morally irrelevant. Specifically, let’s suppose that the evidence does support the hypothesis that our intuitive moral judgments are subject to framing effects. When this happens, we might classify equivalent options as morally different as a result of how these options are presented. Because of this, Sinnott-Armstrong thinks that the intuitionist view is sunk. The intuitionist says that our intuitions can justify our moral beliefs without needing any independent support from non-moral beliefs. If they’re subject to these effects, he thinks that the justification of judgment depends upon whether we can provide independent support that’s not dependent upon our unreliable intuitions.

It seems that Sinnott-Armstrong has this sort of argument in mind:
(1) The empirical evidence suggests that your moral intuitions are unreliable.
(C) Thus, your moral intuitions can neither justify your moral judgments nor serve as an adequate basis for moral knowledge.

One way to take the argument is as resting on the implicit assumption that intuitions must be reliable if they are to justify moral our moral beliefs and a further assumption that knowledge requires justification. It’s not clear whether the argument rests on (i) the claim that intuition is unreliable or (ii) the claim that the evidence suggests that (i) is true. Let’s bracket (ii) for now and suppose that (i) is true.

One problem with this argument if taken as an argument against ST2 is that it assumes that justification requires reliability. This is a matter of some controversy, but many epistemologists are moved to say that there is not on the basis of a rather simple thought experiment:
I think the evil demon hypothesis (or its contemporary neurophysiologist version) uncovers a defect in the Reliabilist position. We can see this by supposing the hypothesis to be true. Imagine that unbeknown to us, our cognitive processes (e.g., perception memory, inference) are not reliable owing to the machinations of the malevolent demon. It follows on a Reliabilist view that the beliefs generated by those processes are never justified.

Cohen offers these remarks concerning his example:
It strikes me as clearly false to deny that under these circumstances our beliefs could be justified. If we have every reason to believe e.g., perception, is a reliable process, the mere fact that unbeknown to us it is not reliable should not affect it’s justification … My argument hinges on viewing justification as a normative notion. Intuitively, if S’s belief is appropriate to the available evidence, he is not to be held responsible for circumstances beyond his ken.

If Cohen is right (more on this later), the argument I’m attributing to Sinnott-Armstrong fails because the justification of a belief doesn’t depend upon whether the methods that led to its adoption are reliable.

Suppose, however, that reliability is necessary for justification and for knowledge. The hypothesis that intuition is unreliable might be true, but the empirical evidence gives us no reason to think it’s necessarily true. If so, even if we assume that (i) is true, it couldn’t support an argument for ST1 and ST2 since these theses imply that moral knowledge and moral justification are impossible, not simply unattainable as a matter of contingent fact.

Does the argument do any better if we read it as relying on (ii) rather than (i)? Suppose there is relatively strong evidence that intuition is an unreliable guide. Evidence of unreliability (which is misleading evidence, since we’re assuming (ii) is true, not (i)) can defeat justification, but only if someone has it or ought to have it in her possession. There are certainly some moral philosophers who have this evidence in their possession and it might be that some of them ought to know better than to trust their intuitions. The folk, however, don’t have this evidence and it is counterintuitive to say that they should have known better than to take their intuitions at face value before consulting the literature. So, I don’t think the argument for ST2 is persuasive if we assume (ii).

The argument doesn’t succeed as an argument for ST1. Evidence of unreliability (which isn’t the same thing as unreliability) doesn’t defeat someone’s knowledge unless that evidence is in someone’s possession or ought to be in her possession. If this is right, the best that the argument could do, assuming that (i) is correct, is show that we don’t have moral knowledge as a matter of contingent fact. It doesn’t tell us anything about the epistemic status of moral judgments made by those who don’t have the empirical evidence that figures in the argument against intuitionism.

The Threat of Moral Nihilism

In this section, I want to look at another of Sinnott-Armstrong’s arguments against intuitionism. He endorses moral nihilism, the view that there are no moral properties or moral facts. If this view is correct, our moral judgments are systematically false. Even if this view isn’t correct, it still poses a significant epistemological problem. The moral realists might think that moral facts or properties provide the best explanation of our moral judgments, but the nihilists have their own non-moral explanations as to why we make the moral judgments that we do. These rival explanatory hypotheses are skeptical hypotheses that threaten our moral judgments much in the way that, say, the hypothesis that we’re deceived by a Cartesian demon threatens our perceptual judgments. Sinnott-Armstrong’s second skeptical argument can be stated as follows:

(1) You’re not justified in believing that moral nihilism is false.
(2) You know that if it is wrong to torture babies just for fun, moral nihilism is false.
(3) If you know moral nihilism would be false if it is wrong to torture babies just for fun and you justifiably believed that it’s wrong to torture babies just for fun, you would be justified in believing that moral nihilism is false.
(C) Thus, you’re not justified in believing that it’s wrong to torture babies just for fun.

How does this skeptical argument fare?

In his discussion of the arguments for external world skepticism, some have argued that the claim that we’re not justified in believing skeptical hypotheses are false is the sort of claim that the skeptic should have to argue for. It’s not the sort of thing they should be allowed to argue from until they earn the right to do so. I agree. A similar point applies here. Sinnott-Armstrong does offer this justification for (1):
To be justified … the believer must have some way to rule out moral nihilism. To try to do that, moral intuitionists might simply cite a moral belief that is contrary to moral nihilism … Here’s one example:
(T) It is morally wrong to torture innocent children just for fun.
… But suppose that a moral nihilist appears on the scene and denies (T). What could the moral intuitionist say against such a moral nihilist? Not much. Moral intuitionists can point out that (T) seems obvious to them … However, to appeal to such a moral belief in an argument against moral nihilism clearly begs the question … Such moral beliefs appear obvious to almost everyone who is not a moral nihilist, but that appearance is just what would be predicted by the moral nihilist’s hypothesis that all moral beliefs are evolutionary or cultural illusions … When both of two hypotheses would predict an observation, that observation cannot be used as evidence for one as opposed to the other.

Can we “rule out” moral nihilism? Should the intuitionist say that we could rule out nihilism? It depends upon what it takes to rule out the nihilist’s view.

There are two natural ways of reading this talk of ruling out a view. First, we might say that you can rule out views that you know are incompatible with propositions you know are true. Second, we might say that you can rule out views that you know are incompatible with your evidence. On the first reading, it looks like the justification offered for (1) comes to this: you don’t know that (T) is true. Doesn’t this beg the very question at issue? The intuitionist view is that we have some non-inferential moral knowledge. The selection of (T) was arbitrary. It was chosen because it was thought that if we know anything non-inferentially about morality, it would be (T). Not only does this justification for (1) beg the question, it misses its mark. On this reading, you can’t justifiably believe something unless you can rule out being mistaken. In other words, you can’t justifiably believe something unless you know that you’re not mistaken. You shouldn’t think that unless you think justifiably believing something requires that you know that it’s true.

On the second reading, it looks like the justification offered for (1) comes to this: your evidence is consistent with (~T). I think the argument is question begging on this second reading, too. To see this, let’s think about what the intuitionist should say about the evidence we have for our non-inferentially justified moral beliefs. Suppose, for example, that you think your evidence consists of all and only those propositions that you know. If E=K is correct, the second reading of Sinnott-Armstrong’s defense of (1) begs the question for the same reason the first did and it also misses its mark. Now, I don’t think that E=K is correct, but I also don’t think the difference between E and K is great enough to save Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument. Suppose you know p non-inferentially. Now, suppose you know some other proposition, q, is a logical consequence of p. Does your evidence for q include p? It’s clear that p stands in the right support relation to q to be potential evidence for q, but the question that interests me is whether p is part of your evidence for q. According to Conee and Feldman, your “ultimate” evidence consists of those things that provide evidential support where you don’t need independent evidence to treat these things as evidence. Given this gloss on evidence, we ought to say that anything you know non-inferentially belongs to your stock of evidence. Thus, it looks like Sinnott-Armstrong would have to say that your evidence is consistent with (~T), in which case he’d have to say that your evidence includes nothing that entails (T). Among other things, (T) entails (T). So, it looks like Sinnott-Armstrong can only say that your evidence doesn’t rule out (~T) if your evidence doesn’t include (T). So, his skeptical argument gets off of the ground only after establishing that you don’t know (T) non-inferentially. It’s still grounded.

I suspect that the root of the problem is that he’s assuming a dialectical conception of evidence, a conception of evidence on which your evidence against a theory is limited to facts that would be acceptable to proponents of this theory. I think this is a defective conception of evidence. It’s one thing to say that it’s not sporting to appeal to obvious mental facts in a public debate with eliminativists and another to say that you oughtn’t treat such obvious facts as the basis for judgments about whether to head to the medicine cabinet for aspirin. If ruling out moral nihilism required citing evidence acceptable to the nihilist, I don’t think the intuitionist should claim that she could rule out this view since it’s not an obvious consequence of intuitionism that the nihilist’s view is contradicted by her own evidence. There might be a fourth way of understanding this talk of ruling out, but I’ll wager that the fourth way will suffer from one of two defects. Either it would beg the question against the intuitionist to say that she cannot rule out the nihilist’s view (as with the first two readings) or the fact that the intuitionist cannot rule out the nihilist’s view tells us nothing about whether the intuitionist’s moral beliefs are justified (as with the third reading).