Oct 21

Colloquium: Jason Decker and Daniel Groll

Thursday, October 21st, 2010
4:30 – 6:30 pm / Leighton 303

Jason Decker and Daniel Groll (Carleton College): "On the (In)Significance of Moral Disagreement for Moral Knowledge." (Abstract)

All are welcome. Participants will be expected to have read the paper in advance. To request a copy, please e-mail Daniel Groll.


Abstract: In “Moral Disagreement and Moral Expertise” Sarah McGrath claims that we are “not obviously at fault for according facts about [moral] disagreement some epistemic weight,” when considering, “whether there is any ‘absolute’ morality, or whether, instead, morality is in some sense merely ‘a matter of personal opinion’.” She then sets out a simple argument that purports to leverage the facts of moral disagreement into a form of moral skepticism.

What is different about McGrath’s foray into the topic of moral disagreement and its connection to metaethical issues is that while most discussion aim to draw metaphysical conclusions (to the effect, for example, that there are no moral facts, or moral properties), McGrath’s argument points to a weaker, epistemological conclusion: regardless of whether there are moral facts or moral properties etc., “we are not in a position to have anything like the amount of moral knowledge that we ordinarily take ourselves to have”.

McGrath’s argument is, at the most general level, straightforward. First she picks out a feature of many moral beliefs, namely that they are CONTROVERSIAL. Here is how McGrath defines ‘CONTROVERSIAL’:

CONTROVERSIALdf : Your belief that p is CONTROVERSIAL if and only if it is denied by another person of whom it is true that: you have no more reason to think that he or she is in error than you are. (p. 94)

McGrath then uses CONTROVERSIALITY to construct an “epistemological argument for a certain kind of moral skepticism”(p. 92):


(P1) Our controversial moral beliefs are CONTROVERSIAL.

(P2) CONTROVERSIAL beliefs do not amount to knowledge.

(C) Therefore, our controversial moral beliefs do not amount to knowledge.

To say that a moral belief is controversial is to say simply that it is “hotly contested” or, more generally, a matter of substantial disagreement. It is not to say that it is CONTROVERSIAL. P1, then, is a substantive claim. Given that many of most people’s most cherished moral beliefs are controversial, if McGrath’s argument goes through, we cannot be said to know any of these things even if they are right.

Since McGrath has taken on the burden of offering an argument that shows that we have far less moral knowledge than we otherwise thought we might, our goal in this paper is largely negative inasmuch as we aim to show that the burden has not been met. More specifically, we will argue that (1) despite McGrath’s claims to the contrary, the argument overgeneralizes; and (2) the argument is self-undermining.

While our focus in this paper is on McGrath, our broader concern has to do with the epistemic significance of disagreement and so we use the paper to draw some general lessons. In recent years, much ado has been made about disagreement. Richard Feldman, in several influential pieces, has argued that the existence of disagreement should lead us to be agnostic on many more matters than one might have thought. Feldman argues as follows:

It is a familiar fact that there is widespread and robust disagreement about many of the most prominent issues in our intellectual lives. This is quite obviously true in epistemology itself, as well as in philosophy more generally. There is similar disagreement about religious matters, many scientific topics, and many issues of public policy. In all these areas, informed and intelligent people disagree with one another. To make it more personal, on many of these issues about which you have a belief, informed and intelligent people disagree with you. The question I will raise concerns the reasonableness of maintaining your point of view in the light of such disagreements. My conclusion will be that, more often than we might have thought, suspension of judgment is the epistemically proper attitude. It follows that in such cases we lack reasonable belief and so, at least on standard conceptions, knowledge.

The general principles that Feldman invokes to get to this conclusion are of a piece with those that McGrath appeals to in her argument. These principles currently seem to enjoy widespread acceptance. We show, via careful examination of the Core argument, why they are mistaken. In our view, they paint too simple, and too pessimistic, a picture of our epistemic condition. Our critique of the Core Argument reveals that we cannot draw a straight line from the fact that there is substantial disagreement in some domain – including the moral domain - to a skeptical conclusion about our ability to have knowledge within it. As such, barring further arguments, moral knowledge is safe from McGrath’s argument.

Sarah McGrath, “Moral Disagreement and Moral Expertise,” Oxford Studies in Metaethics, 2008.

Fred Feldman “Epistemological Puzzles About Disagreement.” In Epistemology Futures, edited by Stephen Hetherington. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.


Sponsored by Philosophy. Contact: Daniel Groll, philosophy, x4219