Truth in Ethics and Epistemology:

A Defense of Normative Realism

 

by

 

Nathan M. Nobis

 

Supervised by

Professor Earl Conee and

Professor Richard Feldman

 

Department of Philosophy

The College

Arts and Sciences

 

University of Rochester

Rochester, New York

 

2004

 

 

Abstract

 

In this work I defend moral realism, the thesis that there are objective moral truths, by defending “epistemic realism.” Epistemic realism is the thesis that epistemic judgments, e.g., judgments that some belief is epistemically reasonable, or justified, or known or should be held, are sometimes true and made true by stance-independent epistemic facts and properties.

One might think that epistemic realism needs no defense because it is obviously true and nearly universally accepted. But there are influential arguments against moral realism, which is analogous to epistemic realism: moral realists think that moral judgments, e.g., that something is morally good, or ought to be done, are sometimes true because there are stance-independent moral facts and properties. Moral irrealists deny this for a variety of semantic, metaphysical, psychological and epistemological reasons. They argue that moral judgments are neither true nor false since they are non-cognitive expressions of emotion or commands, or are never true since they fail to refer, or that their truth is “relative.”

Drawing on the moral irrealisms of Ayer, Stevenson, Hare, Mackie, Harman, and more recent thinkers, I construct parallel arguments for epistemic irrealisms. On these views, epistemic judgments are also merely expressive, a kind of command, always false, or relativistic in truth conditions: even “epistemic platitudes” like “justified beliefs are better than unjustified beliefs” and “ideally, one’s beliefs ought to be consistent” are understood not as epistemic propositions that might be believed (much less believed truly), or as attempts to accurately represent epistemic facts, or as attributions of epistemic properties.

The implications of these claims are highly at odds with common epistemological assumptions, even those that moral irrealists tend to accept. I argue that these implications are rationally unacceptable and that, therefore, the premises that support them should be rejected. Since these premises are those given in defense of moral irrealisms, I thereby defend both moral and epistemic realism. Thus, I argue that “oughts,” “shoulds” and other evaluative judgments are equally legitimate in both ethics and epistemology.

 

 

My complete dissertation is available for download as a PDF file here; below are individual chapters in HTML.

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Chapter 1: Moral & Epistemic Realisms ………………………………………………………....1

            1.1. Introduction …................................................................................................................            1

            1.2. Epistemic Realism: A Sketch …………………………………………………………….2

            1.3. Characterizing Moral Realisms & Irrealisms ……………………………………………..         11

            1.4. The Meaning and use of Moral Terms ……………………………………………….….          14

            1.5. Epistemic Realisms and Irrealisms ………………………………………………………          22

            1.6. Moral and Epistemic Judgments: Some Similarities ………………………………………       25

            1.7. Conclusion.……………………………………………………………………………..            32

 

Chapter 2: Defending Epistemic Deontologies …………………………………………………...33

            2.1. Introduction ……………………………………………………………………………            33

            2.2. Basic Objections to the Deontic Conception ………………………………………..... 34

            2.3. The Many Epistemic Deontologies …………………………………………….….….. 36

                        2.3.1. Evaluating Epistemic Deontologies ……………………………………….    38

                        2.3.2. Justification, Praise and Blame ……………………………………………    40

                        2.3.3. Epistemic Duties and Obligations ………………………….……………...   43

                        2.3.4. An Objection from Doxastic Voluntarism ………………………………...    47

                        2.3.5. Deontological Theories of Epistemic Justification ……………………......    50

            2.4. Deontology, Internalism and Externalism ……………………………………………. 54

            2.5. Conclusion. ………………………………………………….………………………... 58

 

Chapter 3: Ayer and Stevenson’s Ethical and Epistemological Emotivisms …………………...            60

 

[Note: this chapter is an improved version of this article: "Ayer and Stevenson's Epistemological Emotivism," Croatian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. IV, No. 10, April, 2004, pp. 61-81.

 

            3.1. Introduction ……………………………………………………………………………            60

            3.2. Ayer on Ethical Naturalisms and Non-Naturalisms ……………………….………….  62

            3.3. Ayer’s Ethical Emotivism ………………………….………………………………....  65

                        3.3.1. Ayer, Positive and Epistemology …………………………………...……..   66

                        3.3.2. Against Naturalistic Epistemological Definitions ...……………….………    68

                        3.3.3. Against Non-Naturalistic Epistemological Definitions ...………………….   69

3.4. Ayer’s Epistemic Emotivism ...……………… ……………………………………….  71

3.4.1. Epistemic Emotivism Undercuts Ethical Emotivism ...……………………    73

3.4.2. Criticisms of and Concessions to Arguments for Epistemic Irrealism…….    81

3.4.3. Non-Positivistic-Based Epistemic Emotivism ...…………………………..    90

3.4.4. Conclusions on Ayer’s Epistemic Emotivism...……………………………    92

3.4.5. Some Objections and Replies ...……………………………………………   93

3.5. C.L. Stevenson’s Ethical and Epistemic Emotivisms ...………………………………. 98

3.6. Conclusion: Brief Remarks on Gibbard ...…………………………………………….. 103

 

Chapter 4: Hare’s Epistemological Universal Prescriptivism……………………………..……..105

            4.1. Introduction …………………………………………………………………………..  105

            4.2. Ethical and Epistemological Theory………………………………………………….   107

                        4.2.1. Against Ethical and Epistemological Naturalisms…………………...…….    110

                        4.2.2. Against Ethical and Epistemological Intuitionisms……………………......    118

4.2.3. Against Ethical and Epistemological Emotivisms…………………………    123

4.3. “Rational” Universal Prescriptivism? ............................................................................  125

4.4. Normative Ethics and Normative Epistemology……………………………………… 133

4.5. Conclusion ……………………………………………………………………………. 135

 

Chapter 5: Mackie’s Epistemic Nihilism………………………………………………….………136

5.1. Introduction …………………………………………………………………………....            136

5.2. Mackie’s Conception of Moral Properties…………………………………………….. 138

5.2.1. Responding to Mackie’s Conception of Moral Properties ………………...    141

5.2.2. Epistemic Properties: Objective and Motivating? ………………………....   143

5.3. From Disagreement to Nihilism ………………………………………………………. 149

5.3.1. A Case for Epistemic Disagreements ……………………………………...   154

5.3.2. Responding to the Case for Epistemic Disagreements …………………….   157

5.3.3. Explaining Moral Disagreements ………………………………………….    164

5.3.4. Explaining Epistemic Disagreements ……………………………………...    168

5.4. Accepting and Rejecting Epistemic Nihilism ………………………………………… 170

5.5. Mackie’s other Arguments for Moral Nihilism ……………………………………….  176

5.5. Conclusion ……………………………………………………………………............. 184

 

Chapter 6: Harman’s Epistemic Relativism ………………………………………………….......           186

6.1. Introduction …………………………………………………………………………....            186

6.2. A Moral Relativism Consistent with Moral Realism …………………………………. 187

6.3. A Moral Relativism Inconsistent with Moral Realism ………………………………..  189

6.4. From Disagreement to Moral & Epistemic Relativisms ………………………………  196

6.4.1. Arguments for Moral Relativism ………………………………………….    199

6.4.2. Arguments for Epistemic Relativism ……………………………………...    204

6.4.3. Harman on Epistemic, or Evidential, Relativism ………………………….    209

6.5. Moral and Epistemic Explanations …………………………………………………… 212

6.6. Conclusion ……………………………………………………………………………  222

 

Chapter 7: Contemporary Moral and Epistemic Irrealisms…………………………….............            224

7.1. Introduction ………………………………………………………………………....... 224

            7.2. Summary of the Arguments Classical Moral Irrealism…………………......................  226

7.3. Shafer-Landau on Some Contemporary Moral Irrealisms………...……………........... 231

7.4. Gibbard’s Epistemic and Moral Norm Expressivism ..…...……………........................ 234

7.5. Field’s Epistemic and Moral Evalutionism or Non-Factualism …................................. 242

7.6. Conclusion…………………………………………………...…………...…………… 247

 

Bibliography………….………….………….………….………….………….………….……….  249