Moral disagreement and epistemic advantages: a challenge to McGrath.

Author:Sherman, Ben
Position::Sarah McGrath, marriage equality

MANY OF MY MORAL VIEWS ARE CONTROVERSIAL, which means that a good number of people out there believe these views are incorrect. Moreover, I am at least somewhat motivated to be moral. How much should it worry me that so many people think my views are mistaken, and likely to lead me astray?

If Sarah McGrath (2008; 2011) is right, it should worry me a fair amount. According to her arguments, I am not in a position to regard my own moral judgment as any more credible than any other person's judgment. If everyone, or nearly everyone, agrees with me, I can be fairly confident my view is justified, but I cannot claim anything like this kind of consensus for my beliefs that (a) same-sex marriages should be legally recognized (at least in economically developed democracies (1)), and (b) that women should be treated more or less as equals to men (pretty much everywhere). (2) (I will refer to these views as "marriage equality" and "gender equality," respectively.) Many people think that marriage equality and gender equality are, in fact, immoral. So McGrath's position implies that I should have serious doubts about whether it is wrong to vote in favor of gay marriage, or oppose religious sexism, for instance.

Her argument is based on two controversial positions. First, she adopts a version of what is often called the Equal Weight View, which holds that I should give the opinions of those I regard as epistemic peers about the same weight I give to my own opinions. Second, she argues for a position I will call the Moral Peer View, which holds that I should regard others as my epistemic peers on moral questions. (3) While both of these views are controversial, I think that at least some version of the Equal Weight View is correct, and I shall assume as much in this paper. Instead, I will concentrate on the Moral Peer View. Under pressure from Nathan King (2011a), McGrath admits that the Moral Peer View need not always have been true, though she maintains it is true now. Although King seems to think there should be current counterexamples to the Moral Peer View, he holds back from actually proposing any. I will make a tentative case that many of us who favor marriage equality and gender equality are currently in a position to reject the Moral Peer View with regard to these issues, and I will propose general conditions under which people can reasonably take their disputed moral beliefs to be epistemically advantaged, relative to those who disagree.

  1. McGrath's Position

    McGrath's central argument aims to show that our controversial moral beliefs do not amount to knowledge, but I will focus mainly on one particular premise, which is, for my purposes, more troubling than her conclusion. That premise is:

    P1. Our controversial moral beliefs are CONTROVERSIAL (2008: 92).

    Several terms here require some explanation. First, when McGrath speaks of "our controversial moral beliefs" she means

    our beliefs about the correct answers to the kinds of questions that tend to be hotly contested in the applied ethics literature as well as in the broader culture (ibid.).

    And a belief of mine is CONTROVERSIAL if it meets certain conditions made famous by Sidgwick:

    I find [it] in direct conflict with a judgment of some other mind ... and ... I have no more reason to suspect error in the other mind than in my own (Sidgwick 1907, 342, quoted on McGrath 2008: 91).

    So, in brief, P1 asserts that, on hotly contested ethical questions, we have just as much reason to think ourselves mistaken as those who disagree with us.

    In her definition of "our controversial moral beliefs," it is unclear whether McGrath means beliefs that are debated in both academic circles and the broader culture, or those that are debated in one of the two spheres. She goes on to argue, though, that academics should not regard their moral beliefs as more credible than those of laypeople (97-99), so she seems to have the latter interpretation in mind. (4)

    I find P1 much more troubling than McGrath's conclusion that moral beliefs do not amount to knowledge. On some accounts of knowledge, it would not be all that troubling to find out that our beliefs fall somewhat short of being justified enough to count as knowledge. McGrath's claim that my controversial beliefs are CONTROVERSIAL presents a much more serious challenge to my moral decision-making. If I am motivated to be moral, and other people whom I must regard as no less trustworthy than myself think I am mistaken about what is right and wrong, then (according to the EWV) this calls into question whether I can rationally think my views are justified at all. The trouble, as David Christensen puts it, is that widespread disagreement seems to show me that we are in "benighted conditions" and that I cannot trust my own judgments (Christensen 2007: 216). The major question, then, is whether P1 is true--that is, whether our controversial beliefs are CONTROVERSIAL.

    The fact that a belief is controversial does not, by itself, show that a belief is CONTROVERSIAL. McGrath notes that some kinds of beliefs can be hotly debated by the public even when there is a consensus or near-consensus among the relevant experts (think evolution or global warming), and, if we know this sort of expert consensus supports our beliefs, said beliefs are therefore controversial but not CONTROVERSIAL (2008: 96). But, she argues, we are not currently in a position to identify moral experts (ibid.: 97-99), so our controversial moral beliefs remain CONTROVERSIAL.

    Of course, many people would argue that we can identify moral experts; candidates include those we take to be wise or morally exemplary, or those who have studied moral theory extensively. McGrath offers two reasons to reject these sorts of credentials. First, and apparently most importantly, she points out that there is no "independent check, one not itself subject to significant controversy, by which we can tell who is (and who is not) getting things right" (97). Second, she points out that philosophers' thorough examination of moral issues has not produced "convergence of opinion" (98). A similar problem arises for those thought wise and morally exemplary; exemplars of different cultures and moral traditions are apt to disagree about the answers to controversial moral questions. She grants that there could be moral experts, in the sense that there could be people who are much better than others at answering moral questions correctly, but that, things being how they are, we are in no position to identify moral experts, even if we ourselves do happen to be experts (97-99).

    McGrath apparently takes it to be the case that, if we cannot identify moral experts, we have no more reason to think those who disagree with us are mistaken than we have to think ourselves mistaken. This conditional is not obviously true, however; even if there are no experts, per se, there could be reasons to think it more likely that those who disagree with us are mistaken. But a charitable interpretation would be that McGrath thinks her arguments that we cannot identify moral experts would show also that we cannot identify which moral beliefs are more justified. If there is no independent check we can use to determine how moral beliefs can be made more accurate, and putative standards of justification do not produce convergence of opinion, we might as well say that we cannot identify which moral beliefs are more or less justified. Since this seems to be the line of thinking McGrath has in mind, she seems to accept what I call the Moral Peer View (MPV).

  2. Implications

    At first blush, it might sound admirably egalitarian to regard everyone as a moral peer. But the implications of accepting both the Equal Weight View (EWV) and the MPV are somewhat unsettling. Treating others as our moral peers is not simply a matter of being polite and respectful. If we take every other person to be just as likely as ourselves to be right, we are committed to the view that we are probably wrong in any case where a large majority disagrees with us.

    What would be the results? As a first approximation, we might look to the most recent Gallup Poll of Americans' opinions on controversial moral issues (Riffkin 2014). If the poll is representative and the views of all participants are regarded as equally credible (and held with equal confidence), we ought to more or less suspend judgment about physician-assisted suicide and abortion, the issues on which Americans are most divided. We should be near suspending judgment about whether homosexuality or medical testing on animals is morally acceptable, though we can lean cautiously toward tolerance. In all these cases, the EWV and the MPV would encourage us to become very uncertain and tentative, which might be regarded as admirably humble. But if a large majority of those we regard as equally credible agree, we are pressured to accept the common view with a high degree of confidence. The Gallup Poll reports that large majorities agree that suicide, polygamy and human cloning are wrong, that birth control is acceptable, and that it is wrong for a married person to have an affair. Some of these results may reinforce beliefs we already felt confident about. But, in my case, at least one result would significantly alter my beliefs (5): While I have doubts, it seems to me that there is nothing inherently wrong with human cloning. If I accept that large majorities are right, then not only would I be committed to reversing my view on human cloning, I would be committed to becoming highly confident about a topic on which I now have only tentative views. While the EWV and the MPV may demand that we be humble relative to other people, they do not demand epistemic humility regarding popular answers to tough questions.

    But the MPV given above has more radical implications than all that. After all, it does not tell us to suppose that every American has equally credible moral judgment, but that everyone has equally credible moral judgment....

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